The Orwellian media - or why you don’t care about newspapers anymore| February 28, 2017
After Donald Trump referred to the press as the “enemy of the people,” there’s been a lot of talk about keeping journalistic integrity and protecting the First Amendment. For all his blubbering, Trump won’t silence the media. But I’m afraid that, in some ways, the media has already silenced its own voice.
Shows like The Newsroom and House of Cards glorify the role that journalism plays in informing the electorate. But all too often, media organizations have gone from informing the electorate on facts to advocating for an ideology.
We need to ask ourselves what will happen when we lose faith that the media or anyone else can accurately tell us what’s going on, not just try to convince us of their own interpretation of “the facts.” When everything is “true,” nothing is meaningfully aligned with what’s real. All the chatter is reduced to mere babble. All that matters is whose narrative garners the most attention and followers.
As David Brooks notes, “There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president.” This election made the brokenness of media giants Fox and CNN all too obvious. With a limited amount of time and space, some decisions need to be made about what to draw attention to through a broadcast. But their portrayals of the candidates were so polar that it was comical. CNN featured almost nonstop coverage of Trump’s latest antics, serving up hour after hour of “analysis” of his “grab her by the p*ssy” recording. Meanwhile, Fox somehow managed to make three months worth of television out of no new updates on the Clinton email “scandal.” This wasn’t reporting. This was advocacy wearing the names of “news” and “journalism.”
When the news is determined by what makes good ratings, the networks cater to their audiences’ biases. In a vicious cycle, an initial slightly red-shaded audience at Fox is fed demonizing news about Democrats, shifting the audience's opinion further right and making them trust the alternate point of view even less. The same thing happens on the other side.
Those of us in the middle are left feeling that we can’t really trust what either media establishment is saying. We understand they are arguing from a pre-established ideological point of view, rather than seriously and soberly paying attention to what is happening in our country. Important ideological discussions and battles need to be fought, but those cannot be conducted by those who claim merely to be reporting “the news.”
In his journalistic career, George Orwell embodied a democratic approach to “the truth” that can serve as an alternative to the mere advocacy which journalism has descended to as of late.
Orwell was wary of pure ideology, of what the human brain was capable of when it lost touch with reality. As David Brooks says, “Orwell was famous for sticking close to reality, for facing unpleasant facts, for describing ideas not ideologically but as they actually played out in concrete circumstances.”
He adds that Orwell’s “other lesson for writers, even opinion writers, is that it’s a mistake to think you are an activist, championing some movement.” We aren’t, as is commonly supposed, meant to be entirely operating in the realm of ideas. When we express our understanding of what is going on, that is by definition our point of view. When we seek to simply understand and explain what we see, we still are “opining.”
Orwell was tapping the core of democracy, the belief that the electorate can be informed, that the populace does have a good sense for what’s important. As Lionel Trilling said of Orwell, “He told the truth, and told it in an exemplary way, quietly, simply, with due warning to the reader that it was only one man’s truth. He used no political jargon, and he made no recriminations. He made no effort to show that his heart was in the right place, or the left place. He was not interested in where his heart might be thought to be, since he knew where it was. He was interested only in telling the truth.”
This Orwellian approach to media is the sober antithesis to the babble that the public dialogue has descended into. Trump has done shameful and newsworthy actions, but he is not totally misguided in the notion that some people hated him before any of his antagonizing words or actions — hated for mere ideological reasons, which is nothing but a sophisticated form of prejudice. That’s fine for private citizens, but just don’t call it the news or journalism.
Luke Gamble is an English major from Eagle, Idaho. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.