Fake News and how reporters risk falling into Trump's trap
Thursday 7 December 2017
The following is the edited text of a talk given to The Reuter Society in London today
We all know Fake News in its various forms. In some ways it has always benefited from the latest technology - think only of Josef Goebbels’ manipulation of radio broadcasting in Nazi Germany. Today we think of wireless in a different way from then. Wireless now is Wi-Fi, mobile news, news to go, no longer the family grouping around the radio. These days if people gather around the TV they are likely to be checking in with their smartphones and iPads.
But Fake News has always been with us - the spin doctoring from governments, or from financial PR companies; the massaging of sporting events or the entertainment business; the overlap between real news and planted news in the literary world; the stage management of reality TV and its echo in the next day’s tabloids. In politics, it is not confined to any particular ideology or nation. Think only of the barefaced lies of the Iraqi authorities as the Americans entered Baghdad in 2003, and the dodgy dossier that preceded the war.
There was a time of when Fake News had a kind of legitimacy. Propaganda, after all, is one of the dark arts of war - the effort to demoralise or distract the enemy, to weaken its resolve, to set friend against friend. Again back to Nazi Germany and the radio, broadcasting in English to this beleaguered isle to raise doubts about the progress of the conflict. And against that, of course, was the equally strong Allied effort to bolster morale, to persuade those on the Home Front of the evil of the enemy and the certainty of victory. The movie Casablanca, let’s not forget, was made in 1942, and there’s no doubt who the winners were in that one.
this is about power and money, not ideology... Realpolitik trumps Trump
These days, indeed, it is plausible, almost routine, to suggest or assert that Russia and its acolytes in Moldova and elsewhere have taken over the mantle of Propagandist in Chief in what we call cyber warfare - the effort to spread false stories, false perceptions and selective leaks in the pursuit of its long-standing campaign against the West.
Von Clausewitz once said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. It is almost a commonplace now - and the idea is certainly under close official scrutiny in the United States - to make the argument that Moscow’s divisions of hackers and bots are out to undermine the Western foe in a way that was not possible during decades of nuclear standoff and ideological confrontation.
The Soviet Union lost the cold war. Vladimir Putin now seeks to reverse that humiliation, starting, it is argued, in the United States with the defeat of a conventional Democrat and the rise of a maverick, unpredictable Republican showman. It is easy to say: well, be careful what you wish for. But this is about power and money, not ideology. There is no doubt that, whatever the FBI uncovers about all this, Russia has used that distraction to capitalise on its influence in the Middle East. Realpolitik, in other words, trumps Trump.
DICTIONARY DEFINITION OF FAKE NEWS
Just as an aside, it could be argued that these kind of mind-games have been around for a long time. When I first joined Reuters as a local hire in the Bonn bureau in 1972, I was surprised that, even then, 27 years after the end of the Second World War, when I introduced myself as a representative of the Baron, ordinary Germans would give me a knowing look and say: ach, Reuters. Die Luegenfabrik. The lie factory. A whole generation of Germans had been persuaded to dismiss a major source of objective news. Today we have CNN, The New York Times and many others tarred with the same brush: Fake News.
Collins Dictionary recently came with a definition of Fake News: false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting. But I think it is more than that. For our purposes today, though, Fake News means two things in particular: the deliberate transmission of untruths in pursuit of political aims, as the dictionary suggested; and the accusation that journalists wilfully distort the facts to undermine the agenda of politicians they do not like - President Donald Trump in particular.
Fake News resonates. It is catchy. Easy to say. It rolls off the tongue, as easily as other two-word sequences beginning with the letter F
That brings me in fact to a distinction that lies at the heart of the challenge to our reporting and our role as reporters.
Fake News is not simply a tactic but a strategy. Like all good slogans it is, on the surface, incredibly simple but it works in very subtle ways. To deploy Fake News, spread false stories, selective leaks, is one thing. But to make the accusation of Fake News against reputable media organisations is much more dangerous. As a slogan, a rallying-cry, an easy hit like “lock her up,” Fake News resonates. It is catchy. Easy to say. It rolls off the tongue, as easily as other two-word sequences beginning with the letter F. But it does much more damage than a simple expletive. For one thing, it is almost unchallengeable. It’s rather like that famous reply by Mandy Rice-Davies when she was asked about a well-known aristocrat’s denial of impropriety. He would, wouldn’t he, she said. Answer that.
THE WATCHERS BECAME THE WATCHED
The accusation of fake news is the art of the first strike. No matter what is said later, the seed has been planted, the damage done. By sowing doubt about the veracity of the fourth estate, those who accuse reporters of disseminating fake news are undermining a vital pillar of democracy. When Donald Trump came up with the fake news slur, he put journalists under the same microscope as journalists have used to scrutinise politicians. He flipped the debate. The watchers became the watched.
Most damaging of all was the de-coupling of fact from political discourse and ethical debate. Last February - as the scale of the Trump Administration’s departure from conventional norms and truth was becoming clear - my New York Times colleague Roger Cohen, a fellow alumnus of the Baron, wrote about the notion of alternative facts, a term coined in The White House by KellyAnne Conway. Her idea was that there was journalism as practised by the mainstream media - Fake News! - or there was something else called “fact-based journalism”.
As Roger put it, talking about fact-based journalism was like talking about oxygen-based human life. “There is no other kind,” he said in a column. And I quote: “Facts are journalism’s foundation; the pursuit of them, without fear or favour, is its main objective.” He concluded with a sobering thought. “Truth has not yet perished, but to deny that it is under siege would be to invite disaster.”
What he was implying was that the very people who rail against the mainstream media are the ones most adept at spreading fake news in the interests of political campaigns.
Perhaps that started back in 2003 with the unwarranted casus belli of the Iraq War - that Saddam Hussein controlled an arsenal of unconventional weapons capable of striking British territory within 45 minutes.
Events since then have shown as that, as truth retreats, the false prospectus moves all too easily to centre stage. We saw that during the Brexit campaign - and I am pleased for your sake that no-one was foolish enough to ask me to talk about that. There was the £350,000,000 a week that would solve all the problems of the NHS. Turkey was about to enter EU, flooding it with migrants. That was not just Fake News. That was lies presented as fact. Of course people say things in advance of ballots in order to win. But surely there has to be a scintilla of truth. Yet fact is no longer a consideration. Just last week we had the imbroglio that followed Donald Trump’s re-tweeting of three Islamophobic clips that originated with a far-right movement, Britain First. (I wonder where they got the idea for that name from!) Challenged to say whether it had checked the provenance of the clips, the White House simply said that was not the point. What mattered was the bigger issue of terrorism committed in the name of Islam - and the president’s determination to eradicate it. But surely, if the evidential veracity of the tweeted clips was open to question, how could they be cited as proofs in the broader argument? By then, of course, the re-tweets had been transmitted to the President’s 43 million-plus followers. A tiny fringe group in Britain had been given a global audience for views that most people consider abhorrent.
we are well beyond the days of entry level costs limiting access to mega-gig manipulation of fact. A smartphone is all anyone needs to go viral
The reason that this is all so different and dangerous now is technological advance on a scale that sometimes seems to eclipse the other great advances in the human ability to communicate - the invention of the printing press, the advent of radio broadcasting, the dawn of television. In their early days, all of those great breakthroughs threw up an initial financial barrier. Who could afford a new-fangled TV to watch the coronation in the 1950s; who could stump up thousands for an early IBM or Compaq desk-top? But we are well beyond the days of entry level costs limiting access to mega-gig manipulation of fact. A smartphone is all anyone needs to go viral.
Many of us have long memories - some longer than others, and I would be on shaky ground if I started naming names. Nonetheless, some of us do pine for those rose-tinted old days of clattering telexes or even, in my case, cooing pigeons. That’s another thing not to get me started on. Back then we could dictate our stories to London, talk to a human being and hear the rattle of typewriter keys as our deathless prose was transcribed onto three-or-four-graf takes. I remember on one occasion filing a few hundred words from Geneva about a fire in Robert Mugabe’s hotel where I was also staying. So what floor had the fire started on? The copy-taker asked me. The third, I said. And what floor are you on? The seventh, I replied. “Oh,” he said after a pause, “so you’re trapped in a blazing hotel, then. We’ve had a rough night of it, too.”
But let’s also consider another aspect of those days. The copy-taker and the reporter were part of a process that took time and judgment. Remember those letter codes we used to put on our copy - yy, uu and so forth. Nothing - except those rare directly-injected snaps - went out on the wire until it had been read, seen and edited.
AN ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE TO ACCURACY
Even then it would go through further filtering before the story appeared in print or was broadcast. I remember before I joined Reuters and worked at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation that we would not broadcast a story until it was confirmed by at least two news agencies.
There was - and is - an economic imperative to accuracy. For Reuters, as for newspapers of record: truth, fact were and are the basic stock-in-trade. Errors lose subscribers. No-one willingly pays for falsehoods. People are looking for facts on which to base all manner or judgments.
I am not saying that no one gets things accidentally wrong. Reporters are human. They make mistakes. Sometimes there are scandals caused by plagiarisation or genuinely faking knowledge that is just not there. But in the mainstream media - and by that I include the best in the newest crop of web-only outlets - there are processes in place that are designed specifically to minimise error. Readers, viewers respect that.
I spent the last eight years of my 30-odd years as an NYT staffer working closely on digital news in London and Paris.
If my heart sometimes beat secretly to a Luddite rhythm, my work-day unfolded at the warp-speed of the web. From pigeon post to posting - period!
The bells and whistles of the web have challenged all of us to find new and compelling ways of telling the story. But some things don’t change. Correspondents in the field do not always approve of the way editors at head office handle their stories. There’s that famous anecdote of a reporter and a sub-editor lost in the desert, dying of heat and thirst, when they come across an oasis. The reporter jumps in and drinks. But he sees that his colleague is relieving himself into it. “What the hell are you doing,” he asks. “Improving it,” comes the reply. I used to tell that story with some delight.
INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY UNDER THREAT
But it seems to me now that those layers of subs and copy editors, spell-checkers and fact checkers were doing something we will miss greatly in these days of financial constraints that have generated the perfect storm. Just when we need to maintain staffing levels, the bottom line of the digital era - the buy-outs and downsizing - mean that the institutional memory of great news organisations is under threat.
We still fret about getting things right, about having someone read back and catch the errors.
You know, while I was thinking about that, it occurred to me that perhaps the real question is: Who reads back on President Trump? We learned just the other day that a lawyer was supposed to have written a Tweet about the Mike Flynn/Russia case that generated major controversy. But that was not readily apparent. We accept Twitter handles such @realdonaldtrump as a token of ownership and authorship. But now it seems that may be just as fake as Fake News itself. We cannot guarantee it. The provenance is opaque, misleading, just like the content. We are adrift in a world whose most basic coordinates have become deceptive.
Technology, in other words, has changed the fundamentals of communication.
when people think all content is equal, they assume that it’s equally biased or credible
It’s worth quoting Lionel Barber, the editor of the FT, in a speech he gave in Oxford earlier this year.
“Technology,” he said, “has vastly empowered individuals via the dissemination in real time of news, data and moving image. Everyone has a voice; everyone has the potential to be a citizen journalist. But technology has also flattened the digital plain, creating the illusion that all content is equal. It has made it possible for everyone to produce and distribute content that looks equally credible. And when people think all content is equal, they assume that it’s equally biased or credible. Their distrust encompasses everything they disagree with. Facts no longer matter in this parallel universe of alternative facts.”
The corollary of all this for individual journalists and the organisations they work for is not simple. We live in a world where those who oppose a free press have access to the same technology as we do. It has never been easier to plant a rumour. In addition, the distinctions between news and views are crumbling.
In the Fake News era, objectivity is a rare commodity indeed.
The accusation of Fake News is bound to bring an emotional response from those who are being unfairly maligned by the most powerful politician in the world; who, in effect, is inciting his many followers to adopt his threatening tone with consequences that we cannot even guess. The past has provided plenty of precedents for this kind of bullying behaviour - and none of them have gone down well in history’s long gaze. In this current climate, quite naturally, we begin to see ourselves as part of the story, the good guys against the baddies. I remembered one time while covering a terrible humanitarian disaster in West Africa that I expressed my outrage to an American diplomat. “Who do you think you are: the avenging sword?” she said. I sometimes think that, in response to the unprecedented barrage of criticism and vilification from the White House, that is how we are coming to see ourselves. It’s a dangerous path to take.
The only response to the accusation of fake news is to speak truth to power honestly. But the tone of our narrative should not be the kind of gotcha journalism that we know from the tabloids and now see in reputable newspapers. We need to tell our stories, to expose the untruths and deceptions objectively. That makes journalistic sense and business sense. Since President Trump’s election, the number of digital subscriptions to The New York Times has soared exponentially. In July, there were 2.2 million digital subscribers - far more than the print circulation ever was. Between the last quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, digital subscriptions had risen by half a million. They called it the Trump Bump. Of course that does not bring the same advertising revenues as those full page ads for Bloomingdales and Sake Fifth Avenue used to do. But it proves that there is a hunger for honest news to counter the fake. And it challenges the business types to make our response financially viable. And that places a particular responsibility on us.
I don’t know how many of you remember a little classic of a book called The Kansas City Milkman, republished as Dateline Paris, that chronicled the goings on - indeed the shenanigans - at a Paris-based wire service in the late 1940s. There’s an episode there where the reporter makes a big mistake on a crucial parliamentary vote and gets the result wrong. What to do? Kill the story? Issue a correction? None of the above. The reporter writes a new story - Fake News, of course: parliament has ordered a recount on the contentious vote, even though no such event has occurred. The ballots are cast. The votes are tallied. And, lo and behold, the recount confirms what the result should have been reported to be in the first place. There had been no correction. But the outcome was finally right. In less radical forms, we used to call it a row-back. I liked the term. It suggested a leisurely paddle across the pond where, having displayed excessively muscular commitment to one destination, we gently retreated to safer waters.
ANOTHER PERFECT STORM
Well, there are no row-backs now. In the feverishly competitive atmosphere of news in the Trump era, the growth area is in investigative reporting, scoops and exposes of official mendacity. Much like soccer club managers looking for a new Ronaldo or Rooney, editors prize investigative reporters with a proven track record in exposing news that contradicts official versions and peels away the veneer of spin. CNN did just that and set up an entire new investigative unit. But in July, the network was forced to retract a story related to Donald Trump and Russia. Three members of CNN’s investigative team left the network, which Trump himself frequently lambasts as a purveyor of Fake News. The newly-created unit was ordered to suspend its inquiries. Last week, ABC news made an error about another development in the unfolding saga of President Trump, his former security advisor Michael Flynn and the Kremlin. A top-billing reporter, Brian Ross, was suspended for four weeks without pay.
What strikes me was that both these episodes involved single-source stories. It would be great, of course, if reporters could simply report what was verifiably unfolding before them. And sometimes we can. A shoos B. C overthrows D. Princely H became engaged to American M. But an entire industry has grown up to interpose itself between happens and what is reported about it. Another perfect storm: just as that drive to wilful obfuscation has spread its tentacles, editors and reporters face enormous competitive pressure to peel those tentacles back. I genuinely feel sorry for and admire the newsroom bosses who have to make these calls: do we go with the story on a single source, or do we wait for confirmation and risk being scooped.
Complicity with power inevitably leads to self-censorship, the most corrosive element of all
I think all of us would argue that, sometimes, there is no real substitute for what you might call gumshoe news. Doorstepping. Digging. Talking to real people rather than consulting computerised algorithms. If there had been more of that and less belief in the polls we might not have been so surprised by the victory of Donald Trump or the Brexiteers. If I sound like an old curmudgeon, well… In fact I remember once fighting a battle to say that quoting a Tweet is not the same thing as getting a real quote: a Tweet doesn’t have a name, age, address, home town. It doesn’t say what the question is. That was my argument. And I probably lost it. The address on the Tweet these days is frequently 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington or perhaps the Mar-a-Lago Club, 1100 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Florida. But we still don’t know what the question is or what its sender hopes to achieve.
What makes this dilemma worse is that there is no real middle ground. In Germany, way back, trusted reporters selected for their discretion enjoyed regular encounters with government ministers at the Stammtisch - their regular table at this hostelry or that. That kind of coziness is what we saw in the American press and its handling of JFK’s liaisons, or in the velvet gloves worn by the British press, in some long-gone era, in its dealing with the incorrigible royals.
That was arguably worse than Fake News. And I sometimes worry that we have a less extreme version of the Stammtisch in the Westminster lobby.
Complicity with power inevitably leads to self-censorship, the most corrosive element of all. Self-censorship removes the distinction between fake news and real news by positing the notion that there is, in fact, no news at all to worry our silly little heads with.
So where are we now?
This is not the moment to lose our collective nerve, to allow any considerations - financial, political, factional - to come between what we know to be the facts and our disclosure of them. But it is not the time either to allow the feeding frenzy to cloud our long-established principles of good practice. Technology has brought us the most remarkable abilities to find new and alluring ways of telling our stories. But the competitive pressures, and the endless onslaught denigrating our honesty and intentions, should not erode our commitment to the old values: get the story, do our best to get it right, even if you are not the first; and let no one - by Twitter or any other means - try to stop us from publishing, whether we are damned or not.
Alan Cowell joined Reuters in Bonn in 1972 and worked in Germany, Britain, Turkey, Lebanon, Zambia and Zimbabwe before joining The New York Times in 1981. After postings in Kenya, South Africa, Greece, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Britain and France, he left the newspaper’s staff in 2015, but continued as a freelance contributor. His most recent novel, Permanent Removal, was published in 2016 and his next work of fiction, Cat Flap, is due to be published in 2018. To date he remains the last Reuters correspondent to have filed by carrier pigeon. ■