Exploring press freedom in the era of Trump, Netanyahu and fake news

The vast majority (around 80%) of people in the developed world use the Internet on a regular basis, and it is estimated that in the developing world around one third are online proficient.

Last year’s press event at Mishkenot Sha’ananim (photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
Last year’s press event at Mishkenot Sha’ananim
(photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
The term “global village” sounds a little archaic now, even though the world-embracing virtual domain still exists – and ever more pervasively.
The vast majority (around 80%) of people in the developed world use the Internet on a regular basis, and it is estimated that in the developing world around one third are online proficient. That suggests that most of us have 24/7 access to all kinds of information, but it also implies that we have carte blanche to disseminate anything we want, to all and sundry – and, should we wish, anonymously. That may involve sharing a cute video on Facebook of our baby or cat doing adorable things, or we may use Twitter to offload personal vitriol without considering the possible consequences.
What that boils down to is that we can all, as Lynn Walsh puts it, “commit acts of journalism on a daily basis, mainly using social media and the Internet.”
Walsh is the San Diego-based national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, whose stated mission includes such admirable goals as fostering “a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely and fully,” nurturing “high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism” and maintaining “constant vigilance in protection of First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press.”
The latter is the core issue on the agenda at next week’s international conference on “The Freedom of the Press in the Digital Era,” which will take place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on May 8 and 9 under the auspices of the Jerusalem Press Club and JPC director general Uri Dromi. The program takes in a broad range of intriguing lectures and panel discussions with such evocative titles as “Freedom of Press Fighters,” “War Coverage in the Digital Era,” “Journalism Ethics Under Pressure,” and “Press Freedom under Trump and Netanyahu.”
Walsh will contribute to a slot called “Governments and the Press: Friends or Foes.”
The visiting luminary roster also includes Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, Hungarian government spokesperson Dr. Zoltan Kovacs, Al Jazeera Palestine bureau chief Walid Al Omari, and Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, head of the graduate program of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. The Jerusalem Post will also have a high profile.
Wolfsfeld is one of five speakers lined up for the “War Coverage in the Digital Era” session, which will consider the impact on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, on reporting on military altercations.
“It mostly has to do with the role of the digital media in violent conflicts,” says the Philadelphia-born veteran oleh.
“I wrote an interesting article on the role of the media in the Arab Spring. That sort of combines collective action and violent protest.” It was a wide-ranging research effort that took in different countries and societies and hostile interfaces.
“We were looking at the role of the media in both Israeli and Palestinian spheres, as well as Syria, Macedonia, Kosovo and Africa. It was a huge study that was funded by the European Commission. We each took different areas. My focus has been on the digital media, but also on relations between political leaders and the media – in other words, how politicians try to exploit the media and react to the media.”
In the latter context, for some reason I was put in mind of a recently elected leader with interesting coiffure who has made the expression “fake news” a buzzword on many people’s lips. Wolfsfeld deftly sidesteps my thinly veiled reference to US President Donald Trump, preferring, instead, to consider how the proliferation of information outlets – professional and amateur cellphone-computer proffered alike – has muddied the dissemination waters for everyone.
“I think the basic problem everyone is having, both leaders and citizens, is that because the world, the communication environment, has become so fragmented, and the amount of confidence people have in traditional media has continued to decline over the last two decades, this leaves opportunity for conspiracy theories, and fake news and people basically selecting the news they like and believing in the things they want to believe.”
Wolfsfeld made aliya over 40 years ago when the media situation here was far simpler.
“There was a time in Israel’s history when everyone sat around the national campfire at nine o’clock in the evening,” he says, referencing the fact that up to early 1990s we only had one TV channel. That was when the Mabat news broadcast went out, generally fronted by newsreader Haim Yavin. Back then, no one made any telephone calls from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., when the news ended. Naturally, the news program generally had a close to 100% viewer rating – a handful may have been watching Jordanian or Middle East (Lebanese) TV at the time.
That meant that, by and large, what came out of Yavin’s mouth was considered the irrefutable truth.
“It [Israeli TV] was speaking in one voice, and was accepted as objective, more or less.” Wolfsfeld notes that mind-set even existed in yesteryear US.
“You had that in the US, with, for instance, Walter Cronkite on CBS.” The latter news anchorman would close each edition with his catchphrase of “And that’s the way it is,” suggesting an impartial altruistic reporting ethos.
Those innocent, possibly naïve, days are long gone and buried.
“People don’t accept them [news reports] as necessarily true,” Wolfsfeld observes. “That’s why you have room for alternative facts and conspiracy theories, and you have a president [Trump] that basically lies with that end, and his followers seem to love it. No matter what he says, they seem to believe it.”
It is quite a conundrum. On the one hand we have seemingly unlimited access to data about almost every topic going and, hence, can check out the accuracy of media items. However, the flip side is that we can pick and choose, and simply keep to the tried-and-tested avenues of information that suit our life philosophy.
What you don’t know can’t hurt you, right? Then again, as Mark Twain alternatively proffered: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
What much of it all boils down to, says Wolfsfeld, is that we generally have choices, and our perception of reality is very much a direct product of that.
“There are positive and negative aspects [of media usage]. There’s nothing new or unusual about that. It could be television [in pre-Internet times], which had many positive things. It allowed America to know what was going on the South – with segregation and Martin Luther King and so on. On the other hand, it exposed children to violence and sex.
“Now we have the Internet, which is even worse. Television is a classic example of the great things that came out of it, and the horrible things that came out of it.”
At the end of the day, Wolfsfeld believes that having user-friendly access to more information means we generally gain a more balanced view of the world around us.
“Most research suggests that the ability to isolate ourselves in informational ghettos is limited. In other words, even if you watch Fox News, most people don’t just watch Fox News. It’s not their only source of information. It’s true that there are going to be people that say, ‘I don’t want to listen to anything that expresses other opinions.’ “However, for the vast majority of citizens, the idea they can isolate themselves more easily than in the past, that’s true. However, suggestions that people build informational ghettos where they only get the information they want – it doesn’t work like that. There are very few people who, say, get all their formation from Fox News or from Haaretz.”
That sounds encouraging, although Wolfsfeld doesn’t entirely subscribe to that sunny-oriented outlook. So, at the end of the day, is Wolfsfeld optimistic about the way news is presented and how that can affect us? “No,” comes the unequivocal but slightly tongue-in-cheek response. “I’m a Jewish academic. How can I be optimistic?”