Early maps depict ships falling off the edge of the earth during a period in history when the majority of scarcely educated human beings believed the earth was flat. Among horrors at the illustrated edges were signs of endless falling into oblivion and dragons waiting to chew and painfully swallow visionaries who sailed out over the seas. As early as 195 B.C., however, there were scholars, including Eratosthenes, later Aristotle, later still, Christian theologians, then Galileo who argued from the clear-eyed stance of examining reasoned evidence, that the world was, indeed, spherical. These early scholars used direct evidence, as well as theoretical hypotheses based upon scientific data and observations, including changes in the sun’s elevation with latitude and the gradual disappearance of ships over the horizon. Yet, the flat earthers prevailed for far too long.
Perception of a flat or square earth seems preposterous in the 21st Century, but there was a time when that was the commonly held worldview, a misguided conceptual scheme which chilled the bones of early explorers who, nevertheless, ventured out, thank goodness. Although map makers did not invent this “edge of the world” supposition, their art and craft, unintentionally or intentionally, perpetuated paralyzing information and delayed exploration and progress. In many respects, these cartographers were either knowingly or unknowingly messengers of dangerous, political propaganda that stalled human progress. We do not need to go into every reason for political powers of the time to create the impression that the world was flat, but it bears note that they had enlisted early map makers in their designs.
There were those throughout history who painstakingly argued that “round earthers” were fools or idiots, including an American man by the name of Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who, in 1932, took his skewed worldview from measurements he conceived from biblical “readings” to predetermine the world as flat, much like those who argue against direct scientific evidence of evolution today. Voliva had a rather large following in his time, which demonstrates the idea that passionate adherents to a movement like Voliva’s and the people in his community of Zion, are no more correct than a lone individual spouting ignorance at any point in history.
Even today, there are members of a “Flat Earth Society” claiming that what they sense or feel is the only reality, akin to a spiritual belief that cannot be counter-argued from a position of logic or any amount of direct evidence. What does map making have to do with 21st Century American journalism and mainstream media news distribution? Perhaps more than any other checks and balances within our democracy, the Fourth Estate is uniquely located to reveal parameters of what we reasonably know to be accurate, what we project, and what we must weigh as error, distortion, or deliberate misinformation. Journalists are in position to bravely defend facts, justice, and call out injustice. It is also within their power to perpetuate dangerous, progress-defeating myths.
Yet our media, even qualified as mainstream media (excluding known propagandists such as Breitbart News, InfoWars, NewsMax, and others) is no monolith. Making up this loose conglomerate known as our mainstream media are journalists as disparate in talent and in substance as Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick from The New Yorker all the way down to Fox News former pundit Bill O’Reilly, whose books and on-air comments have been widely shown to be riddled with deliberate fictions or propaganda. Yet, O’Reilly’s daily presence on television (for years until his recent firing for sexual misconduct) probably had more to do with shaping American opinions and voting than Remnick’s finely crafted, carefully researched, factual articles. Television has been the preferred news medium for the lazy man almost since its inception. These contemporary, television pundits/cartographers have the ability to design fabricated maps that allow them to deceive the populace with their beware of dragons at the edges scare tactics.
Of course, not all media outlets are created equal. To equate The New York Times or The Washington Post with Breitbart News or Fox News is an absurdity. After sustained attacks on The New York Times by President Trump and his surrogates, the Times took out an ad in February 2017 in its own defense which stated, “The truth is hard. The truth is more important to find than ever.” We have come to a point in our culture, where our major news organizations are compelled to fight the tide of attacks coming from the perpetrators of propaganda. In this contemporary maze of Russian bot created “news,” propaganda outlets in profusion, the truth is becoming harder to find than ever. Sadly, more and more young people, in particular, get their news from social media, making information manipulation far easier than it was in the past.
Printing deceptive words on paper and typing words that will dwell in the Internet through various media outlets and vehicles, or speaking on televised “news” reports, people relating packaged pieces of information that are misleading, false (deliberately construed to be so or simply incorrect), or at odds with reason are not examples of journalism. These individuals—typically working in a large propaganda network—are quite simply and merely propagandists.
To those interested in preserving the Fourth Estate and democracy, it is necessary to identify and speak out against deliberate untruths in the guise of journalism, not an easy task in this age of propagandist pundits, even coming directly from the White House.
Just as there is no counter-argument to the Flat Earth Society absurd claims of “feelings taking precedence over rational, scientific proofs,” there is no counter-argument to conspiracy theories coming out of what was once termed “Alt Right news” sources such as Alex Jones’ radio show or Breitbart media. Unfortunately, social media platforms, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, have exponentially expanded the reach of propaganda. Attempting a rational argument with someone from the “we believe it to be so” camp—that claims the world is flat because they sense it—is a precarious position from which to start.
Yet even our mainstream media sources have been increasingly drawn into repeating ridiculous “information,” false claims, and dangerous absurdities during this last presidential campaign, presidential election, and current administration simply because Donald Trump, or Steve Bannon, or Kellyann Conway, or Michael Flynn, or Steven Miller or Jeff Sessions, or Sean Spicer, or a dozen other Trump surrogates, both in and outside the White House, claim something to be true based upon unknown and unverifiable sources. Journalists who print absurd statements, without extended refutation of the misleading information, are not evidence of a free press but have fallen into the trap of becoming mere messengers of propaganda. Like the ancient mapmakers, they are moving with the winds of power not truth.
When Donald Trump stated or acted beyond the pale during the 2016 presidential campaign, too often news media outlets printed yet another story (nearly too numerous to count) of Hillary Clinton’s email transgression of using a private server that ultimately came down to a procedural or protocol error but was magnified to be the scandal of the century. Rather than explain exactly what the procedural error was, journalists simply repeated story after story of misleading information. Feeding this media frenzy of Hillary email headlines were Russians, under the direction of Putin. We can almost see them screaming, “the world is flat; Hillary Clinton for prison.”
As Trump created chaos, information, slowly and in piecemeal, came out about his numerous court filings, sexual harassment allegations, his bigotry revealed in housing practices, his Trump University fraud, his unexplored business dealings with Russians, all while mainstream media sources were still highlighting Hillary’s email story and largely ignoring the information that demonstrated Trump’s unfitness for office. False equivalency, practiced by nearly every mainstream American media outlet during the last election cycle, has been one of the great levelers of reasoned argument and norms in our society of late.
Although there are many brave and highly intelligent, hard-working journalists in our country, there have also been great failings to providing accurate and timely accounts of late. Here again, our news media people are akin to the ancient map makers. They help the populace consider and determine what is possible, what is true, what is dangerous. It is imperative that they do more than simply read the popular pulse (Polling numbers being one of their favorite topics). True journalists are in a unique position to set parameters of the conversation.
The headlines could be sensationalized over Trump’s arguable response to military personnel’s deaths, as compared to other presidents, or they could be about why those four Green Berets were killed in Niger and what military operation they were supporting in a country in which the Niger government had recently signed a contract with the Russian government for oil. A failure on the part of our contemporary mapmakers leaves us all more vulnerable to manipulation, even death (as in the case of the four Green Berets just killed).
If journalists depict a world with dangerous, one-dimensional edges, they are complicit in providing misleading information. If journalism outlets lose their way, we are all in a great deal of trouble, increasingly facing the shouts of those who sense, rather than reason, the world is flat.
There has been much discussion about what constitutes “fake news,” a malpractice of which Breitbart “News” is an example, but one the Trump administration has employed to attack journalists and news organizations they don’t like or ones that show the Trump administration in a poor light. The “fake news” named by Donald Trump in his Tweets and the 2017, post-election, Florida rally include some of the best news outlets in the world, not just the United States. Trump calling the New York Times, ABC, NBC, CNN, CBS, and the Washington Post “fake news” sites is deeply dangerous territory for the president in a democracy.
News outlets are not perfect because they are made up of fallible human beings, but the ones mentioned above represent our best efforts to get as close to the truth as journalists are able to ferret out in news reporting, even if setting the record straight does not happen on the first attempt.
Likely fearing the release of compromising information about his administration’s ties to Russia before, during, and after the presidential election, Trump and his surrogates have repeatedly attacked the mainstream media and tried to discredit organizations that pursued stories about any of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, even labeling the most reliable sources of our news as the enemy: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Trump wrote in a Tweet, then repeated the statement at the CPAC Conference in February 2017.
The troubling idea behind labeling a news outlet as inherently false is an attempt to render it useless in reporting fact, as well as discredit the stories that come out of their reporting. Examples of the kind of deception and intentional discrediting of media reports have frequently been practiced by the Trump administration. Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer angrily tweeted in response to news reports about the likely resignation of Navy Secretary nominee Philip Bilden: “Those people would be wrong. Just spoke with him and he is 100% committed to being the next SECNAV pending Senate confirm” [18 February 2017]. A few hours later, Bilden withdrew his name from consideration, verifying the earlier news reports, as well as embarrassing (one would hope) Sean Spicer and the White House, in undermining any Trump claim to an honest transparency of information.
Republican Senator John McCain responded to his party’s leader calling news organizations “the enemy,” with this memorable quotation on NBC’s Meet the Press: “They [dictators] get started by suppressing a free press. In other words, a consolidation of power. When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.” Senator McCain is not the only Senator to have noticed the correlations between Trump and dictators, but he is one of the few brave enough to openly speak truth to power.
Certainly, the Trump administration has an interest in curtailing the freedom of the press to report on news. When former Chief of Staff Reince Preibus was reported by credible news organizations to have contacted the FBI about changing or suppressing information regarding the campaign’s or administration’s ties to Russia, Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon responded, “every day, it is going to be a fight.” Bannon appeared to be advocating further attacks on the mainstream media, indirectly as a fight with all journalists interested in reporting the facts, wherever they take them.
Trump has barred certain mainstream, top news organizations from White House press briefings (which have since become something of a joke) simply because he does not like the fact they have reported on stories hinting at his campaign’s ties to Russian operatives.
Months from now, this story may have taken many, as yet, unexpected twists and turns. The Trump campaign’s complicity with Russian agents in attempting to or succeeding in rigging our election is one of many possible findings, but so is the idea that there was no direct Trump collusion with Russia (although numerous, well respected news organizations’ reports already suggest some kind of alignment).
Wherever this one particular story leads, a free and determined-to-get-to-the-facts press is crucial to continuing to live in a democracy.
As this essay was in process, journalist and war correspondent Shifa Gardi, who worked for Rudaw Kurdish media, was killed in Mosul on February 25, 2017. Gardi joined the legions of exceedingly brave journalists who have been murdered while seeking to expose the truth about the nature of events. Yet even the nature of this tragedy must be measured in terms of profits and losses. The news story of her murder had to compete with coverage of the Academy Awards, and Gardi’s story was completely overshadowed by the spectacular media event held in Hollywood. Does this fact of consciousness about revenues and where they come from compromise, in any way, the integrity of news coverage? Of course, but the fact that Gardi’s death was covered at all shows that many honorable journalists and news organizations, in fact, were out there trying to inform, not merely entertain.
Journalists and news organizations have gotten it wrong before. They will again. That is the nature of information gathering. The sustained invasion of Iraq was largely possible because every major news organization “bought into” and repeated the White House and Vice President Cheney’s line and lie that weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq ready for Saddam Hussein to use against us. Eventually, the truth was exposed, however, even if some portion of the populace continued to believe the lie. Our map makers led us astray, but, give them credit, too. They redrew their lines and erased the dragon at the margin, even if it was significantly after the fact. We should not have to be reminded of the importance of a free press. When John F. Kennedy received bad press after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he was asked about his response to the media’s sharp criticism of his actions. He responded to NBC journalist Sander Vanocur in the way that we wish every American President would respond: “I think it is invaluable… It is never pleasant to be reading things frequently that are not agreeable news, but I would say it is invaluable arm of the presidency, as a check really on what is going on in the administration…there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
That active press, our “invaluable” Fourth Estate, is, perhaps, our last best hope for preserving a vital democracy. We will certainly discover whether or not our democracy is more fragile than we previously suspected or believed. The facts will force us to examine our ideation of our country, our freedoms.
May our 21st century map makers keep adjusting as new facts are revealed; may they investigate the limits of the known world, refute lies and deceptions, draw and redraw the lines as we come to know and then understand reports, science, data, intelligence, clues to events. Given the most accurate information possible at the time, and assuming a reading population that uses its ability to analyze and to draw conclusions, we will undoubtedly be able to set sail out across open, but still imperiled, oceans. A lazy populace—that allows pundits and propagandists to think for them—will drift away from democracy and find itself far from shore with no means of finding a direction home.
Nancy Avery Dafoe