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Gordon Campbell on journalism future in the era of “alternative facts”

Gordon Campbell on the journalism’s future in the era of “alternative facts.”

First published on Werewolf

Already, the White House has made it clear that the media are the new enemy that the new President’s supporters will be encouraged to unite against. (What else can they do now they don’t have Hillary Clinton to demonise any more?) The fantastic phrase “alternative facts” coined by Trump spinmeister Kellyanne Conway captures the media strategy in a nutshell:

Whereas every president for the past century has attempted to mould public opinion by spinning information, taking messages directly to voters, and selectively curtailing press access, Trump obstructs a fact-based debate like none of his predecessors. The President and his aides have served to cast doubt on the very notion of objective truth. Take Trump’s years of lies about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Or his repeated assertions that he initially opposed the Iraq War. Or his claims of widespread voter fraud. The list goes on; the press corps’ fact-checkers continue working overtime.

[White House press secretary Sean] Spicer’s easily disprovable statement Saturday was a minor fabrication, but such behavior is more ominous now that Trump is in power. The public needs accurate information to make informed political decisions……Trump’s seeming imperviousness to being caught in a lie stems largely from a fragmented and increasingly partisan media environment. Though newspapers and networks often call out his falsehoods, the reality TV star can tweet directly to his huge social media audience and let right-wing media mouthpieces do the rest of the work. Digital filter bubbles and the press’ historically low levels of public trust work in tandem to further buffer Trumpworld from true facts.

The media in Russia has experienced this kind of pressure for two decades now, so this advice to US journalists from a veteran of the Russian media circus around Putin is pretty timely:

Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. Etc etc.

This era of “alternative facts’ we’ve just entered is intended to discredit any criticism of the authoritarian-in -charge. If truth is merely a convenience, it needn’t have consequences. Should this situation be a cause for pessimism for journalists? Not at all. If anything – and partly because of its declining resources - the media has been guilty before of being a mouthpiece for the views of the elite.

There has been a tendency to replace investigative journalism with what could be called ‘access’ journalism. (Ongoing proximity to those in power has been relentlessly over-valued.) If anything, a Trump administration that’s actively hostile to journalism should send journalism back to the basics of reportage for the public good, regardless. After all, a certain level of tension and antagonism between those in power and those reporting on them is healthy for a democracy. Trump has, in that sense, set journalism free to its job more openly and aggressively. That’s what this piece argues, anyway.

Now, before the Committee to Protect Journalists throws up the batsign and the rest of us bemoan Trump’s actions as anti-press—which they are—let’s thank the incoming president for simplifying our mission. If Trump’s idea of a news conference is to spank the press, if his lieutenants believe the press needs shutting down, if his chief of staff wants to speculate about moving the White House press scrum off the premises, perhaps reporters ought to take the hint and prepare to cover his administration on their own terms. Instead of relying exclusively on the traditional skills of political reporting, the carriers of press cards ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death.

Game on. As the failures of neo-liberalism have shown, people can be force-fed bullshit for only so long.

And Trade

Now that the Pacific’s military superpower – the United States – is setting itself on a collision course with our trading partner (China) then New Zealand has reason to feel alarmed. Few people will lament the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a deal whose few benefits to this country were outweighed by the concessions to US corporate interests. Still, it should be kept in mind that US President Donald Trump’s reason for tearing up the TPP deal is that it didn’t concede enough advantages to the US. (The enemy of our enemy isn’t always all that friendly.)

So far, Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has seemed weirdly out of date. In the past few weeks, Trump has repeated his campaign claims that China is manipulating its currency downwards to give its exports an unfair advantage. That was the case a decade ago. Of late though, China has been desperately doing the exact opposite. For the past 18 months, China’s central bank has been doing all it can to prop up the currency, and stem the outflows of its capital. (Among other things, these funds have been finding their way into real estate markets all around the Pacific rim.) If China stopped its current interventions, Trump voters would be even worse off, since the value of the Chinese currency would fall even faster.

On trade, the new US strategy also looks to be equally counter productive. All along, the TPP had been a strategic measure to counter China’s influence in the region, as much as it ever was a trade deal. The US withdrawal from the TPP will now leave the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as the only major multilateral trade pact option in the entire Asia-Pacific region. (Bizarrely, socialist China has been the main champion of globalised trade at this year’s Davos gathering of economic chieftains in Switzerland.) On trade and wider diplomacy, the question mark with Trump’s foreign policy is how far he will be prepared to go in confronting China in the Asia-Pacific region.

So far, the tough talk coming out of Washington about the South China Sea has been notable, and the willingness to infuriate Beijing over Taiwan the One China policy is part of the same needling policy of provocation. Is it just rhetoric meant to signal to eijing that there’s a new dealer at the table ? At a wider geo-political level, the romance between Washington and Moscow also seems meant to herald a joint US/Russian endeavour to confront and contain China. The substance of these gambits is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, China has its own plans for the future, and they will depend on the success of the enormous One Belt, One Road (OBOR) energy and investment projects, as set out here.

These developments pose basic challenges for New Zealand’s foreign policy. We have major markets in Europe and in Asia that the emerging foreign policy of the new US administration puts at risk, even before factoring in the heightened risk of fallout from any confrontation in say, the South China Sea. Assuming that this doesn’t lead to a military conflict….there are limited gains possible by other means. Given the interconnectedness of global trade, it would be virtually impossible for Trump to construct punitive measures against China that wouldn’t reverberate through all of the Asian economies – big and small – and cause collateral damage. Many Asian nations channel their exports through China, into the US.

All of which means the cosy balancing act that MFAT has been able to manage for the past decade - ie to maximise trade with China, while still relying on the US to maintain regional security - is going to be increasingly difficult to sustain. We may have to choose whether our future lies in Asia, or buy hanging onto an increasingly isolationist and conditional American security blanket.

© Scoop Media

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