by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird March 2023)
During the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, I always thought the title of the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, was the epitome of irony. Pravda — or ‘truth’ in English — was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I often wondered how many Russian citizens actually believed what they read in Pravda, and whether they were aware that what they read was only what the leaders in power wanted them to believe. Even today, Russian propaganda has a completely different ‘truth’ about the Russian invasion of Ukraine than what we see in the Western free press.
But what is the truth? In a free society, does the truth always win?
The First Amendment was written as a check against an overreaching government that would use its power to limit speech, control the press, or infringe on the right to peaceably protest. The Constitution guarantees those rights in order to limit the ability of the government to use its power against the people.
Having a free press is essential to hold accountable those who would use the government for their own gain. Freedom of the press is so important that it has sometimes been called the fourth estate or the fourth branch of government. The right to criticize government policy and public officials, even with the use of inflammatory language, is a fundamental right that has been repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court, most notably in the 1964 decision New York Times v. Sullivan.
But what if the press isn’t working to protect the interests of the people, of our democratic principles? What if the press is more interested in their profitability than they are in reporting the truth?
The recent legal filing in Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News Corporation (FNC), portions of which were released on February 16, provides explicit details of how the corporate leadership and top personalities at Fox knew what they were telling their viewers wasn’t true. But they continued to spread lies and disinformation, telling their audience what they wanted to hear instead of the truth. Why?
Texts between top FNC personalities and corporate leadership show that they knew claims of election fraud were false, that Dominion voting machines were not to blame, and that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election.
When reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact checked a Trump tweet, correcting him with statements that election officials had found no evidence of fraud and that there was no evidence that voting systems had deleted, lost, or changed votes, Tucker Carlson sent this text to Sean Hannity: “Please get her fired… Seriously… What the f*ck? I’m actually shocked… It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Example after example of messages like these show that Fox was more concerned with the bottom line than with telling the truth and protecting our democracy.
Republican leadership, afraid of the same demographic to which Fox News panders, refuses to acknowledge the truth more than two years after the 2020 election. Indeed, dozens of Republican candidates ran on a claim that the 2020 election was rigged or fraudulent. That repeated claim, that our elections cannot be trusted, is undermining the foundation of faith in our democracy. A Newsweek poll in November 2022 found that 40% of Americans still believe Trump’s Big Lie.
There’s an old joke that goes: “How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” But there’s a difference between political spin and outright lies. And when the media not only repeats those lies, but amplifies them to the point of creating doubt in our electoral system, they are attacking our country from within. When profit is more important than the truth, the free press becomes an accomplice of our enemies instead of an essential protector of the people’s government.
Fox News is just an extreme example. All media includes spin. Selection of what to report, how to report it, which perspectives to promote and which perspectives to avoid — all are influenced by corporate media owners, editors, and reporters. Journalists can’t avoid their own biases and opinions, even those that work hard to be objective. (And opinion pieces aren’t news, although the line between them is often intentionally muddled.)
The so-called mainstream media has become increasingly sensational. To grab more market share, they use click-bait headlines and divisive rhetoric. Americans think we are more polarized because we are told that we are. At the heart of the loss of a common truth is corporate media repeating false equivalencies and using both sides-isms, with social media providing an amplifying feedback loop of noise.
Time and time again the media — and that’s across the political spectrum — focuses more on the politics and division than on the issues. They are echoing what they think their readers and viewers want to hear. They obfuscate the truth to maintain the status quo. And while most of us are looking in the wrong direction for someone to blame, the corporate politicians continue to get elected, the rich keep getting richer, the problems in this country continue to fester, and the truth gets harder to find.
Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, wrote:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
Let’s not allow ourselves to be bamboozled. Look through the noise and spin for the actual truth, not the “alternative facts” someone else is trying to sell us.