BY AARON BARLOW
In 2012, I proposed the term ‘breitbarting’ with a narrower definition than, I think, the word deserves today. At that time, I limited it to what Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe proved so skilled at doing. They designed strategies of interview, editing and presentation to make a predetermined point (not to explore an issue or a story). Theirs was what I call a “post-objective” journalism that is also “post-responsibility.” The logical end result of this is the recent alt-right tinkering with news stories ‘just for the fun of it’—or anyone voting in an election, come to think of it, only in order to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
The start of breitbarting lies in news media whose end-all had become ratings, ethics pushed aside for the fake objectivity of ‘false equivalency’ that allows stories to be pursued blindly. Or in the loss of faith in electoral systems that have delivered no promised change for generations, that have done nothing more than confirm the power of the already blessed. The start lies in frustration.
‘No one is honest,’ says the potential breitbarter, ‘so why should I be?’
There are no ethics involved in breitbarting, I now understand, and that’s one place where my old definition falls short. The other is that it is dependent on lack of education, making the “fake university” its partner in crime. So, today, my definition is quite a bit simpler: “To Breitbart (v): To manipulate news and/or education through deliberate falsification.” At one point, I thought there needed to be a purpose to breitbarting, a political end, self-aggrandizement or even the simple desire to make money. Now, I see, purpose (other than winning) is irrelevant, just as it has become in politics (Trump acts only to win, and for no other reason; winning is both goal and justification). And in education, which has been reduced to degrees meaningless except for the doors they open, the winning they represent.
One of the corollaries to my definition of “breitbarting” is that, when it is in use, fact-checking means nothing. Or, facts mean nothing. So, learning to discern fact from fiction means nothing as does, finally, education. Donald Trump, while not the first politician to employ breitbarting, is the first to base an entire campaign on it (making it no surprise that he relies so heavily on Breitbart News Network honcho Steve Bannon). As Jay Rosen, a top media critic and journalism scholar at NYU put it, a “political campaign intended to erode people’s trust in facts is an attack on the very possibility that journalists can inform those people” or, though Rosen does not go so far, that teachers can educate them. “Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world” and, I would say, for what the rest of us have collectively learned, over centuries, about the world.
Right now—since the election, actually—we are seeing lots of commotion about ‘cowboy outfit’ news sites (“Get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy, too!” —the Kingston Trio). John Herrman wrote about the phenomenon:
“Fake news” as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.
It’s more than that; it’s also fake knowledge. It has an impact as much on our educational institutions (don’t forget Trump University) as it does on traditional news media. We can no longer “declare things true” in our classrooms, either. Not even when they are.
Burton St. John III, who co-edited (with Kirsten Johnson) News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism (where my article on Breitbart and O’Keefe appeared) wrote a guest column for The Virginian-Pilot that was published four years ago. What he said is even more relevant today than it was then. He ends:
For too long, institutional journalism has told news workers that the rules of the game mean sticking to disseminating data that was substantiated through authoritative voices. That equation is broken; understandings of what is news have changed. It’s time for every journalist to report the perspectives at play beyond the facts – time for every news worker to be “an issues guy.”
This is also true for educators: ‘It’s time for every educator to teach the perspectives at play beyond the facts—time for every teacher to be “an issues guy” or gal.’
Though we may want to, we can no longer teach beneath a dispassionate veneer. We can no longer say that we are simply instructing our students on how to recognize facts. At the end of my own article, I wrote:
It is possible for news workers to prompt a resurgence in public dialogue, but only with a better realization of the power of the pseud-journalist in a post-objective world. Without such contemplation within journalism, sparking deliberation may simply be a lofty mission statement. And those can be easily forgotten when the pseudo-journalist calls the next press conference.
That’s still true, but it doesn’t go far enough. Journalism will not succeed in re-establishing a position of respect within American society until education does the same. And that will not happen for either if we keep operating on beloved and time-honored principles that posit a continuing world that stopped being present as the 21st century dawned.
Trump University has vanished behind a $25-million settlement with no assessment of blame. The “fake university,” however, continues to exist as surely as the “fake news” site, and each is wreaking havoc with American society in part because of the existence of the other.
One problem cannot be solved without the resolution of the other.
We, both journalists and educators, have a lot of work to do.
Work we should have started on decades ago, for none of this, for all that it is now right in our faces, is anything new.