State of Journalism
March 2, 2017
It is 2017 and George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” is the best-selling novel in America. Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” has surged into the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Some signs held by protesters in January’s Women’s March made reference to Margaret Atwood’s famous dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” This is not sheer coincidence. It can happen here. For the first time in recent American history, it is happening here; the plots of dystopian novels have transitioned from distant fiction into the brutal reality.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing,” Orwell writes in “1984.” President Trump has – as Orwell warns of a dystopian-like dictator – used his platform to blur the line between what’s true and what’s not. Perhaps the most obtrusive commonality between President Trump’s administration and the aforementioned dystopian novels is in their handling of the truth, and for their disregard of the free press. Since his initial thrust into the political spotlight, Donald Trump has shown, in bold letters, his aversion to the truth. Trump led the Birther movement in an attempt to disprove the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Trump suggested that the father of his Republican rival Ted Cruz is responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his presidential campaign, Trump claimed that Barack Obama founded ISIS. It is not only major fabrications of the truth like these that are worthy of America’s concern. In his first days in office, Trump exaggerated the number of people that attended his inauguration to unprecedentedly high numbers. Moreover, Trump made the claim that millions of illegal voters voted in the 2016 election – a claim debunked even by the majority of his Republican colleagues. Consequently, phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” have already become commonplace in the first month of the Trump presidency. With a few dozen months left in Trump’s term, many nervously contemplate the inevitability of this getting worse and more consequential – that, instead of falsifying the crowd size at his inauguration, Trump will falsify an international economic crisis or a terrorism threat. Trump’s willingness to lie – and his utter disregard for the truth – make Big Brother and “1984” comparisons hard to ignore. Orwell describes the consequence of Big Brother’s control of the media in Oceania, the dystopia represented in “1984”: “And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” Although some may consider this an exaggerated parallel, it is hard not to consider Trump America a quasi-“1984” shadow-world. After all, facts are no longer facts, but “alternative facts.” Negative news is not news, but “fake news.”
The legitimacy of the journalism industry, as a whole, has never been as threatened as it has become under Trump’s rule. Gaslighting – a term that originates in the psychological manipulation of a victim by the main character in the 1938 play “Gas Light”– is no longer merely a Hollywood plotline, but instead a topical reality of our political institutions. Frida Ghitis of the Miami Herald gives Trump his most deserving and hard-earned of titles: “America’s gaslighter in chief.” The poignant argument is essentially that, through his treatment of the press and his utter disregard for truth, Donald Trump is gaslighting the American people. In other words, Trump’s media-denouncing rhetoric is an attempt at a systematic consolidation of power. Of “The 307 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter,” a New York Times collection, Trump’s criticism of journalists and news outlets makes up no small percentage. Trump’s denigration of individual journalists and the process of journalism does not begin or end with any one criticism. He calls Mort Zuckerman, the Owner of The New York Times, a “dopey clown,” urges journalist Megyn Kelly to “get a life,” and warns people against purchasing The Washington Post. He criticizes the Associated Press for its “terrible” and “horribly inaccurate reporting.” Better yet, Trump’s transition team has even considered evicting the press from the White House entirely. “They are the opposition party,” a senior Trump administration official was quoted saying in Esquire, “I want ‘em out of the building. We are taking back the press room.” In a tweet, President Trump called the news media “the enemy of the American people.” Since America’s founding, the freedom of the press has been a core pillar of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson insisted that, “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
If nothing else, this paranoia of journalism externalizes the administration’s fear and vulnerability and serves as a call to journalists everywhere to keep doing their jobs – to keep chasing the truth, to keep being the “opposition party.” Orwell reminds us that, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” This revolutionary act will mean more to journalists than it will to anyone else; it has and will continue to be their daily calling.