Fake It Til You Make It
by Richard J. Levy
The phenomenon of fake news is really nothing new. The news as we know it has always been fabricated, by which I do not mean broadcasts of the prankish Orson Welles alien invasion variety. The news is something made, not simply transmitted. It is not just a set of facts or raw data but, like reality, a haze of perception and perspective that has to be ordered into a logical and believable narrative. Like a testimonial, it is meant to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is the freedom to tell the truth for none but the truth's sake. It is the very antithesis of propaganda. Or is it?
Aldous Huxley argued that there are "two kinds of propaganda — rational propaganda in favour of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and to whom it is addressed, and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody’s enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion." Could the same not be said of a broad swathe of contemporary media, especially the sensationalist, deliberately biased and downright manipulative and hyper-emotive journalism that has become normalised, especially in the US, for the best part of three decades? And where did all this start?
Back in the mid-19th Century when independent news sources became a popular medium, a newspaper was in fact a journal (from which the profession of journalist takes its title, name and provenance). Sensationalism existed but there were no big, bold eye-catching headlines or suggestive photographs. Articles were compact, dense and cerebral, its sources carefully compiled by authors and editors who had to interpret facts largely from a distance. There was no army of reporters on the ground to feed the buzz instantly back to HQ. There were correspondents who dispatched stories written for an educated audience, usually the wealthy with the time, leisure and inclination to consume these journals as an academic would read a peer reviewed article. In 1852, a certain Karl Marx was a regular correspondent for the New York Tribune, a publication that set high standards for content and credibility.
All this changed when one William Randolph Hearst acquired the New York Journal in 1895 and transformed it into what was pejoratively known as "yellow journalism." Hearst introduced bold headlines coupled with alluring photographs, celebrity gossip, comic strips, crime stories but also stories about ordinary Americans that could be described as general interest and would sell to a wider populace, thus attracting a new and very lucrative market. The effect was to simplify, package, domesticate and commercialise the news in ways that made it entertaining, provocative and broadly addictive. Hearst was also editor in chief and had the final say on what went to press. While much of the content was serious, it was the presentation that changed everything. He was by no means the first to sell advertising space, which was another major source of revenue that would later have a considerable impact and even influence on content itself. Hearst was an ambivalent figure, a tycoon with a magnanimous and philanthropic side but also a ruthless cut-throat businessman hellbent on pursuing media consolidation against rivals like Joseph Pulitzer. He also had political ambitions, was elected to Congress and ran for president. The power and extent of his empire literally knew no bounds.
In 1898, Hearst took yellow journalism to a new level, dispatching reporters to Cuba in order to persuade President McKinley to go to war with colonial Spain. Stories of Spanish oppression and atrocities were obtained second or third hand and exaggerated for maximum effect. Many of these reports were pure propaganda relayed via local political agents and transmitted unfiltered and unchecked to galvanise war fever. It could be argued that Hearst was the Murdoch of his day, another media mogul who transformed much of the world's press into brash entertainment, crass sensationalism, lurid voyeurism, openly unabashed bias and unscrupulously invasive hacking. Contrast reporting of the Vietnam War to that of the two Iraq wars. War fever is far more contagious when the contagion is spread, not by media blackouts, but by the "free press" itself.
As the last American election showed, it was not just the conservative press that was rabidly opinionated. CNN, normally viewed by some as a trustworthy source of on the ground reporting, displayed a foolhardy preference for the Clinton campaign, relying on polls that were clearly inaccurate to further their cause in ways that are analogous to Huxley's definition of rational if not non-rational propaganda.
Is it any wonder then that in an age of social media where fewer and fewer people read newspapers, where news is cannibalised, dismembered and shared across multiple platforms and where everyone's opinion can count, that we are caught in the ever descending maelstrom where truth and falsehood are as the wood to the trees? It has always been assumed that objectivity and impartiality are the essential ingredients of a free press. But a free press, whether owned and run by politically motivated moguls or streamed from makeshift backroom studios, represents the liberty to lead as well as to inform, to educate or manipulate, to disclose or to veil.
Today, news and opinion have become inseparable, bias is automatically assumed and the alt media is something tribal, relying on hardwired loyalties across the political and cultural spectrum. If you're alt-right, you hold a preordered set of beliefs by which the facts are interpreted accordingly. Ditto for the alt left. It is deductive as opposed to inductive reasoning, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, a medium that controls the message.
Truth has always been a difficult and elusive phenomenon. We experience the world through many lenses and filters. We often don't see the blinkers as we are led to the water or a mirage of the water. Truth is a sphinx with a riddle, as the ancient Greeks understood all too well. Orson Welles proved that people could be easily fooled and his Martians are the contemporary equivalent of yellowcake, false flags, trolls and alpha shit lords. Truth is to power what power is to truth, an opportunity to subvert, debunk, shame, mock and abuse. Truth is a virtual boot stepping on a virtual face, not for eternity but for an ephemeral thrill. The choices we make to lap up what is served to us has become addictively involuntary but, like the proverbial horse, we can still choose not to drink and move on to the next watering hole. Some are less toxic than others and your Guardian may still be your friend but who to trust is often a matter of opinion and opinion is the poorer cousin of truth. Therein lies the conundrum.
RICHARD LEVY (aka Richard Leviathan) is the singer-songwriter for Ostara. He was previously in the duo, Strength Through Joy, and has toured extensively over the years with Death in June, Boyd Rice, Sol Invictus, Fire and Ice and others, as well as independently. He has contributed to Troubadours of the Apocalypse: Voices from the Neofolk, Industrial & Neoclassical Underground (2015), is the author of Odes (2015) and continues to release new music. For more information, please see ostara.net