Relativism and the Future of Journalism

I sometimes say I used to be a journalist, although in reality when I used to write for Christian Voice the majority of what I did was simply to “curate” content from other news outlets. The difference between curation and genuine journalism is important to understand, since this distinction is in danger of being obscured amid widespread cynicism about the mainstream media.

Beth Kanter defines content curation as “the process of sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme.” It “involves sifting, sorting, arranging, and publishing information.”

By contrast, actual journalism involves researching and reporting on a story directly. It comes with a high level of ethical obligation that does not regulate outlets that simply curate information from other sources. Many people don’t understand this, but in professional journalism the stakes are very high, since one factual mistake can make an entire news outlet liable. This includes mistakes we might tend to think are trivial.

Alex Jones, reporting on what his staff print off the internet.

There is nothing wrong with content curation, as long as it isn’t mistaken for actual journalism. Increasingly, however, people who simply curate are posing as genuine reporters. A case in point is someone like Alex Jones. When Megyn Kelly recently asked Jones about his methods, Jones acknowledged that he simply reports on content his staff find on the internet, without always engaging in first-hand investigative journalism. When you listen to Jones’ show “Infowars”, you are simply hearing Jones rehash what he has read on the internet. Again, it’s content curation, not investigative journalism.

When actual journalists report someone that is false, they cannot say (like Jones said to Kelly) that they simply read it on the internet. If you work for a professional journalism outfit, one mistake is the end of your career. For example, in 2002 Michael Finkel was dismissed from The New York Times for using multiple interviews to create a composite protagonist for a story on the African slave trade. More recently, three high level CNN employees were forced to resign after erroneously linking Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund supposedly being investigated by the United States Senate.

Journalism is certainly rife with ideology and bias, as manifested in which stories an outlet will choose to cover, how they choose to cover those stories, and the interpretations they offer about those stories. But when it comes to actual reporting of facts, a good deal of objectivity still prevails, as the CNN scandal demonstrates. If accuracy didn’t matter, CNN would have had no reason to retract the Scaramucci story, let alone to dismiss a veteran reporter, an executive editor and an investigative editor.

President Trump has been saying all along that CNN is promoting “fake news”, and he wasted no time to go on Twitter and point to the recent incident as proof of this.

There is more than just bombast to Trump’s tweet about CNN. The President has long been promoting the narrative that you really can’t trust what you hear in the news anymore because everyone has their spin, and there is no essential difference between the mainstream media outlets like CNN and actual fake news sites. On ground level this narrative is captivating. Because we are awash in so much information, that it’s easy to become cynical about what to believe.

I’m not a fan of CNN, which has become an arm of the left-wing establishment, but there is a reason it isn’t on Wikipedia’s list of fake news sites. For all its problems, CNN is still in the business of journalism.

This matters to me because I believe in the objectivity of truth. I revolt against Trump’s widespread cynicism of the journalist’s vocation since it is part of a larger “operational relativism” that has been at work since he took office.

Consider that when Trump promotes conspiracy theories on Twitter, attacks journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news”, or is asked to explain the objective basis behind a string of doubtful assertions, instead of appealing to objective facts that can be debated and investigated, he habitually appeals to purely relative criteria. This relative criteria often includes appeals to raw power (“I’m president and you’re not”), popular opinion (“Many people have come out and said I’m right”), and implicit denials of the role that facts are supposed to have on an argument. What emerges is a startling reconfiguration of the very role and relevance of objective truth. In the relativistic world of Trump, there really is no difference between a show like “Infowars” and CNN.

Bret Stephens has done an invaluable service in showing how an operational relativism has underpinned Trump’s attacks on the media. Stephen shows that our President is creating new mental pathways that redefine how we think of truth itself:

“Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute propaganda for news, boosterism for information.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly.

O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that.”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”

Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.”

It might be tempting to suppose that Stephens is over-analyzing Trump’s statements in a way that doesn’t do justice to the polemical and off-handed nature of those comments. After all, Trump is an anti-intellectual who does not even bother to dabble in ideas. But when we pan out to see the big picture of what has been happening in the Republican Party since Trump took the reigns (which, by the way, is a departure from true conservatism), we see a troubling trend towards epistemological relativism. As Paul Waldman observed in his Washington Post article ‘Republicans are trying to destroy the very idea of neutral judgment‘, GOP lawmakers have been acting as if “there’s no such thing as a neutral authority on anything.” We see this even on a popular level with Trump’s supporters, in which the new modus operandi is to delegitimize critique, not through appeals to objective truth, but through creating suspicion that we are even able to appeal to an objective rational order. On this way of thinking, we all have our own personal truth, the only difference is that some of us are winners and some of us are losers.

When this relativistic modus operandi trickles down to the larger populace, we see it beginning to influence the character of political discussion on the street. In an article I wrote last October about how to discuss politics without alienating your friends, I pointed out that a conclusion is only as good as the premises leading up to that conclusion. Consequently, the way to dispute someone’s conclusion is either to show that it doesn’t follow logically from the preceding premises or to show that the premises from which the conclusion follows are actually false. Not so in the world of Trump. For the votaries of the President, the come-back is no longer, “That’s false – prove it!”, or even “I disagree, and here’s why”, but “What newspaper did you read that in?” The narrative is: everyone has their spin, their biases, so what is more important than what someone says is where that person is coming from. “Did you hear that on CNN or Fox?”

Trapped in our own subjective tribes and ideological micro-cultures, the possibility of objective analysis of facts becomes impossible (according to this narrative). In practice this means that unless you are a Trump supporter, anything you or your newspaper might say is discredited a priori, without actually requiring proper analytical engagement. “Of course they would say that because that paper is liberal.” It’s the standard ad hominem combined with the genetic fallacy, with a twist of postmodern cynicism thrown in the mix. Since all of us are trapped in our language games, biases, and ideologies, there is no objective point of reference where we can meet to have a meaningful conversation, or so this narrative would have us believe.

This retreat to bias (i.e., the refusal to engage an argument on its own terms independent of the ideological orientation of the speaker) throws into question the very idea of an objective rational order to which we can make appeals and which remains independent of the speaker, independent of bias, and independent of who happens to hold the reigns of power.

In Thrasymachus’s world of “might makes right”, raw power replaces truth with the consequence that the value of speech-acts comes to be measured only by their potential to advance one’s agenda. As a case in point, let’s take Trump’s response to his wiretap claims being discredited. In a world regulated by truth, Trump has two choices: either he can admit that what he said was a false, or he can continue defending it as true. But Trump is above the binary. When talking to reporters from Time about his wiretapping claims, Trump characteristically shifted the conversation away from questions of truth to purely relative criteria such as how his brain works (“I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right”) or his personal credentials (“I’m President and you’re not”). The problem with these types of answers is not that they are a simple dodge, of the type we have come to expect from politicians. The real problem, which Lawrence Douglas put his finger on in a Guardian article, is that Trump’s pattern of talking “places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless. Valuable statements, then, are true by virtue of the fact that they advance my interests. Statements that fail to do so are worthless and thus false.”

Stripped of its grounding in an independent objective order, truth becomes deconstructed. Truth is what you can get away with.

In the cynical world of Trump, there is no real difference between Alex Jones rehashing conspiracy theories he read on the internet vs. professional journalism, let alone actual fake news. Everything is tainted by bias and ideology, and hence we can’t really know who to trust.

There is no place for true journalism in this type of relativistic world, only propaganda.