The media’s moment of truth

Cartoon by Christian Adams

In 2010, Benedict XVI gave an address at Westminster Hall on what he called “the real challenge for democracy”. He told the assembled political leaders: “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.”

Benedict’s point was that moral relativism cannot sustain a healthy politics. Time and again, he has been proved right. Western societies are reluctant to discuss objective morality – or objective truth, with which morality is inextricably linked. But unless we can find common ground in some objective principles, then we are left open to manipulation by ideologues, who, whether they are scientists, political campaigners or journalists, will all try to insist that they are the real source of objectivity.

In America, “the fragility of the process” was all too evident at, of all places, the Oscars on Sunday night. During the ceremony, the New York Times ran a television advertisement. “The truth is hard to find,” the ad proclaimed. “The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”

The Times’s “branding expert” – yes, not a reporter or its editors or publisher, but that postmodern character, the branding expert – explained what the newspaper was getting at: “The idea is to be a part of that discussion about what does it mean to find the truth. What does that mean in a world of ‘fake news’? And what is the role of journalism and journalists in that process, and what is the role of the reader in supporting that journalism?”

The formerly mainstream media are not wrong that Donald Trump is trying to deal them a death blow. He is openly contesting the idea that these once-trusted news brands are a reliable source of facts, a bipartisan source of truth. But Trump could not possibly succeed in branding these once towering news sources as partisan were it not that millions of American readers and watchers have reason to think he’s right.

With ads and slogans, the mainstream media try to recapture the glory days of Watergate or even before, when Walter Cronkite was the most respected figure in America. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the Washington Post’s dramatic new slogan. CNN keeps on trying to bill itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News”, even as Americans evince less and less trust in news.

As recently as 2003, 54 per cent of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. By September 2016 that had dropped to just 32 per cent of Americans. A slim majority of Democrats still trust the mass media to report the news truthfully, compared to just 30 per cent of independents and 14 per cent of Republicans.

The mainstream media’s recent interest in “fake news” is part of the same effort to re-establish their bona fides. There is such a thing as fake news, of course: web charlatans fearlessly launching false money-making clickbait. Trump’s presidential campaign was boosted by a made-up story claiming that he had been endorsed by the actor Denzel Washington. Barack Obama’s advisers once accused Trump himself of propagating fake news, because he suggested that Obama might not have been born in America.

But no sooner was the “fake news” meme launched than liberal elites made it clear how quickly some might use it to delegitimise their political opposition. One professor drew up a blacklist of sites to beware: it included fake news sites, but also Breitbart News and the Drudge Report. These two are right-wing, yes, but hardly to be listed alongside websites which (to take a real example of a widely circulated fabrication) claim Russia is about to send an astronaut to Saturn.

I was struck last November by watching how unselfconsciously the New York Times bemoaned fake news even as it launched its own distorted story about Trump. “Firings and Discord Put Trump Transition Team in a State of Disarray,” it proclaimed on November 16. A media scrum ensued. That same day AP reported: “Hidden from the public in his Manhattan high-rise, Donald Trump huddled Tuesday with Vice President-elect Mike Pence as he tried to fill out key posts in his Cabinet. But the transition team appeared to be straining under the enormous challenge of setting up a new administration.” Time headlined its story “Inside Trump’s Chaotic Transition”. NBC News actually characterised the transition happenings as a “Stalinesque purge”. The Guardian, perhaps, could not be blamed for following such distinguished examples with its headline: “Trump Transition Team in Disarray After Top Adviser Purged”.

The panic only ended when former Obama adviser David Axelrod drew a comparison which others had somehow overlooked. Axelrod tweeted: “Lots of reasons to be concerned about @realDonaldTrump transition but the pace of the announcements isn’t one of them. That’s not a fair shot. We hadn’t made any major appointments at this point in 2008. I don’t remember being criticised for it.”

The differential access to media coverage in formerly mainstream sources is one of the most dramatic biases observed by conservatives. I ran into it again and again back in the days when I was leading the fight against same-sex marriage in America. I happened to be in San Diego the day a protest was staged in front of the Manchester Grand Hyatt. The hotel’s owner Doug Manchester had made a personal donation to California’s Prop 8, which defined marriage as one man and one woman. The demonstration was nothing – 15 or 20 people in red shirts. But it produced a New York Times story, which led to the cancelling of a number of conferences, seriously hurting the hotel’s revenue stream.

Black Lives Matter protesters benefited from a similar guarantee of wall-to-wall, relatively favourable coverage, no matter how much the protests hurt the communities in which they were staged.

This happens more and more often as a result of technological and financial pressures. Most of the newer media sites are intensely partisan, sociologist Sarah Sobieraj points out. “The technological, regulatory and media space has shifted into one in which this is profitable, and profit is the driving force.”

What does this mean for the culture of democracy?

In his book Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters, Jonathan Ladd argues that the old trusted media oligopoly was the result of a unique technological moment that cannot be recreated. While it had the advantage of giving the media the credibility to check politicians, it had the disadvantage of giving a small number of people veto power over political discourse.

Ladd argues that the public must respond to the new diversity of news stories by seeking a “middle path”. On the one hand, there is the “highly trusted, homogenous media establishment with little viable competition”, which has lost much of its authority. On the other is “an extremely fragmented media environment without any widely trusted information sources”. Ideally, we can combine the two (of course, some will prefer to tune out altogether).

This gives “the remaining institutional journalists and news outlets” a major responsibility, Ladd says. They need to report politics in a trustworthy manner, so that “a significant portion of the public” can retain “enough confidence in the institutional press to use this information to hold government accountable”. Instead, the formerly mainstream media have embarked on their own hyperpartisanship in the age of Trump.

In 2002, the sociologist James Davison Hunter gave an extraordinary talk to Church leaders. Most Christians, he said, think of culture as the values in individual hearts and minds, and imagine therefore that changing culture is the task of evangelising individual hearts and minds. Hunter called this view of culture “pervasive” and completely wrong. “If one is serious about changing the world,” he said, “the first step is to discard this view of culture and how cultures change, for every strategy based upon it will fail – not most strategies, but all strategies.”

Culture, instead, is a form of capital, a kind of power. But what sort of power? “It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be taken seriously,” Hunter said. “It ends as the power to define reality itself. It is the power to name things.”

A culture war is a struggle over who has the power to name what is real. For generations in America there was a central source of information in the body politic for naming what was real, at least at the level of simple fact. Over time it became clearer and clearer that the Left could use its influence over these elite information streams to deprive the conservative movement of the capacity to make changes. Republicans lived in fear of being branded a bigot, a hater or a racist, and so the circle of what counts as bigotry, hatred and racism expanded to include more of the Left’s social agenda (particularly, but not exclusively, around gay issues).

It was an effective weapon and it worked, until Trump refused to be cowed by this narrative and still won.

Benedict XVI prophetically foresaw the challenge of truth in our times in his Regensburg address. If we only accept scientific proof as rational and declare everything else irrational, then, Benedict pointed out, we exclude from rational reflection most of the searching and deepest questions human beings face: those areas in which empirical proof is not possible, which require rational reflection – judgment, not proof.

This has two results. First, it damages science: for it restricts science to what can be shown with the highest degree of certainty, that resulting from “the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements”.

A lot of science would go out of the window. Moreover, “By its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.”

Second, since no human community can do without shared values understood to be true – such values as constitute a community – science is increasingly drawn away from its own open-ended nature and falsely cramped into the service of political ideology, of creating the values from which no one may legitimately dissent, a task to which science is intrinsically unsuited.

So climate scientists who dissent from the consensus are treated as traitors. So social scientists who publish results of which the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBT advocacy group, disapproves are professionally savaged. So this April, on Earth Day, we will be treated to the spectacle of a March for Science – as if science is the kind of practice that can be defended by loud marching in the streets.

Both faith and reason are corrupted and community consequently becomes far more difficult to create and sustain.

“To change the world is, at some point, to take power seriously,” said James Davison Hunter. “But the power we need to take seriously is not power in a conventional sense. … Rather, it is the power to define reality in ways that sustain benevolence and justice.”

Without a shared faith in objective truth, and a way to reach a rough consensus on what it is, where shall we get that power? How shall we do without it? Democracy dies in darkness.

Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, the author of four books on marriage and the founder of the National Organization for Marriage

This article first appeared in the March 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here