Sunday, 1 January 2017

What Trump's tweets tell us about the media

US President Donald Trump's use of social networks will permanently control the media news cycle. If you think this is a bad thing, consider how many walls you've metaphorically punched after discovering journalists omitting or misreporting facts. So imagine if you too had access to information the instant it gets released to the public. Even then, few people would read boring primary sources, of course. But you'd be more informed, right? Well ... It used to be that journalists were told to arrive at press conferences at a certain time to hear a certain message or some journalists would be invited to meet with officials while other journalists are excluded. None of this is extraordinary or nefarious, it's just the way things are. What made old-time journalists special is the specific power to choose what to release and what not to release because of their first access. My contention is that Mr Trump's tweets are denying this power by allowing any official to speak directly to the consumer. This poses a problem because today's modern society depends on the centralised control of public information. The democratic state has succeeded in fully coordinating its public opinion, generally through a cradle-to-grave information system in which the perspectives of official and quasi-official educators and journalists are synchronised. Since educators and journalists train the next generation of educators and journalists, it's not too hard to see how this perpetuates. This control is rapidly evaporating with phenomena such as home schooling, Blogger, YouTube, Twitter, etc. I suspect we're witnessing the beginning of a post-journalistic reality. Not to be confused with "fake news." Perhaps this is a good thing for society, but it will be terrible for traditional media and disastrous for democratic government (not altogether a bad thing). Every time I read some piece of "investigative journalism," I have one question which is never answered: why is this story being told? How did it happen? How did these events come to the attention of the author? For some reason, this is never in the text. But, if it were included, the consumer would know why the media is so powerful. Almost every story you see is either a rewritten press release (a practice even Woman's Day finds degrading) or a product of selective disclosure. The practice of officials talking off the record – or even downright leaking – to journalists is widespread and uncontrolled, despite the fact that it is generally illegal. But of course, journalists are not the "public," exactly, so almost no government official is prosecuted even if they are caught. The result is a complicated power relationship between journalists and the civil servants who are their sources and contacts. Each is using the other. The journalist wants a story, the civil servant wants a story that contains certain information told in a certain way. The public will learn what's put in front of them. It's really not that hard. This unwritten relationship is accepted without question. Journalists have a job to do. Their job is to create the illusion that government actions are important and to extend an artificial gap between the public and its leaders. Not just anyone can talk to a president or prime minister, that takes a journalist. Traditional media is a deniable tool of government, part of the extended civil service. What's the message? In the West, it's the importance of democracy. In Iran, it's the legitimacy of theocracy. In North Korea, the media reinforces a bizarre amalgam of Communism and monarchy, etc etc. Every country needs an official portal for releasing its system's sanctified message. So, when traditional media complains about dying, what you're actually seeing is a government department being restructured. It won't disappear, though, because the media is far too powerful a tool of statecraft to let fade away. The critical point is that government still needs to disseminate information to maintain its legitimacy in the minds of the public – to achieve the psychological capture. In the past to keep bad thoughts from spreading, unofficial or otherwise uncoordinated information organs were weeded out and destroyed. Only a decade ago, the legal environment was such that direct, person-to-person transmission of bad thoughts was socially and professionally imprudent at best, actionable at worst. And then Twitter came along and now everyone's free to spread bad thoughts at 186,000 mi/sec. If you're a lawyer, good luck prosecuting everyone. In a post-journalistic world, education becomes a purely parental responsibility. Young people will learn whatever their parents choose to teach them or have them exposed to. Official involvement in this process in the form of subsidies is preposterous. Likewise, journalism becomes a purely private function, a reality which Mr Trump is clearly used to. When the state discloses information, it does so by releasing all information to all people at the same time. There are no press conferences, leaks, unofficial sources, off-the-record conversations, etc, etc. Modern government will have no need for even quasi-official information organs. It's not a question of if this will happen, but what will we do now that it has happened? Losing your faith in official journalism is an extremely large mental step, in the category of giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it's very easy to get those questions wrong. To paraphrase G K Chesterton, when people stop believing in the newspaper, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

**One final point. The media is a tool of the state, and this is even more true if that media is "alternative." Just because you don't see it anymore, doesn't mean its gone. Every blogger and twitter account reinforces the power of the state because they add another step between the government message and final consumer. They do not "increase transparency," they actually extend the fuzziness because now the discredited media appears not to have anything to do with it. But the messaging will still be the same: democracy is good, voting is good, taxes should be paid (or lowered), crime is bad, law and order are good, etc etc.

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