To paraphrase an old saying often attributed to Mark Twain, everyone talks about fake news, but nobody does anything about it. How did our culture get to a point where anything can be decried as fake news, and what can be done to restore faith in legitimate news reporting? These are the questions Conn Hallinan will explore in his talk “Stumbling Around Freedom: A History of the Press” on Tuesday, March 6, at the Kresge Seminar Room at UCSC. Hallinan—who, as a former Kresge Provost and faculty leader of the UCSC journalism minor for 22 years, has been the mentor to many aspiring journalists at the university over the years—spoke to GT about the issues facing the mainstream and alternative media.
One of the things you’re going to examine at Tuesday’s event is our relationship, as consumers, with the news. Our culture seems to be in a kind of fake-news Chinese finger trap where both sides of an issue are trying to pull at the truth of any story they don’t like. How did we get to a point where everything can be labeled fake news?
CONN HALLINAN: I don’t think there’s any one particular thing that you could say ‘this is the reason.’ But the internet has made information available to a wider number of people than any other information system in the history of humanity. It means that there’s an enormous amount of material out there, and most doesn’t really have any checks and balances. There’s good and bad in that. There were checks and balances that existed when you basically just had the mainstream press, but they were ideological checks and balances. And they basically had one view of the United States: the United States was always good, and our enemies were always bad. The United States has the best medical system in the world, has the greatest democracy in the world, etc. A lot of it was pretty old-fashioned propaganda stuff, particularly during the 1950s and the early 1960s. But I think what happened is a number of things. First of all, there was really a breakdown when the Cold War began to break up, and the war in Vietnam came along. Suddenly people began to question what they were reading in newspapers. The New York Times may have exposed the Pentagon Papers, but they strongly supported the war before that happened. People who went and saw The Post may have been impressed by what they did around the Pentagon Papers, but The Washington Post editorialized in favor of the war right from the beginning.
And so there was a collapse, a sort of recognition that people had been jobbed about Vietnam, about civil rights. The fact that when the civil rights movement began, none of the Northern papers sent reporters into the South—the first people to do that were in the alternative press. And I think there was a general kind of political and cultural questioning. But the current polarization, you know, I hate to put it on one thing, but Fox News and Rupert Murdoch have had a tremendous impact here, because Murdoch’s style of making money is to demonize the enemy. And that’s what Fox News does all the time.
What kind of damage does it do to our society when people buy into the Nixon/Trump strategy of positioning ‘the media’ as the enemy?
Well, you know, there was a reason why the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights is on press freedom. That’s not by accident—it’s not the Second Amendment, or the Third Amendment, it’s the first. And the reason why was because even at that time there was a recognition, having come out of a very hierarchical situation where you had a king who ran everything, that government had to be taken to task—that there had to be a transparency that allowed democracy to take place. Because the thing about democracy is it’s not simply the right to vote. It’s the right to make choices, to know when you’re voting for something that there is a choice there. Without the media, there is no choice. People don’t know what the issues are.
What can legitimate news sources, especially in the alternative media, do to better establish and maintain their own credibility in this era? How do we fight fake-news fatigue?
Boy, that is the $64,000 question, you know. It really is. And I wish I had a quick answer to that, but I don’t. I guess the only thing is, there’s this line that Shakespeare gives Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One. It is “Speak the truth, and shame the devil.” And I don’t know what else to do but to do that.
At various times in American history, the media has made a difference in people’s lives. I mean, it certainly played that role in every great moment, every great social revolution in U.S. history. And that’s true throughout the world. The media played a critical role.
There are two problems. One is that the media is very isolated from the majority of American people. Two, how many editions of the media monopoly were there? Ten, twelve, something like that? We know that fewer and fewer corporations control larger and larger amounts of the media, and that’s just the reality. I mean, it is an absolute problem. And it means that what you’re reading in newspapers is increasingly what a very narrow section of the political and economic spectrum wants you to read in newspapers. Now, how are newspapers going to win back people’s trust when you’re not going to get hard-hitting articles on the oil industry from a lot of newspapers because a lot of newspapers are owned by the oil industry? Or agribusiness, or whatever industry. So you got a problem.
My feeling has always been that you can influence the mass media. I believe that; I’m not a cynic on that question. But you do it by holding their feet to the fire. And the only way you can really hold their feet to the fire is to make your reporting better than their reporting, to make your research better than their research, to contact communities that they aren’t interested in, or maybe don’t even know exist. And to give those communities voice.
Then I think you can have an influence on the mass media, and in any case you can call out the devil. And in the end that’s what this is about. This is about shaming the devil. I think that the underground media, the alternative media, has shown it can do it in the past. I’m absolutely convinced that it can do it in the future.
Conn Hallinan will speak on ‘Stumbling Around Freedom: A History of the Press’ at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6, at the Kresge Seminar Room at UCSC. Admission is free. Hallinan blogs at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com.