No Longer Informed
So I learned from a (liberal) friend that a lot of her (liberal) friends have stopped following the news. Don’t do this. Don’t let your friend do this. We need your courage. We need your intelligence. We need your power. We need you not to be one of the people who insist to your grandchildren, “But nobody knew what was going on!” – Rick Perlstein, Facebook, 12/31/16
And yet . . . We Have Matt Taibbi, an excellent reporter and writer, casting doubts upon the matter of Russian interference in the election. We have lost any grasp of who is and who is not authoritative. We have lost the ability to ensure the right questions are asked. We no longer get have a critical facility, at a social level, to weed out the spurious from the truthful. Paying attention? To whom? Upon what authority? – Me, comment on above post, 12/31/16
The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.
If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now. . . . Matt Taibbi, “Something About This Russia Story Stinks,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 30, 2016
I saw the above FB post from historian and author Rick Perlstein yesterday, and among the many things I read as I went through the discussion that followed was a sense of a lack of any sense of security about what news sources we should trust to offer us some glimmer of reality. There was also a good discussion about what it means to “follow” the news. My comment, citing only one instance of a trusted reporter asking important and necessary questions about the entire narrative of Russian interference in our recent election, could very well have been longer. Taibbi is very clear on the sources for his skepticism: Our recent historical experience with fake intelligence information offered as “proof” of Iraqi perfidy in order to justify war.Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.
Both authors offer sound reasons for taking care in our over-indulgence in “official” stories precisely because “official” sources should not carry the authority they seem to be wielding. Particularly among a segment of the population – liberals and (some) progressives – who have been skeptical of official narratives for decades, there seems to be something akin to joy in repeating the official line over and over. Despite decades of dismissive comments concerning our national newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post, our 24-hour news programs on CNN and FOXNews, we now have people insisting these organs of our establishment are somehow engaged in brave truth-telling (well, at least the print sources; the three major cable news channels are still dismissed as either to servile to the Establishment [CNN, MSNBC] or little more than Republican propaganda channels[sometimes CNN, FOXNews]) while doing little more than repeating an official line offered with what appears to be little to no evidence offered to the public.
There’s a story about how FOXNews parrotted a story first reported by Breitbart.com regarding SNAP fraud. The USDA says they have released no recent report regarding SNAP fraud (which is true). Breitbart insists its story was not about SNAP fraud (also true). Somehow, it seems, someone at FOXNews decided to make up a story about SNAP fraud (not exactly a shocker) and the organs of the Establishment found at the contemporary American version of the Volkischer Beobachter a story both about SNAP and that used a figure similar to the one at Breitbart. The evidence, however, just isn’t that clear-cut. Yes, FOXNews pulled the story about SNAP fraud out of its ass; what would FOXNews viewers think if they discovered the standard government estimate for SNAP abuse is around a billion dollars annually (while a much larger number than $70 million, it’s still about 1.4% of total SNAP outlays, so hardly significant)? In the sudden rush of stories concerning “fake news”, and the glee among right-wing sources labeling mainstream news “fake”, this whole story demonstrates just how difficult it is to untangle the mess of sources, of who is saying what and why, and how narratives – several stories linked together – are constructed.
We should be skeptical of official sources, particularly anonymous sources. We should also be wary of self-appointed meta-journalists like Glenn Greenwald who, not being a journalist, continually tell journalists how to do their jobs. We should also be wary of pretty much anything from a source whose sole or major presence is the Web. We should be skeptical of those whose views on the world are similar to our own. We should also be wary of those whose view of the world is significantly different.
Skepticism, however, should not equal a lack of trust. Evidence matters. The history of a particular news source matters. How one particular bit of news fits into other pieces of news is important. Precisely because we have been swamped, not just in this election cycle but for years (even decades), with what is now called “fake news”, however, we have moved from skepticism to refusing any authority save that which confirms our view of the world. We are living in a time with the total breakdown of any national consensus concerning, well, pretty much anything at all. We all seem to inhabit little conclaves that share only one quality – anything “outside” is not just suspect, but a priori untrustworthy.
We as a people no longer inhabit the same world. We are not citizens of the same country. We are not speaking the same language, regardless of how much they all sound the same. How is it possible under such circumstances to insist one group or another “should” follow the news when there just isn’t any single “news” narrative to follow, but multiple narratives with their own sources, their own presuppositions, their own larger stories into which each piece of new information fits?