In 2010, Benedict XVI gave an address at Westminster Hall on what he called “the real challenge for democracy”. He told the assembled political leaders: “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.”
Benedict’s point was that moral relativism cannot sustain a healthy politics. Time and again, he has been proved right. Western societies are reluctant to discuss objective morality – or objective truth, with which morality is inextricably linked. But unless we can find common ground in some objective principles, then we are left open to manipulation by ideologues, who, whether they are scientists, political campaigners or journalists, will all try to insist that they are the real source of objectivity.
In America, “the fragility of the process” was all too evident at, of all places, the Oscars on Sunday night. During the ceremony, the New York Times ran a television advertisement. “The truth is hard to find,” the ad proclaimed. “The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”
The Times’s “branding expert” – yes, not a reporter or its editors or publisher, but that postmodern character, the branding expert – explained what the newspaper was getting at: “The idea is to be a part of that discussion about what does it mean to find the truth. What does that mean in a world of ‘fake news’? And what is the role of journalism and journalists in that process, and what is the role of the reader in supporting that journalism?”
The formerly mainstream media are not wrong that Donald Trump is trying to deal them a death blow. He is openly contesting the idea that these once-trusted news brands are a reliable source of facts, a bipartisan source of truth. But Trump could not possibly succeed in branding these once towering news sources as partisan were it not that millions of American readers and watchers have reason to think he’s right.
With ads and slogans, the mainstream media try to recapture the glory days of Watergate or even before, when Walter Cronkite was the most respected figure in America. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the Washington Post’s dramatic new slogan. CNN keeps on trying to bill itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News”, even as Americans evince less and less trust in news.
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