Junk food news
Annual project underscores the threat to democracy in the post-truth age
A year ago, Random Lengths News and the rest of America’s alternative press celebrated the 40th anniversary of Project Censored, the ongoing journalistic mission of its editors, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, to expose the important news of each year that has routinely gone underreported or sometimes effectively censored.
But in 2017, Project Censored’s 41st (see “Underreported,” CN&R cover story, Oct. 19), Huff and Roth reached a milestone—the year in which an episode of The Simpsons played out in real life. Foreshadowed in a TV cartoon, the black comedy of events that obscured and propelled Donald Trump’s rise to president of the United States is now chronicled in the Project Censored chapter devoted to Junk Food News—the so-called “fake news” that squeezed into the places that should have been filled with legitimate, essential information.
In 2016, Project Censored’s legions of student interns, writers and editors spent a considerable amount of ink on the emerging youth movement that produced formidable activists in their own right and undergirded the passion that spurred Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the presidential primaries and made the movement to abolish the use of superdelegates in the days after the election about more than just sour grapes.
The occasion of the 40th anniversary and its emphasis on youth seemed to infuse Huff and Roth with hopefulness in Project Censored and the good hands doing its work. But this past election cycle did something else.
Project Censored opened this year’s Junk Food News chapter, co-written by Huff and Nolan Higdon, a professor of English, communications and history in the Bay Area, with a report titled Post-Truth Dystopia—Fake News, Alternative Facts and the Ongoing War on Reality. It begins with a quote from the late H.L. Mencken, a culture writer, thinker and satirist not known as a defender of democracy and democratic principles, but his writing offered insight into a particular failing of a civilization without a citizenry that is engaged, informed and armed with the ability to think critically:
Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
Huff and Higdon continue by referencing Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business to frame the chapter on Junk Food News. Postman says a particular medium can only sustain a certain level of ideas. Since the advent of television, Americans receive a great deal of their information through television news, sitcoms and dramas. But this form can’t articulate complex ideas the way print typography can. Shortcomings of television dilute politics and religion. And “news of the day” becomes a packaged commodity. Postman argues that television de-emphasizes the quality of information to satisfy the far-reaching needs of entertainment. The result is that quality information becomes secondary to entertainment value.
Postman’s analysis originated from a talk he gave in 1985 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he participated on a panel focused on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and the contemporary world. During this talk, Postman said that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, than by Orwell’s book, whose people are oppressed by state control.
The New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani said Morris Berman’s The Dark Ages of America: The Final Phase of Empire gives the left a bad name.
It is against this backdrop that Project Censored itemizes examples of Junk Food News distracting Americans, ranging from Trump’s refusal to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner to the breathless reporting on Trump’s every tweet.
Huff and Higdon characterized this coverage as a backlash in response to Trump not allowing corporate media to hobnob with the power elites. Project Censored described the White House correspondents’ dinner as a means to ingratiate themselves to power rather than speak truth to power. This unhealthy diet of junk news displaced news about the widespread famine in Yemen, a region raked by a two-year-old war led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the U.S. that left more than 10,000 dead and 40,000 wounded in the region. A U.N. report estimated that more than 90 percent of Yemen’s citizens are experiencing famine and malnutrition.
Huff and Higdon described the Summer Olympic Games of 2016 as a media spectacle, particularly after the corporate media latched onto the story of the four U.S. Olympic swimmers who lied about being robbed at gunpoint after vandalizing a gas station bathroom and being stopped by an armed security guard.
Project Censored contrasted the slap on the wrist received by the swimmers, who happened to be white, with the treatment of gold medalist Gabby Douglas (who’s African-American) when she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony. This news displaced coverage of “flooding on a historic scale” in Louisiana. Project Censored noted that, “while the damage caused was less than that of Hurricane Katrina, 20,000 residents had to be rescued, 10,000 were placed in shelters, and several people lost their lives.”
Huff and Higdon also highlighted the Academy Awards unscandalous scandal in which La La Land was mistakenly announced as Best Picture. It took only two minutes until the film Moonlight was announced as the real winner, but Huff and Higdon noted that this nonscandal scandal obscured major news in that nearly 550 community leaders, elected officials, business moguls, health officials and politicians called for doubling the strength of the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative, a clean air and healthy climate program.
The authors noted that, “a gathering of this size to enact policies to prevent further climate change is certainly worthy of major attention. But instead, the American public was treated to endless punditry on who was responsible for the year’s Best Picture blunder.”
Huff and Higdon recounted how Huff and former Project Censored director Peter Phillips argued in 2010 that the U.S. was facing a Truth Emergency. They assert that “in the United States today, the rift between reality and reporting has reached its end. There is no longer a mere credibility gap, but rather a literal Truth Emergency. … This is a culmination of the failures of the Fourth Estate to act as a truly free press.”
In 2017, the authors concluded that little has changed. In the current edition of Project Censored, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people is a primary example. This attack was used to justify Trump’s order to fire of 59 Tomahawk missiles on a country torn by civil war.
Project Censored pushes back against the notion that critiquing the corporate press pushing the chemical weapon attack as tantamount to being pro-Assad. Indeed, Project Censored adds nuance that should be applied to the Trump administration and the role of the Russians in the 2016 presidential elections.
Huff and Higdon wrote:
This is a complicated matter, to be sure, one that even sparks vivid disagreements among the anti-imperialist and the pacifist left in the U.S. To question official narratives should not mean people are automatically pro-Assad—or pro-Putin, for that matter. More importantly, what does it mean to be pro-truth in a post-truth world, when the truth can be elusive, especially in an environment addled by propaganda coming from many sides?
Huff and Higdon noted that the corporate press’ engagement in news abuse regarding Syria is an attempt to build public support for U.S. invasion, much like the second war in Iraq a decade earlier. According to Project Censored, “This makes accurate reporting and publishing of diverse perspectives all the more crucial.”
They argue that the countermeasure to news abuse and propaganda is an informed citizenry with strong critical thinking skills. Project Censored actually goes a little further than that by saying that the level of critical thinking required now goes beyond the critical thinking that simply evaluates information based on conformity with existing knowledge. Huff and Higdon argue that the critical thinking required now is one that can embrace perspectives at odds with “prevailing wisdom or personal views” based on evaluation of real facts.
The authors identified a few different and daunting examples of why this form of education is necessary. One of those examples was the aim of right-wing personality Glenn Beck and pseudo-historian David Barton to offer training camps to teach graduating high school students their revisionist history.
They used the words of Salon blogger Amanda Marcotte to describe their historical narrative, saying that it is “one that valorizes straight white men as humanity’s natural leaders and grants Christian fundamentalism a centrality to American history that it does not, in reality, have.” Marcotte also noted that, “in Barton’s history, the founding father idea of government was rooted in fundamentalist Christianity, instead of enlightenment philosophy, and the contributions of people of color are minimized in service of centering Christian white men as the righteous shepherds guiding everyone else.”
Huff and Higdon also argue that schools should teach media literacy as core curriculum to help fight against news abuse and fake news. Project Censored noted that the U.S. education system has drifted to the same for-profit model of information dissemination as the mass media, yielding many of the same results.
They cited critical theory scholar Henry Giroux, who notes that the for-profit model of education emphasizes individual responsibility for problems created by systemic failures.
“The market-driven discourse in higher education, including the corporatization of education that privileges administrators over faculty (who became low-paid workers while students are seen as customers), has outlawed or marginalized those faculty who do talk about critiquing the system rather than teach students to accept it and work with it.”
Giroux concludes that a “democracy cannot exist without informed citizens and public spheres and educational apparatuses that uphold standards of truth, honesty, evidence, facts and justice. Under Trump, disinformation masquerading as news … has become a weapon for legitimating ignorance and civic illiteracy.”
To combat this, Giroux is quoted:
Artists, educators, young people, journalists and others need to make the virtue of truth-telling visible again. We need to connect democracy with a notion of truth-telling and consciousness that is on the side of economic and political justice, and democracy itself. If we are going to fight for and with the most marginalized people, there must be a broader understanding of their needs. We need to create narratives and platforms in which those who have been deemed disposable can identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
Huff and Higdon recounted the brief history of the term “fake news,” since Trump was “electored” president. The authors noted that during one week in January 2017, the trend of people researching the term “fake news” on Google jumped 100 fold above pre-election levels. Trump and his supporters denounced any critiques of the new administration, such as CNN for questioning the validity of his statements, as fake news.
But Project Censored noted that Trump and his underlings were not alone in labeling inconvenient truths as fake news. The Democratic National Committee was also guilty, as it sought to explain how Clinton lost to a Cheeto. Project Censored noted that the partisan practice of labeling inconvenient truths as fake news undermined credible journalism while distracting the public from the barrage of actual fake news flooding our global society.
This was reminiscent of a Ron Suskind story in The New York Times magazine more than a decade ago in which the phrase “reality based community” was used by an aide in the George W. Bush administration. The term was a phrase used to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies who are basing the judgments on facts.
In it, Suskind wrote:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality based community, which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”[…] “that’s not the way the world really works anymore” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The source was later revealed to be political operative and Bush administration adviser Karl Rove, but he has denied it.
Huff and Higdon noted that the Internet’s promise of delivering endless information to circumvent a post-truth world has not succeeded in producing a well-informed populace. Instead, the inflation of spurious information coupled with an education system that does not teach critical media literacy to students and does not show them how to navigate and participate in the digital world has resulted in a dystopia of falsehoods that are now referred to as “alternative facts.”
This post-truth environment, they argue, gave rise to a term defined as an outright lie that is introduced and then used as evidence to support a desired conclusion.
Among the examples Project Censored used:
• Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claiming three times that a terror attack occurred in Atlanta, Ga.
• U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson claiming that slaves were immigrants who worked hard and found success in America, without socio-economic relevancy or historical context.
• The Trump administration claim that the resistance to their repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act were paid protesters.
Huff and Higdon argue that the ability to embrace dissonant facts is a skill set needed now more than ever, when inconvenient truths are labeled fake news. They argue that this state of affairs has resulted in a post-truth world.
After laying this groundwork, Project Censored shifts to the Democratic National Convention and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. From the start, Project Censored makes the argument that the Russian hacking narrative, propagated by the corporate media invested in Clinton’s bid for the White House, is an example of an alternative fact designed to deflect attention away from Clinton’s deficiencies as a candidate.
Huff and Higdon cited The Washington Post’s story on the website PropOrNot, an organization purported to have uncovered the media outlets that served as dupes of Russian hackers with a series of algorithms designed to analyze the Web content of media outlets. Under threat of lawsuits, the Post published a lengthy editor’s note saying, among other things, that the newspaper “does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.”
Huff and Higdon's choice to frame this chapter with the words of H.L. Mencken, Neil Postman and Morris Berman signals a dark place we’re entering. Though they offer prescriptions to heal American democracy and strengthen its citizenry, there’s an underlying pessimism in this chapter. At the conclusion of the Junk Food News chapter, Huff and Higdon ask, “Who will check the fact-checker and what criteria will be used?”
Huff and Higdon note that fact-checking would not be enough to counter fake news. But fake news is not the only threat. Blacklists like the one used by sites like PropOrNot that include legitimate journalistic outlets as fake news, or the passage of legislation that literally bans the media from lying. Huff and Higdon noted that the corporate press has assisted in creating some of these new threats such as the weaponizing of fake news. The pair acknowledged the daunting task of making these times and the nation more hospitable to a more free and democratic place. They write:
… [T]he failures of the corporate media and education system have already contributed to the current post-truth environment by creating nothing short of an epistemological crisis. This has proven to be detrimental to our democratic process and an affront to the First Amendment rights of the American people. Creating the better world we envision will not depend on rewriting recent history to suit our purposes or flatter our illusions, but rather will depend on creating an ever more democratic, diverse, and critical free press.
We have three years and three months to go with Trump at the helm, barring impeachment or another catastrophe befalling this country. Without some sort of progress on building critical media literacy and if there’s a hell below, like Curtis Mayfield said, “We all going to go.”