As the mainstream media tries to salvage what’s left of its damaged credibility, we will no doubt continue to hear about the epidemic of “fake news” outlets and the supposed absurdity of “alternative facts.” But the irony is that mainstream journalists have always been advocating a particular worldview…

kellyanne conway alternative factsThe mainstream news media has been aglow with mockery towards Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s appeal to what she called “alternative facts” on a recent Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. Joe Scarborough quipped: “If I needed alternative facts, I’d go to a Ouija Board.” “Brace for it, parents of America,” taunted CNN’s John King, “alternative facts when you catch your kids doing whatever.” And not to be outdone, The New York Times featured the headline: “White House Pushes ‘Alternative Facts.’ Here Are the Real Ones.”

Now, regardless of the merits or demerits of Mrs. Conway’s case, the mocking and jeering among the so-called mainstream media reveals a rather stunning epistemological naïveté. Scholars such as Mary Poovey have analyzed the social and historical processes behind the cultural construction of what she calls the “modern fact.”[1] The modern fact is a relatively new invention, concocted with an eye toward overcoming the fallibility of subjective conjecture, preconception, and bias. This social construction of knowledge was inextricably linked to the emergence of a new conception of republican citizenship. According to Sally Engle Merry, we first begin seeing numerical statistics cited as evidence in Europe during the 1820s and 1830s, and by the mid-nineteenth-century, the French began to see statistical “facts” as indispensable to the very transparency necessary for a functioning democracy. Facts were perceived as providing the populace with a sense of evaluative contribution to and control over the public square.[2] Even today, numerical indicators contribute to our understanding of everything from tax burdens to stock options, disease to demographics, poverty rates to penitentiary populations.

Unlike the mystical governance that marked premodern societies, facts are believed to reveal a reality considered completely uncontaminated by traditions, biases, and prejudices. Facts don’t require the hands of priest and prince, who relied on non-numerical, non-rational information such as divine revelation, ordination, and tradition, thereby limiting decision-making to a cloistered aristocracy. Rather, modern facts are viewed as completely transparent; unlike the subjectivity involved in philosophical and theological speculation, facts are free from the distortions of interpretation and resist the biases of personal predispositions.

In a similar vein, media historian Richard Kaplan observes that in the early twentieth century, journalists turned increasingly toward scientific rationalism and the adoption of modern facts as the key methodology behind their reporting, which sought to analyze events objectively and impartially, irrespective of the preconceptions of the reporter. Prior to such a turn, the reporter was a journalistic advocate; for most of the nineteenth-century, print media was explicitly partisan in its perspectives, and openly sought to persuade an increasingly literate public to particular political positions and policies. However, it became increasingly evident that a vibrant democracy required an “objective” press. And so, at the turn of the new century, the journalist would no longer serve as a partisan advocate, but rather as an expert collector of information—in short, a purveyor of facts. This is why the journalist is never part of the story he or she is covering, since such an inclusion would violate the perception of objectivity. This “perceived absence” is a primary way in which journalists establish themselves as mediators of information composed of data and facts.

However, Poovey’s research recognizes that what we call facts is hardly objective, but is rather loaded with theoretical assumptions about the nature of reality, the preconditions for knowledge, and how classifications and quantifications relate to that knowledge. Moreover, facts are hardly the bedrock of modern citizenship, as we are finding out with the so-called mainstream media, but rest largely on the emergence of a professionalized priesthood. While the mythology surrounding facts, numbers, and indicators lauds democratic transparency with knowledge opened to all, technocracies actually tend to consolidate power into the hands of the few. The definition of what are considered facts is actually predicated on a process of selectivity, which involves “media producers… selecting cultural elements from the pool of public culture, transforming them and returning them through some medium, as texts, to public space.”[3] The perception of journalistic facticity is thus dependent in many respects on the confidence modern populations place in the expertise of media producers as competent disseminators of information.

This, then, goes a long way to explaining why journalists see themselves as the arbiters of informational validity. They are an elite class of experts who alone possesses the competency for determining what is legitimate news rooted in “fact” and, in our present context, what is illegitimate news rooted in fallacy.

But as the anthropologist of media and communication, Mark Allen Peterson, notes, what is often overlooked is that such claims to facticity and actuality are rooted in the assumption that there is an objective world “out there” that can be accurately represented through the naming and categorizing of people and places. In other words, journalists all too often assume that there exists an independent reality external to representational systems. The problem here is that this overlooks the whole question of “whose perspective of reality—whose experience of the world—is going to count as the empirical reality against which to evaluate other accounts.”[4] Peterson notes that the “issue is not so much whether things exist in the external world… as it is one of articulation, of constructing accounts of these things…. However unbiased one’s reporting is, the articulation of experience in words and images… always remains a construction. Texts are inevitably made, not given or discovered.”[5] He notes further that choices among words such as “militants,”“guerrillas,” “freedom fighters,” “rebels,” “separatists,” or in our case “Islamic terrorists,” or “fake news,” are not and indeed cannot be a neutral choices; each term has as Peterson notes “a different set of associated meanings that become part of the reality constructed by the text. Texts become sites of ideological struggle in which different realities are contested.”[6]

And this I believe is what is at the heart of the so-called “fake news” accusations as well as the mockery surrounding Mrs. Conway’s appeal to “alternative facts”; news has itself become a site of ideological struggle in which different perceptions of reality and experiences of the world, such as globalist vs. nationalist, or urban vs. rural, or secular vs. traditionalist, are contested. But the great irony in all of this that cannot be missed is that the journalistic role of advocacy never actually ended! Journalists and journalism have always been and always will be about advocating a particular worldview and cultural construction. For me, what made this election so fascinating is the way in which the so-called alternative media, the supposed site of “fake news,” was so successful in calling out and exposing this mainstream media advocacy. In slandering Trump and his supporters, mainstream journalists revealed themselves as purveyors of a secularized globalist perspective that masquerades as objective information untainted by the preconceptions of the journalist.

And so, as the so-called mainstream media tries to salvage what’s left of its damaged credibility, we will no doubt continue to hear about the social epidemic of “fake news” outlets and the supposed absurdity of “alternative facts,” as such foils aim to bolster the utility of modern journalism. But the Chicken Little cackles of press parodies and news counterfeits supposedly so pervasive among the alternative media will matter little; what’s done is done. The 2016 election exposed effectually the news media as a site of political contestation, with a mocking media merely underscoring the partisan antipathy. There’s no going back.

And that’s a fact.

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[1] Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[2] S.E. Merry, “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance,” in Ruth Buchan, et al (eds.) Law in Transition: Human Rights, Development and Transitional Justice (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2014), 141-65.

[3] Mark Allen Peterson, Anthropology and Mass Communication: Myth and Media in the New Millennium (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), 59.

[4] Peterson, Anthropology, 78.

[5] Peterson, Anthropology, 78.

[6] Peterson, Anthropology, 78-9.

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