Fear Itself

Advocacy, Civil Liberties, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Frederic Murray

It is shocking. It is. But the facts on the ground show clearly that journalists and the free press in America are under attack by the president of the United States, non-state actors, and in all likely-hood, foreign powers. In 2017. In America. Take a minute. I know the dog days of August are upon us. I know that it has been a long year — disheartening, hopeful and maddening. It is not normal. So I, along with many other people from varied backgrounds and walks of life, are stepping up to literally defend the role of journalists and the free press in American society.

The Yellow Press, showing William Randolph Hearst as a jester handing out newspapers
Library of Congress – L.M. Slackens: The Yellow Press, showing William Randolph Hearst as a jester handing out newspapers, published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, October 12, 1910

This isn’t about biased coverage. That isn’t news. Robert Darnton brilliantly excised the true history of fake news back in February for the New York Review of Books. The Anecdota used to smear the Emperor Justinian (527-565 CE), Canards from 17th century France, how media moguls like Hearst, Luce, Turner and Murdoch have used their power to shape the stories that reach us. That’s called editorial process. It’s a good practice to know about — a better one to teach. Darnton provided us contextual information and it’s very useful. In fact, I used his examples in my News Literacy class this past spring. The students (not surprisingly) were open and hungry for this knowledge. I hope they put it to good use.

The attacks on the press are about lockouts, manipulation and threats. Lockouts are bad for the free flow of information. Manipulation is (and always has been) a two-way street … but threats? Threats now shape our public discourse, and again, to belabor the point over and over, this is not normal.

It began in January, 2016 when candidate Trump declared “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” This was for me the most chilling moment I have experienced in American political life, and I am old enough to have witnessed the resignation of a president, the impeachment of a president, and the assassination attempts on two presidents. The threats continued in August when candidate Trump suggested that “Second Amendment People” could take action on their own against his political opponent. People howled, people cheered. In May of this year, the president made a call to jail journalists. At this point I felt like an owl blinking in the noonday sun, swiveling my head around to see if anyone else was listening, or cared.

But enough about the leader of the free world, let’s take a look at the stand-ins: those who are feeding the fake news story line, those who are in the business of stoking panic, making worry, and if we are going to be clear, making profit off of fear.

National Rifle AssociationI’m talking about the NRA.

I’m talking about the NRA’s Freedom’s Safest Place National Campaign (YouTube).

I’m talking about the NRA’s Freedom’s Safest Place National Campaign episode “The Violence Of Lies” (S2 E2).

A little background, the NRA has a YouTube page (and if Kurt Vonnegut were still with us I imagine he would interject a “Hooray for the First Amendment” right about now). Its page is made up of hundreds of videos and dozens of playlists and a number of channels. There is obviously a lot of money and production going into their pronouncements. It takes money to make money. There are 30 playlists and 15 or so channels. Two playlists are worth looking at: “Freedom’s Safest Place National Campaign” (31 videos) and “The DL” (a scant 8). S2 E2: “The Violence Of Lies” is guest-hosted by Dana Loesch, who must be moonlighting from her own playlist “The DL” in order to boost ratings. Her steely-eyed demeanor is attractive in a ruthless take-no-prisoners style, that’s probably thrilling to the Walter Mittys’ of the world. The production values are first rate.

Unfortunately the NRA’s message is appalling and fundamentally undemocratic.

They use their media to assassinate real news.”

Racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are, according to this video produced by the NRA, the direct result of media manipulation, not real conditions, experienced by real people. People are being driven to protest because they don’t know any better and the result is a state that must respond with force. This is the face of American fascist thought. It is shocking. It is.

Resolution on Access to Accurate InformationWay back in January 2017 the American Library Association published a Resolution on Access to Accurate Information. It’s the type of thing that professional associations carry out at the beginning of each year. Only this resolution, if you read it now, is horribly prescient of the world we now inhabit. The bullet-points could be culled from the year’s headlines, and we’re not even into fall or winter yet.

Whereas the exponential growth in the use of disinformation and media manipulation constitutes a critical problem facing our society and includes:

  • the distribution of fake news via websites, social media, and traditional media under the guise of independent journalism;
  • the increased potency of disinformation due to the confirmation bias effect of personalized newsfeeds, social media sharing, and web search algorithms (i.e. the filter bubble);
  • propaganda campaigns and cyberwarfare operations conducted by governments and non-state actors to influence or disrupt the domestic affairs of adversaries;
  • the use of paid political partisans as commentators and analysts on news networks and publications; the rise of branded content that are advertisements masquerading under the guise of legitimate reporting in many publications;
  • the suppression or removal of scientific studies and data that disagree with possible policy positions, for example, the human effects on climate change;
  • the removal of public information from U.S. depository libraries and the libraries of government agencies;
  • the unreasonable delay or denial of public records and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and heightened assaults on constitutional rights under the guise of national security;
  • attacks on the reputation of news organizations and intimidation of journalists

It is shocking. It is.

The choice as librarians, as educators, as students, as citizens is now ours. We deal with what’s in front of us, or it becomes the norm. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room left anymore.


Frederic MurrayFrederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at fredmurr@gmail.com

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