Alan Zendell, July 20, 2020
You don’t hear people say it much nowadays, but there was a time, thanks to Alan Barth and Phil Graham of The Washington Post, when people referred to today’s news as the first draft of history. If you read something in one of the major dailies (The Post, NY or LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe) or you heard it from Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, or Tom Brokaw, you simply believed it. Every media outlet had an editorial board, but they usually took pains to separate news from opinion. It helped that most bylines came from respected outlets like the Associated Press, United Press, or Reuters.
Cable networks and satellite communications brought the news directly into our living rooms while it was happening. Will you ever forget Bernard Shaw hiding under a desk in Baghdad’s International Hotel when Iraqi security forces came banging on the door, or Wolf Blitzer standing on a rooftop in Israel pointing out scud missiles descending on Tel Aviv? The news had finally come of age. We were watching live what our kids would see in their history books.
Except, it hasn’t turned out that way. The proliferation of alleged news networks, the internet, social media, and blogs changed everything. What passes for news these days may have begun as facts, opinions, propaganda, or conspiracy theories before it was extruded and spun through dozens of opposing points of view. Most of us have our own pet news sources, smugly convinced that ours tell the truth.
It was Trump senior advisor Kelly Ann Conway who first publicly used the phrases “fake news” and “alternate facts,” but she was merely putting names to the brainchild of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. If you believe Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, Ailes was responsible for changing what we used to take as news into a chaos of conflicting versions. He conceived of Fox News as alternate facts before Kelly Ann Conway ever framed it in those words. He didn’t worry about fact checking because his creation wasn’t about facts; it was about pushing a populist point of view aimed at a silent majority of people angry with the establishment.
That’s today’s journalism. Try recording thirty minutes of news from each of your favorite networks. Compare them later. If your job was to distill the truth of the day’s events from them, what would you do?
Ailes not only invented Fox News, but in a sense, he also invented the current incarnation of Donald Trump. Fox News and Trump have been perfect symbionts for most of the last five years. These days many of us select our friends based on which news network they watch, and that may be a critical issue as the election approaches.
As Trump’s lies and distortions about COVID-19 caused his poll numbers to plummet, he decided to re-focus his election campaign on a fictitious narrative of current events. He began by characterizing the Black Lives Matter movement as the work of anarchists and Marxists, supported by Attorney General Bill Barr’s nightmare fairy tale of Antifa. He extended it to Portland, Oregon last week, and today we’re told that he plans to occupy other major cities (all run by Democrats) with federal troops to create a vision of a nation desperately fighting against an underground left-wing insurrection.
It’s all fantasy, complete nonsense. But Trump understands television and the media. He knows how to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots and mayhem, stoking people’s anger and frustration and labeling them thugs and criminals. Once that happens, the first casualty is truth. No matter what you see on your favorite news source you’re only getting a narrow view, often tinged by politics or deep pocket sponsors.
Trump knows only one way to win – create confusion and then claim his truth is the only one, but you don’t have to believe it. When the virus exploded in Seattle and weeks later, BLM protestors established their autonomous zone, I called my friends there to get an unfiltered view of reality. When people were dying by the thousands in New York, when California closed down, when Florida’s mishandling of the virus made it the world’s disease epicenter, and last week in Portland, I did the same thing. What I consistently learned firsthand from people I trusted bore little resemblance to what I saw and heard on the “news.”
We’re going to be battered by craziness for the next three months. When you find your head spinning, check the facts out for yourself. If you don’t know someone in Chicago you surely know someone who does. Call them when Trump’s Storm Troopers try to occupy it to drive out the Marxists. Watch, listen, mistrust, and verify for yourself.