Back in the early 1980’s two budding disasters were about to hit the media world — my career in television and the arrival of the personal computer. The first disaster was mitigated to a great degree but the second one is just now beginning to hit its stride. Let me explain.
One of the first things I did upon graduating with a degree in Mass Media was to purchase a subscription to Broadcasting magazine (now rebranded as Broadcasting & Cable) In the back section on electronic journalism in one issue was an article I remember as being titled, “The Coming Crisis in Journalism.” The author cautioned that digital compositing of images was going to reach a point where even the most cynical and demanding journalist could be duped into running a story that simply wasn’t true because he couldn’t deny the images he was being shown by a source.
In the late ’80s the Knoll brothers, Thomas (a Ph.D. student at Michigan) and John (a pioneer in image manipulation at Industrial Light and Magic), created Image-Pro, a set of computer tools that would eventually emerge commercially as Photoshop when they sold the idea to Adobe Software. But the “coming crisis” would prove slow in coming.
It wasn’t until home computer equipment became powerful enough to replicate the things folks were seeing in the movies that the real mischief was about to begin. Suddenly kids (and I do mean kids) were doing things in the basement that would have taken millions of dollars to pull off just a decade earlier. And not just in photography and graphic arts but in video as well.
Which brings us to today and the Age of Trump.
Donald Trump is an essential part of this equation, primarily because he is the most reviled political figure since Richard Nixon. Whereas George W. Bush had his share of lunatic detractors on the fringes of the far left, Trump has made the lunatics mainstream, not only on the left but on the right as well because he has upended decades of conservative dogma.
Here’s the most recent example. When the President ordered a reversal of his predecessor’s decision not to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, someone took a publicity still from the 2007 HBO movie Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, cropped it, digitally added snow and haybales and announced to the world that the Feds and local LEOs were burning down the encampments set up by Native American protesters.
It was a little too clumsy. Not many professional journalists bit on that one but it still was widely shared on social media by the people who truly wanted to believe it was true.
One bit of fakery that was picked up originated with the husband and wife film making team of Laura Moss and Brendan O’Brien. Using public domain footage they created two “commercials” for the non-existent campaign of the President’s father for New York City mayor. After they were uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, independent producer Devin Landin shared them on Facebook with the following description, “See if you can catch all the subtle allusions in this ad for Fred Trump. (Spoiler: they’re not subtle at all!) What is it they say about apples and trees and distance?”
Hillary Clinton’s rabid chihuahua, Sidney Blumenthal ran with it from there. Writing in The London Review of Books, Blumenthal wrote:
In 1969, Fred Trump plotted to run for mayor of New York against John Lindsay, a silk-stocking liberal Republican. The reason was simple: in the wake of a New York State Investigations Commission inquiry that uncovered Fred’s overbilling scams, the Lindsay administration had deprived him of a development deal at Coney Island. He made two test television commercials. One of them, called ‘Dope Man’, featured a drug-addled black youth wandering the streets. ‘With four more years of John Lindsay,’ the narrator intoned, ‘he will be coming to your neighbourhood soon.’ The ad flashed to the anxious faces of two well-dressed white women. ‘Vote for Fred Trump. He’s for us.’ The other commercial, ‘Real New Yorkers’, showed scenes of ‘real’ people from across the city, all of them white. Fred Trump, the narrator said, ‘is a real New Yorker too’. In the end he didn’t run, but his campaign themes were bequeathed to his son.
The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler, the man who writes their “Fact Checker” column shared them on Twitter until someone pointed out an anachronism in the videos. Supposedly produced in 1969 they carried “Paid For” disclaimers not in use until the early part of the 21st Century.
The London Review of Books deleted the reference in Blumenthal’s essay and put in this “correction”:
A paragraph referring to Fred Trump’s campaign for mayor of New York, although it accurately reflected Trump’s racial attitudes and his hostility towards Mayor John Lindsay, has been removed because the campaign ads referred to appear to be clever fakes.
Oh, my. They went full Dan Rather there, didn’t they? “Fake” but “accurate.”
Daniel Payne, writing in The Federalist, recently listed 16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won, which includes stories that were even repeated on this website.
Which brings me back to the Ivanka Trump/Nordstroms controversy from earlier this week. Two Wall Street Journal reporters wrote that it was purely a business decision and that was backed up by internal Nordstrom documents. Since no one from Nordstrom actually commented on the record, how did these reporters verify the provenance of these documents? Even if they had seen previous examples (that are no doubt computer-generated in the first place) would they know false documents if they saw them? Probably not. But because it ran in the Journal no one stops and asks if it’s true. I’m not saying that is or isn’t. But it was a single-sourced story and the track record of the truth is getting poorer and poorer. So, don’t disparage me if I take anything and everything with a grain of salt. No. These days I usually need a salt block.
It’s getting harder and harder to kick in the needed amnesia to believe anything that comes from the media. They’ve shot the wad of their credibility and we’re all poorer for it.