In Manhattan recently, I saw a billboard ad for CNN. It has a picture of a glistening red apple with the words: “This is an apple.”
“Some people might try to tell you it’s a banana”, the ad says. “But it is not a banana. This is an apple.”
It’s a little pompous. Not to mention patronising: as if people’s minds are so easily commanded by the likes of Trump or some other fact-lite foghorn of a politician that they could be made to think an apple is a banana.
Which is why it made me chuckle that some New Yorker has taken a black marker pen to the ad and written in huge letters: “FAKE NEWS.”
You gotta love New York graffitists.
For me, this defaced ad, this haughty self-promotion by CNN, brought down a peg or two by a pissed-off citizen, sums up the crisis of the media.
Our faith in traditional news outlets, in those old gatekeepers of info, is corroding.
Last year, a survey found British people’s trust in the old media was at an “all-time low”. In 2016, 36 per cent of Brits trusted the media; last year it was 24 per cent.
Australians also have “record-low” trust in the media: the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed in February that just 31 per cent trust the media.
Last year, a Harvard survey found that 65 per cent of Americans think the mainstream media publishes fake news. So it isn’t only Trump who barks “fake news” every time a reporter opens his mouth — millions do.
Public doubt about the old media hasn’t translated into happy-clappy faith in the new media.
One in four Brits think getting your news from social media is a risky business. Across the West, people are concerned that social media is stuffed with fake stories and mad claims. And they aren’t wrong.
In recent months there seems to have been an upward blip in trust in the old media as people’s faith in the virtual media has been shook. But don’t get excited, hacks: the general trend is that trust in your output is shrinking.
This is freaking out people in authority. Politicians and journos are concerned that your average Joe no longer believes that his morning newspaper is giving him an accurate take on the world. That’s if Joe even buys a newspaper.
But is this crisis of trust such a bad thing? Might it not be seen as positive, possibly rebellious, an act of scepticism on the part of the public, towards those who — as that CNN ad suggests — presume to know everything about everything?
Perhaps this crisis is also an opportunity. An opportunity for us to rethink how news is done, who gets to forge public opinion, and whether the truths the elites have been telling us really are true.
Officialdom’s meltdown over ‘fake news’ brings to mind the hair-tearing reaction to the development of the printing press in the 1500s.
Back then, the ‘truth’ — that is, books approved by the Church — could only be published by clever monks. The rest of humanity didn’t have a hope in hell of publishing their views, or anything.
Then the printing press came along, leading to Bibles for everyone, books, pamphlets and the Protestant Reformation.
The old elites were horrified. And terrified. This new media would pump out half-truths, they said. It would pollute people’s minds with garbage. There would be an “outbreak of heresies”.
Sound familiar? We’re living through a modern version of this moral panic about ‘heresy’ (or fake news, as it’s now called) overriding ‘truth’ (or the old media, which is what they really mean when they say ‘truth’ today).
When Germany threatens to outlaw fake news, and Britain promises to educate all schoolkids about it, they sound like that Medieval elite disgusted by the rise of print and the damage it did to their role as protectors of truth.
Yes, we live in confusing times. Yes, it would be nice if we trusted the media more. But let’s not fret too much about this.
The crisis of the old media can be seen as a repercussion of the revolutionary growth of the internet, which has given billions of us a printing press in the palm of our hands, and the ability to publish our thoughts at the press of a button.
Of course, that will lead to some bullshit being aired. But it also loosens the stranglehold of the old arrogant makers of opinion, and gives the masses their say. That’s exciting — right?