Though it was frigid a packed room at the Madison Public Library greeted Richard Stengel, the former editor-in-chief of Time and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Obama administration. The author of Information Wars had a most compelling story to share, one that impacts all Americans given the events of the 2016 presidential election.
What has been unleashed with the global rise of disinformation, along with the political weaponization of information has troubling consequences which Stengel confronted with his presentation. It was clear from his manner of delivery this topic is one that he has long considered and knows to be a clear threat to democratic institutions.
With the ease of a journalist telling a story, along with the global insight a diplomat well understands, Stengel laid out the difficulty for news consumers at a time when facts are being marginalized by some in government, and bad actors in Russia use unseemly efforts to thwart democracy.
What interested me about the presentation were the two sides of his intriguing background. On the one side is the accomplished journalist, the other a man who had the opportunity to be an active player in the debates and decisions of American foreign policy. He spoke about being a journalist and waiting 5 hours in a dacha so to have an interview with Russian President Putin. To have that close-up conversation, while watching the body language of someone who plays such a central role on the world stage, is something that few have the opportunity to do. To then use that insight to put in context Putin’s efforts at spreading disinformation make Stengel’s writings and reasonings all the sharper.
Stengel spoke about this being the first year when advertising on digital platforms outpaced dollars spent on television. People are getting more news from sources that are not always concerned about factual content. Coupled with the downsizing of newspapers and loss of readers, in part due to paywalls, Stengal made points on how journalists could enhance their role by providing additional facts, while news consumers could be better informed as to how a story is researched and reported.
While paywalls at newspapers are the means to add revenue to their business it also makes it harder for many people to get access to the news and fact-based content that is so needed in our nation. He knows that advocating for the removal of paywalls does not play well in the corporate boardrooms, but believes that democracy would be aided with such a move.
While anyone can print bogus and ginned up articles with ‘alternative facts’ it goes without saying there are no footnotes or research that could be shown to have merited such stories. In other words, much of the conservative ‘bombast’ could never be sourced.
Stengel believes, especially in the digital age, that posting links to the sources of information, or listing of names who aided in the development of a story would buttress the integrity of journalism.
The topics explored by Stengel were timely and much in need at a time when forces of illiberal democracy are constantly at work in the nation, and around the globe. The best way to fight back, as Stengel noted, is to be informed and armed with facts.