The firehose of falsehood

“None of this is brand new; politicians have always sought to smear journalism they didn’t like. What’s new is that the attack is no longer about this or that story, but about journalism itself. It’s a challenge to the very notion of an independent accounting of facts.”

A couple of weeks after the 2016 election, Nic Dawes, the former editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, penned one of the best pieces on journalism in the age of Trump that I’ve read to date. Cast in the form of an open letter to U.S. journalists, it offered advice “from those of us who have worked in places where the institutional fabric is thinner, the legal protections less absolute, and the social license to operate less secure. Not outright dictatorships, but majoritarian democracies where big men — and they are usually men — polish their image in the mirror of state media or social media, while slowly squeezing the life out of independent institutions.”

One of Dawes’ core pieces of advice was: “Get used to being stigmatized as the opposition…The basic idea is simple: to delegitimize accountability journalism by framing it as partisan. Why should anyone care about your investigation of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, if they emanate from the political opposition? The scariest thing about ‘fake news’ is that all news becomes fake. Yours too.”

Chilling, right? As prognostication goes, it doesn’t get much more accurate than this. Just weeks after Dawes’ piece published, Steve Bannon — in an interview with the Times, to add insult to injury — declared that “the media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.” As for dismissing investigations of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, as “fake news:” Yep, and yep.

None of this is brand new; politicians have always sought to smear journalism they didn’t like. What’s new is that the attack is no longer about this or that story, but about journalism itself. It’s a challenge to the very notion of an independent accounting of facts. And in 2018, as tension builds on a host of stories from the Russia investigation to dozens of contested Congressional elections, we’ll see this challenge mount. Here are four key tactics we can expect to see more of:

The lawsuit threat. Roy Moore wasted no time before threatening to sue The Washington Post — just as Trump earlier threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on his accusers (prompting an amazing response from the Times’ general counsel, David McCraw). These kinds of threats are empty more often than not. But at a time when billionaires have discovered that the cost of litigation, whether or not it prevails, can cripple a news organization, many publishers — especially those without the resources of a Jeff Bezos — may think twice about whether to risk it.

The “fake news” play. When the Post’s stories first published, Roy Moore didn’t exactly deny them: He simply said he had never dated a girl without her mother’s permission. But by Election Day, he had pivoted to claiming he had never even met any of the women accusing him of sexual assault, while his supporters spread rumors that the women had been paid to lie. It’s an exact parallel to Trump’s responses to some of his accusers — indeed, as Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin reported recently, the president now suggests the Access Hollywood recording was faked. The goal here is not simply to undermine a particular claim, but to challenge the idea of verifiable news, period. The narrative we’ll see more and more of is that journalists are simply pursuing political agendas; that they are driven by the same petty vendettas and partisan loyalties as some of those they cover.

The ad hominem. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for politicians to go after “the media,” but relatively rare to take aim at individual reporters. But Trump has perfected the ad hominem, calling out specific journalists from Katy Tur to Dave Weigel and Don Lemon, and unleashing armies of trolls (and sometimes worse). These attacks, too, seek to undermine the notion of the press as an institution and cast it instead as a collection of individuals with axes to grind. In 2018, we can expect others to take up this tactic — and let’s hope that Greg Gianforte was the exception in going after a reporter physically as well.

The firehose of falsehood. Together, all these attacks eerily resemble a propaganda technique described in a 2016 RAND report on, of all things, Kremlin disinformation campaigns. As my colleague Denise Clifton has noted, the researchers described how Russian propaganda uses multiple messages, across many channels, often inconsistent with each other and with little regard for the truth. This aims, they write, to “entertain, confuse, and overwhelm the audience,” so that in the end, people will simply throw up their hands and give up on the idea of ever finding the truth. It’s a feeling American audiences will become increasingly familiar with in 2018.

Monika Bauerlein is CEO of Mother Jones.

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