Accusations of Fake News: The Hostile Media Phenomenon in the Modern Media Landscape

I apologise for not having posted here for a few days – I’d make an excuse but it has been a mix of university work and just being slack. This piece is, however, one of my university assignments, which I am posting here as one of the requirements is to post it online with multimedia elements. This piece is different to the others as it is a half-half analytical/reflective assessment, and seeing as the topic fits the website’s theme it is both convenient and fitting to post it here. Feel free to read it, and seeing as I now know how to add images and videos (it’s simple enough but never saw the need to do so) I may begin to incorporate them more often in future posts.

CCB101 Post

Fake news is a phrase that has gained a significant amount of traction since 2016, when it became a defining factor of the US Presidential election that year. Now, it has spread globally and, with the increasingly polarized political environment in Western countries like the United States, the UK, and Australia, it has, regrettably some might say, become an unavoidable minefield in the contemporary media landscape.

What this piece will be looking at is not fake news itself, but more seeking to understand how and why ‘mainstream’ media outlets are perceived as fake news by certain segments of the population. What one person may call a credible source may be another’s fake news and vice versa. With this in mind, it is prudent to recognise and acknowledge the factors that drive these perceptions in order to put forward strategies to redeem the media’s image in the eyes of the public.

For the context of this piece, some definitions may be useful. Media Matters defines fake news as follows: “Fake news is information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news.” (2016, para. 2).1 The term mainstream media is used to refer to the mass media – that which sets the framework and agenda of discussion, permissible debate, and acceptable thought (Chomsky, 1997).2 Examples of these are the New York Times and the Washington Post in the US, or Nine (Fairfax) and News Corps in Australia.

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, the media still remains the least trusted institution in the world.3

media trust.png

Chart representing media trust. From “Percent Trust in Media”, by Edelman, (2019), 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report, p. 42.

Given that political polarisation and the level of media hatred is at its zenith in the US, alongside the Trump administration’s open attacks on the media, their market is by far the best example to analyse. A rather large portion of the US population look at mainstream outlets as ‘fake news’, including the current government which often denounces the media (except, notably, Fox – Fox receives ample praise).

Long before the phrase “fake news” came to dominate our lives, the credibility of a news source has always been determined by how an individual perceives it. This is best summed up in the phrase “hostile media phenomenon” (Vallone, Ross, Lepper, 1985, 577).4

Using the argument that how people perceive information is dependent on their personal values/beliefs, biases, and preconceptions, they concluded that “partisans frequently claim to perceive hostile bias, even in news coverage that most non-partisans find even-handed and objective” when presented with information that contradicts their views and positions. In much the same way people view outlets that they are agreeable with positively (confirmation bias), they also view outlets they disagree with negatively (and, increasingly, with hostility).

Today in the US, this has been exacerbated beyond anyone’s imagining due to two major contributing factors. The first is the Trump administration’s open hostility towards the mainstream media, that Trump often refers to as ‘fake news’. According to a 2017 Politico poll5, on average just under half of respondents believed that the White House and President Trump himself were credible sources of information. In the same poll, about a quarter of respondents on average did not believe that mainstream media outlets (NYT, WaPo, CNN, etc.) were credible sources of information.

A statement by Sandra Mims Rowe on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) back in October 20166 called out then presidential candidate Donald Trump, saying that his rhetoric, whether for show or not, was a real danger to press freedom and the safety of journalists. Trump, along with the Republican mouthpiece Fox News, is no doubt responsible for the high levels of media distrust among his base, sparking a rise in cases of the hostile media phenomenon, i.e. the accusation of fake news against mainstream outlets.

Fox News themselves is the other major factor that contributes to the hostile media phenomenon. In the documentary Outfoxed, it is clear that one of their primary goals is to inflict a controllable level of fear on their audience, with (terrifyingly) remarkable results (Greenwald, 2004).7 It could be strongly argued that Fox News is one of the earliest examples of ‘fake news’ itself, and certainly the most mainstream source of it.

Media professionals, particularly those who are (or wish to be) in the field of journalism, should be greatly concerned about the hostile media phenomenon. Many journalists and writers, whether they be professional or casual (bloggers, etc.), strive to maintain an ethical standard of truth in their reporting of facts. Whether separate criticisms of bias, omission, or saturation could be broached will be discussed later, but they are secondary – truthful reporting is the bare minimum standard, and today it is that which mainstream outlets are being attacked for.

The case of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks offers an interesting insight into how this plays out somewhat contradictorily in Trump’s America. Truthful reporting on the corruption of the Trump Organisation, or of anyone connected with Trump’s businesses, is attacked as ‘fake news’. Papers like the NYT and WaPo, or TV networks like CNN and MSNBC, are perceived with hostility by Trump’s base because their reporting clashes with their prejudices and preconceptions. Trump can do no wrong, therefore those accusing him of doing wrong must be lying.

In 2016, Trump praised WikiLeaks numerous times after they released a number of emails from Hillary Clinton and the DNC, a scandal which (as the mainstream media portrayed it) severely damaged Clinton’s campaign. Part of Trump’s base adopted a largely debunked conspiracy theory that a DNC staff member, Seth Rich, leaked the documents and was assassinated under orders by Clinton, and flocked to support WikiLeaks to bring down the Democratic nominee. They accused the mainstream media of covering up the truth and lying about so-called “Russiagate” fiasco in an attempt to save Clinton.

Almost immediately, in 2017, officials in the Trump administration classed WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service” after they released documents pertaining to CIA surveillance and hacking capabilities, called Vault 7. Now in 2019, Trump claims to have no opinion on WikiLeaks or Assange, seemingly forgetting his earlier comments. Assange has now been charged with multiple counts of the Espionage Act, potentially facing over 170 years in prison for his work with Chelsea Manning (who is again in jail herself for “contempt of court”).

But the mainstream media has always been against Trump, and other than a few muffled concerns over press freedom, they have been against WikiLeaks and its founder since the 2016 election. So, if the above segment of the population hates the media for its stance against WikiLeaks and Trump, how can they reconcile Trump’s changing stance on WikiLeaks? Realistically they can’t, but the hostile media phenomenon explains it well – they will support whatever the mainstream media doesn’t because, to them, the mainstream media is fake news. Just read any comments section on WikiLeaks-related articles on Breitbart, for example – they all continue to blame Clinton, and believe that Assange’s testimony (if he’s extradited) will “reveal the true traitors”.

comments.png

Comments on the Breitbart article “‘Not My Deal’ — Donald Trump Distances Himself from WikiLeaks Arrest”. “Traitors” here is referring to Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, etc. 8

Mired in hypocrisy and contradictions, the distrust and lack of faith in the media is disturbing. Ethical media professionals and the wider public need to be aware of this as it is not merely an attack on a free press, or a case of simple bias – it is an attack on truth and fact itself. While fake news may be the manufacturing of information, and that people believe it is problematic, it could be argued that this latest iteration of the hostile media phenomenon – where debate over fact, not just ideas, has become the norm – is much more dangerous.

But if one is to be honest about the mainstream media, particularly the major papers and TV networks in the US, the accusations of corruption and deceit aren’t untrue – it just doesn’t fall to the level of manufacturing facts. What they do manufacture, however, is the news narrative and how it is told. This is summed up perfectly in the book Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, where they provide concrete examples to prove the US’ rather subtle propaganda machine exists. This short video by Al Jazeera, narrated by Democracy Now! presenter Amy Goodman, sums up one of the book’s main points – the 5 media filters (Chomsky, Herman 1988).9, 10

In a video interview with Chomsky done by Primo Nutmeg, the legendary professor and commentator instantly rejects the rabid coverage over the “Russiagate” scandal, essentially calling any collusion mild and negligible.10 He instead points to numerous other aspects of the US political system that are much more corrupt and influential, like the role of lobbyists, and how the Senate and House [of Representative] votes went to the Republicans as well. Those concerns get, in comparison, media silence as they are too ‘inconvenient’ for those in power, regardless of their political allegiances.

There are a number of things that can, and must, be done to try and reverse the dangers of the hostile media phenomenon. Governments, the mainstream media as an institution, and emerging media professionals all have a role to play in pushing the industry not only back to some degree of ‘normalcy’, but towards a more open and independent body.

The deregulation of media conglomerates (as evident in the US and Australia) by governments needs to be fought and reversed, and mainstream media outlets need to untie themselves from corporate control. The reason those two actions must take place is because, as stated above, trust in the media is damningly low. Viewing these outlets as vessels of corruption and propaganda – whether by disillusioned consumers accusing them of fake news or academics and knowledgeable critics calling out inconsistencies, hypocrisies, or half-truths – is becoming increasingly mainstream in itself.

To rebuild the public’s trust in the media would require it to be much more transparent and scrutinising. For example, “Russiagate” may have some importance, but the oversaturation of it in daily news coverage has been quite detrimental to the media’s cause. An honest critique of the US government would involve taking a wrecking ball to the very core and foundation of the political system, and right now that wrecking ball is giving it a love tap.

On an individual level, it is the job of the media professionals and journalists – both current and emerging – to change how the industry works from within. Demanding change within the workplace to achieve a more independent stance would be good, but incredibly difficult to undertake. Other, more freeing and exciting ways would include doing freelance writing, so as to not be bound by any organisation or restrictions, or for a group to start an independent organisation of their own. An example (albeit not a necessarily “professional” one) of this would be the Australian YouTuber and satirist Jordan Shanks (Friendlyjordies).

The mainstream media has many flaws, including corruption and deceit, that fall into the categories of omission, inconsistency, oversaturation, etc. depending on the topic. But despite these valid and proven criticisms, it would absolutely be wrong to condemn them of being ‘fake news’. The contemporary iteration of the hostile media phenomenon has been a worryingly growing trend, mostly in the US but also in Australia and the UK. People will accuse mainstream outlets of fake news in open defiance of facts they refuse to believe or acknowledge, and this has only been amplified with the advent of the Trump presidency.

Media professionals and journalists must take it upon themselves to rebuild the public’s trust in the media by throwing off the burdens of what makes an outlet ‘mainstream’; that is, the corporate stranglehold over their work. Alternative outlets like Democracy Now! and CounterPunch in the US are fine examples of this, but there is much work to be done. Emerging professionals cannot be discouraged by the hostile media phenomenon, but should instead be encouraged by the potential for change they can bring to an industry the world has lost faith in.

 

References

[1] Media Matters. (2016). Understanding The Fake News Universe: A Guide To Fake News Terminology. Retrieved from https://www.mediamatters.org/research/2016/12/15/understanding-fake-news-universe/214819

[2] Chomsky, N. (1997, October 1). What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream. Z Magazine. Retrieved from https://zcomm.org/zmagazine/what-makes-mainstream-media-mainstream-by-noam-chomsky/

[3] Edelman. (2019). 2019 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER Global Report. Retrieved from https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2019-03/2019_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report.pdf

[4] Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The Hostile Media Phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the Beirut Massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49. 577-585. Retrieved from https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~jpiliavi/965/hwang.pdf

[5] Morning Consult. (2017). National Tracking Poll, July 07-09, 2017 [Data set]. Politico [Distributor]. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/f/?id=0000015d-3324-db11-a3df-fb3da4360000

[6] Committee to Protect Journalists. (2016). CPJ chairman says Trump is threat to press freedom. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/2016/10/cpj-chairman-says-trump-is-threat-to-press-freedom.php

[7] Greenwald, R. (2004, July 13). Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P74oHhU5MDk

[8] Spiering, C. (2019, April 11). ‘Not My Deal’ — Donald Trump Distances Himself from WikiLeaks Arrest. Breitbart. Retrieved from https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2019/04/11/not-my-deal-donald-trump-distances-himself-wikileaks-arrest/

[9] Chomsky, N., & Herman, S. E. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York. Pantheon Books.

[10] Al Jazeera. (2017, March 2). Noam Chomsky – The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34LGPIXvU5M

[11] Primo Nutmeg. (2019, March 24). Noam Chomsky on Trump-Russia Collusion. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtqWezfIhMY

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