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The networked Fourth Estate

There is no such thing as ‘fake news’. All press has an agenda. And increasingly establishment media is reliant on non-traditional players to lend it credibility. The vain attempts of those with vested interests to censor and control the supply of information online will soon have no choice but to accept that the decentralisation of journalism is imperative to their survival.

Trust in journalism has been declining steadily over the last 20 years, according to Gallup polling. In fact trust in media is at an all-time low, according to survey by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations consultancy. Jumping on this meme the US President is seemingly intent on maligning the entire industry branding ‘mainstream media’ as ‘fake news’, cashing in on some very public errors made by once trusted media brands such as the New York Times and The Washington Post.

It is this distrust which was the topic of a strange apologia by the US Financial Times managing editor, Gillian Tett, following her turbulent and unexpected panel at an Aspen Ideas Festival debate about journalism in the age of Trump.

“In these strange times, it is temptingly easy to shoot the messenger — which, in this case, is the media,” she wrote, proceeding to explain how structural shifts in media business models has not only resulted in but requires partisan coverage:

“Many media outlets now have a stronger commercial incentive to be partisan, since they need a passionate audience,” she wrote. “Hence the fact that Fox (which makes about $2.3bn in revenue a year) is so clearly rightwing and MSNBC (which has about $518m annual revenue) is leftwing; and hence the rise of sites such as Breitbart, the far-right network formerly chaired by Steve Bannon, now Trump’s adviser, which has 45 million unique page views each month.

As extremist, anti-establishment groups launch social media platforms that pump out highly partisan — and sometimes fake — news, the sense of disorientation for consumers grows. Fake news is seeping into the mainstream press on occasion, partly because it makes such compelling clickbait (to understand how this works, take a look at a brilliant study from New York’s Data & Society project on “alt-right” groups such as 8/chan). *** The result is a cacophony of competing voices, more akin to the pamphleteering of the 19th century than the media of 50 years ago. It is thus little wonder that an Edelman poll shows that more Americans trust search engines than the media, or that there is so much indignation and anger even at a place such as Aspen. As a journalist, I would stress that this disorientation does not tell the whole tale…”

“…FT’s growing subscriber base ‘along with those newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, demonstrates that many people clearly want real news”.

The New York Times. Publication of the Democratic Party. Home to pro-globalisation columnists like Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman. The same publication which published a front-page non-apology-apology to its readers for getting the election verdict, and the coverage leading up to it, so very, very wrong.

And The Washington Post with its cozy relationship with the US intelligence community, which in recent months published not one but two stories that proved demonstrably false. The first claimed Russia was responsible for the explosion of “fake news” and propaganda designed to influence the election outcome, the second claimed Russia hacked the US electricity grid.

Both stories are now accompanied by editor’s notes acknowledging that the central claims of both ‘scoops’ had since proven totally fictional.

To be fair, The Financial Times is one of the world’s more reputable publications which understands better than most the economic myths that have resulted in a badly broken economic system. Nonetheless, it is too cozy with British intelligence services for my liking and has on more than one occasion, published unverified government claims of Russian cyber-threats that even the infosec analysts it relied upon for its investigations could not substantiate.

So yeah, why would anyone have a problem with the mainstream media? Well…

There is no such thing as fake news. It’s either news. Or it isn’t.

It is worth mentioning for a minute that like ‘fake news’ the term ‘mainstream media’ is a deceptive pejorative. The term is perniciousness in its simplicity. To quote Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald:

“(In coining the term ‘fake news’), Trump is doing trying to discredit every single source of information other than Donald Trump. He is saying, ‘don’t listen to American media because they’re lying. Don’t listen to the intelligence community, they have defrauded you with Iraq, don’t listen to the experts because they have been corrupted by the elites in the DC swamp. The only truth you should trust, comes from me, Donald Trump. It is pure authoritarianism because he becomes the only source of information the population trusts. His biggest allies are media outlets, they are why people are losing faith in news outlets.”

Journalists are not part of some amorphous, all-thinking, all-writing mass. There are individual journalists at every publication you would consider ‘mainstream’ doing a tremendous job of defying all stereotypes. They bust a gut to publish exclusives that serve the public interest, often risking their jobs to do so. They deserve to be acknowledged.

That said, group-think is an endemic problem in journalism. The Times, The FT and WaPo have come to squarely dominate the establishment, and take great pride in doing so. Their credibility is often measured by their proximity to power, be it Hillary, those who walk the halls of Congress, the White House or Wall Street. And when they get it wrong, their reputation – and the entire industry – suffers for it.

Always read between the lines – all journalism has agenda…

“The press today is an army with carefully organised weapons, the journalists its officers, the readers its soldiers,” writes German historian Oswald Spengler. “The reader neither knows nor is supposed to know the purposes for which he is used and the role he is to play.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that phrase was written yesterday when in fact it is from the 1918 but it is as true now as it was then.

I often hear complaints from friends outside of the industry that ‘I don’t want analysis, I just want someone to tell me what is happening’.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but all news is analysis, (but not all analysis is news) and most – if not all – journalism has an agenda. Take the FT and ask how hard do they bite the hands that feed them? It is the advertisers not the subscribers who really drive revenue. The FT is not alone in this.

Media agendas play out in a variety of ways. It can be tied to the interests of board members (the peril of Venture Capital funded journalism), or to pacify advertisers or those in power (remember this every time a business leader or politician past or present is given their own column. Hello NewsCorp). It can be driven by page-views and advertising revenue. It can suit the political ideology of its founders, editors and sympathisers, or simply suit a desire for revenge, (hello WikiLeaks. And NewsCorp).

But the central unspoken truth across all media is that the desire to avoid a costly legal battle(s) has an outsized influence over how content is treated by editors.

Scoops are carefully and cautiously selected. Many fall by the wayside because the cost of a legal battle outweighs the sales and advertising revenue said scoops help to generate.

Then there are the scoops that are lent credibility because the leaks or ledes came directly from the halls of power, or the intelligence communities. They can also, conveniently, minimise the likelihood of legal action, because often intelligence stories serve an ulterior purpose, as indicated by the now defunct claims that Russia had hacked the electricity grid and the election.

Russian election tampering is besides the point

Intelligence communities have pretty much always been involved in cultural subterfuge, social-engineering, espionage, surveillance and election tampering. That is their job. (The election tampering, not so much). I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia was also playing the same long-game. But to act as though its alleged propaganda game is unique or special is deeply naive, flawed and just plain wrong.

We have yet to see a single shred of evidence that Russia accessed voting machines or the software which program them. And two independent forensic investigations have demonstrated that data was leaked – not hacked – by a person with physical access to DNC computers, and then doctored to incriminate Russia.


These claims are backed Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer of 28 years, Kirk Wiebe, former senior analyst at the NSA SIGINT Automation Research Center, Edward Loomis, formerly technical director in the NSA Office of Signal Processing and William Binney, the former NSA’s technical director for world geopolitical and military analysis and who designed many of the programs now used by the agency.  Also the official who proved Colin Powell’s Weapons of Mass Destruction claims to be totally false before resigning after 30 years with the agency.

The veteran intelligence officials founded VIPS organisation – Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity – in 2003 and has around 30 members with backgrounds in a range of national-security fields.

Binney and McGovern said as much in a co-authored piece in the Baltimore Sun. All four concurred during interviews an expose by The Nation.

Whether Russia was complicit in election tampering is very much besides the point with so many other elements are at play: A 16-year-war in Iraq and Afghanistan with seemingly no end. New wars in Syria & Yemen. Uprisings and financial disaster in Venezuela, Guatemala and Syria. Turkish and Venezuelan democracies that are fast becoming dictatorships. And decision-making influenced by private-sector consultants and donations from those with ulterior motives. A shift in the global balance of power has resulted in a war for hearts and minds, reflected by an increasing visibility and vocalness of intelligence communities across the US and UK.

One thing that damaged older media brands might do is to stop focusing on growing their bottom lines and subscribers. Instead they should focus on growing trust capital. If they were to do this the other two economic indicators would naturally follow. But there does not seem to be an appetite in newsrooms to put the reader first. It is this point that very few editors and media owners accept – their agendas (and advertisers) almost always come first.

The networked Fourth Estate

The idea that readers could ever rely on a single publication to help make sense of the world has always been a myth, but this has never been more true than it is today. Readers are responsible for their media intake because gone are the days of monolithic media brands. Readers who are really interested in the truth or have the patience to stay with a story as it develops – regardless of their assumptions – now have to forage for information across a diverse range of publications, accepting that there are editorial agendas that underpin all published content. This is an unsettling feeling for people especially as we human beings often subconsciously search for stories that confirm our assumptions.

So we have to accept that relying on a single publication to provide you with ‘The Truth’ is naive. So now we look to a new media landscape that the author Yochai Benkler describes ‘The Networked Fourth Estate’. In short this describes the growth of non-traditional media players and their effects on establishment players. WikiLeaks is the poster kid for this movement.

In a paper for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Benkler discusses how the United States Federal Government relied heavily on private sector players to assist – unsuccessfully – in having the whistleblower organisation shut down. In particular they thought that if they targeted the owners of the critical infrastructure that hosted WikiLeaks it would be enough to put an end to the organisation.

These private-sector players included Amazon, Apple, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and even the Swiss Postal Bank who voluntarily withdrew their support after a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security for “any company or organization that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them”. But it didn’t work. What it did was exemplify an old world mentality trying to ‘solve’ a brave new media world that that readers want to understand.

This is the new frontier now.

But the incumbent players won’t tell you about it because to them it’s just too terrifying. But increasingly establishment media is reliant on non-traditional players to lend it credibility. And as those vested interests continue their vain attempts to censor and control the supply of information online there will come a point when they will have to accept that the decentralisation of journalism is not only the essence of the The Fourth Estate but essential to the survival of their outdated organisations.

Geopolitical alliances are changing and nothing is as it seems anymore. The old world will not return. Reporting must adapt to reflect the context in which these shifts are occurring. We have made a conscious decision to be part of this solution. The incumbents should welcome that by ending their codependency with the right wing think tanks, neoliberal economists, the partisan intelligence community and rent seeking big business. If they don’t it is the reader who will determine their fate.

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