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“When the President does it…” Progression and Regression within our news.

Morgan Barr reflects upon Steven Spielberg’s political drama The Post, exploring the relevance of such a text in today’s journalistic climate. This piece will consider progression and regression within our news.

BY Morgan Barr

“When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” are infamous words from an equally infamous President Nixon in his interview with David Frost. These words, spoken after the release of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal during the mid-1970s, seem to fit effortlessly within today’s current journalistic climate despite their dated context. This lack of legitimacy within what we read from perceived power is the ultimate danger to growing society.

During the start of the year, Steven Spielberg released his historical, political drama The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as a publisher and editor of The Washington Post. The film is set during the early 1970s and tells the story of Katharine Graham (Streep) and her struggle as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, this struggle made more difficult by the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers were a set of documents highlighting the active and aggressive role the US government played in the Vietnam War which essentially proved years of systematic lying to the public. These documents were first photocopied and leaked by Daniel Ellsberg who then sent them to The New York Times, which in turn caused the US government to file a lawsuit against The Times to stop these documents being available to the public. Such actions from the US government ultimately encouraged The Washington Post to rebel in the name of press freedom and public interest. 

Photo by @uh

“Spielberg's film encapsulates the distinct relationship between the press and government as two halves of the same influential coin, where one can no longer exist without the other.”

Spielberg’s film encapsulates the distinct relationship between the press and government as two halves of the same influential coin, where one can no longer exist without the other. Perhaps in this generation, the press have been given the tools to enact increasingly more change than political argument ever can. However, this influence on public opinion can sway in both positive and negative ways. The past ten years have featured the peak of social media and internet connection where, even in developing countries, the internet is becoming a necessity to ordinary human existence. The ability to search any story through Google, Twitter or Facebook means that the importance of information and where it comes from can influence an entire generation.

This power to influence is seemingly a tempting notion, some of the worlds most celebrated and most infamous leaders could use words in such a way that could start wars or lead revolutions, the press during the mid 20th century also gained this power as trust in these leaders was declining. In this current climate, however, it seems that both cannot be trusted, as fraudulent news sources made as easy as clicking a few buttons can travel across social media effortlessly; the public being the cause and the victim to this. 

In 2017 Collins Dictionary announced that their “Word of the Year” was “Fake News”, a term that became saturated within pop culture due to its political context. While running his presidential campaign Donald Trump used this term to attack the press when negative comments or articles on his behaviour circulated throughout social media. Fake News, or an updated “Alternative Facts” coined by Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway,

since has become almost a punchline to any political blunder despite its terrifying implications. A fake news site can be created and made to look accurate within a day, within this period hundreds of people can share and read this site; this means that any information found online must be subject to a certain amount of scrutiny.

This era of Fake News means that a layer of doubt accompanies all material sourced from the internet. There is no clear indication for those who can understand textual analysis that the information they are getting is written with a more insidious agenda; therefore, they usually believe what they read. It could then be argued that despite our vast progression in how we broadcast the news, the intention behind it has become more regressive in favour of revenue. Particularly in the case of political scandal, to use the US presidential debate as an example; the suspicious promotion of fake news sites was seemingly a contributing factor to the response of the election. A factor that is still being heavily investigated.

“To blame technological advancement for the currency of fake news could be a comfortable option. Although, there is a clear correlation between the information we receive, and the platform of which content is published.”

To blame technological advancement for the currency of fake news could be a comfortable option. Although, there is a clear correlation between the information we receive, and the platform of which content is published. Additionally, in today’s generation, the use of social media and the internet has become the first source for news. However, it is within this technology that the public have also seized their brand of journalism, and any story printed during the morning could easily be challenged with the click of a button.

The relationship between the press and the president is much an example on public versus the power where the press represent the public and directly, or indirectly, represent the government as well. Many newspapers or news sites often have a political bias, this bias then mediates news stories to favour a specific agenda and quickly feeds through the news cycle or indeed the news feed. In this age there is no doubt that the importance of the press aids to the development of many social and political changes, however, the opposite could be said for tabloidesque journalism that is integrating itself through broader and more respected news sites, causing social argument and misinformation to the public.

These alternative, or dangerous agendas could then be the catalyst for political, economic or social change in a negative way. The most prominent question to ask is whether the public desire for a constant stream of news is causing an oversaturation of fake news, or is it the corporate desire for profit that is driving dangerous aspects of journalism into the collective mainstream?