Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today, featuring Bachmann, Romney, Obama and Palin.

1. Michele Bachmann launched her bid for president (for the second time) in Waterloo, Iowa. Bachmann used the speech to emphasise her Tea Party roots. "We can win in 2012 and we will. Our voice has been growing louder and stronger. And it is made up of Americans from all walks of life like a three-legged stool. It's the peace through strength Republicans, and I'm one of them, it's fiscal conservatives, and I'm one of them, and it's social conservatives, and I'm one of them. It's the Tea Party movement and I'm one of them." She also repeated her line from the first major debate that President Obama os a "one-term president". To read her full speech, go here.

2. Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann are almost neck and neck in the race for Iowa, according to a poll in the Des Moines Register. Romney received 23 per cent, while Bachmann received 22 per cent. Bachmann, however, received almost twice as many second choice votes as Romney, hinting at the surprisingly broad appeal of the Minnesotan congresswoman. The pair are way ahead of the rest of the Republican field, however. Herman Cain was the only other contender to break into double digits, receiving 10 per cent. The poll will make grim reading for the Jon Huntsman camp, however - the former governor received just 2 per cent.

3. Barack Obama will speak to the majority and minority leaders of the house later today in a bid to solve the current impasse on the US's debt. The US will default on its debt in August, unless congress can agree to raise the current debt limit. The Republicans and Democrats are currently involved in a game of chicken, as neither party wants to be seen as fiscally slack or too tax-happy with a presidential election on the horizon. A poll in the Des Moines Register, meanwhile, revealed that 49 per cent of voters would not back a candidate who advocated raising the debt threshold.

Spot the difference.

4. New York became the sixth and most populous state to legalise gay marriage, after the New York state senate passed the bill by 33 to 29 on Saturday. The bill received cross-party support on its way, with one Republican senator declaring: "You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing. I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this." New York's move means that the focus of the gay marriage movement will return to California, after it failed last year to pass legislation legalising gay marriage.

5. Where's Sarah Palin? The one-woman publicity juggernaut has been awfully quiet in recent days. With Bachmann sucking up plaudits, Palin is at risk of falling behind in the race for the White House. Slacking off at this stage could cause a fatal loss of momentum. Yet from Palin, not a peep. Only a hardened cynic would suggest that she is doing so to let her daughter, Bristol, have a clearer run at publicising her new book, Not Afraid of Life. That would imply that Palin is uninterested in running for president and only hinting at doing so in order to increase her - and her family's - fame. Tut, tut.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era