The Ultimate Emperor of Illusion

The Ultimate Emperor of Illusion

by digby

Bill Moyers offers up this fascinating speech by veteran Canadian journalist Olivia Ward, about how different Watergate would unfold today and journalism in the age of Trump is truly fascinating.

She reminds us about how it happened before:
When news of the Nixon administration’s campaign to destroy their opponents through not-too-well-organized crime broke in the Washington Post, a 26-month drama played out on the front page of a paper that riveted the capital’s and the English speaking world’s attention.

“No news story in my experience ever dominated conversation, newspapers, radio and TV broadcasts the way Watergate did,” former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee recalled. “People literally couldn’t wait for the radio and TV stations to read the next day’s Post stories on the 11 o’clock news.”

It's true. Even young people like me were riveted, and it wasn't that easy because I lived in the hinterlands and didn't have access to the Washington Post. The local paper only followed the story sporadically at first.  Walter Cronkite and the boys were all on it after a while. I remember going to the library to look at back issues of the New York Times.

Today is a very, very different world:
That was nearly half a century ago, in what is now seen as a golden age of journalism. As the 45-year anniversary of Watergate approaches, let’s do a fast-forward to today, and stretch our imaginations about a Nixon scenario redux.

There would, of course, be no bungled break-ins, no clumsily bill-stuffed pockets, no Keystone Kops “gotcha” scene in Democratic headquarters at 2:30 a.m. Instead, Nixon could, perhaps, rely on hands across the water to cross the keyboard with kompromat, via computer — releasing compromising material against his opponents. He could go online himself with lies and smears against them, work with or inspire hate sites and racist, misogynist, Islamophobic trolls to create false news and threaten those who call out his attacks or support his foes, and dismiss any accusations of wrongdoing, corruption or racism as the work of a “lying, biased media.” He would condemn the investigation as that favorite tactic of the far right — fake news.

The Washington Post, of course, would be on overdrive with its fact-checking unit on fire — as would most progressive media. But they would be drowned in a sea of lies, distortions and legal and personal threats. Worse, they would be ignored by a large cohort of voters who get their news from aggregators like Facebook, spend their TV time in front of reality shows and avidly scan the bits and bytes of Twitter for news in less than 140 characters.

Even if some persistent investigative reporters came up with a smoking gun — say Nixon’s financial records, transcripts of his meetings with staff and supporters, a network of contacts with political saboteurs — in a virtual one-party system with an agenda to keep him in power, who would hold him to account?

In 2012, which now seems a relatively hopeful time, Woodward and Bernstein wrote a Watergate anniversary update on Nixon’s crimes, for which he was investigated by a Senate committee and special prosecutor, threatened with impeachment and pressured from office — a highly improbable scenario in today’s American political landscape.

Nixon, they reflected, “launched and managed wars against the media, the Democrats, the justice system, and finally against history itself.” All, they wrote, “reflected a mindset and pattern of behavior” that included “a willingness to disregard the law for political advantage and a quest for dirt and secrets about his opponents as an organizing principle of his presidency.”

Today’s media world – down the rabbit hole

Where have we heard this before? Unfortunately, it’s the world we now live in as journalists and citizens — a nightmare from which we are desperately seeking, like Alice down the rabbit hole, for an exit into the “real” world of truth and consequences, where rule of law is the rule and not the exception.

But in the past year of the American political campaign — and we should not delude ourselves — Canada, Britain and Europe — this is where we have found ourselves. It is indeed a dark place for us all, and for democracy itself. As self-appointed keepers of this flickering flame, journalists bear an acute responsibility.

In a speech immediately ridiculed by Donald Trump, actress Meryl Streep told the Golden Globe audience, “we need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution.” Ironically, she called for supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose main mission, until now, has been campaigning for those in the dungeons and torture chambers of authoritarian regimes. “We’re gonna need them going forward,” she said, “and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

But therein lies the nut graph, as editors like to call the crucial piece of the story. Because safeguarding the truth has never in living memory been more difficult in the democratic world.

But therein lies the nut graph, as editors like to call the crucial piece of the story. Because safeguarding the truth has never in living memory been more difficult in the democratic world.

When the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” it seemed to be one of those self-evident truths.

That was the world of Watergate, of Nixon and the team that exposed him and ultimately saw him disqualified from office. The process was arduous but the formula was simple: Find the lies, bring them to light, let justice take its course. They are principles of journalism, but also of democracy.

In the age of Trump, those foundations have been kicked away. They consist of three pillars of a civil society: agreement on the facts, agreement that they need to be acted upon and a system that is willing to clear away the lies and the liars. With Trump barely in office, we have already seen those foundations crumble. Whether they will become broken remnants of the past is now in the balance.


She talks a bit about journalists IF Stone and Matha Gellhorn and how important they were to the pursuit of truth in ways that challenged the official line. But this, I though, was an important insight into our present circumstance:

The death of critical thinking?

But in spite of the lies that governments and their supporters have always aimed at individual journalists, they ultimately are not the existential threat that journalism faces today. When presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said the administration was not lying, but had its own “alternative facts,” she had declared war not only on journalism but on critical thinking, without which fact and fiction are but a blur in cyberspace.

That threat has come from the denigration of critical thinking in a campaign aimed at overwhelming an often politically uneducated and confused public with misinformation, distortion and fake facts.

First, and most perplexing, is the vanishing of truth into a dizzying alternative reality where there are no facts, only opinions. So that if 10,000 astronomers maintain that the moon is made of rocks and extinct volcanoes, and 1 million twitterers say it’s made of green cheese, then green cheese is a fact — by popular demand.

If 10,000 astronomers maintain that the moon is made of rocks and extinct volcanoes, and 1 million twitterers say it’s made of green cheese, then green cheese is a fact — by popular demand.

H.L. Mencken, who, alas, had little regard for democracy, let alone populism, issued a chilling warning in 1920: “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

She talks about Trump's alternate reality and how 9/11 created a paranoid culture and the war in Iraq and the way the Bush administration looked at "the reality based community." This has been coming on for a while.

In the early days of Watergate investigations, there was plenty of opposition to Woodward and Bernstein’s revelations, and they were swimming against the mainstream. They were forced to triple and quadruple their efforts to verify the material they found, fending off angry Nixon supporters as well as the backbiting of their own colleagues in rival media.

But once the dam of evidence against Nixon broke, they were part of a media floodtide. So much so that The Post was pushed aside for several well-earned Pulitzer prizes. Readers and viewers of the unfolding drama were fixated by it. Suddenly politics had become compulsive reading and viewing. Although Nixon managed to win a landslide victory in 1972, Democrats increased their majority in the Senate and maintained a comfortable lead in the House of Representatives. That, and the overwhelming public condemnation of Nixon’s illegal actions, allowed for a political consensus that he must go.

But this coming together of media and politically driven efforts was entirely absent in 2016, and to an even worse degree, today. When candidate Trump appeared on the scene, his campaign of confusion, misinformation and outright lies was aimed at dividing “ordinary people” from “elites” who were destroying America’s “greatness.” That he himself, as a self-described billionaire, was living a life that would have stunned the court of Louis the XVI of France was superseded by his assurance that only he could spread his own “greatness” around to the disgruntled and disenfranchised masses. Or at least, those of them who were white.

Coming in the wake of the populist Brexit campaign — which used similar tactics to convince British voters that Europe was the work of the devil, draining the country of jobs, its place in the world and national identity, the way was prepared for what became — for the mainstream media — the Trumpocalypse.

She indicts the media for its complicity and discusses their inability to deal with this new phenomenon:
Once Trump was nominated — to the shock of many mainstream media — their journalists were at a loss. Accused at every turn of elitism, out-of-touchism and bias, they applied traditional values of political reporting. That is, the notion of balance, or so-called objectivity. Trump’s ability to ignore all the rules and blast out distortions and lies hit them like a knockout punch. That compelled them to normalize Trump’s outlandish claims by including them in daily news stories even while fact-checkers were panting to keep up with the multidirectional mud that was slung.

Trump’s ability to ignore all the rules and blast out distortions and lies hit them like a knockout punch. That compelled them to normalize Trump’s outlandish claims by including them in daily news stories even while fact-checkers were panting to keep up with the multidirectional mud that was slung.

Much of it was directed at Hillary Clinton, who for all her faults as a politician and campaigner, is the most investigated candidate ever to run for high office in the US. In spite of numerous exonerations, she was demonized through false equivalency as criminally corrupt and possibly treasonous for her use of personal emails for State Department business.

She talks about the alt-right and Breitbart and the partisan media.

And then this:

In this Brave New World, truth is irrelevant and performance is all. And Donald Trump is its ultimate emperor of illusion.

An early adapter to constructed personality, he first expanded his self-promotion campaign as a real estate mogul into a national phenomenon with publication of a ghost-written book The Art of the Deal. Horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency, the author, Tony Schwartz, later admitted, “I put lipstick on a pig.” Describing Trump as a sociopath, he went on, much more dramatically: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

Schwartz wasn’t the only one with buyer’s remorse. Timothy L. O’Brien, the author of the biography Trump Nation, says that NBC’s The Apprentice, produced by reality-TV powerhouse Mark Burnett, was based on an escalation of Trump’s constructed identity. “The Apprentice is mythmaking on steroids,” he told The New Yorker. “There’s a straight line from the book to the show to the 2016 campaign.”

And, he might have added, to the White House. Here we can also give a nod to Russia’s role, not only with widely attributed leaks of information to discredit Hillary Clinton, but also with a campaign of systematic disinformation that goes back decades to the Soviet Union, and has been weaponized by social media.

Back in the 1990s, I saw a primitive comic opera version of what the Western world has now learned to call kompromat. When I covered the first Chechen war, a colleague called me into his room in the guest house where we were staying. There, a very drunk and disheveled man was weeping while clutching a vodka bottle. The reason, he told us, was that he worked for the FSB, the KGB’s successor. And he was sent to the Caucasus to discredit the leader of Ingushetia, bordering on Chechnya.

Its president, his old friend and Soviet army colleague, had refused to join Russia’s war on the Chechen separatists. So he must be compromised as a terrorist and eliminated — a task that filled the agent with drink-addled despair. A few days later I was in the office of the leader in question, Gen. Ruslan Aushev, while a Russian TV broadcast declared his daughter was leading a Chechen terrorist cell. Aushev fell about laughing. “My daughter is pretty tough,” he chuckled. “But she is only 3.”

So much for old KGB tricks. Under Vladimir Putin, newer ones have been taught to the young dogs of cyberwar who work as trolls, spreading manufactured smears and lies on cue. In addition to time-honored political lies from the Kremlin, and a lockdown of the main Russian media, it has sponsored a “respectable” English-language network, RT, aimed at subverting the Western political conversation to Kremlin-tailored views. As Julia Ioffe put it in The Atlantic, Russia has “hacked not just the election, but even the terms of America’s political discourse.”

But Russia is far from the essential culprit. And the propaganda ball is now in the court of the American “alt-right.” They are so successful because we are now in an era where everyone can have their own “alternative facts” delivered to them by social media via robotized algorithms. They need never emerge from their self-affirming media silos into the chilling air of reality. The era of a nation waiting breathlessly for the next revelation of presidential wrongdoing from the mainstream media is definitively over. Or so it appears.

As George Orwell put it in his prophetic novel of totalitarianism, 1984, the Ministry of Truth has arrived:

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. For, after all, how do we know that 2 and 2 make 4? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?”

What indeed? When the very evidence of the external world is in doubt, when one’s own experience is downgraded to mere opinion, when darkness is eagerly embraced as light — what is to be done? The very rule of law, the principles of justice, are undermined.

What indeed? When the very evidence of the external world is in doubt, when one’s own experience is downgraded to mere opinion, when darkness is eagerly embraced as light — what is to be done? The very rule of law, the principles of justice, are undermined.

In the US the problem is especially acute, because constitutional checks and balances of power are vanishing in 2017. Congress is now essentially a one-party system largely controlled by the extreme right. Lower courts may try to block the president’s executive orders, but the highest court — the Supreme Court — will be a vehicle for the most extreme conservatives when his pick for a new justice is confirmed, to the predicted detriment of hard-won women’s rights, civil rights, worker’s rights, the environment and the struggle against unrestrained big money and dark money.

She's not hopeless or cynical, saying that the Fourth Estate must push back. She recommends going the IF Stone route by using every means to get at the truth by ferreting out documentation and low level sources instead of relying on access to the official line. She recommends focusing on local activism and education in critical thinking.

And this:
In covering the White House, more radical action may be required. Reporters could set aside journalistic rivalries and come together in a consensus that they are all seeking the truth. That they will be more than stenographers for the administration.

How to do that? First, by deciding on a daily agenda. What are the most important questions that need answering? Who is going to take the lead, and who will follow? This is not collusion; it is the essential mission of journalism. To seek answers to questions in the public interest. When propagandists are dispatched to use news organizations to spread misinformation and toxic lies, they will not be able to shut down one question by one reporter. Another will follow. And another. And another. All asking the question coolly and professionally. This will wear down the spin doctors and show them there is a price to pay.

It would also remove news organizations’ fear of being barred from official press conferences. If one news organization is barred, the rest should stand up and leave, because they will surely be next. If the administration wants to shut down the entire press gallery, so be it. It would be a worldwide demonstration that the US, which prides itself on freedom of speech, has moved one large step down the road to autocracy.

I wish I thought hat could happen. But I don't. Still, it would be one good way to deal with the cascade of lies and obfuscation that comes out of this administration. (She recommends a summit between internet leaders and news organizations to try to sort out how to prevent fake news, which seems rather quixotic to me, but who knows?)

But this is vital, and I'm afraid it's already happening. Just witness the excitement over Trump making the "normal" decision to do what he sa9id he would do which is "bomb the shit out of 'em"

For the media, above all, there must be no normalization of the Trump administration’s lies, no co-opting of journalism and no surrender to despair or intellectual exhaustion. And there should be no more agonizing over whether a lie is a mistruth, an untruth, a fib, a misstatement or a falsehood. Or maybe just an unknown unknown?

This is a US presidency like no other in living memory. In a democracy, it is not normal to say, without shame or remorse, that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. It is not normal to denounce evidence-based fact as fake news. It is not normal to concoct toxic lies that can have power over the lives of millions of people. We have been down that road before. We know it ends badly.

As Martha Gellhorn replied, when asked why she put herself so often at risk to cover dangerous conflicts, “It seemed to me personally that it was my job to get things on the record, in the hopes that at some point or other, somebody couldn’t absolutely lie about it.”

Yeah ... get it on the record. Tell the truth. Try to see things clearly. That's all we can do.

Its one reason why I reject soft-soaping the impulses in our culture that gave us Trump. Maybe politicians have to pander to those impulses in order to get elected to office. I don't and those of us who observe politics and culture for a living shouldn't do it.

That racist, misogynist, fascist pig didn't stage a coup. Millions of Americans voted for him and I don't think pretending that they didn't know what they were voting for will do us any good if we want to survive this. Tell the truth.

Please click over and read the whole thing. I left out a ton of good stuff and it's all worth reading. I think her description of the problem is more cogent than the solutions, but I don't have anything better. This is a very, very tough problem which unfortunately requires that people in this country wake up to what's happened, get active and involved and vote to repudiate it. That requires a lot of work --- and a leap of faith.

I'm trying to keep mine but it isn't easy. Every time I get gaslit and told that I'm not actually seeing what I'm seeing or that people aren't saying and doing what they're doing I have to remind myself that my own ability to judge reality is on the line. Getting us to question that is how authoritarians (and con artists) succeed.