You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.

-Humbert Wolfe


There’s an old joke from the days of the Soviet Union that goes a little like this.


One day, in New York, the British and Russian ambassadors had a race.  The British ambassador won.  The British newspapers reported “the British and Russian ambassadors had a race and the British ambassador won.”  The Russian newspapers reported that “there was a race between ambassadors in New York and the Russian ambassador came second.”


You’ll notice, if you read the second statement carefully, that it is technically accurate.  There was indeed a race between ambassadors and the Russian did indeed come second.  However, it is also deliberately misleading.  It carries an implication, cunningly disguised, that there were more than two ambassadors in the race, which leads to a suggestion that the Russian did not lose so much as simply come second.  And, if anyone should happen to call the writer on the statement, the writer can simply point out that it is technically accurate. 


Which it is.  It isn’t a lie.  It’s just misleading.


It is difficult to argue that there was ever a point where the media was a paragon of honesty and truthfulness.  Journalists are human; it would be strange indeed if they were to remain above the fray.  Nor were editors and publishers ever above pushing their own views; William Randolph Hearst, for example, pushed the narrative of Spanish atrocities on Cuba that helped fuel the Spanish-American War.  It was discovered, afterwards, that many of his stories were lies, but - his defenders argued - lies told in a good cause.  Hearst’s determination to aid the Cuban rebels in their struggle against Spain led him to do everything in his power to urge American intervention.  He may have meant well, but he set a dangerous precedent for the development of future journalism.


A journalist can - obviously - suffer from a conflict of interest.  Hearst certainly was torn between his responsibility to report the news and his sympathy for the rebels.  However, a journalist cannot allow his work to be tainted by such a conflict.  Abraham Rosenthal (1922-2006) once fired a reporter for having an affair with (and accepting gifts from) a political figure she was meant to be covering.  When he was challenged by his staff, he responded with “I don’t care if you have a romantic affair with an elephant on your personal time, but then you can’t cover the circus for the paper.”  There are at least two versions of this story, as far as I am aware, but the point remains the same.  A reporter cannot allow either a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest. 


To a large extent, I think, the rot within Anglo-American journalism started to set in after Watergate and Vietnam.  On one hand, more and more reporters were leftists; on the other, there was clear evidence of governmental (presidential) misconduct and serious problems within the military.  There were ample grounds to be sceptical of the official line, be it government or military.  However, it went too far.  The journalists effectively assumed, deliberately or otherwise, that everything that came out of a government’s spokesperson’s mouth was a lie.  And then, when they discovered a tiny inconstancy, they would treat it as proof of more government misconduct, rather than considering it in isolation.  Therefore, President George W. Bush’s apparently genuine belief that Iraq had WMDs was transformed into deliberate malice.  There was no attempt to consider that Bush might have had good reason for believing, if wrongly, that Iraq had WMDs. 


What made this worse was a growing habit of accepting statements from enemy powers (however defined) as the truth, rather than questioning them.  The left-wing journalists refused to see the evil of states like the Soviet Union (a prison camp above ground, a mass grave below), Communist China and North Vietnam.  They simply lacked the experience, let alone the willingness, to accept that they were (at best) being shown a Potemkin Village, a fraud carefully designed to convey the wrong expression to a bunch of ‘useful idiots.’  Thus, when the North Vietnamese claimed that the Tet Offensive had been a communist victory, their claims were accepted without question.  The simple fact that American and South Vietnamese forces had won was ignored.  It may not be an exaggeration to say, as many did, that the American media was a de facto enemy combatant.


This problem became more pronounced as the Cold War came to an end.  On one hand, reporters were increasingly inexperienced and unable to tell the difference between truth and lies.  Fewer reporters had the background necessary to understand what they were actually seeing (in the sense, perhaps, that a newbie writer wouldn’t see anything wrong with a contract from a predatory agency.)  Worse, perhaps, the reporters were largely born within liberal cities - New York, in particular - and lacked the understanding of life outside what came to be known as the media bubble.  And, on the other hand, the media had shifted to a point where it was unwilling or unable to challenge most left-wing figures.  A vast amount of damage was done to the media’s reputation, for example, by the refusal to subject Barack Obama to the same degree of scrutiny the media aimed at George W. Bush and Donald Trump.  Their bias was painfully obvious.


Indeed, the 2016 elections may have done irreparable damage to the media’s reputation for fairness, decency and honesty.  Their original decision to treat Donald Trump’s candidacy as a joke accidentally, one assumes, gave Trump a great deal of free publicity and helped him cement the nomination.  At that point, the media went mad with rage.  Trump was attacked savagely, time and time again, while Hilary Clinton was largely given a free pass.  There was no attempt to understand why Trump was so popular, at least in part because Trump’s popularity came from his gritty determination to stand up to the media (which had been subjecting Republicans to similar attacks for years).  The media turned Trump into the underdog and his supporters loved him for it.  Indeed, they have learnt nothing from the experience.  They are still tripping over themselves in a desperate bid to get Trump.


In some ways, they are unable to understand how and why the world has changed in the past two decades.  The internet has enabled the rise of hundreds of independent news services and thousands upon thousands of bloggers, each one offering their own take on developing situations.  When Trump was lambasted for using tear gas to defend America’s borders - and the fact that reporters had to ask why the borders should be defended says a great deal about them - it didn’t take long for bloggers to reveal that Obama had also used tear gas to defend the borders.  Their bias was painfully clear.  They are no longer the undisputed masters of the media sphere and they hate it.


Trump may be a bad President.  His supporters may have been conned.  But why should anyone listen to the media who cried wolf?  The media that treated them with scorn, if not outright hatred?  The media that went easy on Hilary Clinton and overlooked Obama’s scandals?  The media that practically dropped the presidency into Trump’s lap?


The long-term effects of media malpractice started to take their toll long before Trump and will continue to pervade American (and Western) politics long after Trump vanishes from the political scene.  On one hand, the constant nagging questioning of everything the government does will constantly force the government to be on the defensive, rather than acknowledging that nothing is perfect and there are no perfect solutions to anything.  Alternatively, the failure to question governments the media actually likes will deceive the government into believing that it is perfect.  Trust in the media - and the government - is steadily being undermined, not least because the media’s mistakes are increasingly obvious. 


And, on the other hand, it will increase cynicism throughout the population.  A failure to put forward a nuanced approach, acknowledging that there are two sides to every issue, will make it impossible to believe anything.  An either/or approach to life cannot fail to cause backlash.  Distrust of the media will ensure that, in the event of a genuine fascist trying to win election, no one will believe the media.  Why should they?  The media had a lot of pleasure pointing out the mote in their enemy’s eyes.  But they chose to ignore the log in their eyes.


The sensible thing for journalists to do, right now, would be to clean up their act.  A reporter who hates Trump (or Clinton or whoever runs against Trump in 2020) should not be allowed to report on him.  Reporters should be hired, by and large, from people who have genuine life experience, including life outside the big liberal-ruled cities.  There should be a clear willingness to subject all candidates, not just the conservatives, to scrutiny, with the results put forward without spin.  Reporters who lie, or mislead, or have obvious conflicts of interest should be sacked.  The media, in short, should not play favourites. 


I doubt, however, that they will make any attempt to clean up their act.




I wrote this a while ago, but it still makes sense.


This is a story of two villages.


Once upon a time, in two villages - we’ll call them Alpha and Beta - there were two teenage boys who were charged with guarding the sheep.  Only one boy from each village could be spared for this very important duty because it was a hardscrabble life - every man, woman and child needed to work to ensure the village could survive the winter.  And it was an important duty because everyone knew there were wolves in the mountains.  If the wolves killed the sheep, the villagers would starve.


One day, those two boys - in their separate fields - decided to play a joke.  They cried WOLF!


There was instant pandemonium!  The villagers dropped their tools, grabbed their weapons and ran for the fields.  And when they got there, the villagers each found the boy laughing at them.  He showed no remorse at all for his little joke.


In Alpha, the boy was severely punished.  He was thrashed by his father, scolded by his mother and shunned by the rest of the village.  No one would talk to him, his friends abandoned him, no girl would consider marrying him.  Eventually, he left the village in disgrace and was never seen again.  The rest of the villagers took note.


In Beta, the boy was feted as a hero.  Most of the villagers thought the joke was funny - “boys will be boys” - and the ones who didn’t were accused of lacking a sense of humour.  He was surrounded by friends; he had no trouble finding a girl willing to marry him.  His life seemed perfect.  And the rest of the villagers took note of that too.


Over the next few weeks, the mountains surrounding Alpha were quiet.  But the mountains surrounding Beta constantly echoed with the cry of WOLF!  At first, the villagers would rush to arms the moment they heard the dreaded cry and hurry to defend their flocks; later, they would ignore the cry, reasoning that it was just another young boy trying to cement his position amongst his peers.  A handful of villagers swapped homes - some thought that Alpha had been too harsh, others that Beta had been too lenient. 


And then, one day, the cry of WOLF was heard in both villages.


In Alpha, the villagers rushed to arms - they raced to the field, caught the wolf and killed him.  The sheep were safe. 


In Beta, the villagers ignored the cry.  The wolf ate the shepherd, the sheep and slunk away happy.  Eventually, when someone realised that the shepherd hadn't come home and went to check on him, they discovered the truth.  But by then it was too late.


The Alpha villagers lived happily ever after.


The Beta villagers starved to death.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2019