Between the alt-fact efforts of new White House communications director Sean Spicer, and the shutdown of public communication from many federal agencies — EPA in particular; science-oriented offices in general — an obvious pattern is developing. The new WH is shutting off dialog, and keeping public eyes off of government agency work. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me; Republican administrations seem to be less open than Democratic ones. Though the Obama administration was not as transparent as many hoped, it certainly did open the cyber doors to lots of input, as well as real life efforts to communicate with the public. I expected it to swing back to a more closed system with the incoming administration, but it’s been much more severe than I anticipated.
The key to how this goes from here will hinge on how the press and the social-media-using public decides to get information out.
Social media is strong, and a major part of how the average citizen shares information about what is happening in the public sphere, but it’s still sort of figuring itself out. Thankfully I’m seeing my friends catch fake news more often, challenge poorly researched assertions in articles, and using the strengths of the medium to share what we are all observing. But it’s not perfect, and we’ll need to up our vigilance in weeding out the bad info from the good if it’s to be effective in a time when gaslighting seems to be the norm coming out of the Trump administration.
And the press has to be vigilant as well, and in this area, huge swaths of the American press have been pretty damn lazy over the last few years. Fortunately for those of us reading their work, Trump and his minions have both pissed the press off and committed themselves to such such stupid, obvious falsehoods, that many journalists are ready to start digging in, and the ones who already were taking all of this seriously are getting support for doing so.
Trump is engaged in a misinformation campaign. This is partly a strategy to allow the GOP to make sweeping partisan changes, and partly in service to Trump’s massive ego (juxtaposed next to a constantly crumbling sense of self worth). And it wears us out, public and press alike. Whether its intent is to numb us through a ever-renewing cascade of laughably stupid and/or outrageously offensive statements, or that’s just the convenient natural consequence of all of the tweets and press statements and odd moments at the podium, the effect is the same: silencing us by making us weary of absorbing the blistering stupidity of it all.
But we can’t allow that. As consumers of journalism, or as the creators of it, we can’t let ourselves be worn down. And we can’t forget that while the press and us, its audience, is the target of this effort, the war is on objective truth.
It will be tempting for a lot of journalists to buy into the idea that they are the ones who are under assault. But they will do their jobs if/when they recognize that it is the truth that is under attack and the goal is to create the kind of chaos where anything is possible.
LeTourneau asks her fellow journalists to help us all avoid a world where, given that the truth is impossible to ascertain, there no longer remains any avenue, or point to trying to find it.
So, the press has to find footing in a very unsteady stream. I suspect this will only work if the press divorces itself from, for instance, relying on WH press office statements to determine fact, which have become talking points without basis in subtance. The press will need to look elsewhere. This will be hard, this will be expensive, and it relies on public support, in paying the bills the media incurs just to get the job done, and in demanding careful journalism.
The key is to keep our vigilance going. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced, nor can we afford to let the press be silenced.