No Laughing Matter: Pseudo-Journalism and Its Impact on American Politics

Remember Jeff Gannon? Probably not. He caused a minor furor during the W. administration: Conning his way into the White House press corps, Gannon (his real name is James Guckert) managed to ask Bush a ludicrous and loaded question designed to denigrate Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid—on national TV. A group of outraged bloggers (I was among them) asked “Who is this guy?” No one, really, we eventually discovered, but simply a sign of the deterioration of American journalism, a fake who believed he was real yet, as David Margolick and Richard Gooding wrote for Vanity Fair:

The charge that he is a fake is what stings Gannon most. He has noted, proudly, that he has written more than 500 articles for Talon News, and insists he was no more political than the left-wingers in the media mainstream. Nor did any revelations about his past or the reaction to his incendiary question change anything. “I’m not discredited, not in any way, shape, or form, and that annoys me,” he says. “Is Dan Rather discredited? I mean, I think he is, but nobody says ‘the discredited Dan Rather.’ ”

Oh, but discredited he was, and he soon disappeared from the political scene.

In addition to blogging about him, I wrote about Gannon briefly in a chapter, “The Pride and Reward of Falsification: Post-Objectivity as Post-Responsibility,” for a 2012 book called News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism edited by Burton St. John III and Kirsten A. Johnson. Though I concentrated on the late Andrew Breitbart and on James O’Keefe, I mentioned Gannon as an early prototype of the post-objective pseudo-journalist that the other two have come to exemplify. All of them attempted (or attempt—O’Keefe, shockingly, is still active and Breitbart’s legacy continues through the pseudo-news organization carrying his name) to manipulate the appearance of journalism and the trappings of “objectivity” into political gain. The difference between them and Fox News is negligible, but they, as individuals and not corporate entities, are even easier to use as models for describing the descent of American journalism into a denial of responsibility concerning what it “reports” (see Trump, Donald J.).

For the May 30, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer penned “Sting of Myself: Amateurish Spies like James O’Keefe III Attempt to Sway the 2016 Campaign.” It’s a clear indictment of O’Keefe, not only as a pseudo-journalist but as someone who has succeeded (to whatever degree) only because of the carelessness (certainly not the perniciousness) of others. The only weakness of the article is Mayer’s insistence on including a ‘both sides do it’ discussion of David Brock’s operations for the Democrats. This false equivalency aside (I mention it only because that sort of thing is central to the St. John and Johnson book), Mayer gently makes a fool of O’Keefe while still recognizing the very real damage he has been able to cause.

That’s not particularly hard, for O’Keefe, for all of his initial and spectacular success in bringing down ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform) and then embarrassing National Public Radio, has generally come off as a member of the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. He has gotten himself arrested at least once and embarrassed a number of times. Once, he even set his sights on New York University professor Jay Rosen who caught on quickly and then wrote:

Occasionally I will hear someone exasperated at his tactics describe O’Keefe as a kind of terrorist. This is not wise and it’s not true. He doesn’t use violence; he’s an “entrapment journalist,” as Steve Myers of Poynter put it. But having been targeted, I can see one thing in his methods that is akin to terrorism….

[W]hen someone asks to sit it on my class, I say “come on in.” But my students are now shocked and angry that their learning environment has been invaded by a trickster like O’Keefe. I need to prevent that from happening again. But the only way I can do so is by closing my classroom to all outsiders, or by looking into the background, motivations and character of potential visitors, which is creepy and offensive. O’Keefe has struck at a pedagogical strength–the openness of my classroom–and changed it into a weakness. In that precise sense, and no other, he is like a terrorist.

In my own article, written at about the time of the attempted Rosen sting, I wrote that O’Keefe (like Breitbart) operates “within a milieu of belief masquerading as truth,… manipulating data to create realities that resonate with key audiences.”

As we have seen for this past Year of Trump, it is no longer enough to simply make fun of people in ‘the media,’ such as O’Keefe, who play fast and loose with the truth. What O’Keefe represents is a ‘post-objective’

attitude towards objectivity, towards journalism and its past, and towards the public discourse. To the post-objective journalist, these are all merely tools for achieving personal and political goals. In a subjective world, objectivity can be argued away as simply a myth, after all.

When I wrote that five years ago, I was not thinking about implications beyond journalism itself, about Trump or about the attitudes of Gannon, Breitbart and O’Keefe moving from the purview of the gadfly and the wannabe journalist into the mainstream of political discourse as exhibited by politicians themselves. I ended the article with this:

It is possible for new workers to prompt a resurgence in public dialogue, but only with a better realization of the power of the pseudo-journalist in a post-objective world. Without such contemplation within journalism, sparking deliberation may simply be a lofty mission statement. And those can be easily forgotten when the pseudo-journalist calls the next press conference.

My point, of course, was that the pseudo-journalist can be no journalist, not if he or she is calling press conferences. What I did not recognize (and should have, given my mention of press conferences) was that the attitudes I was describing on the parts of the Gannons, Breitbarts and O’Keefes could migrate into those of politicians themselves—or, rather, that people holding such ideas could, themselves, become politicians—as Trump has—taking both journalism and politics to a new low.

2 thoughts on “No Laughing Matter: Pseudo-Journalism and Its Impact on American Politics

  1. Literal objectivity is impossible: “The observer is part of the system” and cannot deliver to readers (or whatever) “the system” absent the observer. The classic example is an anthropologist in a village reporting on the village with an anthropologist in it, not the village in itself as an object for god-like contemplation. More immediately to the point: a crowd of demonstrators with a TV crew visible and recording is different from — trust me on this — the demonstration before the cameras starting rolling. Also, objectivity isn’t all that desirable. E.g., let’s say I got my wish, and when, in a thought-experiment I like, the TV interviewer shoves a microphone in the face of grieving Mr. Macduff and demands, “Tell me, Mr. Macduff, how did it *feel* when you learned that your wife, children, servants, and extended family generally had all been massacred at Fife?” And Mr. Macduff says, “Well, it felt pretty bad” — and then calmly shoves the microphone down the throat of the interviewer. And the camera operator, as an objective sort in the manner of the interviewer (= treating his journalistic subjects as objects) keeps recording because there is a new story here, one in which s/he should not interfere. / The other technical problem with theoretical objectivity is with very large and distant systems: an astronomer’s viewing of the Crab Nebula isn’t going to change the Nebula in any significant way. The observer is still part of the system because the most interesting things about the Crab Nebula may be observable only with senses a human astronomer hasn’t evolved to have and in contexts humans haven’t evolved to understand. // So I’d forget objectivity and relegate to fiction “NEW YORK TIMES style,” with its lack of an “I” and omniscient narration. An author can have a god-like view; journalists can’t. On the other hand, we can insist upon honesty and fairness and journalists’ trying to understand where they’re coming from and attempting to make that clear to their audiences.

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