A few days ago Time Magazine announced its Person of the Year — which this year is not a person, but a job description.
That job description is one I claimed for 35 years: journalism, which Time christened with a more up-to-date and straight-to-the-point title — the guardians in the world-wide war on truth.
Many of you have already begun eye-rolling.
And yet, also this week, a detailed report prepared for the Senate intelligence committee revealed how Russian agents have been continuously executing a sophisticated propaganda effort against America far more extensive than originally believed, and continues to do so today.
The Russians have set up Facebook pages and YouTube channels to promote conspiracy theories and false stories designed to inflame anger in voters from both the left and right. These false posts and divisive videos have reached millions of voters.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who chairs the intelligence committee, said “this newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology ... and erode trust in our democratic institutions.”
According to Pew Research, Facebook is America’s No. 1 source for political and governmental news, and has been since 2015. Not Fox News, not CBS, and not the New York Times. It’s Facebook; a site where anyone, foreign or domestic, can post virtually anything without editorial gatekeepers to apply even the appearance of accountability to the daily flood of disinformation.
In the midst of this blizzard of BS are those few who have chosen as a profession the carefully researched presentation of facts, and the background necessary to understand them. They’re called journalists. They are are easily slandered when those facts challenge a reader’s predetermined biases, or the cynically constructed lies of an individual, party, group, or nation seeking to destabilize or deflect a spotlight suddenly shining into a dark corner of their own construction.
And so, increasingly, we see journalists around the world being attacked, arrested, and killed; or, in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, first tortured and dismembered before getting around to the actual killing.
Khashoggi, of course, was a legal U.S. resident, and wrote for an American newspaper. But America’s growing appetite for violence against journalists, as seen on the T-shirt “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” doesn’t bode well for the future of the profession.
And while working in the media in Twin Falls — true story — I once received a phone call from someone whose voice quivered with anger saying he was looking forward to seeing my body twitch after my public hanging because he didn’t care for a story my newsroom produced. I waited several days before mentioning the call to my wife.
What we have today in America is not the death of journalism, but the death of belief in the idea of journalism. As society begins to doubt whether facts exist, or whether anyone can be trusted to render an accurate and straightforward account of where those facts lead, we are teetering on the verge of internal collapse. We become tribal groups gathered around our modern Tower of Babble (intentionally misspelled), and just like the biblical tower we find it impossible to talk with or understand anyone outside our tribe.
Once when I was a child I did something I shouldn’t have done. My younger sister saw it happen and promptly told Mom. When confronted, I did what my six-year old brain deemed best. I lied by calling my sister a liar. The facts proved otherwise, and as a result it was a few minutes before I was again able to comfortably sit.
As it was with me, so it is with everyone, foreign or domestic, who possesses both power and a platform and who tries to avoid a spanking. When you don’t like the message, just slander the messenger. Easy breezy.
This tactic is nothing new, except that to each new generation it is exactly that—new. Fixing the problem will not be easy, and I worry that in more advanced stages it may not even be possible. It’s hard to know even where to begin.
Oh wait, I do know where to begin. Stop getting your “news” from Facebook. Stop it. Just. Stop. It.