Don Pesci: Transactional journalism and fake news

  Frontispiece of Voltaire's  Candide

Frontispiece of Voltaire's Candide

Newspapers should have no friends

-- Joseph Pulitzer

Sometime in the past few years, nearly everyone in Connecticut, with the possible exception of the state’s ebullient left-leaning writers, became a cynic. And cynicism has increased in direct proportion to the inability or unwillingness of status quo progressives in the General Assembly to confront the state’s most pressing economic problems. “We've been sitting through the last days of the legislative session doing everything BUT paying attention to the state's economy and fiscal situation,” state Rep. Gail Lavielle notes on Facebook. Procrastination is the typical response of a do-nothing politician to a serious problem.
 

Given the state of the state – perilous – the unheeding joyful crowd may remind some people of Voltaire’s mercilessly flayed Candide, the eternal optimist who, despite rough treatment at the hands of an unforgiving world, continues to insist that, in spite of his manifold humiliations, this is still “the best of all possible worlds.”

Voltaire knew whereof he spoke. Hounded from country to country by his targets who sought to shove him into prison for the unpardonable crime of discomforting the comfortable, Voltaire had taken the measure of life’s cruelties and absurdities. To protect himself from lawyers waving defamation suits, the attorneys general of the day, he threw his cynicism into fiction that spared him prison time and disarmed the menacing optimists; had Voltaire been caught in their jaws, he would have suffered a fate not unlike that of Candide.

At almost exactly the same time in England, Alexander Pope, a hunch-backed Catholic, was creating a similar havoc among brethren belle lettrists. The art of journalism was still in swaddling clothes. Under Pope’s hand it grew up, very quickly. Pope threw his satires into poetry. His "Dunciad'' was a poetic torture chamber for those with whom he did polemical battle.

After much huffing and puffing, the two gave birth to modern journalism, the animating spirit of which is perfectly suggested by Pope’s boast:

"Am I not proud? Yes. Why should I not be,

When even men who do not fear God -- fear me?''

Moderns may be surprised to hear that it is only a hop, skip and jump from Voltaire and Pope to Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the much coveted Pulitzer Prize is named. Pulitzer’s vision of a press independent of political influence, one that lives or dies fiercely guarding its prerogatives, is at opposite ends from what Sharyl Attkisson has called, disdainfully, transactional journalism, which is at least as great a danger to journalism as fake news.

Pulitzer advised that good reporters should have no friends, and there were in the golden age of journalism reporters willing to confront, at great personal and professional costs, the considerable powers arrayed against them. Attkisson, who bailed out of CBS News two decades ago because she felt she would no longer be able to pursue stories inconvenient to the political friends of major news outlets, talks very sensibly about fake news.

There are two kinds of fake news. There is fake fake news and real fake news. Many politicians who find themselves on the receiving end of proper denunciation will denounce as “fake” news that is objectively true, although even objectively true news may be slanted.  Real fake news cannot be true, but true news can be faked. And that is the boat that brings Attkisson to the shore of transactional journalism.

The transaction in transactional journalism is a business arrangement agreed to informally among politicians and friendly journalists, an arrangement possibly more damaging to good journalism than  fake news because it cannot be as easily detected. Or rather, it can be detected and verified only by reporters in the field who have succumbed to the allure of powerful politicians, or by editors, publishers and owners of media outlets that have developed over the years a mutually supportive business relationship with politicians and their own valued sources upon which the prosperity of the media outlet in some sense depends. News depends upon sources and access; sources, whose primary loyalty is to the reigning powers, can dry up. Access can be denied.

There has been during the Malloy administration a great deal of objectively true evidence that Connecticut has entered an economic death spiral. The abandoning of the ship of state by those most responsible for Connecticut’s present economic condition – perilous – certainly suggests a flight from the past.  The race for governor on the Democrat side has so far involved the party’s junior varsity politicians. Ned Lamont, said to be the leading Democrat gubernatorial contender, is no Ella Grasso or Abe Ribicoff. Indeed, Lamont is no Sen. Dick Blumenthal or Sen. Chris Murphy, both of whom appear to be content to remain in Washington, D.C. where they spend their days seeking to sink President  Trump’s boat, at a time when the Democrat ship of state in Connecticut is sending up bubbles.

The cry of alarm coming from editorial boardrooms across the state is hardly ear-piercing. Where is the media hullabaloo?  A thoroughgoing cynic may be forgiven for putting down the guarded optimism of political commentators in the state to Attkisson's transactional journalism.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based columnist.