There's something rotten in the newsroom. Who's to believe? Who's to be avoided at all price? The dilemma is hardly new but it has gained momentum since the presidential election in the US (Trump's ticket supposedly boosted by "fakenews") and so forth. The trolls have taken over! Beware, cloaked lies abound around every corner, ready to knife you in the back!

Mainstream media outlets feel a bit jittery. Facts, traditionally considered sacred in those places, seem lost in the streaming translation of wired upstarts crowding the world wide web. Recently, the French paper Le Monde launched a device called Decodex, purportedly in order to bring some order in the mess. It lists, along with colour-tags, competing medias according to their trustworthiness. Green is okay, red is evil, orange is dubious and blue tells the supposedly stupid reader that satire may be fun but hardly the real thing, so tread with care. Of course, it boomeranged.

Big Brother is at it again

According to Decodex, everything that's not in line with Le Monde (green!) and its opinionated sifting of facts is bad and untrustworthy. Jacques Sapir's well-informed blog (orange!) for instance, he has authored numerous books, worked as economics professor and is a well-known respected commentator on things Russian. The problem with Sapir is that he's not tough enough on Putin, according to Le Monde, that is. This is laughable as Sapir convincingly demonstrates. (You can read it for yourself, in French, here https://russeurope.hypotheses.org/5677). A bridge too far, obviously.

But trendy it is, it's the latest newsroom fad. Take Wikipedia's move to categorize The Daily Mail as "unreliable", thus not to used as source. The readers of that paper, some one million and a half, couldn't care less. So, in a sense, no harm done. Still, it's a bit scary. You kind of feel Big Brother breathing down your neck. (You can read about it here https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/08/wikipedia-bans-daily-mail-as-unreliable-source-for-website?).

Seriously though, the main problem lies with the WYSIWYG thing, of which Régis Debray has written at length. WYSIWYG? Nerds have invented the term, an acronym meaning What You See Is What You Get and referring to the way our screens are built: what you actually see is what some hidden software has decided to show you, no less, no more: what you don't see is all that stays hidden, deep down in your laptop or smartphone.

A matter of faith

This applies as well to the newsroom business. When you read or see something, you very often don't know who produced it, or why, or when, or how, or the way it was pieced together, what was left out then and what, instead, was chosen to be highlighted. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida, commenting in 1997 on the ever-expanding influence of visual "news", said that "One has no longer the need to believe, one sees." Pictures have become articles of faith. At the time, it was television; now it's the Internet. (Derrida is quoted from his Surtout pas de journalistes! published in 2016 by Galilée, the quaint title can be translated as "Don't ever let the journalists in!")

The ol' paper press, rightfully feeling it's being pushed towards the exit by electronic media (and also the trolling crowd), doesn't fare much better in the fakenews department. A typical instance, in the leading Belgian daily Le Soir, is the claim time and again that the Belgian people have never been so rich. This usually happens when the official statistics on savings and other personal assets are published. It is of course a pure lie. The so-called gigantic riches people are said to possess is built on an average, total sum divided by total sum of people, thereby supposing the riches were shared equally by all. Some joke. I've written a lot on that kind of fakenews (f.i. here http://www.gresea.be/spip.php?article1091, it's in French). Another recent instance is the Dutch paper NCR Handelsblad. The piece was about Russian meddling (trolling, hacking, etc.) in the US election process following publication of the US report investigating the matter. It was headlined with the statement that the Russian did meddle - but no proof or clear-cut exhibit were there to be found if you read the article in full. So it goes. Fakenews is routine in the newsrooms.

Media unpeople

Fakenews, of course, is just another word for propaganda. When the second Cold War started in and around 1945 (the first cold war kicked off in 1917), the US Information Agency was created as vehicle for the propaganda. Some time later, they came up with a cute word for it. The new name for propaganda was "public diplomacy". This was in the mid-1960s. Unrest was growing at the time in Europe, what with the Vietnam war. Public diplomacy seemed a more subtle way to subvert brains and it took many such forms. A third or so of German parliamentary members, for instance, were invited to visit the US on "exchange" programs set up by the Agency. Be our guest, enjoy your stay, remember the Free World paid for it. (You can read that in a paper by Kathleen Burke reviewing Nicholson Cull's book on the Cold War in the TLS dated June 12th, 2009.)

It stands to reason. As long as there will be haves and haves not (class war, betwix people, states and so forth), a war of words will prevail. The Decodex device is a case in point. Whoever writes anything positive on Russia & Putin, on Syria & Assad, on Cuba & the late Fidel Castro will be fingered and black-listed as unreliable. And censored, erased from public debate. Take Ignacio Ramonet, long the head of the French monthly Monde diplomatique and author of a long fine book of conversations with Castro. When Fidel died on November 26th, 2016, Ramonet publicly re-stated his respect for the departed revolutionary (hailed in most parts in the Third World, needless to say). Well, he shouldn't have. He shouldn't have written the book either. When his book came out, in 2006, he lost access to the Spanish daily El País, for which he wrote regularly until then, and yet another Spanish paper. He was no longer mentioned in its columns either, he had become, in the fine wording of John Pilger, a member of the "media unpeople". The same process happened in France where the public service radio station France Culture shut down his weekly Saturday slot and the University Paris-VII teared up his contract, no explanation given. At the righteous Le Monde, of course, he was banned outright. (You can read all about in his own words, in French, right here: https://histoireetsociete.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/la-dictature-mediatique-a-lere-de-la-post-verite-fidel-castro-et-la-repression-contre-les-intellectuels-par-ignacio-ramonet/)

In Nato We Trust

It happens everywhere and, always, along the same lines, the same divide. In Sweden, for instance, the official-sounding Institute for Foreign Affairs has published a report on the coverage of issues relating to Nato, of which Sweden is not a member - yet, its long-standing neutrality policy being put to hard test by a rising number of lobbyists campaigning to make Sweden join up with the "good guys". The lobbyists obviously had a hand in the drafting of the report. The left-leaning evening paper Aftonbladet, for instance, was so to say "codexed" (read: vilified), on very spurious grounds, for not having taken a vigorous anti-Russia stance in the Ukrainan tug of war. Its articles on fascist groupings in Ukraina or that country's moves to rehabilitate war criminals: not okay at all, clearly shows a bias in support of Putin. So Romanet is not quite alone.

Whoever is not Nato-friendly is branded as some kind of traitor. Åsa Linderberg, chief of the paper's cultural pages, has written a fine piece on the subject (if you can read Swedish, it's here http://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/a/ErWvo/forsvara-det-fria-ordet, published January 10th, 2017 with the title "In defense of the free word"). As the then Secretary general of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen once famously stated in 2009 in a speech in the US, voicing his concerns: the public debate, he said, "has started to go in the wrong direction" (quoted from the Financial Times, September 10th, 2009). No comment needed there...

In 1807, Heinrich von Kleist wrote a short piece entitled "A manual of French journalism" in which he set up a few rules. One of them reads: "People are indifferent to what they don't know." Another one spelled out the following newsroom guideline: "People hold true whatever is repeated thrice." In other words, propaganda has to be hammered into people's minds. And best of all, all news that don't fit to be printed should be made unknown. So it goes.