PARIS - Two words sum up the existential threat to America. The first is obvious: Trump. The second is a catchall noun so vague it has no meaning, and yet it enables a would-be despot to twist truth and tie a superpower into knots: media.
Excellent news sources abound for people who find them amid a blizzard of bullshit motivated by profit or propaganda. Instead, many pluck dubious snippets off the internet and react with all the reflection of invertebrates stuck by a pin. For them, it is all “the media.”
Donald Trump understands this. If one reporter gets something wrong - or, more often, gets something right that annoys him - he dismisses “the media” with his trademark label: fake news. That works for him because of a worsening industry trend that helped put him in office.
Newspapers that once informed America are still with us, adapted to digital delivery, but most are shadows of their former selves. They replace solid up-close reporting with thumb-sucking at a distance or word sausages made up of news bits from slipshod common sources.
Now GateHouse is about to swallow Gannett and use its familiar brand name. America's two largest chains plan to merge into a Frankenstein's monster of more than 260 dailies and 300 weeklies in 47 states. That, they say, will “enhance quality journalism.” Talk about blowing credibility right off the bat.
Gannett's flagship USA Today and other big dailies already give short shrift to the world beyond oceans that insulate America. GateHouse ruthlessly slashes staffs and uses cheap generic “content” to cushion advertising like so much roofing foam.
The Gannett chain dates back a century to an upstate New York publisher of that name who took newspapering seriously. “We are honored to become a part of Gannett's storied history,” the GateHouse boss said, as if spending $1.4 billion buys someone else's past integrity. He added, “We are committed to delivering significant synergies in a thoughtful manner.” Translation: We'll fire copy editors and cut back local enterprise.
GateHouse is part of New Media (not to be confused with MediaNews, a hedge fund hodgepodge that crippled other major papers), managed by a New York investment company owned by SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate.
Molly Ivins, the much-missed Dallas columnist, described this trend in a 2006 interview with The Texas Observer not long before she died.
“I don't mind being in a dying industry,” she said, “but it really pisses me off to be in one that's committing suicide. It just infuriates me to see newspapers' response to their own death, which of course is being decided by some 24-year-old genius on Wall Street who's never even worked at a newspaper in his life.”
Basically, Ivins explained, newspapers have two ways to save money. “You cut staff, or you cut news - or both. And you expect to sell more? You make it worse, and you expect to sell more? I don't know what to do about these swine who own newspapers.”
As it turned out, Ivins was wrong. Newspaper plunderers manage to rack up profits, and now it is far worse. Overnight billionaires acquire papers as a hobby and push personal points of view. Mobbed-up moguls buy them to block stories about themselves.
Media chains with a political bent propagandize across the country with newspapers but mainly TV and radio. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, one egregious example, sends packaged rightwing newscasts to stations that reach 40 percent of American homes.
American Journalism has a mixed past. If some periods were yellower than others, its roots were noble. John Peter Zenger, a colonial publisher, went to prison for sticking to his guns when King George didn't like his content.
Citizen Kane types created fabulous wealth by creating “news.” In 1897, William Randolph Hearst instigated conflict in Cuba with a fabled cable exchange. Artist Frederic Remington messaged, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble…I wish to return.” Hearst replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.”
Correspondents covering a real war against Hitler and Hirohito wore uniforms, and they wrote in terms of us and them. In the 1950s, Patriotic sentiment tainted reporting of the Korean War. Civilian suffering and background issues were mostly ignored.
Vietnam was different. Journalists risked their lives, and dozens died, to reflect reality on the ground. Washington reporters parroted the official line: light at the end of the tunnel. On some days, conflicting stories ran side by side on the New York Times' front page. Still, intrepid reporting eventually ended the war.
Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the Times, which vetted them for months before making its splash. Loyalists grumble that the film, “The Post,” should be called “The Times.” But it was about how a scrappy competitor matched the scoop within 24 hours. Katharine Graham, just taking over as publisher, risked ruin to run it.
Soon after, the Post exposed Watergate. The two papers pursued the story until they exposed Richard Nixon's coverup. He left the White House without a fight, as presidents who betray their oath of office are supposed to do.
After 9/11, jingoism led to a shameful low point in 2003, when both papers - and just about all the rest except for the Knight-Ridder chain and a few others - allowed Dick Cheney's cabal to engineer an Iraq invasion on spurious evidence. My old employer-family, the Associated Press, shared the blame.
When I went aboard for AP in 1967 it was a non-profit cooperative of newspaper owners and broadcasters who paid its costs. AP shunned advertising or any hint of political leanings. We covered big stories but also vital small ones that mattered. It was then what its marketers call it today: the essential global news source.
Today, AP does some splendid work, like its Pulitzer-winning Yemen series. But, focusing on impact, it skimps on vital secondary news around which the world turns. Some of its reporters are seasoned pros. Many are untested stringers. Advertising puts it in the black.
Reality bites. AP's coop owners won't pay its costs. People who spend heavily on video games and other such essentials want news for free. Like everyone else, the once indispensable AP relies on non-news “profit centers” and competes for audiences with a lowered common denominator.
The good news today is that mano-a-mano competition has made the Times and Post as good as they've ever been. They dig deep and hit hard. But even with other bright spots -- in print, on air and online - they are not enough.
Many readers no longer understand the difference between objective reporting based on direct sources and opinionated guesswork at a distance. The old Dragnet style of reporting - just the facts, ma'am - no longer works when official pronouncements are blatant lies.
Reporters must steer readers toward logical conclusions. CNN's Christiane Amanpour has a phrase for this: truthful but not neutral. But that takes skilled, experienced people, the costly kind that new owners are quick to eliminate.
In the end, readers are on their own. Everyone needs to apply a reporter's basic first step: Hold information in suspended belief until other trusted sources confirm it. More, they need a worldview rooted in reality. Other societies think and act according to their own perceptions.
That is why “media” matters so much. Too much of it encourages Americans to fixate on a con man's shell game, which enables accomplices in the crowd to pick their pockets.
Trump's impossibly outrageous behavior at home is reshaping the world, giving license to all manner of authoritarians and empire-builders to push the limits. He will eventually go, but the havoc and suffering he wreaks will only worsen, with blowback in America.
Just some for-instances: India, unchallenged, is playing nuclear chicken with Pakistan over Kashmir. Iran is an outcast again, chest-bumping the West. North Korea amps up its missile program. China struggles to contain Hong Kong. Russia is back at the Great Game. Climate collapse puts millions on the move, and the world is running out of fresh water.
Some “media” provides thorough coverage of such stories for those who take the trouble to find it. The rest will eventually catch up, but by then it will likely be too late for Americans to do much more than wish they had paid more attention when there was time to act.