Trumping truth in an age of media disruption

By Trip Jennings, from New Mexico in Depth

Democracy requires a population willing to search for significance and meaning, a hunt for the signal amid all the noise. Journalism—your local newspaper, radio, television—has always been a major forum, a public commons, for this hunt for meaning.

But these days, anyone with an internet connection and a social media account can be a publisher. The result is an historic, chaotic amount of information unleashed on the public.

It’s a time when we need more, not less journalism. Instead, our ranks have shrunk dramatically as newsrooms across the country struggle to survive under the weight of technological disruption that has allowed giants like Facebook and Google to sweep away much of the advertising revenue that historically sustained journalism.

At the national level, rather than reasoned debate about substantive issues marked by insight and perceptiveness, the information chaos increasingly fosters a torrent of memes and images in a relentless news cycle, sometimes weaponized to sound like middle school putdowns. 

At the local and state level, entire newsrooms have been swept away or severely whittled down, creating news deserts. We only need look at the President of the United States to see what the current condition of journalism has sown. Donald Trump did not cause any of these larger forces that have diminished our journalism ranks, but, you can be sure, he is exploiting them. 

His chosen communication platform – Twitter – enables him to talk directly to the world and tens of millions of his followers, often with “Voice of God” certainty about what is true or not. His statements are often just opinion, not corroborated by facts nor based in skeptical inquiry nor reasoned debate.  

His behavior, especially now as his own officials offer conflicting accounts of his interactions with the Ukrainian president during a July 25 phone call and what preceded it, reminds me of long-ago monarchs, emperors and ecclesiastical authorities who defined truth with a capital T for the populace. They exercised that power based on who they were, not what could be supported with actual evidence or institutional knowledge and expertise built over decades. 

Think of the president’s numerous and deliberate attempts to undermine our country’s institutions, his attacks on U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department and foreign service personnel, the FBI, and congressmen and women as well as his critics, mostly Democrats but also a few Republicans.

Then there’s the media, who he holds in special disdain. After calling journalists the “enemy of the people,” is it any wonder provocateurs supportive of President Trump have now created a violent video showing President Trump murdering his critics, including several notable politicians, activist groups and, of course, media outlets? So emboldened were the creators that they showed the video at a pro-Trump conference at one of his resorts where his son and former spokesperson were in attendance. 

Why is the president doing all this? Seems to me, he wants to define “truth” at a time when people across the country are grasping for any beachhead of certainty in frightening times. 

But that’s not how we define truth as a society. Hallmarks of democracy are self-governance and an informed citizenry doing the hard work to suss out the truths and values we hold dear. It is messy, it is communal, but it is not looking for truth from someone on high.  

Here is our urgent request:

Don’t let the guy at the top define truth. Our society is learning a valuable lesson: Possessing information, a hallmark of our era, is not the same as possessing wisdom, or discernment. The information-to-wisdom conversion requires hard work and patience. The louder he shouts, the more vigorously we all should pay attention to serious and judicious reporting about him.

And here’s our public service announcement:

New Mexicans deserve more, not less journalism. We should not just accept a smaller local press corps as the new normal. We created New Mexico In Depth seven years ago as an act of resistance to that reality. That’s why we hope you’ll support us, along with our colleagues at outlets throughout the state, as we close out the year.