Whenever the headlines of the day carry the phrase “fake news” I find myself reflecting a great deal on the atmosphere of prevarication and dishonesty that I was raised in. The product of an emotionally weak father and a mother steeped in a panalopy of mental illnesses, I am ever mindful that forthrightness went at a premium in my house. I’m fifty-five now, and as one would hope, long past the habit of blaming the deficits of my life on other people. When my thoughts turn to that time it isn’t within the context of bitterness and regret. What I am overwhelmed with is the memory of what it’s like to live in a setting in which you can not trust what should be the bedrock institutions of your life. The immediate impact was obvious. Not being able to count on the central figures of authority in my life was a breeding ground for anxiety and instability. More pernicious, I think, was the long term damage secondary to adaptive, tactical changes in behavior that I went through. In a manner that was not unpredictable I simply learned how to try and get what I wanted by working around my parents, my guilt consistently assuaged by the belief that I was doing what I needed to in order to make the best of a bad situation. None of this was a one shot deal. My parents didn’t alienate my faith in them all at once. Over time, with ascendant egregiousness and increasing frequency, they eroded my belief in them until I could no longer find a way to explain away their behavior as anything other than a fundamental inability, or unwillingness to tell the truth. Their authority over me shrank to the point of virtual invisibility. The reason I find myself thinking of them whenever media integrity is in question is that I imagine that roughly fifty percent of the electorate might now find itself in a similar place with the press as the one I ended up in with regard to my parents. After a while I couldn’t conceive of them being honest with me and so I was dismissive of anything that might pass through their lips. They could have offered up indisputable pearls of wisdom; didn’t matter. I just wasn’t hearing it. For the Americans who in one way or another find themselves of opposing philosophical position to most of the people who exert editorial power over the direction that reportage takes I think that mindset has taken hold, and is likely to cast a long shadow. Certainly, it seems that the vast majority of Trump supporters hold the media in contempt, and have no problems expressing the opinion that they are being lied to on an ongoing basis. There is, however a subset of people that didn’t vote for the president and whose distrust of the press takes a more subtle, but no less intense form. Finding myself on that team I am struck by the way that willful suppression and omission have turned the once venerable fourth estate into just another disappointment to me. I don’t think that journalists are in the habit of making things up. I am, however, pretty well convinced that a majority of news agencies are happy to (at least temporarily) sit on information that they see as disruptive to an outcome they find themselves in favor of.
Citing the most recent example I can think of, the behavior of NBC in regard to information that they were in possession of that might have shed some exculpatory light on Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings is exactly the kind crap I’m thinking about. On October 25th, NBC news published a story focusing on that pustulating carbuncle of the American legal profession, Michael Avenatti. The bulk of the piece concerned inconsistencies in the details of the accounts of two of his clients with regard to the behavior of Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t want to wade in the minutiae to the point of drowning, but there’s no way to write this without some background. One of the women in question, Julie Swetnick, is not an unknown commodity, at this point. She alleged, in a signed declaration, that Kavanaugh was aggressive and abusive to girls at parties, to the point of spiking the punch, engaging in unsolicited sexual contact, and perhaps organizing a gang rape. Her tune changed during a televised NBC interview and in many ways her performance was probably as much of a momentum changer in the entire affair as anything else. It’s the behavior of the National Broadcasting Company as it pertains to his second client where things get particularly ugly. Avenatti released a statement from a second accuser which seemed to back up Swetnick’s account of things. NBC news spoke to this second woman by phone call both before and after her statement had been made public. The conversation, and subsequent exchange of texts reveal someone who is not as thoroughly supportive of her own previous assertions as we might hope for. On September 30th, she told NBC “I didn’t ever think it was Brett”, referring to spiking the punch. When asked if she had ever actually witnessed Kavanaugh acting inappropriately with girls she said no. In following conversations she told the news agency that she had only “skimmed” the original declaration, as a way of explaining those and other discrepancies. She then texted them a message re-stating that everything in the first statement was true and asking not to be contacted further. And then, on October 5th, she contacted them again reasserting that she never saw Kavanaugh spike the punch and adding that she would be available again to NBC but was no longer speaking to Avenatti. Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed in a tight vote the next day. Only nineteen days later the network saw fit to publish the article containing the above mentioned information. Although the Senate Judiciary committee and the FBI were focused on allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, the claims of the other women offered the support of a chorus that was increasing in size. If I were in the news business and had come across something that vital to an ongoing narrative I’d like to think I’d run with it, not sit on it. Without attempting to present myself as having any specifically informed insight to the decision making process at NBC, it’s difficult not to impute a willful intent to their behavior.
Lest I be accused of leaning on an isolated instance, I thought a few other quick examples would help the more skeptical reader to remove the aroma of adductive reasoning from what I’ve written. In January 1999, NBC interviewed Juanita Broadrick regarding her allegations of rape against Bill Clinton. As you might recall he was the sitting president at the time and busy getting his ass raked over the coals by the senate in reference to his perjurious claims not to have had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted on February 12th. NBC sprung into action and aired the Broadrick piece on the 24th. On a more current note Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic senate candidate from Texas, has had a run of approbatory press that is more the stuff of rising rock star than political aspirant. In his campaign to unseat Ted Cruz, O’Rourke has consistently been described in terms more suited for a potential stand-in for Jesus than a guy with a history of felony arrests for drunk driving and burglarizing a campus building at UTEP (University of Texas El Paso), which he described as a college prank. Which is odd, what with him not being a college student at the time. Reporting on those elements of his resume was limited but the real secret turned out to be that a guy who likes to promote himself as the “anti-Trump” has married into a family with more money than even the President claims to be worth. His wife’s father is William Sanders, a real estate developer with properties worth in excess of $20 billion and an interest in a development project in El Paso that O’Rourke has promoted heavily, often to the dismay of the areas Latino community. So much for the return of Robin Hood. To give credit where it’s due the New York Times, a paper that certainly leans left editorially, published an article concerning his assorted antics on October 29th. I have to tip my hat to the periodical for dropping a story like that before the election. They were a lone progressive voice willing to tell the truth about the guy.
Trying to avoid running this thing into the ground, I thought I’d finish up with a suggestion for a thought exercise going forward. The next time a politically charged item captures your interest, don’t follow it in real time. Just keep a running record of the coverage and wait till it reaches a conclusion of some sort. Then go back and read everything you’ve saved from the beginning. I can hear the groaning now. If you can give up twelve consecutive weekends to binge watch your way through some four year old HBO series you can put aside an hour or two to do some reading on an event which has actually occurred. Make sure you take note of the dates. See how long it takes a news outlet with an obvious bias to get around to making public some damning information about someone in the story with whom they are to some degree simpatico. It happens more often then you think. Considering the extraordinary latitude given to journalists by the first amendment I think we have a right to demand that they live up to the expectations implicit within the rights they freely claim. In the absence of that sort of integrity I can’t really blame someone if they want to see an entire industry as fake, and I’m not as far enough away from that perspective as I’d like to be myself.