Column: Journalism, propaganda and the integrity of media

Journalism and propaganda should not be confused. Today, we’re getting both and they can be hard to distinguish. Supporters of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden see politics and policy very differently. Each tends to go exclusively to sources of information that reflect their views. That’s the nature of the polarization of politics and society today.

This is especially true among Trump supporters. Often, their sources of information are Fox talk show hosts who offer more entertainment than insight and disinformation practitioners such One America News Network and Newsmax.

The late Lawrence Bittman of Rockport, a former Boston University journalism professor, understood disinformation very well. He was described by the New York Times as a “master of disinformation” for his years as deputy chief of disinformation for Czech intelligence. In a 1983 book, following his defection to the United States, Bittman defined disinformation as “a carefully constructed false message leaked to an opponent’s communication system in order to deceive the decision-making elite or the public”.

Propaganda, the use of disinformation, according to principles defined by Joseph Goebbels, “must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets of hatred.” Sound familiar?

In contrast, journalism’s obligation is “to the truth” and to “serve as an independent monitor of power,” writes the American Press Institute.

Journalism and journalists have had more than a few tough years, not just in the United States but around the world. And while a few national media companies appear to be doing well, many local and regional media outlets suffer badly from reduced revenues and competition from social media.

Attacks on journalists are not new. But Donald Trump amps up media criticism when he feeds distrust by screaming “fake news.” He calls the press the “enemy of the people.” He called a reporter a “slimeball” and praised a Republican congressman for body-slamming a reporter. It should come as no surprise that verbal attacks on journalists by Trump led to multiple assaults on reporters during the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

His reasons are clear. Trump told CBS’ Lesley Stahl “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” It works with the majority of Republican voters.

Trump’s own Justice Department and FBI warned shortly before the 2020 election about state-sponsored interference in U.S. elections. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in Congress that he was concerned about a “steady drumbeat of misinformation,” noting that it could undermine confidence in the election results. It worked – and is still working – as Republican leaders across the country playback Russian disinformation.

There may be more to worry about. It’s the protection of media integrity as media ownership becomes more concentrated among large corporations and wealthy individuals. Rupert Murdoch is the most prominent example.

Noteworthy in recent weeks is the acquisition of the Chicago Tribune and eight other major daily newspapers, including the Hartford Courant, Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel. The hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, is not called a “vulture” fund without reason. It only took a few days following the acquisition for Alden to replace the entire Tribune Publishing board. Earlier this year, two top editors left the company as Alden’s acquisition became apparent. “A vulture, an embarrassment” is how reporters described Alden CEO Heath Freeman in a June 2020 Washington Post story. It also reported that “21 senators have urged him to stop his ‘reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers.’”

Alden founder Randell Smith and his wife donated $100,000 to Donald Trump during the 2020 campaign. Could Alden Global throw the weight of endorsements by its newspapers behind Donald Trump and hand-picked candidates as he solidifies control of his party? Are we moving back toward an era before the 20th century when partisan newspapers flourished?

In the meantime, local daily and weekly newspapers continue to struggle. They do the best they can with reduced staff and editors often responsible for multiple newspapers. They shed light on local politics, business development, environmental and health issues. Throughout COVID-19 they’ve been critical communication vehicles to keep the public informed of state and local conditions and requirements. Their reporters are trained journalists who pursue facts and seek truth under the watchful eyes of demanding editors.

Unfortunately, as journalists strive for objectivity and transparency, the growth of state-sponsored disinformation – too often adopted by politicians and fueled by agenda-driven domestic media -- continues. The challenge for responsible citizens, politicians, journalists, and media companies is to question facts, challenge assumptions and seek the truth. The future of American democracy may depend on it.

Carl Gustin is a North Shore resident who writes occasionally on local, regional and national issues.

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