Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writers Institute of the University at Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
An elusive search for truth in a post-truth world
By Paul Grondahl
We have come to a fraught moment in our national discourse, with vitriol on both sides of the political divide. There has been a sharp decline in news literacy and a steady rise in "fake news." Fresh attacks on the First Amendment have coincided with an erosion of confidence in journalism. The media has been labeled "an enemy of the people" while constitutional protections of a free press face daily pressures.
Polarizing extremes of political ideology are crashing headlong into the ideals of individual freedoms and common decency, often pitting citizen against citizen, friend against friend. Widespread hacking and disruptive cyberattacks have revealed an alarming vulnerability of not only the electoral process, but of every piece of private information stored in the digital realm.
Now, more than ever, we need to address these issues critical to an open, functional democratic society. We need to move beyond our social media echo chambers to listen to points of view different than our own. We need to talk to each other. Most importantly, we need to listen.
William Kennedy and I, both of us journalists and former reporters at the Albany Times Union, talked frequently about the need to convene a symposium to take a deep dive into these critical issues. We thought it was particularly important to lead this vital discussion at a time when President Donald Trump and his administration is aggressively discrediting the media and mounting fresh assaults against the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of the press.
The Writers Institute hosted a major symposium, "Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World" on October 13-14 in Page Hall auditorium on the downtown campus of the University at Albany. More than 3,000 people attended six panel discussions with 30 acclaimed journalists, historians, nonfiction authors, First Amendment scholars and acclaimed authors engage in an open and substantive dialogue with each other and with audience members. Bob Schieffer, Douglas Brinkley, Amy Goodman, Maria Hinojosa, Ashleigh Banfield, Russell Banks, Floyd Abrams, Carol Anderson, Bill Keller, Pamela Newkirk, Gilbert King and two dozen more writers discussed and debated topics as wide-ranging as "Media in the Age of New Technology," "Presidents and the Press" and "Race, Class and the Future of Democracy."
The latest iteration of Telling the Truth served as a coda to the Writers Institute's remarkable 1991 symposium "Telling the Truth: A Symposium on the Craft of Nonfiction," which brought three dozen notable nonfiction writers to campus to undertake a comprehensive examination of their craft. Last fall’s symposium was the Writers Institute's most ambitious multi-day program in 26 years. We thought it was an important time to renew the discussion of how we tell the truth in public discourse. The world has changed in dramatic ways since the 1991 symposium, but the overarching issues that framed the discussion then remain largely the same today:
How do you recognize the truth?
Whose truth is being told?
Is there an ultimate, definitive truth?
For two days in Albany, nine hours of intense discussion, spirited audience question-and-answer periods and author signings and receptions – offered free to the public due to the generosity of numerous sponsors and generous donors – offered a divided citizenry an opportunity to listen to each other. The symposium transformed New York's state capital into a beacon for truth-telling and for civil discourse. The panelists and the public, ranging from teenagers to seniors, who filled Page Hall for two days in October, shed more light than heat and reminded us of the power of respectful dialogue.
A current that ran through the entire event was the attacks on the press by President Donald Trump and his repeated baiting of journalists who work for media outlets such as The New York Times and CNN as perpetrators of “fake news” – or anyone else who writes critically of Trump, fact-checks his Twitter pronouncements and challenges his agenda.
Bob Schieffer, former CBS Evening News and Face the Nation and moderator of three presidential debates, was gobsmacked by Trump’s shocking victory. He said, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it” so often that it has become a drinking game. Each time he voices that mantra, viewers must down a shot. “Luckily, they’ve got designated drivers,” Schieffer joked. The audience chuckled. Schieffer soberly noted that 126 newspapers have shut down in the last 12 years and the ranks of reporters and editors have been decimated as a business model that relied on print advertising collapsed.
Schieffer, author of the newly published book Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News (450 copies were distributed to UAlbany students, who discussed the book in their classes), noted that surveys found that nearly 70 percent of Americans now get their news from social media, primarily on Facebook. “We are in the midst of a technological revolution in how citizens get their news and the effect on our culture will be as profound as the creation of the printing press,” Schieffer said. He moderated a panel titled “Media in the Age of New Technology: Fake News, Information Overload & Media Literacy.”
“There’s an illusion that you’re in charge, but Facebook is giving you exactly what you want to read in your news feed so you’ll spend more time on their site,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.”
He added, “We are shockingly back in the golden age of propaganda, where lies are often much more alluring than truth. The feedback loop is a propaganda tool and we are more vulnerable to propaganda than we have been since World War I and World War II.”
Franklin Foer weighed in and laid blame at the feet of lazy news consumers. If a Facebook user does not carefully vet and scrutinize the veracity of their news feed – and nearly three-quarters of Americans now get their news from social media – Facebook’s algorithm will make choices for them. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and Amazon are the most powerful gatekeepers of information in American history and there is very little oversight or regulation regarding content.
“The problem is we sit in a filter bubble and we’re just getting a steady feed of ideological crack cocaine,” said Foer, staff writer for the Atlantic magazine and author of a new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
Foer added, “The algorithms of big tech sort the news in your feed so that you’ll be engaged and spend the most time on site. That leaves it open to exploitation from bad actors. Facebook bears some of the blame for creating the underlying circumstances when it keeps feeding its users their own biases. There’s an illusion on Facebook that you’re in charge, but it’s a platform that’s perfectly ripe for a demagogue.”
[The symposium was held months before the full extent of Russia’s election meddling was known and prior to criminal indictments from special prosecutor Robert Mueller on charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. leveled against 13 Russian nationals for interfering in the 2016 presidential election interference, primarily on the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.]
“I’m not willing to let the mainstream media off the hook,” said David Goodman, a contributor to Mother Jones magazine and co-author with his sister Amy Goodman of the book Democracy Now! Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America. He claimed that national media outlets, led by Fox News, gave Trump what amounted to “an estimated $5 billion” in free media by how extensively they covered the ratings-rich Trump compared, compared to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Trump paid for very little media on his own, but he got 10 times as much coverage as anyone else. He is a master of stagecraft and propaganda and he passed it off as news. The mainstream media has to do a better job. We need more independent, non-profit media.”
“We shouldn’t forget that this dance of propaganda and news has an illustrious history,” Goodman noted. “We were sold a war in Iraq based on lies that was an artful sell job. The corporate media was a conduit for the propaganda that led to the Iraq War.”
During the symposium, moments of impassioned condemnations of racial injustice intermingled with humorous asides, while a steady drumbeat of apprehension sounded over the Trump administration’s attacks on the media and maneuvers to limit free speech.
“I’m five things Trump doesn’t like,” Maria Hinojosa said. “I’m Mexican, an immigrant, a journalist, a woman and flat-chested.”
Her quip drew a big laugh, but the award-winning anchor and producer of Latino USA on National Public Radio was hardly joking. “As journalists, how do we report that this president is a serial liar? Nobody wants to say that, but that’s our duty,” she said.
Hinojosa lamented the fact that there are fewer journalists of color today than 15 years ago. In response, she established the Futuro Media Group to promote diversity and to report on marginalized communities. “I created it out of frustration. I urge you to be your own creators,” she said. She noted that 25 states do not have a single news reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. covering the national government due to financial woes and major reductions of reporters at newspapers across the country in order to stem the tide of red ink and remain in business.
During a question-and-answer period, an audience member asked about the impact of Fox News and its slanted coverage in favor of President Trump. “Just as we’ve become physically obese in this country, now we’re becoming mentally obese, too,” Foer said. “The problem is we all sit in a filter bubble and we’re just getting ideological crack cocaine and the current situation is not giving us the well-informed citizenry we need.”
“We lived through Watergate and survived it, but today I believe we’re in the middle of a developing situation that is far more frightening to me,” said veteran newspaperman Harry Rosenfeld, who led the Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate coverage as Metro Editor of The Washington Post and who is editor-at-large of the Albany Times Union. “I think we should rightly fear an authoritarian-leaning president who has abused the power of his office, and who finds his closest relationships with Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey.”
“After less than a year, Trump already has the lowest approval rating of any president, below Harrison, and hovering at around 32 percent approval,” said Douglas Brinkley, CNN Presidential Historian and biographer of presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford. “It’s been a frightening first year, but I haven’t lost hope. It’s hard to keep up because Trump’s tweets are like the Nixon tapes in real time.”
“Donald Trump won because he and Hillary Rodham Clinton were the two most unpopular candidates in presidential history and it was a perfect storm of various factors,” said Shane Goldmacher, a New York Times political correspondent who covered Trump during the Republican primary for Politico. “Trump’s message that things are broken and I can fix it resonated more than Hillary’s we are stronger together message. I go back to something Barbara Bush said, ‘Maybe the country is just tired of the Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes.’ It may have been a vote against political dynasties.”
Investigative reporter Amy Goodman, host and producer of Democracy Now!, blamed mainstream media. She provided statistics that showed Trump received 327 minutes of network TV coverage, compared to 121 minutes for Clinton and 20 minutes for Sanders. “The corporate media rolled out the red carpet for Donald Trump,” she said. “Bernie’s voice was iced out. There wasn’t even a clip of his voice speaking or a mention of the movement he created on network TV. He was in ideological seclusion from the corporate media.”
“I agree we didn’t catch on to that fast enough,” Schieffer said, following audience applause for the points raised by Goodman’s points. “You’ve blamed the media for a lot of things there, Amy. We gave too much time to Trump and we didn’t take him seriously. You raised some good points. Often, the media are lagging indicators about what’s happening in the larger public.”
“I think the Trump election shows how much celebrity means in our culture,” Brinkley added. “In our early history, there was a fascination with our military generals and they won elections. Like Ronald Reagan, Trump has been a celebrity for a long time and he benefitted from that. I worry about this country’s celebrity obsession and how we’ve lost the differentiation between celebrity and good governance.”
“The media’s not perfect,” Rosenfeld said. “It never was and never will be. But newspapers eventually revealed the truth about Vietnam and they eventually published investigative reports on the Iraq War.”
Goodman quoted I.F. Stone: “All governments lie.”
Schieffer noted it seems absurd that major media outlets now assign reporters to “tweet patrol” to monitor President Trump’s Twitter feed in the wee hours in case he goes on a Twitter rant that makes news while the rest of the nation sleeps.
“I think his tweets are incredibly newsworthy,” Goldmacher said. “It’s a real time secret diary and absolutely news. He also has a very loose relationship to what is true and what is not.”
Goldmacher searched on his cellphone and pulled up an excerpt from his 1987 book, Trump: The Art of the Deal. Goldmacher read it aloud: “Bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People want to believe the biggest and best. I call it truthful hyperbole, which is an innocent exaggeration and it’s useful.”
“You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts,” Rosenfeld said. “We have to publish the facts.”
“The media has to be the counter to the government,” Goodman said. “The TV meteorologists who don’t say climate change in their weather reports should have their licenses revoked. Trump is a climate denier and he has surrounded himself with an oligarchy of oilmen. The media needs to stand up and challenge him on that.”
“Another problem is that everyone just watches their validation channels now, whether it’s Fox or MSNBC,” Schieffer said. “They watch to validate their own point of view. We’re no longer basing our opinions on the same set of facts.”
“I have a sense that we’ve always been here in this situation,” said Russell Banks, bestselling novelist and past president of the International Parliament of Writers and founder and president of Cities of Refuge North America. “I’m just a storyteller and I’m an expert on nothing at this symposium. American elections have always been fixed. That’s a grand American tradition. The enormous change is in the power of technology to control and manipulate it. The major cultural shift I’ve seen recently is that we’ve become more a nation of consumers than a nation of citizens.
Our conversations and relationships revolve around this shift and they focus on consumer issues. I’d like to see a return to engaged citizens.”
Journalist David Daley likened the state of America’s democracy these days to a horror movie when something gruesome is about to happen: “The call is coming from inside the house,” declared Daley, digital media fellow at the University of Georgia and the former editor-in-chief of Salon.com. He is also the author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plans to Steal America’s Democracy.
“I don’t like to be the voice of doom and gloom, but we are in a serious and chilling moment,” Daley said. He laid out the upshot of an audacious redrawing of the U.S. electoral map following the 2008 Democratic sweep of Congress. “They used the oldest trick in the book, the dark art of gerrymandering.”
Daley noted that Republican strategists brilliantly manipulated Congressional district lines so completely through REDMAP that it rendered everyone’s vote meaningless for the next decade. The GOP has not enjoyed such dominance since the Civil War: 68 state legislative chambers today compared to just 31 for Democrats. There are 33 Republican governors versus 16 Democrats and one independent. The GOP also controls both houses in Congress and the White House and 405 of 435 Congressional districts are immune to being flipped. “There’s no more swing in the swing states,” Daley said.
“I want us to remember that ‘fake news’ has been around a long time and Trump didn’t invent it,” said Kelly Vlahos, managing editor for The American Conservative and longtime political writer for Foxnews.com. “The run-up to the Iraq War was the biggest effort of coordinated propaganda between the U.S. military and the government and they spent $500 million to create fake news to feed to the Iraqis. It was a flood of fake news and U.S. taxpayers paid for it. It’s a fact that the system is rigged and it will be very important to cover the 2018 midterm elections closely to see if the Democrats can take back the House from the Republicans. I care very deeply about representative democracy and everyone should, too.”
Vlahos noted that the death of U.S. newspapers coincided with the rise of digital and social media across the country. “It’s about class and wealth and big media is centered in big-city bubbles and they’ve created an echo chamber. At the same time, there are huge portions of the country where it’s a virtual news blackout because the papers died. Editors of the new digital media outlets in Washington are hiring mostly Ivy Leaguers and they have a very narrow bandwidth of experience.”
“It makes sense that so many Americans feel powerless because in many ways we are,” Daley interjected. “Our vote has been made not to count. Add to gerrymandering voter suppression that cuts out many blacks, Latinos and college students. In Texas, for example, you can’t vote with a college student ID, but you can with a gun registration ID.”
Meanwhile, revenue for newspapers has declined every quarter for 50 straight quarters, said Richard Tofel, former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal. “That’s not sustainable,” said Tofel, who is now president of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news operation.
“Newspapers are doomed,” said Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times. He predicted that the Times will die a slow death that will result in a Sunday-only print edition in perhaps just a few years, followed by online only in the not-too-distant future. Keller now directs the Marshall Project, an investigative journalism team focused on criminal justice issues. “We’re a nonprofit,” he said. “On purpose.” There was strained laughter.
In the lobby at the symposium, Lou Ismay, a 92-year-old professor emeritus of environmental studies at UAlbany, handed me a postcard printed with early warning signs of fascism that included: Fraudulent elections, obsession with national security, controlled mass media, corporate power protected. “I’ve been handing these out for years,” he told me. “They seem more relevant than ever.”