This is the week when the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists holds its annual awards dinner, recognizing the many efforts in the region attempting to communicate about the people, places and things surrounding us.
Many forms of media and the humans seeking to tell stories co-exist for a few hours over a shared meal with the opportunity to gain a perspective outside their silos. Most won’t venture too far outside their personal safety zones even as the breadth of the field is on display around them.
What we media folk have in common greatly outweighs the things dividing us. Alt, non-profit, student, independent, corporate, data-driven, opinionated, virtual, electronic, and print journalists are all up against forces of change in a world where truth means less than fealty.
It’s a troubling time to be in the business. I get asked at least once a month if I’m concerned for my personal safety. A well-connected source of mine recently spoke of the inevitability of my being incarcerated.
We’re living in a world where the idea of suppression–as opposed to concealment–of information is being normalized; where fear of the ‘other’ trumps seeking to understand the world around us.
It’s a death of freedom by a thousand cuts. A reporter gets subpoenaed by a government agency for a court case after writing an unflattering story. A school board decides it’s above the law when it comes to public records. A reporter gets jailed on immigration charges.
Today I’ll look at some pieces of this puzzle.
In the moments leading up to the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday, four secret service agents forcibly removed a reporter with The Nation. His crime? An eight by ten pieces of paper with the words Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty written in blue magic marker.
The 1963 treaty referenced in the sign, was signed by President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev in 1963. It banned above-ground nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. Major world powers later negotiated a “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” which the United States signed but never ratified.
As he tried to explain to onlookers as these U.S. government employees surrounded him, the paper was going to be his attempt to get noticed for a question. There was no language on the paper either pro or against anything. None-the-less, it was considered a “malicious item.”
This incident should serve as a reminder of the dangerous time we live in. There is an unrelenting drive on multiple levels to restrain freedom of expression and the media conveying it.
Today’s event should also reinforce the point that both of these leaders despise journalists; one kills them, and the other wishes he could.
In Russia, between 1998 and 2018, 58 reporters have been killed. In 2018 worldwide, 33 journalists have been killed, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. The President of the United States, whose founders envisioned a free press as a pillar of the nation, used a meeting with Russia’s leader to call the media an “enemy of the people.”
The insults, the slights, the obvious manipulation all should be considered a warning of what’s to come. Against a background of the limitless dispensation of misinformation, or lies, as I like to call them, getting the few citizens who give a damn the information they need to make informed decisions is becoming more difficult every day.
The Toronto Star has tracked the President’s words since his inauguration. They’ve fact-checked every word Trump has spoken or tweeted since his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, 2017. Up until July 1, 2018, the end date for the analysis describe here, the Star counted 1,929 false claims.
Word count aside, his raw number of false claims has spiked: Trump made 2.9 false claims per day in 2017. He’s made 5.1 false claims per day in 2018.
He is talking 20 per cent more than he used to: Though it’s not the whole issue, some of the 2018 increase in false claims is indeed happening because Trump is speaking more.
The number of words Trump utters in a week varies widely depending on what happens to be on his schedule — it often jumps in weeks when he holds one of his hour-long campaign rallies, for example — but it is generally increasing over time. Trump has averaged 484 more public words per day in 2018 than he did in 2017 — 2,856 vs. 2,372, a 20 per cent increase.
It’s not just nationalist leaders with authoritarian agendas who want to control public discourse.
People whose vitriol was generally ignored in the past now play a role in influencing public discourse. Women, gays, and people of color who speak out against oppression are subjected to abuse, threats of violence, and intrusions into their privacy to the point where many have become afraid to express themselves.
Anonymous keyboard jockeys feel free to rain insults, lies, and expletives on an ever-widening spectrum of viewpoints.
An op-ed in the Union-Tribune by Chris Reed questioning whether dogs as pets were really empathetic or merely hustling as a means of survival drew death threats.
John Avlon at CNN captured the fear journalists face in an opinion piece published after five reporters at the Maryland Gazette were gunned down.
Something has changed. It would be naïve to ignore the demonization of journalists occurring on hyperpartisan platforms and descending from a President himself, who seems intent on undercutting independent institutions — from journalism to the judiciary and Justice Department — whose primary purpose is to hold power to account.
Pushing back against this toxic tide of our times is entirely consistent with our jobs as citizens and journalists. Democracy depends upon an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens.
As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
Our newest generation of oligarchs, largely dependent on consumer data mining, also have a vested interest in controlling what gets said and who hears it.
Social media, once thought to be a panacea for free expression in an age of legacy media consolidation, is now setting some disturbing boundaries.
The abuse of the power of those platforms by assorted miscreants during the 2016 elections and following nearly every tragic reported news event has led to a reaction sweeping aside both legitimate news coverage and opinion.
The Verge ran a story last month including mentions of the suppressions of ads by Showtime for a documentary series about New York Times reporters covering the White House. A book promotion for the Trump/Russia book by Associated Press reporter Seth Hettena was scrubbed by Facebook’s automated censors.
Part of the confusion stems from Facebook’s broad standards for what counts as political. The platform’s official policy includes “national issues of public importance” like “economy,” “immigration,” and “health.” It’s intended to set a wide enough net to catch non-campaign ads that nonetheless influence public discourse. (The list also includes “crime,” which may explain many of the News Break blocks.) As long as news outlets are covering issues of public importance, it’s hard to see how they can avoid the policy as written.
In other instances, even the mention of an election seems to trigger the system. In one case, a promoted post from a Hawaiian fusion restaurant was classified as political because it asked fans to vote in a local paper’s “Best of Maui” poll.
For publishers like Melville House that rely on Facebook to reach potential customers, the frustration comes with real consequences. “It just seems dumb, doesn’t it,” Johnson told The Verge, “that Facebook can’t tell the difference between us and a Russian troll?”
Here’s a recent local example at KPBS of just how Facebook is handling the media these days
— Laura McVicker (@LauraAllisonMac) July 11, 2018
And there is no appeal. The complaint mechanism is automated.
Trust me, I’ve got examples in my inbox of “Closed Case” appeals from SDFP stories published more than a year prior to Facebook implementing its new standards. That’s right, they’re going back in time to suppress news.
Attempts to appeal to executives at Facebook are ignored. I went so far as to run a Facebook-based ad campaign aimed at social media execs living in Menlo Park, with no results. I even #tagged several ad execs at the company.
— Laura McVicker (@LauraAllisonMac) July 12, 2018
Nearly half of what we at San Diego Free Press publish gets found through social media, mostly Facebook and Twitter. These platforms are the 21st century equivalent of newspaper vending machines. Back in the days of the underground press, right-wingers would vandalize our machines; local governments would seize them, saying they we “not authorized.” Eventually, the economics of selling the paper became unworkable.
This year, the United States fell to 45th of 80 countries in terms of press freedom as rated by Reporters Without Borders. We’re above Italy and behind Romania. I don’t think we’ll be going any higher next year.
Fintan O’Toole, an op-ed columnist for the Irish Times, calls what we’re going through presently a “trial run for fascism.”
To see, as most commentary has done, the deliberate traumatisation of migrant children as a “mistake” by Trump is culpable naivety. It is a trial run – and the trial has been a huge success. Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in
And the results are quite satisfactory. There is good news on two fronts. First, Rupert Murdoch is happy with it – his Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors. They went the whole swinish hog: even the brown babies are liars. Those sobs of anguish are typical of the manipulative behaviour of the strangers coming to infest us – should we not fear a race whose very infants can be so devious? Second, the hardcore fans loved it: 58 per cent of Republicans are in favour of this brutality. Trump’s overall approval ratings are up to 42.5 per cent.
This is greatly encouraging for the pre-fascist agenda. The blooding process has begun within the democratic world. The muscles that the propaganda machines need for defending the indefensible are being toned up. Millions and millions of Europeans and Americans are learning to think the unthinkable. So what if those black people drown in the sea? So what if those brown toddlers are scarred for life? They have already, in their minds, crossed the boundaries of morality. They are, like Macbeth, “yet but young in deed”. But the tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened. And then the deeds can follow.
UPDATE: Not related to press freedom, but still…
If you think that @Facebook allowing Infowars’ Sandy Hook hoaxes is bad, consider that they recommended them to Sandy Hook parents.
What a great platform. https://t.co/789vF0dDH5
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) July 16, 2018
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