Let us pause for a moment to mourn the passing of Hans Rosling, one of the most gifted and humane educators of our age. He was professor of global health at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and became famous when he gave a spectacular TED talk in 2006 using global data to show how the world had changed during the 20th century.Rosling specialised in devising striking ways of visualising statistical data and in using computers to provide animations showing, for example, how child mortality, family income and so on changed over time. But what probably clinched his fame was the way he talked his audience through the evolving worldview with a manic energy reminiscent of Newsnight’s Peter Snow and his general election night “swingometer”.
Rosling’s untimely death (from cancer) seems particularly poignant at this moment in our history, because he was such a fervent believer in the idea that we could find illumination, if not salvation, in facts. In that respect, he reminded me of the late David MacKay, another gentle polymath, who was for a time the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. At a lecture following the publication of his book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, he was assailed by an angry environmentalist who asked him why he was “so hostile” to wind power. MacKay smiled sweetly and replied: “I’m not hostile to anything. I’m just in favour of arithmetic.”
I thought about Rosling and MacKay a lot last week as the “fake news” crisis deepened. It turns out that the public sphere may be even more poisoned than we had supposed. We now have to reckon with artfully faked opinion as well. Among the many sites on the web that relay high-level commentary on foreign affairs is the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring. The website describes it as “a nonprofit and nonpartisan research and analysis institution dedicated to providing… a viable informed resource to the public, the media and politicians. It aims to play a positive role and offer proper tools for understanding and decision-making that define the relationship between the United States and the world.”
In order to carry out this laudable mission, the site lists an impressive stable of “experts”. Among them is one Brian Mefford, described as “a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center”. But guess what? Mr Mefford says that he had never agreed to serve as one of the Center’s “experts” and his emails asking for his name to be removed have gone unanswered. The site’s modus operandi, he claims, involves republishing analysis from respectable research institutions, mixing them with “news” from Russian-controlled sources without attribution and possibly even posting some fake articles under the names of distinguished scholars.
Why are the massed forces of responsible journalism apparently so impotent in the face of this chicanery? If journalism has indeed become the “enemy” for the White House, then how should it fight back?
The first thing, wrote Adam Tinworth, an insightful blogger, last week, is to recognise the real nature of the war in which journalists are now involved. Tinworth borrows a concept from military strategy – asymmetric warfare – to explain why mainstream media are failing to hold Trump & co to account. What it comes down to, he says, is “narratives versus facts”. The alt-right crowd are good at narratives and very skilled at packaging them in images and video rather than text. Journalists, in contrast, are addicted to text and not very good at narrative. But narratives are what the punters crave – and what they “share” on social media. In such a climate, therefore, relying on fact-checking is a bit like whistling against a hurricane.
If it is to combat this postmodern strategy of poisoning the public sphere to the point where nobody knows what to believe, responsible journalism has to change. It has to become more combative and confrontational. It has to be ruthless in accurately documenting what’s going on, so that Trumpian allegations of “misreporting” never stand up. It has to learn how to package the truth in narratives that people can understand and share, which means relying more on imagery, video and animation. And – most difficult of all – it means that the savagely competitive instincts that usually divide journalists have to be temporarily shelved.
So, as Politico’s Jack Shafer has suggested, when Sean Spicer evades a question from one member of the White House press corps, the next questioner should, instead of asking his/her prepared question, demand that the previous question be answered by re-asking it. E pluribus unum and all that.