If We Had Honest Headlines: The Global Decline of Real Journalism

Palestine’s shrinking borders due to Israeli occupation. You won’t see this map on mainstream sites. The 2011 unoccupied areas match those of the Wikipedia map dated that year.

The mainstream media, which have long been used as house organs for spouting the talking points of the rich and powerful, are in free fall. Even the NYT has started publishing fact-free opinion pieces as “news”, no longer restricting them to the editorial pages, and no longer labeling them as editorials. Welcome to Faux Times.

What would it be like if the headlines actually told the truth? Of course, this would first require that the publishers make a serious effort to ascertain the truth, no matter how unpalatable, and dispense with reducing everything to simplistic binaries. And stop their nonsense “both-sidesing” news “reporting”. Giving column space to inflammatory racist and denialist arguments of execrable shills like Bret Stephens has nothing to do with “balanced” reporting.

After Reagan and Bush introduced Orwellian names for their ecologically ruinous deregulation laws (“The Clean Skies Act”), it’s almost as if newspaper publishers wanted to get in on the game. They write about “economic growth” as if it were a good thing that benefits everyone, rather than a scourge that is making our planet unliveable and benefitting only the richest one percent of the population.

If I were writing the headlines (admittedly with the benefit of some hindsight and the time and capacity to do my own research and to think critically about the issues), here is what some of them might look like:

  1. Four million suffocate to death from virus because politicians don’t want to upset or inconvenience voters by making them wear masks or avoid large gatherings
  2. More economic growth pursued despite overwhelming evidence it will soon make most of the planet uninhabitable for our children and grandchildren
  3. Another million Yemenis die of bombings and starvation caused by weaponry partly supplied by [name of your western country]’s government
  4. Tigray leads earth’s top 1o ongoing genocides in countries we don’t care about because they’re not oil rich or superpowers (and hence we do not report on them, to leave more room for our reporting on Oscar night fashions)
  5. True inflation rate continues in double-digits, four times the false, officially published rate, halving the spending power of those on fixed incomes every seven years
  6. (1945) US nukes millions of Japanese citizens to test new bomb, because the military can’t figure out how else to test it
  7. In the interest of honest disclosure, all Orwellian words in our headlines (those that actually signify their opposite) will hereinafter be marked with a small raised “O”: eg UnitedO Nations, UnitedO Kingdom, UnitedO States, Soviet UnionO , PatriotO Act, National DefenseO, Homeland SecurityO, Operation [name of foreign country invaded] FreedomO Act, and 12,645 others.
  8. Israel’s lobbyists effectively gag all opposition to its Apartheid system and its vast Palestinian occupations, labeling opposition as anti-Semitism
  9. All stock markets and real estate markets, now trading as pure Ponzi schemes, soar past breaking point; technically bankrupt Tesla’s shares trade at 1700 times earnings, which presumes a doubling of profits every year for the next 50 years, and amounts to $1.5M for every car it has sold
  10. The richest now pay less tax as a proportion of their reported (unsheltered) income than any other income cohort, and Biden is about to widen the gulf by allowing rich Americans to deduct state taxes from their federal tax, without limit
  11. Governments embrace and fund completely unfeasible magical solutions to climate change, like cap-and-trade, carbon capture and “net zero“, as emissions continue to rise out of control

Why do we, instead of truths like this, get false headlines, fed by intelligence spooks, PR wonks and corporatist “think tanks”, dutifully transcribed to the front page, when these media companies have supposedly taken a vow that “the truth dies in darkness” (actually, it just disappears behind a paywall)? Why are some of the worst atrocities in the world knowingly and systematically unreported?

I think there are three reasons:

  1. Like politicians, they’re afraid of alienating their base. Like their readers, media publishers believe what they want to believe, and they want to believe in, and tell the stories of, good guys and happy endings. Most newspapers today are, like Tesla, technically insolvent, using every desperate method of paywalling and subscription-begging in the book to scrape up enough for the next edition. They are dependent on gullible patrons, grants, and “philanthropist”O owners.  In short, there is nothing in it for the mainstream media to tell the truth. Few of their readers want to hear it, and they certainly won’t pay for it.
  2. They are trapped in ancient information paradigms, from back when there were feasible, practical solutions to some of the predicaments of the day, and when some of the choices could actually be reduced to A-or-B without distorting the truth too badly. People, including most readers and most publishers, loathe complexity.
  3. They really don’t know any better. With limited revenue to pay for real research, journalists and publishers are an easy mark for slick organizations that can make it look as if they’ve done their homework and have important findings, when they’re actually just lobbyists for pressure groups. The media have never apologized for getting duped into supporting the first Gulf War, which was predicated on a carefully-concocted and completely untrue “story” scripted and produced by the sleazy PR “reputation managementO firm Hill & Knowlton working on behalf of Kuwaiti oil sheiks. They’ve never apologized for getting duped again into supporting the second Gulf War based on anonymous spooks’ lies about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, working on behalf of the defenseO industry, war profiteers, anti-Islamic fanatics and other interests. And now they’re mindlessly taking up the Biden war cry against China, Russia, Iran, Syria and other countries based on the same unsubstantiated and suspect claims. Unable to afford investigative journalism, they just report what they’re told, and ascribe it to anonymous “sources”, most of which are just using them.

I made a presentation two decades ago to a national press organization, and I told them at the time that unless they found a way to add real value to the information funnelling through them, that they would soon be disintermediated out of business. That’s now happening. They’ve obviously tried. But they’ve proven to be completely incompetent at fact-checking. They no longer do detailed analyses, since they’re too expensive and most of their audience is too busy, distracted, and dumbed down to read them anyway. They no longer do investigative reporting, since that’s also expensive and would require them, too often, to bite the political/corporatist hand that feeds them.

And paradoxically the effect of their increasingly severe paywalls and pan-handling “subscriptions” has been to turn customers away in frustration, to “free” sources of information, which are of course not really free, and are polluted with mis- and dis-information from nut groups and those with vested financial and political interests in concealing and obscuring the truth. I get no pleasure from having told them that would happen 20 years ago.

We are living in an era where our political and economic systems have become so dysfunctional that they are collapsing. Politicians no longer even pretend to play by the rules or to represent their constituents. Laws are written by and for the benefit of corporatist lobbyists and pressure groups, and mindlessly promulgated by politicians in return for campaign kickbacks. DeregulationO ensures an ever-increasing flow of wealth from the poor to the rich. But the media, who only look as far ahead and behind as tomorrow’s headlines necessitate, are oblivious to, and overwhelmed by, this collapse and its implications. It’s too complex to capture in bite-size, two-minute stories. It’s too complex to investigate or unravel all the chicanery and unexpected and indirect consequences of what’s happening, and those like Edward Snowden who try to point them towards it are turned upon like embarrassing upstart competitors.

In the anti-intellectual fervour of the 21st century, the mainstream media are fish out of water, and I predict that in a decade they will be gone, indistinguishable from the content-and-opinion providers of Substack, Medium, and the rest. There is no money to be made in providing information, except perhaps to intelligenceO agencies. There is even less money to be made in providing nuanced, complex, in-depth, critically-considered, truthful information. The money is in entertainment, distraction, propaganda, and attention-grabbing, outraging disinformation. The mindless pap of Facebook and Twitter.

As I’ve said before, I am addicted to wanting to know what’s really going on. That’s getting more and more difficult, even discounting the decline of information media. As we slide from a complex world into the chaotic one of full-on collapse, knowing the truth becomes less and less useful. I’ve been trying to be a “chronicler” of civilization’s collapse. I may have to find another retirement career. Maybe chronicling what’s happening at a hyper-local level, where it’s still possible to make some sense of things. Maybe fiction and poetry, where I can explore some larger truths. We’ll see.

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2 Responses to If We Had Honest Headlines: The Global Decline of Real Journalism

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Occasionally, one gets some insightful truth. I just discovered this series of interviews from last summer, when the Pandemic was occupying everyone.

    I see some first class science and sense making in what they have done. I like the story of the young woman who had collected tons of data in Bolivia, and asked them how to make sense of it. And a way to explain it all was hypothesized and her data supported the hypothesis very beautifully. The fact that they have shown that much of dietary science is just ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ is delicious, and the fact that a couple of entomologists upset the applecart is gratifying to those who like complex systems thinking.

    There are still islands of sanity….Don Stewart

  2. Nathan Shepperd says:

    Mainly thinking here that some evidence that reporting was less government or corporate influenced or superficial 30 or 50 years ago would be useful when making these arguments – I’m not convinced there’s much difference and it’s more to do with seeing through the way it’s been generally. Because clearly even if there was more informative reporting before, it clearly didn’t stop things ending up as they are now.

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