When the failures of legacy journalism during the pandemic period are analysed, as may eventually happen, the concentration will probably be on the failure to expose relevant facts. While obviously important, that is not the main lesson that should be taken out of the debacle. If disinterested journalism is to have any future – and at the moment it is all but extinct – then there has to be something more than just the recording of facts, or the eliciting of different points of view.
So great has been the intensity of the propaganda and the censorship of alleged “misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information” that it is no longer possible for journalists to rely on a degree of reasonableness in the audience. The civic ground has been poisoned, including by journalists themselves. It will remain unusable for a long time.
In one sense, the problem is an old one. To work in a newsroom is to be exposed to intense and continuous dishonesty. The dissimulation comes in various forms: spin, outright lying, misleading but true facts, half-truths, quarter-truths, lack of context, sly exaggeration, selective amnesia, deceptive jargon, false statistics, sleazy personal attacks. After about a year any journalist with reasonable powers of observation will notice that they are working in a forest of lies.
There is no legal obligation for people talking to the media to tell the truth; it is not a court of law. But decent journalists attempt to counter the mendacity. Although they are always outgunned, they put up a fight in an attempt to present as much truth as possible.
That fight has all but disappeared. In the last three years legacy journalists have given up resisting. As the French philosopher Alain Soral quipped, there are only two types of journos left: prostitutes and unemployed (I am happy to report that on that scale my virtue is almost intact).
The professional liars have won. Newsrooms have been eviscerated because Google and Facebook took all the advertising revenue, and the spin merchants in business, government and nonprofits have almost limitless resources. If journalism – as opposed to commentary in blogs, websites, social media, and online channels – is to have a future, a new approach is needed.
To counter the tidal wave of falsity two things suggest themselves. They are the analysis of semantics and the exposing of logical fallacies. A better adherence to ‘the facts’ is of course desirable, but the problem with facts is that there are so many of them, and often the picture they paint is incomplete and conclusions can be hard to draw. There is also the perennial weakness of mainstream journalism: the tendency to select events only on the basis of what makes a good story.
The same is not the case with the definition of words and logic. Words can be clearly defined and, if they are not, the lack of clarity is easy to identify and report on. An example of this has been the use of the word “case” to mean someone who had tested positive for the virus. This was a change of meaning. In the past, “cases” referred, self-evidently, to people who were ill, or who showed symptoms of a disease.
By altering the meaning of the word authorities were able to deceive with illogic. If someone tested positive for Covid and showed no symptoms (in Australia in 2020-21 the average was about 80 percent) there were only two possibilities: either the test was faulty or the person’s immune system had dealt with it. In both situations it makes no sense to call a person a “case” of the disease – because they were not diseased. Nor could they transmit it. Had journalists paid attention to this shift in semantics they could readily have exposed the deception.
Another semantic shift is the definition of “safe.” Previously, this meant (as defined on the CDC’s website) that a new drug had been shown, over the medium term, which is six to eight years at least, to have no dangerous side effects. How was it possible to test in six months the impact over six years? That change in meaning could have been reported by journalists and at least people would have been alerted to the risks and the sleight of hand.
Another semantic fiddle, which has received some commentary, is the redefinition of the word “vaccine” from something that protects you against a disease to something that produces an immune response. As one medico observed, on this basis dirt qualifies as a vaccine. The definition is so broad it is meaningless.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used a straw-man argument (accusing the critic of saying something they didn’t and then attacking it) to justify the shift:
“While there have been slight changes in wording over time to the definition of ‘vaccine’ on CDC’s website, those haven’t impacted the overall definition,” the statement said, noting that the previous definition “could be interpreted to mean that vaccines were 100% effective, which has never been the case for any vaccine.”
The CDC’s argument about 100 percent effectiveness is a diversionary tactic. The problem is that the word had lost all meaning.
Then there are the logical fallacies. The one that has been repeatedly used is the ad hominem tactic: attacking the person and not their argument. Thus we saw people repeatedly called ‘anti-vaxxers,’ conspiracy theorists,’ ‘far-right extremists,’ and so on. In logical terms, this is not much different from saying that someone is wrong because they have blue eyes. It is meaningless.
The ad hominem ploy is of course extremely common; politics consists of little else. But journalists can call it out, because it is a fact that illogic is being applied and there is no evidence or argument being offered, just prejudice.
Another fallacy is ad populum: the claim that because most people think something is true therefore it must be true. This was used repeatedly. “Most people are doing it, which proves it must be right. So why aren’t you?” It was not only transparently illogical, it ignored the reality that many people were coerced into getting jabbed. Once again, journalists can report dispassionately that no logic or evidence has been presented. There is only empty rhetoric.
We have already seen the CDC use a straw-man argument, whereby you exaggerate or falsify the opponent’s position and then attack it. Here is another example in a disgusting piece of propaganda in the West Australian, where the reporter claimed that because the vaccine rules were being relaxed it proved that critics of the jabs were wrong about everything:
“We were told by anti-vaxxers the mandates, QR codes and masks were part of a dastardly plan to subjugate us for ever more.”
This was not the central claim at all. Citizens had already lost their basic rights by being locked down, coerced into getting jabbed, forced to use vaccine passes and to put on ridiculous masks. Again, it is a diversion.
Red herrings are another common deception. In the West Australian article, for example, opponents of the vaccine were criticised for having unacceptable views on the Ukraine war. Yet perhaps the most insidious logical fallacy is the appeal to authority: the claim that because someone in authority says something it must therefore be true.
Much of the debate over Covid, on both sides, became a contest over who had the most authority. The most extreme example of this nonsense was Anthony Fauci identifying himself with science itself. Being in a position of authority is no guarantee of truthfulness, which is obvious from the fact that different authority figures often disagree. The non-argument should have been easy to dismantle with a couple of questions:
“Is SARS-CoV-2 something new?”
The answer would surely be, at least to some extent, “Yes.”
“How useful is your previous knowledge, which allegedly gives you a degree of authority, when applied to something new that many are claiming is sharply different?”
We do not know the answer to that question because it was never asked. Had it been, the ’authorities’ and ‘experts’ might have been forced to confront the limits of their own knowledge, which would have at least introduced some intellectual rigour into proceedings.
There are some facts that are so important that their impact is overwhelming.
The evidence that the US Department of Defence controlled the vaccine rollout because they were treating Covid as a bioweapons attack and an act of war is an example. It helps us understand how the whole world came to be locked down and billions were forced into taking an untested drug.
But facts, especially given the sneakiness of the increasingly absurd ‘fact-checks,’ are insufficient. Journalists have to find another way. The alternative media will continue to investigate and comment, often well, and legacy journalists cannot compete with that, especially as they usually have no specialist knowledge. To be a journalist necessarily means navigating your own ignorance, using it to ask questions.
But alternative media is never disinterested, whereas journalists should be. That neutrality is perhaps most of all what has been lost, with many legacy media stories featuring headlines that include prejudice or ignorant opinions – something that never used to happen. By reporting on semantics and logical arguments (or lack thereof), journalists may be able to rescue something from the ashes of their craft. At the moment, it looks headed for oblivion.