By David Gordon, Associate Editor
The technology used for propaganda may – in today’s changed mass media environment – have outpaced and overwhelmed the ability to report the truth, according to Washington Post columnist and associate editor Eugene Robinson.
Robinson spoke Wednesday in Chicago at the 2017 conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), the national organization of college educators teaching those subjects. He said that while we have been conditioned to believe that truth will eventually win out over falsehood, that may no longer be correct,
We may be “fighting a 21st century war with 20th century weapons,” Robinson said. “Anyone who defends what we saw happening is immediately accused of (defending) ‘fake news,’”
“The very idea of ‘unquestioned fact’ is being questioned (and) assailed every day as ‘fake news,’” he said. This is being done “not by lunatics in passing cars” but by the president of the United States, he added.
Robinson, who chairs the Pulitzer Prize Board this year, was at the conference to accept AEJMC’s annual First Amendment Award, given this year to the Pulitzer Prizes. He won the 2009 Pulitzer for Commentary for his columns on the 2008 presidential campaign and Barack Obama’s election.
In a “’disinformediated’ world” with no mechanism to verify what’s true, lies can appear to have validity and “cyber-reality can be created in place of ‘real’ reality,” he said.
Democracy can’t be maintained “without a common encyclopedia of facts,” Robinson said, although people can and should argue about the meaning of those facts.
Without that general agreement on basic facts, there will be a parallel universe that can be viewed through “an interdimensional porthole known as Fox News,” he said. “In that parallel universe, climate change is a hoax” or unreal, “the coal industry has been decimated” by factors other than economics and “anyone who defends what we saw happening is immediately accused of (defending) ‘fake news.”
These concerns need to be discussed ‘because the stakes are really high (and) there’s a lot we can lose – a lot that’s fundamental,” Robinson warned.
During a lengthy question and answer period, Robinson said that Jeff Bezos, who purchased The Post in 2013, “has been a model owner.” Bezos met with the entire staff shortly after the purchase was finalized and said that “good journalism is necessary for democracy” and that he intended to find an economic model to sustain it at the paper, Robinson recounted.
“That’s the way he’s run The Post,” Robinson said. “He’s stayed out of news coverage and he’s stayed out of our editorial pages. . . . He thinks the paper is good and he wants it to be better.”
The Post’s tech people are the only ones who have talked much with Bezos, who built his fortune by founding, expanding and improving Amazon.com, often through trial and error. Robinson said that Bezos appears to be willing to use the same approach at the paper, and has intervened only to deal with such technical problems as web pages loading too slowly to satisfy him.
“We come to work in the morning not worrying about layoffs or buyouts, things like that,” Robinson said. He added that the paper’s budget is like “the change that gets lost in (Bezos’) couch” and that the paper is in fact turning a small profit.
“Now we have web engineers (sitting) among us and participating from the start in editorial projects” as The Post continues to expand and improve its web presence, Robinson said, adding that the paper has never before been state of the art in technology.
Robinson suggested to the educators that they tell their journalism students to be open to opinions that differ from their own, and to emphasize to the students that although they are talented and smart – some are “impossibly bright,” he said – “they’re not superior” to the people they’re covering. He said that today’s young journalists also must be flexible, because the news will continue to be presented in new and different ways.
Robinson said he doesn’t anticipate the outbreak of a nuclear war, despite the recent combative rhetoric from both President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In part, he attributed this to the fact that the nation’s top military people – including retired Gen. John F. Kelly, the new White House chief of staff – are solid and thoughtful people who are fully aware of the consequences of rash nuclear actions.
NOTE: Gordon, the retired chair of UW-Eau Claire’s Communication and Journalism Department, attended the recent AEJMC convention in Chicago.