The contretemps over French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks about Russian media shouldn’t have surprised Americans. At a joint press conference Monday with Russian President Vlaidimir Putin, Macron said:
Russia Today and Sputnik were spreading false information and I believe they had no place in my election headquarters. [They] did not behave as the press or as journalists should. They behaved like bodies of influence, bodies of propaganda, that is, bodies of false propaganda, no more and no less.
Hmmmm…. a president exiling news outlets for promulgating “fake news”? It’s Donald Trump and CNN all over again.
The similarity has gained little notice – perhaps because Macron’s complaints are completely fair while Trump’s are less so. But two world leaders denouncing “fake” news outlets in the space of a few months is a symptom of a new and dangerous era of global media uncertainty. Americans once knew they could trust Walter Cronkite and The New York Times but ignore the Soviet paper Pravda. Now, accusations of bias and deception fly both within and between borders and ideologies.
How can an average news consumer disentangle whether Russian news outlets were just trying to interfere in Macron’s campaign – or whether they were right and he really did have a secret gay lover and an illegal bank account in the Caribbean? In this case, it’s not so hard. Russia Today and Sputnik provided virtually no evidence and had a pretty clear political agenda. But what happens when whole governments and political parties fight over the legitimacy of major news stories?
The problem cannot be solved by media watchdogs. The 13-year-old Media Matters purports to be just such an organization, but it is among the most aggressively partisan and irresponsibly inaccurate voices on the Web. (I know, they’ve written about me.) Politifact claims to demand accuracy from the media, but its own analysis is sometimes itself of dubious worth. Same with FactCheck.org and even Snopes.
There are only two things the average citizen can do to cope with the dizzying disequilibrium in the news media:
First: read, listen, and watch widely. National Public Radio may be hopelessly biased to the left – but what you’ll better understand what you hear on the right if you know NPR’s questions. Look at media sources from other countries – and if you can, other languages. Ask your friends where they get their news, and give some of those outlets a try.
But at the same time, find a news anchor. I’m not talking about the reassuring men who told us at 6:30 pm what was most important in the news. I mean a media outlet or personality you trust for when a breaking story doesn’t make sense. You don’t have to choose The Daily Caller (though you could). But in today’s cacophonous world of media voices, it helps to have a home. The risk of course, is that you pick a home that itself harbors fake news. But even journalists trust others to evaluate and analyze stories they can’t cover. You have to do the same.
It’s enough to make your head spin. And it’s only going to get worse.