A good piece in the Washington Post about “Fake News” by Christopher J. Scalia. A few select clips:
“The Trump administration has made the sales of old novels great again. Americans who fear the rise of demagogic autocracy are seeking dystopian books to learn more about the dangers Trump poses or to convince themselves that our present Armageddon has been prophesied. George Orwell’s “1984,” Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been among the top-selling books on The Washington Post’s paperback fiction list for weeks. George F. Will recently recommended another, more recent dystopian novel, Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.” As The Post’s nonfiction critic Carlos Lozada put it, “A president who rarely cracks books has unwittingly launched a book club for America.”
These literary choices make sense for the many Americans who see Trump as a serious threat to America’s constitutional order. But what about the many others who see threats elsewhere? A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that while the president’s unfavorability ratings are remarkably high, the reporters covering the president aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory. Forty-seven percent of respondents disapprove of President Trump — but 53 percent believe that the media overstate the problems in his administration. Similarly, 51 percent believe that the media have been too critical of the president; only 6 percent say that the media should be more critical. And although Americans trust the media more than they trust the president, a Gallup poll from September shows that only 32 percent of Americans trust the press “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
A reading list for our times should take into account this widespread skepticism of the media. And perhaps the classic novel that best captures some of the sentiments that many Americans feel about the press is Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satire “Scoop.””
I admit I didn’t know about this book which Hitchens tells us is…:
“…Ranked by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century and by Robert McCrum of the Guardian as the 60th best novel written in English, “Scoop” is, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather.””
Near the end of his article, he says:
“The most salient connection between the novel and today’s skepticism of the media is what Waugh calls “the innuendo and intricate misrepresentations, the luscious, detailed inventions that composed contemporary history” — a beautiful, though less hashtaggable, description of what we lazily refer to as “fake news.” The papers in “Scoop” seek to convey a specific partisan perspective on the civil war in Ishmaelia, and they frame their stories to support that limited narrative. When Lord Copper sends Boot off, he tells him precisely how the war should proceed in his reporting: “A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war … We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.” Boot is not there to report news so much as to complete a prefabricated story line.
With these obligations in mind, many of the novel’s journalists are only too happy to make up news — a scoop is a scoop, regardless of its truth. There is the legendary journalist Wenlock Jakes, whose phony eyewitness accounts of a revolution that wasn’t happening, in a country he wasn’t in, were so alarming that they eventually caused an actual revolution. “There’s the power of the press for you,” one character concludes.
When one correspondent files an obviously false report about a Russian agent, the other journalists nonetheless feel compelled to “find a red agent” so they don’t lose face. (The prominent role of Russian agents is another echo we hear today.) A journalist who has taken Boot under his wing explains that knowing about the mistake would only shake “public confidence in the Press. Besides, it looks as if we weren’t doing our job properly.” Although the false story is killed, its damage is real: When Boot receives reliable information about an actual Russian plot which, as he puts it, “really is news,” his mentor explains that true or not, it’s too late to be news. “Russian agents are off the menu, old boy.” The fake news makes the real news implausible and unfit to print.
Little surprise, then, that when an aspiring journalist asks him whether “inventing imaginary news” is good training, Boot replies, “None better.”
You might say that it’s best to take Waugh’s satire seriously, not literally. The correspondence between the novel’s foreign press corps and America’s political reporters, while imperfect, is instructive. I doubt members of the mainstream press make stories up, but they are certainly amenable to scoops that fit their story lines, which makes them vulnerable to sloppy reporting. Trump-era media outlets have, for example, released un-vetted dossiers, incorrectly claimed that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, irresponsibly suggested Trump’s energy secretary didn’t understand his job, and generally stoked what Mollie Hemingway calls “a full-blown Red Scare conspiracy theory.” These mistakes made in the effort to hold Trump accountable inspire skepticism — some of it extreme, to be sure, but some of it reasonable. And the whole mess is exacerbated by Twitter, which spreads misreported information faster than ever; the corrections are never retweeted as much…”
This put me in mind again of this great clip featuring the actor Denzel Washington, when he was asked about fake news:
“One of the effects of ‘too much information'” is “the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all [the media] have — to tell the truth…”