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Media

Dec 6, 2016

Welcome to Planet Disneyland, where even the ‘real’ news is fake

Fake news isn't solely the work of fringe-dwelling con men. You can find plenty of it in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Washington Post.

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Donald Trump

Long before the result of the Italian referendum was known yesterday, Australian news media had prepared its response. Don’t bother looking. It’s the same they used for Brexit, Trump, Hanson 2.0. It’s what they’d have used for the rise of the hard right in Hungary, if they’d bothered. It’s the same they’ve got on standby for the victories of Le Pen, Alternative for Germany and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. It’s incredulity tinged with moments of moral outrage, which is no kind of analysis at all. I now prefer to call this “fake news”. As fake as the “fake news” newly and conveniently constructed by the fakers as an enemy.

When a Western nation votes in a way we consider illiberal, this is the way it goes now. A few bold Australian commentators will say, “People who can vote are awful bigots, and we need to call them out!”. Their milder colleagues will look perplexed and ask, “How could this possibly happen?”. I caught this latter tone yesterday on ABC News 24 when a sober foreign policy analyst called Western politics “unpredictable” and the anchor agreed, that, yes, we really don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s all a bit unstable. Perhaps it’s something to do with fake information on Facebook? Not for the first time this year, I charged my TV with delivery of “fake news”.

You say you don’t know what is going to happen next. When right-wing populist vampires are busy sucking the blood of the European underclass and have secured the US presidency for the king of the undead. Here’s a hint: barbarism. That’s what is going to happen. Still, the truly fake newsmakers tell me that there is no pattern, that it’s all very “unpredictable”.

Across the West, we see real wages decrease, social services evaporate and towns and industry shut. And the bolder fake newsmakers tell me they can’t see a connection. Right-wing populism and the threat or experience of poverty? When have these two things ever been found rising together in history before? I can’t think of a single example! Let’s blame the Russians and the racists.

This is not analysis. It’s not news. The Western world is on fire, as it has been before, and terrible systemic racism is about to take the place of the kind you can just “call out” in your crowd-pleasing column. It’s very nice for news outlets and their employees to receive praise for calling people who will never read them bigots. It’s tragic for us readers, who are getting nothing but a fake.

[News, news everywhere, but not a word of it is real]

At best, the fake newsmakers admit that they just don’t get it. Columnist and economist Paul Krugman dried his “I’ll never be Secretary of the Treasury” tears for long enough on November 8 to tweet, “Certainly I misjudged the country.” Really, mate? You think it’s possible that a privileged east coast liberal long committed to the wellbeing of Wall Street may have overlooked the shit in which middle America lives, the shit Hillary Clinton did not once promise to scrub? When she said in February, as a challenge to Bernie Sanders, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism?” she made her position very clear. The only problem with America was that white people were racist, and the reason they were racist had nothing to do with the fierce competition the fiercely competitive market she, and Krugman, had fiercely helped build. They are racist because they are bad.

Why fix poverty when we can fix people’s attitudes? These deplorable attitudes. I try to imagine how this sounds to a white American voter who endures or (quite reasonably) fears poverty. I imagine it would make them roll the dice in favour of the guy who keeps promising to bring the jobs back. And with Sanders gone, that guy was Trump — an openly racist man who actually seduced Hispanic voters away from Clinton.

So, first Krugman conceded that he just didn’t get it. Then, he went on to write this fake news in The New York Times, which has the haughty tone of someone who feels that he does get it, and he just doesn’t like what he sees. This column by an influential writer typifies so many. He recommends to his distressed fellows a program of exercise, improving literature and just believing in the anti-racist goodness at the heart of America. Never once conceding that such leisurely reflection is the privilege of his class.

Just believing that voters’ dire economic circumstance, or reasonable fear of same, has no terrible link to racism does not make it so. Just writing that people are bigots — as they do ad infinitum in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and much of the Western world’s press — will not shame them into tolerant views. Just electing to say that things are very confusing right now, probably the result of the kind of bad information that appears on sites other than The Guardian, does not make your unforgivably blithe coverage better.

One thing you can do to hold on to what’s left of your legitimacy — your obscene refusal to see what others had predicted and what history has already produced  — is to call all other news fake.

In a piece now justifiably decried for its sloppiness, fake news perpetrator The Washington Post went fake-news crazy last week. This was the fakest take on fake news in fake memory, and the claim that “the Russians did it” turned out to be as unsubstantiated as all those claims that other news outlets make that the Russians leaked the Podesta emails, too. It is widely known that the password of John Podesta, who once left his smartphone in a cab, was “password”. But, you know, the Russians hacked him, even though not one US security agency has confirmed this was the case, just like the Russians made the fake news.

The Post took its cue about fakery from a group now known to be itself fake. It’s good that a few outlets, like The New Yorker, challenged this out-and-out bullshit. But it’s not good that many other sites ran with the headlines like Gizmodo’s, “Research confirms that Russia played a major role in spreading fake news”. The US site eventually amended “confirms” to “suggests”, leaving the original fake intact for us Australians, but while it was editing, legislation was passed in the US to target Russian propaganda that had not meaningfully existed. It’s not just fake news anymore. It’s real law.

[Usury suspects: media gumshoes have fingered five main culprits for Trump’s win]

Of course, under Trump, we likely have no need to worry about hostility toward Russia. But this lack of hostility doesn’t make its opposite desirable. Nonetheless, those more legitimate fake newsmakers won’t let their irrational fear of Putin go, even if, as it did turn out, he has no special interest in the dissemination of the “real” fake news.

You really think it’s fake news on Facebook that is changing the votes of the world? You don’t think it’s voters’ experience of that world? You don’t think that if they had a choice other than that between hideous isolationists, and centrists who call everyone who doesn’t vote for them a bigot, they’d make it? In Greece, where there is a strong fascist movement, they did have another choice. The socialist party Syriza had no mainstream media support. They won two elections anyhow.

Media say the fault is with Russia. Media say the fault is with bigots. Media say the fault is with improper media, or “fake news”.

You build a fake when your own authenticity is failing. As everyone who has ever seen The Matrix knows.

As you may have noted, in the first moments of that film, Morpheus is reading a book. It’s the book the Wachowski siblings used as the basis of their screenplay, Simulacra and Simulation. It was huge when I was at university, and I always liked it. I kept a copy, which I picked up this week when I was shouting at the telly for its fucking fake news, and I saw this great and very famous bit on Disneyland, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”.

How do you make your territory seem legitimate? Point to another world that obviously isn’t. Make America seem real by building a fake version of its main streets. Make news seem real by building a dreadful copy.

“It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.” That did my head in in 1990. It read like thrilling science fiction. Now, it’s a perfectly real account of a real that no longer exists.

32 comments

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32 thoughts on “Welcome to Planet Disneyland, where even the ‘real’ news is fake

  1. Reverend Owen

    The last time history turned a corner this dangerous was before most of us were born. In Asimov’s story Eclipse, every 70 years a planet has a total eclipse of its three suns and because nobody was alive for the last one they have no way of understanding what’s going on (and they all go crazy). Mainstream media have been recycling their responses for so long now they don’t have a clue what to say about the new paradigm because they’re too frightened to acknowledge that it is one.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      Indeed Reverend Owen. Even with books and history and all that, we rarely remember the lessons that the previous generation had to learn the hard way. Eclipse is a pretty amazing book, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a movie with a very similar storyline, possibly exactly that or a rip-off, which was also so thought provoking.

  2. James O'Neill

    I am afraid that “fake” is an adjective that applies to most of the alleged “news” and “analysis” published in the mainstream media and that has been the case since I first started following the msm in earnest with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There have been a long list of fake news since then , including, just as an example, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, Iraq’s WMD, Assad “gassing his own people”, Chinese “aggression” in the South China Sea, and Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea. Then and now there is scarcely a printed word about any of these events in the msm that is worth a moment’s credence. And they are just topics I know something about. How many times do we read something and gullibly accept it because we do not know better?
    It is little wonder that the msm is going down the drain at a rate of knots.

  3. Dog's Breakfast

    Paul Krugman begins his article as follows: “Anyone who claims to be philosophical and detached after yesterday is either lying or has something very wrong with him .”

    Well, it fairly accurately sums up my feelings after Trump’s election, and I don’t really have very much wrong with me, except in recognising that the real isn’t real before many of my fellow citizens. Of course it helps that I’m not a US citizen.

    “Right-wing populism and the threat or experience of poverty? When have these two things ever been found rising together in history before.”

    Exactly, never happened before in human history, totally unique experience. For some reason I find myself thinking of that ad with the goldfish going around reading a claim from a breakfast cereal box every few seconds, each time reading it as if for the first time.

    Goldfish, moi?

  4. Andrea

    I have read this article three times and still haven’t the faintest idea what the writer is trying to say.

    1. samquigley

      Others might consider that a source of great embarrassment and choose n0t to divulge it on the internet. Not you, though. #sobrave

      1. Bob the builder

        Yes! In today’s anti-intellectual culture, lack of understanding is meant to reflect on the writer, not the reader!

    2. Helen Razer

      Hi, A.
      Perhaps I ought to have included an introductory paragraph on the “fake news” story that currently dominates western headlines. I presumed most Crikey readers would know about it. Anyhow. It’s about that.

    3. AR

      How does one distinguish fake news from mudorc & his ABC subsidiary? It wouldn’t be owt to do with the innumeracy of even economics journos and reporters with no memory, or interest in, ancient history – like last week – could it?

  5. Nudiefish

    Thanks Helen! Your most telling analysis is in tearing the sheet off why Clinton lost to Trump. He was offering something (very likely lying) whilst she was offering more of the same.

    Great read.

    1. Helen Razer

      Totally, Nudie. I mean, of course he was lying. But Clinton was lying that she could end racism by simply urging people to be nice.
      I hate to say it, but Bernie was lying, too. (If you look at his past conversations, he talks a lot about universal basic income. I don’t think he thought he could ever bring rust belt jobs back.)
      I think for a lot of people, and this includes Hispanic men in particular who swung away from DEM this election, it was a case of “who is telling the least outrageous lie?” I don’t think people are as thick as we think they are. They know that it is easier to reorganise the labour market than it is to convince people to be individually nicer. The former requires a policy change. The latter means you talk to every American and convince them to be better. How do you do this? And who want a politician to tell them how to be? None of their business. Their business is managing the economy. And Clinton never really admitted that this was her business. Except, of course, in her speeches to Wall St.
      Of course she would have been a marginally more tolerable politician. But she just kept telling Americans that they needed to be better. After saying, again and again, that they were (outside the basket of deplorables) already great. How on earth can you expect to win an election by saying “the only thing that needs to change is people’s bad attitudes. I’ll keep everything else the same”. She is basically saying: I won’t do anything but preserve the status quo.
      I am aware that there is this very prevalent argument that the US economy is in great shape and if voters think it isn’t, well they are just bad people in denial. People say this often, and they don’t consider the number of jobs that have been lost and the social services that disappear in those shuttered towns. The fact is, many people have suffered great downward mobility through no fault of their own. Many, many Americans are living on eleven dollars an hour. The average wad of cash an American can access is four hundred bucks. Which is not, as it happens, even enough money to purchase an abortion.
      SO, you can say “look at the productivity figures, what are you complaining about!” or “there is no inflation”. This doesn’t change the fact that many are underemployed and unable to buy much at all. And you tell these people “America is already great. The only problem is your bad attitude”.
      And the media ran with this story, and is still running with it. The message is clear: we don’t think your poverty is important.

      1. klewso

        Clinton was just “Shut up and keep suckin'” : Trump gave them a chance to bitch-slap the establishment that has been “screwing them for their own good”.

        1. Helen Razer

          Pretty much.

  6. mikeb

    That “white American voter who endures or (quite reasonably) fears poverty” is actually privileged (according to Bernard K). You two should compare notes.

    But yeah – you are spot on.

    1. Helen Razer

      Bernard does not agree with me that real wages have stagnated and decreased. This is the subject of many sarky text messages between us.

  7. klewso

    Maybe if they just reported “news” – and left their expert personal opinions and cherry-picked facts (to support those opinions) where the proctologist found them – they wouldn’t be so wrong, and so profoundly bewildered at the reality?

  8. klewso

    “Fake news”?
    Do they mean like Rupert’s Limited News pro-conservative/Limited News Party advertorials?

  9. Joe Fitzpatrick

    “These deplorable attitudes. I try to imagine how this sounds to a white American voter who endures or (quite reasonably) fears poverty.”
    Bernard Keane would tell them to HTFU, apparently. I prefer Helen’s analysis.

    1. Helen Razer

      Our reading of the way in which people live is different.
      Of course, I agree with Bernard that white male entitlement is an actual thing. I do not agree that white men have simply conceded a little of their territory. By several measures, notably life-span and good general health, they have lost a lot.
      Of course, there are millions of those vile dudes who have millions. Who consider themselves to be absolutely objective and charge the less “objective” with identity politics. Who do what they can to hold onto power. But, there are millions more with nothing. And they vote.

      1. Joe Fitzpatrick

        It’s more than that. The whole HTFU line of reasoning seemed so incapable of bearing intellectual scrutiny that I thought it might be a parody (it still might).

        When you consider that the highest rate of suicides in the USA is among white males, then it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that many of them are deeply, deeply miserable.

        1. Helen Razer

          I agree that a moral injunction is pointless. Telling people to just improve, or harden up, is a hopeless cry. Especially when, as you say, by some measures those addressed have particular hardship.
          I can’t agree that there is not some cultural privilege that goes along with whiteness and maleness. Of course there is. But the error for mine is to say that cultural privilege and economic privilege are identical things. There is overlap, of course. And statistically we find that there is a greater proportion of people of colour living in poverty than white people. The cultural and social systems are, as they say, mutually constituting.
          But this doesn’t mean they are identical.
          I think it gets really dangerous when you get into the territory of saying this or that thing about a culturally privileged group, such as white men. You can get super close to being a Men’s Rights Activist really quickly. For me, it’s more about defining the common enemy most of us have. It’s not about holding on to our cultural and identity differences in argument.
          What is the one totalising thing that is screwing most people? Capitalism. It’s not a hatred of white men any more than it is a hatred of women. (And if you want to talk about people sustaining injury. Well, let’s not go there. If it’s all “”this number of women are beaten” against “this number of men are killed” we are doing nothing more than a game of identity politics over corpses and battered bodies. I also remind you that the demographics of people being brutalised in US prisons is changing fast. Over there, as here in Australia, it is women of colour who are the fastest growing segment. )
          We would do very well to look at the way that people live.

          1. Joe Fitzpatrick

            (I agree, and thankyou for the thoughtful reply.)

  10. loz

    My friends in West Virginia don’t have to read news. They experience it and know fake news when they read it. Their power goes out all the time and they live with it, unlike SAians, and the Coalition. The Coalition wants a sugar coated Australia for a greedy supporter base. So one power outage from a twin extended super cell climate event in SA has them angry and the coalition running with it as far as they can. In WV they are real, down to earth, and can spot fake a mile away. They voted for change and acknowledgement. Thankyou Helen for writing this article.

  11. Northy

    Riveting stuff, Helen. Don’t stop now!!

  12. Draco Houston

    It would have been worth noting that the Italian referendum was over whether to replace the senate with a weird house of lords, in order to resume passing Reform! that had been blocked by the political crisis.

    That there were people tying this to rising fascism or the breakup of the EU is horrifying. Italians voted down outrageous constitutional amendments, the populists just happened to be there while the public were rejecting this nonsense.

    I, personally, didn’t see that much spinning of it this way on the scale of the Trump, Brexit etc reactions. I do know publications ran hot takes along these lines though. Those writers and publications that argued the no vote in Italy is a terrible thing because of spooky scary voters are clearly authoritarian and anti-democratic. If they try to talk big about democratic values in the future, they should be ignored.

    To me, it is worse than the reaction to Trump, while smaller, it is outright illiberal. It is an argument you could only make if you worship at the altar of Reform!, God of Progress.

    1. Helen Razer

      Fair point, D. But a girl knows she only has so much time to make a point and so I was looking only at the reactions to this particular event. A sentence in there about the event itself might have helped. But, yes. We keep saying voters are irrational, or if we are nice liberals, we say they have no agency, poor lambs, and need to be “educated” out of their delusion. But, you know, per Trump, what delusion? Is it really sensible to vote for the person who says she doesn’t give a shit about jobs? Trump (to my horror) is the only Presidential nominee to use the phrase “working class” in half a century. Hillary doesn’t admit there is one. Along with much of the world’s press. I mean, look at the GDP! What are you complaining about? You live in palaces!
      But. Time. People only have so much. Readers and writers both.

      1. Draco Houston

        Sorry if it came across as ‘WHY ARENT YOU WRITING ABOUT WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT’. FWIW I liked what you actually wrote about too.

  13. James Brogan

    Hi Helen,

    I appreciate your opinion pieces. Can we converse about labour relations in the society of the spectacle?

    1. Helen Razer

      Well, to be fair, Debord already did that! And we have to start with the commodity, right?
      Now that the western commodity is largely the product of knowledge labour, it is time for a big Marxist rethink. Happily, there are people doing that, including our friend G Rundle. This is really one of his things, and I am always delighted when those three thousand words about the state of post-material organisation fall out of him and I think “oh, yeah”.
      I would also say (of course) keep reading Crikey and add Current Affairs org and In These Times to your regular reading.

  14. David Howe

    The “news” has long been a matter of “interpretation”. I can’t remember the exact quote but someone once said about the reporting of WW1 “if the public really knew about the war it would end tomorrow”. Our so-called news has long been subject to institutionalised filters which end up producing content that more or less conforms to whatever is the prevailing orthodoxy. The “fake-news” seems to be opinions and “facts” that aren’t filtered in the normal fashion hence from the point of view of those whose job it is to filter the news, the new stuff is fake. The assumption that the non-fake news is real should be treated with all the skepticism it deserves.

  15. Matt Willis

    I’d never thought I’d see the day when I saw an article condemning Paul Krugman for being too fiercely pro-market!

  16. rhondda

    thank you Helen for this very interesting and thought provoking article.

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