Journalism is meant to check the powerful, not be an instrument wielded by the powerful. Mainstream media outlets have given up their responsibility to investigate and inform, to offer critical opinions based on reality, and to question government claims, instead choosing to run with the narratives handed to them. At a time when principled journalism is necessary, it also happens to be woefully lacking.
The current media landscape is complex, but the decline of journalistic standards is a problem of the highest order. Informed discussion is lost when those responsible for challenging ideas no longer have an incentive to do so, or worse, are unwilling to accept their integral role in public discourse.
While the age of unprecedented information access has changed how we understand the world, granting us new pathways unavailable to previous generations, it has exposed us to ideas that are anathema to truth, inundating to the point of outright confusion.
It is easy to get caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, rife with breaking news updates that vested interests manufacture. What is considered acceptable discussion consistently faces limitations, and a sort of myopic or one dimensional viewpoint prevails, leaving intact the framework’s deep-seated problems. Focusing on trivial matters, or giving a voice only to those groups that support acceptable narratives, creates in the public an understanding that is superficial in the present, and disastrous to the future.
Mainstream media, complicit in the rise of Donald Trump, were more than willing to provide a megaphone for his rhetoric because it helped their bottom line.
The craving for up-to-date information takes us further along a path paved with fear and confusion, a sort of never-ending rabbit hole that grows stranger as we fall faster. This is not a new phenomenon; from the Cold War to the post-9/11 age, critical inquiry suffered immeasurable setbacks, due in part to misplaced trust in billion-dollar media outlets championing government claims instead of questioning them. The likes of Edward R. Murrow, Daniel Ellsberg and even Phil Donahue sacrificed personally and professionally to deliver information to the public, taking on well-funded, influential groups who placed more value on fearmongering and control than they did on uncovering truth.
Unfortunately, the obstacles have grown with time. Mainstream media, complicit in the rise of Donald Trump, were more than willing to provide a megaphone for his rhetoric because it helped their bottom line. Perhaps some recognize their folly now, but surely the prospect of another four years washes away any guilt, as outlets can rely on the easy and steady stream of clickbait fodder in the game of misinformation.
While the trivial takes centre stage, the consequential is done quietly behind the scenes.
As with Iraq, the people that champion false claims can expect to keep their jobs, while those that choose to be critical face questions about their loyalty. Even after the truth comes to light, the failed pundits face no consequences, free to go on with their lives with little regard for the disaster they helped create.
President Trump’s attitude towards the press is disconcerting at the least, and regressive at the worst: unwillingness to respond to even the most basic questions, meandering responses that are filled with exaggerations and lies, and his commitment to prosecute journalists do not bode well for those hoping more access to his administration will lead to answers, let alone progress. He continues to position himself against mainstream media outlets as the only honest party, which is not only the death of irony, but of sanity as well. President Trump will continue to use the glaring failures in mainstream media to prop up his own brand, which has the potential to further galvanize those most dissatisfied with the media’s coverage.
By focusing on trivial issues, such as inauguration attendance, the Trump administration is diverting attention away from some of the more pressing concerns. This serves a very important purpose, since it keeps viewers fixated on matters that have no policy implications, which means consequential issues face less scrutiny. While the trivial takes centre stage, the consequential is done quietly behind the scenes.
Clamping down on the press sends the message that criticism is not only unwelcome, but is punishable through whatever legal instruments can be justified.
The problems did not start with Donald Trump, and they will not end with him. When it came to the press, the Obama administration was one of the most insulated, controlling access and engaging in behaviour reserved only for the most reprehensible politicians. The Obama administration, responsible for the largest crackdown on whistleblowers in U.S. history, proved that connections to Washington mean more than dissenting voices performing a public service. Wiretapping journalists to identify sources, using archaic legislation to serve administration interests, and limiting press engagements to controlled photo ops are now commonplace, available to president Trump to use for more than just his self-aggrandizement.
Clamping down on the press sends the message that criticism is not only unwelcome, but is punishable through whatever legal instruments can be justified. The cases of Barrett Brown, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, among others, illustrate that those who make sacrifices, and bring essential information to public light, can face harsh retribution. It is not unreasonable to conclude that there is an increasing number of journalists and sources who, because of fear, are unwilling to come forward on important issues, which increases the portion of subservient voices, making free and critical speech a casualty in an already homogenous media landscape.
There are no easy solutions to these problems, but there are ways to help stop the downward spiral. Despite the crowded media arena, and the constant bombardment of senseless or misleading coverage, the tools of the information age can provide clarity and independent thought. Access to a variety of opinions, historical documents and source material have diffused traditional power structures, giving us unparalleled insights. We do not need to rely on massive conglomerates for our information, and holding the powerful accountable is easier than it has ever been.
Informed voices with principled stances—relentlessly pursuing their goal of combating falsehoods—can be found, namely in independent media, companies not beholden to establishment interests and citizen journalists. These parties work hard to sift through misinformation, tapping into the people and covering stories that actually matter.
Pilcrow Magazine is grounded in the same idea. Truth matters, and correcting the narrative becomes a higher priority with every passing day. Accepting standard talking points and regurgitating the same sorts of clickbait stories are not viable options, because they do little to promote critical thought, citizen engagement and change. Pilcrow Magazine will shed light on consequential issues, and promote understanding that leads to change.