Ex-Post-Facto? The Anthropology of Media and Journalism in a Post-Truth Era
Presenters: Robert Samet (Union College), Naomi Schiller (Brooklyn College, City University of New York), Natalia Roudakova (University of California, San Diego), Alexandra Juhasz (Brooklyn College, City University of New York), Amahl Bishara (Tufts University). Discussant: Faye Ginsburg (New York University). Sponsor: Society for Cultural Anthropology.
Note: A recording of this panel is available via AnthroPod.
On Friday, December 1, in a mid-sized room in a Marriott hotel, a group of us tried to figure the meaning of a moment we have begun to call the “post-truth” era. The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on me. We were sitting in a wealthy neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC while our Congressional representatives duked it out down the street over a tax-reform bill that, hours before, the New York Times had called a “historic tax heist.” The Federal Communications Commission ruling on net neutrality loomed eerily overhead. As of this writing, net neutrality has been repealed, which will have disturbing consequences for everyone working, using the Internet, and engaging in cultural production in the United States. Just weeks before, Gothamist and DNAInfo—a network of hundreds of journalists doing local work in major U.S. cities—had been shut down by billionaire owner Joe Ricketts because their New York employees had engaged in collective bargaining.
Against that backdrop, the participants in this session had a tough and far-reaching task in front of them as they assessed this tense moment for media production in the United States. They answered the call impressively, discussing moments of teaching, research, and ethnographic media production and advocating for understanding truth itself as produced through political economies, sociotechnical assemblages, and relationships of trust. Naomi Schiller and Robert Samet reflected on lessons learned teaching the anthropology of media (visual anthropology in Schiller’s case, and the anthropology of journalism in Samet’s) in the months following the 2016 election. Schiller opened her class in February 2017 with aerial photos comparing the National Mall scene at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008 with the much sparser crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Samet, on the other hand, used Mark Pedelty’s (1995) War Stories to discuss the ways that journalists’ narratives cohere around stories that can be told while silencing other narratives. Both Schiller and Samet shared stories of at least one student using these texts to make claims about the unreliability of the media, in a way that was reminiscent of arguments that the alt-right has been making in a terrifyingly compelling way. What, then, has anthropology’s constructivist approach to the production of meaning contributed to the fractured, unsettled feeling that post-truth engenders? And what can our discipline do about it?
Schiller offered the lens of approximate truth as a theoretical and pedagogical tool that puts situated knowledge in practice and carefully examines the ways in which truth is produced. Samet, whose research with crime journalists in Venezuela highlights the specificity of the current U.S. journalistic formulation of truth, also suggested that teaching students the messy process and methodology of news gathering and media production might help to counteract the situation in which we find ourselves today. Natalia Roudakova, whose work in Russia has revealed the unraveling of journalism in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, spoke about truth as defined as much by trust as by doubt and skepticism: “When trust is fully severed like that, a community of discourse and knowledge simply falls apart. It is not that people cannot agree with one another anymore; rather, it is the possibility of disagreement itself that is withdrawn.” Roudakova defined post-truth as a condition in which argument, founded on competing claims but also on mutual trust and warrants, has become impossible. This is a clever and terrifying way to talk about the multi-channel solitude happening in U.S. media production and on college campuses today. If anything, Roudakova’s notion of the importance of trust and dialogue was my takeaway from the panel, and I later wondered what kinds of consequences civil society might face if we refuse to engage with conflict.
Amahl Bishara returned to Donna Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge and encouraged us to track media production through political economies, assemblages of technology, and (more-than-) human energies that allow certain people to speak together while other voices are silenced. She also suggested that anthropology of media courses might make a practical intervention by helping to enhance K-12 media literacy syllabi and by making original content that is more feminist, less racist, and more globally informed. Alexandra Juhasz, who was not in attendance, had prepared a manuscript that we passed around and read aloud. Her manifesto implicated all of us in the circulation of fake news and proposed art, specifically poetry, as an antidote to the “he said/she said rabbit hole we currently find ourselves in.”
Finally, Faye Ginsburg’s discussion of the panel reaffirmed the value of ethnographic filmmaking as process and product. She provided some careful guidance for ethnographic media-makers, and suggested that we ask ourselves: “Am I always in a relationship where people will feel like they are included in the way I am representing them?” Ginsburg also brought out an important point that made the panel, otherwise oriented toward journalistic practice, richer. Citing Cathy O’Neill’s (2016) book Weapons of Math Destruction, Ginsburg gestured toward the urgency of taking algorithms as ethnographic subjects and objects. As she spoke, it occurred to me that the inability to disagree (about which Roudakova spoke so eloquently) is produced through an assemblage of sociotechnical relations. Our on-and offline notions of truth and trust are more siloed than ever, in large part due to our interaction with platforms such as Facebook, where the algorithms that structure our news feeds can prevent us from seeing uncomfortable things. I wonder what that means for possibilities of disagreeing, trusting, or having a conversation. I recalled Kate Crawford’s (2016) article “Can an Algorithm Be Agonistic?”, which uses Chantal Mouffe’s idea that political difference—and conflict—can be generative to ask how and under what conditions algorithms become political. Can they be democratic, and what would our (media) world(s) look like if they were?
If data policy is on one end of the post-truth equation, then media and information literacy must be on the other. As a college writing instructor at a large public university in Colorado, a state that is considering changing college writing guidelines in a way that will likely reduce coverage of media literacy and information literacy concepts, I felt particularly stirred by the panelists’ call to action around media literacy projects. I am not sure how we will implement large-scale, radical media education given the current funding and political landscape. But this is a question that I hope we continue to think through in the coming months and years. My feeling, coming out of the panel, was that the post-truth era is a totalizing formulation, one we must talk about at the level of policy and regulations all the way down to the most granular level.
Crawford, Kate. 2016. “Can an Algorithm Be Agonistic? Ten Scenes from Life in Calculated Publics.” Science, Technology and Human Values 41, no. 1: 77–92.
O’Neill, Cathy. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown.
Pedelty, Mark. 1995. War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents. New York: Routledge.