“If it rings true, it is true” — Michael Wolff
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is an entire book of fake news that has now spent ten weeks at the top of the Amazon non-fiction charts. The week before release it dominated conversations in US and international media and was pushed by The Atlantic as a “coup for Trump abroad”.
Upon release, some in the Mainstream Media began to criticise the book as it became obvious it was poorly sourced, compiled largely of rumours and basically a White House fan-fiction dictated to Wolff by Steve Bannon. This caused Wolff to have to defend himself by revealing his journalistic standard;
There you have it: “If it rings true, it is true.” Spoken like a true journalist. I would have to give credit to MSNBC for going after him over this if they hadn’t in the same day given him this 15 minute segment on Morning Joe where host Joe Scarborough defends “getting a part of a story wrong”.
The obvious question you should be asking yourself is of all the important books on hot-button political issues that came out in the past year, including many critical of the Trump administration, why was this one full of verifiable bullshit pushed so hard? Why is it that someone with a certain level of name recognition and a few friends in high places can go on television and peddle absolute fiction that shoots to the top of the non-fiction charts?
It’s because this idea of “If it rings true it is true” is an idea that Mainstream Media’s viability increasingly depends on. It is at the heart of what they do. It is the psychological mechanism by which narrative engages us; you read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Orwell’s Animal Farm and these stories move you in a deeply, almost religious way. They ring true to you.
We study history for the grand narratives, the long drawn out philosophical and cultural wars fought between groups and nations. Journalism has always operated on storytelling and always had instances of misreporting, but in the clickbait world the default attitude is shoot first and ask questions later; the reward for publishing false but captivating stories greatly outweighs the potential consequences of doing so.
Because of the financial incentive, Buzzfeed had to publish the still unverified Pissgate allegations in the Steele dossier, even though that entire document, which does contain some verified allegations damning of the Trump campaign, would obviously become tainted as a result. AV Club proclaim “the pee tape is probably real” because former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele who compiled the dossier, says it is “70 to 90 percent accurate”.
Again, the ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ culture has always existed within journalism, but our rapidly accelerating clickbait incentives have exaggerated it. Here is an example in Australia from a professional who trains other journalists;
Reporting news and current events through the lens of grand narrative isn’t inherently a sinister thing; I used it to attract readers to this article through the title; I am relying on my readers being engaged or attracted to the evolving narratives of fake news and the post-modern versus enlightenment culture war. I am captivated by those narratives; that’s what compels me to write this article.
But it matters that there is underlying truth to the narratives journalists are covering. It definitely matters when we are not only allowing journalists to publish fiction as nonfiction, but incentivising them to do so. I truly don’t think it’s too extreme to say that may be the death of Journalism. And the public consuming the junk are just as blameworthy as the journalists. I hope we can return our culture to one which values truth, but it’s possible we are too far down the post-modern rabbit hole.