Simon Wren-Lewis can’t take it anymore. I’ve just read his fulminations on the blatant dishonesty of right wing media outlets in the US and the UK, untethered to any residual professional attachment to standards of evidence and nakedly in the service of political ideologues. He’ll get no argument from me about that.
But I think his distinction between post-truth outlets and the other kind (pre-truth?) is much too clean. We won’t understand the new frontier of news/fiction unless we see what connects it to the rest of the media world.
A first hint appears in his discussion of the difference between UK and German media on the issue of immigration. The nativist tabloids in the UK bombarded its readership with several stories per day that dehumanized immigrants and presented them as threats to jobs, services and civil order, while their counterparts in Germany (e.g. Bild) had heartwarming portrayals of immigrants overcoming great odds to save themselves and their families. This is true; I saw it myself when I was in Germany during the runup to Merkel’s adoption of a Welcome Culture policy.
But this was also the period during which Greece, led by Syriza, faced off against Schäuble and his EU Wall of Nein. Here the ruling interests in Germany showed their other side, and the popular press was filled with made-up atrocities about the lazy, dishonest crew in Greece whose main purpose in life was to fleece the German taxpayer. (I posted here at the time about the false news, widely reported in Germany, that Syriza, financed by EU funds, had made rail travel free as a ploy to buy votes.) Obviously the probity of German journalism was selective.
And similar post-truth spasms have characterized media outlets in the English-speaking world ever since the advent of the printing press. These were in the service of fomenting war fever (the Spanish-American War, World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq, to mention examples from US history), demonizing labor organizers and civil rights activists or whatever cause needed a bit of extra buttressing.
If there is anything new, I think it might be on one of these fronts: (1) The doctrine that deceit and manipulation are virtuous in the service of the Cause, an element of fascism and Leninism alike, has now found a home in somewhat more mainstream ideologies on the right. A self-conscious defense of making stuff up increases its effectiveness, because embarrassment at being caught out is no longer a risk. (2) Post-truth is being deployed, to some extent, against the interests of the capitalist class, particularly as it attacks globalization. It is “out of control”, the figurative loose cannon on the deck of the battleship, rolling around and capable of firing in any direction. It needs to be domesticated again.
The reality is that the elevated devotion to truth has always had moments—particular issues or political exigencies—during which it was expected to look the other way. We won’t understand what’s new and different about today’s propaganda unless we recognize the continuities as well.