When the failures of legacy journalism during the pandemic period are analysed, as may eventually happen, the concentration will probably be on the failure to expose relevant facts. While obviously important, that is not the main lesson that should be taken out of the debacle. If disinterested journalism is to have any future – and at the moment it is all but extinct – then there has to be something more than just the recording of facts, or the eliciting of different points of view.
So great has been the intensity of the propaganda and the censorship of alleged “misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information” that it is no longer possible for journalists to rely on a degree of reasonableness in the audience. The civic ground has been poisoned, including by journalists themselves. It will remain unusable for a long time.
In one sense, the problem is an old one. To work in a newsroom is to be exposed to intense and continuous dishonesty. The dissimulation comes in various forms: spin, outright lying, misleading but true facts, half-truths, quarter-truths, lack of context, sly exaggeration, selective amnesia, deceptive jargon, false statistics, sleazy personal attacks. After about a year any journalist with reasonable powers of observation will notice that they are working in a forest of lies.
There is no legal obligation for people talking to the media to tell the truth; it is not a court of law. But decent journalists attempt to counter the mendacity. Although they are always outgunned, they put up a fight in an attempt to present as much truth as possible.
That fight has all but disappeared. In the last three years legacy journalists have given up resisting. As the French philosopher Alain Soral quipped, there are only two types of journos left: prostitutes and unemployed (I am happy to report that on that scale my virtue is almost intact).