It really set the tone, didn’t it? Soon after Donald Trump was sworn into office, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, got up in front of the whole world and lied through his teeth, falsely claiming that the Inauguration drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe.” What Spicer said remains demonstrably false. But if you think it was all about fake news, alternative facts, or the post-fact era, you’re missing the point. It was a loyalty test. The Trump administration wasn’t trying to fool you; they were testing you.
Enlightened leaders, who wish to rule by the consent of the governed, use language to clarify and convince. Tyrants, who wish to rule by brute force and blind loyalty, use language to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: the tyrant says something patently false and waits to see who parrots it. Those who do can be trusted. Those who don’t cannot be trusted. As Tertullian puts it in De Carne Christi: “It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”
Trashing journalists and the media has been a mainstay of Western intellectual life at least as far back as Nietzsche, who implored his readers to “live in ignorance of what seems most important to your age!” Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Aaron Haspel, thinkers I’ve profited from immensely, are similarly hard on the media. Taleb’s contempt for journalists is legendary. In the revised 2016 edition of The Bed of Procrustes he says that he takes “a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with . . . journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits”—whilst Haspel quips in Everything (2015): “News is noise.” I was once quite partial to this view. But far less so lately.
If the citizenry buys into the idea that journalism is little more than propaganda, and journalists are little more than paid trolls, who benefits from this, if not paid trolls and bullshit artists like Sean Hannity, who can now afford to hide in plain sight, with get-out-of-jail-free cards in their wallets which read: “Everybody’s Doing It Why Can’t We?” Same is true of those who denigrate science: they’re usually doing so because serious science is a threat to their particular brand of bullshit.
There are those who maintain that media isn’t about truth, it’s about power. It’s a popular view these days. But I don’t buy it. Is media often about power? Absolutely. Too often? Probably. But there’s still a world of difference between The New York Times and the propaganda machines that masquerade as media outlets in totalitarian states like North Korea and the former Soviet Union. There’s still a world of difference between Peter Jennings and Alex Jones. Regardless, I read Adbusters religiously in my early twenties, and I was a bible-thumping Pentecostal in my teens, so I know full well why folks on the far left and the far right are in love with this false equivalency. They love it because it levels the playing field. After all, if news is nothing but propaganda, and it’s all just about power, then we can spew out our own bullshit with impunity, and we can do it with a clean conscience.
Removing a well established institution from your society is like getting a seemingly superfluous part of your body, like your appendix or your tonsils, surgically removed. We too often discover the usefulness of things like the tonsils after they’ve been irretrievably removed. So, before you entrust the body politic to the radical’s knife, it’s good to ask: Is this institution performing an important function? And, if it is, who’s going to perform it after it’s gone? Trashing the mainstream media without a viable alternative in mind is like invading Iraq without an exit strategy and toppling Saddam Hussein. The monsters that slither out of the chaos to fill the power vacuum are sure to be much, much worse. Be careful what you wish for, friends, be careful what you wish for. Order is fragile.
I saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) with five friends. All of us are big-time supporters of gun-control. So he had us at hello. And yet he managed to lose us. All of us. We walked out of the theater disgusted with Moore. Although the film was manipulative and misleading throughout, the moral nadir of the propaganda piece—the real low point of the film—was when he went to Charlton Heston’s house. We were all furious by the end of that scene. What an abuse of trust, hospitality, decency, and good will. As my buddy put it, as we walked out of the theater: “Wow, Moore almost makes you wanna join the NRA!”
I’ve often suspected that the extreme self-righteousness one often finds amongst documentary filmmakers who specialize in exposés is a kind of psychological defense mechanism. People like Michael Moore need to believe that their cause is perfectly just, and people like Charlton Heston are perfectly evil; it’s the only way to avoid facing up to the fact that what they’re doing is often profoundly unethical. After all, people like Moore get people to trust them so they can publicly humiliate them. It’s hard to make that look good. In fact, on the face of it, it makes them seem about as decent and respectable as the scandal-mongering gossips who write for celebrity mags like The National Enquirer. Of course documentary filmmakers don’t want to see themselves as bloodsucking parasites, and that’s precisely why they need to demonize their opponents. The ends justify the means only if your opponents are devils and your friends are angels. The rationalizations one overhears at certain film festivals are, at bottom, not unlike the rationalizations one overhears at certain pubs frequented by sleazy salesmen: “Suckers deserve to get suckered.”
Documentary film has been good to the left for well over half a century—not, I hasten to add, because most documentary filmmakers have been left-leaning, but rather because the genre is itself remarkably well-suited to the transmission of progressive ideas. Unlike slow-paced, text-heavy mediums (e.g., the scholarly book), which privilege a kind of dry intellectualism devoid of heart, or fast-paced, image-heavy mediums (e.g., the TV news), which privilege a sordid sensationalism devoid of intellectual content, the very format of the documentary film facilitates the construction of long arguments, with lots of moving parts; arguments which clarify, and make manifest, the subtle connections between large social processes and the lived reality of people—people just like you.
If you’re looking for the most devastating critique of Michael Moore, you won’t find it on Fox News, or amongst his right-wing detractors; you’ll find it, after a few glasses of wine, at a documentary film festival. Nobody loathes the man more than other progressive filmmakers. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin—the brilliant minds behind award-winning documentaries like Girl Model (2011) and Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)—are a case in point. They’ve told me, on numerous occasions, that Moore hasn’t just compromised the specific causes he’s championed; he’s undermined the credibility of the entire genre. When you undermine the credibility of something like documentary film, something which has been immensely useful to progressive causes, you’re ultimately undermining the left.
To those of you who persist in saying that the facts don’t matter, may I suggest that you read up on the history of The Istanbul Pogrom of 1955. It really is a case in point: the direct result of a fake news story. Okay, so here’s the deal: the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki was bombed on September 5th, 1955. The Turkish dude who planted the bomb was quickly apprehended. He confessed to the crime soon after he was arrested. Although the Turkish press knew this, they led the public to believe that the consulate had been bombed by a Greek dude. An angry Turkish mob soon gathered in tremendous numbers and proceeded to trash Istanbul’s Greek neighborhood for about nine hours. It was a disgusting orgy of violence: raping, killing, burning, beating, looting. And the Turkish cops did practically nothing to stop it. The Istanbul Pogrom of 1955 greatly accelerated the emigration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey. In 1927, the Greek population of Turkey was 119,822. In 1978, it was about 7,000. Today, it’s less than half that.
The wisdom of a powerful group is made manifest whenever it feels threatened by an idea. The stupid ones burn the book and kill the author, and the crude ones discredit the source. The smart ones discredit the idea, whilst the brilliant ones fight the idea they hate with the ideas they love. But the wisest, and most machiavellian, aren’t nearly so clumsy. They don’t attack the intellectual who produced the idea, they attack intellectuals and intellectualism. They don’t attack the radical idea, they attack ideas in general, and the elitists who value them. Then they change the channel.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)