Steven Davis’s “Truthteller”: Book Review and Q&A

By Valentine

Written by New Zealand investigative journalist, Stephen Davis, Truthteller provides the journalistic perspective on stories that peel back information the general public has a right to know. From investigating whale rescue missions in Antarctica to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, Davis outlines how the truth is suppressed with various tactics that disregard human life and the environment for profit, publicity or reputation. Many governments and corporations use such tactics to “manufacture their own truth,” successively deceiving the public and causing distrust in credible media outlets.

In the war against truth, as Davis refers to the discrediting of reliable and ethical journalism occurring around the world, books like this are a necessity. With a lack of trust in media organizations, the public needs to hear the other side of credible journalists who are working for the people, not against.

“Discrediting the media anywhere weakens it everywhere.” -Ron Unz, conservative columnist

Davis’s book is simply a personal account of the various stories he reported on and the ways victims and journalists are dissuaded or prevented from uncovering the truth. Often journalists cover other people’s stories, but Davis offers a journalist’s perspective, which usually goes untold. He is brutally honest, calling out the tactics and unethical acts committed against journalists and victims.

As an aspiring journalist, the book echoed many of the lessons I have learned so far in university. I did not expect to learn as much as I did. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what was detailed, remembering my own strategies to uncover the truth and what I had learned. Any reader is able to fully understand the concepts and journalism jargon so commonly used among the newsroom. Readers are taken on a behind the scenes investigation of each topic, understanding the controversial situation while being provided all the information from all sides. Each account is interesting, engaging and clearly explained for the common person to comprehend fully.

You can buy a copy here from Exisle Publishing! Davis is also working on a second book with more details to come fall 2019.

Q&A with Stephen Davis

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Davis about his new book* and the reporting he conducted.

*Check out our Instagram for a giveaway of the book, winner announced on Instagram on Monday, June 24th!

Q: In researching the different stories that you reported on, did you ever notice how the complexity of issues causes people to move on?

A: I think in the modern world our news cycle is so hyperspeed and unfortunately people’s attention spans seemed to have reduced accordingly that complex subjects, which require long form investigation either don’t get done or don’t attract the attention they deserve and that shows in the areas of science and the environment and all sorts of other issues like that. People seem to want, because of Twitter and Instagram as well, people want to make instant judgements on things like read something, snap, that’s good, that’s bad, and thereforth and that’s really detrimental to our civil discourse.

Q: How do you keep people engaged long enough to seek justice?

A: Yeah, that’s a difficult one. In Truthteller I tell a story of an investigation I did into the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and when I went out there we had very limited information. We knew that BP, which was the world’s second largest oil company, owned a mine somewhere in the Amazon rainforest under the name of a mining company, which we didn’t know, and it was destroying part of the rainforest. The Amazon is bigger than Western Europe so it was like finding a needle in a haystack. And I went out there– this was a huge investment of time and money for the newspaper– finally got the story, and there’s a couple of things.

One is I’m absolutely sure that no media organization, no matter how well funded, would do that investigation now based on that limited amount of information, so the reporters just wouldn’t get sent. And secondly, while we’ve been ignoring the situation the problems of the rainforest haven’t gone away and their destroying more rainforest than ever but the world has simply forgotten about it.

If you want free journalism you’re simply going to get trivia and propaganda. If you want quality journalism, which allows people to investigate things, like the destruction of the rainforest, then you need to pay for it.

Q: I’ve noticed common sense does not seem to work with supporters of authoritarians (such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro). What is your experience with these supporters?

A: One of my big things that I go around the world talking about is that conspiracy theories are profoundly dangerous. People think they are harmless or fun or amusing to pass on, people who believe that they have superior form of knowledge that everybody else doesn’t have, but they are very dangerous. They warp minds. We’ve seen it recently in my own country with the Christchurch mosque shooter who believed bizarre conspiracy theories about NGOs and national government organizations. It’s actually very difficult to talk to conspiracy theorists, I’ve tried many times. Sometimes they think the absence of information is proof that there’s a cover up.

I was recently interviewed by a number of radio hosts in Queensland, think of it as the Alabama in Australia, and we were talking about conspiracy theories and all of a sudden they brought up climate change. I thought I misunderstood the question, but then I realized they were asking me about climate change as a conspiracy theory. So you try to rationalize this thing, try to reason with people and deal with the facts.

Unfortunately, some people are simply immune and eventually when you argue with them they then think you aren’t a journalist, but part of the global cover up of the particular issue. Another radio host actually asked me, during an interview,  “What about the moon landing?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “What about Apollo 11, wasn’t it faked?” And this is a radio broadcaster who has loads of listeners, so she’s influential. And I said, “You think Apollo 11 was faked?” And she said, “I think probably.” And I said, “What about Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17? Because man landed on the moon six different times, do you think all six were faked?” And the interesting thing was she didn’t even realize there had been six moon landings so in some respect there’s no argument in that, no debating that. You can’t reason with somebody like that. But we just have to keep trying. We just have to keep reciting the facts.

And in terms of the ‘secret society’ in Truthteller, we just have to point out the absurdity of the whole deep-state theory. Before the 2016 election, the FBI knew and was investigating potential connections between the Russians and the Trump Administration and they were also investigating the emails on Hillary’s server. Now if there was a deep-state conspiracy and the FBI wanted to sabotage Donald Trump being elected as president of the United States, all they would have simply had to do was leak the information that he was potentially linked to the Russians, that would have destroyed his candidacy. Instead, they said nothing about that and of course the only thing they said publicly about was Hillary’s emails so the whole deep-state conspiracy theory is so profoundly illogical. But again, people believe it.

And unfortunately authoritarians, they use this idea called The Big Lie. Now what this is — and Putin uses this, Trump uses this, Erdoğan in Turkey, a lot of people do — you tell a Big Lie and initially a lot of people might not believe you. But our brains are wired to treat information that’s familiar to us, studies have shown, as trust-worthy. We think about this information we hear from your friends or family that you tend to trust as familiar information. So you tell a Big Lie and then you repeat it again and again and again hundreds of times and eventually the proportion of people believing you goes up. Many people forget that Trump made his bones of the Republican Party with the Obama birthright theory. When he first mentioned that, he was disowned by the Republican Party and the percentage of Republicans that believed him was very low. Two years later, after endless reputation of this Big Lie, the numbers believing that were soon over 50 percent and he ultimately ended up as the Republican candidate for president. So unfortunately this strategy used by authoritarians and professional liars work.

Q: Alex Jones creates a lot of content based on conspiracy theories and Ben Shapiro shares his opinions as fact. What is your opinion between free speech and hate speech?

A: I’m a believer in free speech. I’m a believer in looking at things and treating them as laughable nonsense. I guess I’d go back to the classic John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” which I think is the classic definition between free speech and hate speech. Now at the time he was writing this, the villains were the corn merchants, in England. Free speech is I can say the merchants are evil. I think you should protest the corn merchants. I think you should demonstrate against them. But what you can’t do is go outside the corn merchant’s home and tell your mob to go burn down his house and kill him. So one is free speech and the other hate speech. In the year of the internet, it’s sometimes very difficult to decipher the two, because then you get into the issue of the harm principle. Now Alex Jones’s ratings are laughable but we can also say that for the families of Sandy Hook, it has done actual harm. I mean these poor, grieving people have lunatics ring them up on the phone and abuse them.

So it’s a difficult issue, I’ve always leaned on the side of free speech. I think if you ban an Alex Jones from commercial media, you only give him more credence and his group will be able to kind of make him into a sort of martyr. So I wouldn’t ban him, but what I would do though is monitor his comments. So leave most of the outrageous nonsense, but obviously if it’s promoting hatred against an individual group then Twitter or Facebook would take it down. I think that’s the compromise. Not a total ban, but actually take the stuff down that is obviously trying to provoke harm and hatred against another group. It’s a difficult one in the age of the internet.

Q: What about this idea of people calling something hate speech and the people are then told they are just too sensitive?

A: One of the tendencies of white supermacist groups often tend to disguise their racism and intolerance as humor. Of course that’s the way they try and get away with it. If you challenge them they try to say it was just a joke. And if you didn’t like the joke then you’ve got no sense of humor. So that’s something to be monitored.

I think that for the moment the energies of social media companies should be devoted to taking down the actual hate speech caused by white supremacists. And of course they can do it, they just haven’t been forced into that position at the moment. I mean Facebook, I think, has become a socially irresponsible company, given its power and influence in the world currently, because they somehow avoided being treated for what they are, which is a broadcaster. They say ‘we are not responsible for this stuff we are just a platform.’ That’s nonsense of course. They are a publisher and broadcaster. Insofar how white supremacists go, they should be forced to deal with the issue. You can’t tell me they can’t create algorithms to tackle this stuff. Facebook was forced a few years ago to deal with ISIS videos and virtually make them disappear. Or child pornography, they were forced to deal with and they dealt with that. Now they have to be forced to deal with white supremacists’ posts.

Q: The Trump Administration and other governments invent their own truth, what can be done to oppose such a powerful army of pundits, commentators, journalists all ready to fight against the truth and have the money to do so?

A: The answer to that, of course, is journalism. The so-called mainstream media. I think we as journalists have been very lax over the years in explaining consistently the value of what we do to the public. And the reputation of journalists has declined because of the appalling way some so-called journalists go about their business. One of the things that I am most irritated about is that everybody can call themselves a journalist or a citizen’s journalist these days as opposed to being a trained journalist. So we need to defend our reputation. When I was a young journalist, the movie All the President’s Men came out and all the journalists were heroes. And I say to people that journalists that appear in dramas these days are often portrayed as people doing awful, sleazy things. We have to explain the importance of what we do again and again. I think we have to explain why knowledge and going and finding the facts is important to society.

Q: As an investigative journalist there must be a lot of people looking to silence you. How do you navigate your stories successfully without being silenced or face a demise such as Russian journalist Dmitry Kholodov?

A: I’ve occasionally been threatened, mainly legally, like lots of people have gone to court to suppress my stories. But I’m lucky compared with journalists in Turkey, who locks up thousands of journalists, Russia murders them, Saudi Arabia sends a hit team to dismember journalists in Turkey. So the answer is you just have to be careful. Often the greater danger is to your source and not you, in the West. Of course in the rainforest story the forestry service officials who helped me, they all were attacked by the government.

It’s just one of the costs to be born from investigative journalism. It’s harder these days because it is so easy to assassinate somebody’s reputation online, to spread false information about them. I actually laugh now when people say things or threaten me. ‘Let’s not bother, let’s move on. Answer my questions.’

Q: You mention tools that corporations and governments utilize, but what other strategies can the public and journalists use that you did not mention in the book?

A: First and foremost you can participate. Say you live in an area and you have a city council that makes lots of decisions about your life. And most of these decisions are made without anybody paying attention. Go to a council meeting and sit and listen to what these people, who you’ve elected, are actually saying and doing on your behalf. So participation, especially among young people, is huge. It’s great to get on the streets and it’s great to march and demonstrate, but also you should do the other… You’ll be amazed at what is done in your name that they get away with simply because no one is paying attention.

The second thing is don’t allow yourself to be disillusioned and cynical. There’s still truth out there. There’s still real journalism out there. The worst thing is to become so depressed and cynical and switch off. Because once you switch off, the other side won. And monitor your politicians carefully, don’t take any of them at their word.

Keep an open mind. I think we’ve entered a world now where a lot of people are close-minded, unwilling to hear the other side. Listen to the other side of the debate. One thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of journalism is that some issues are clear cut but there are a lot of other issues that are not black and white, kind of gray. When I was a young man and decided I believed in something, I made a point to research the exact opposite that gave the opposite opinion. I found it helped, whether it changed my opinion or not, it helped to know what the other arguments were.

Q: Can journalists somehow use the suppression tools outlined in your book to their advantage?

A: When somebody tries to suppress something, it’s often a validation of the story. I mean I know I’m on the right track when somebody tries to stop me. Especially in Western societies if somebody is threatening you legally or trying to injunct you, that can be used by you as evidence that you are on the right track.

Q: How do you remain unbiased when there is clearly a right or wrong in some instances?

A: Generally the people who say ‘journalists can’t be unbiased’ are the ones who want to be biased themselves, they want to be columnists and things. Our brains have an involuntary bias to certain things but I point to the jury system. The jury system, which works well in Western society, is based on the fact that you get 12 people at random, in a room, you ask them to put aside their prejudices and assess the evidence in front of them and come to a conclusion and it works generally pretty well. Journalists can do the same. Okay, forget what you know, forget what you think you know, look at the evidence in front of you and come to a conclusion. So I think to that extent journalists can absolutely maintain that independence.

In terms of the things that are right and wrong, if we know something is wrong, it’s not being biased to point it out. Facts are separate from bias. Facts are facts. One of the things the media has had to adjust to is Trump’s serial lying and the idea that he would tweet something and then you would report what he tweeted and then millions and millions of people would have seen it. And then maybe an hour later the New York Times might point out, or the next day why this is factually wrong. So we have to adjust our reporting style to that. I think if we report a tweet from the president of the United States or anybody else that is demonstrably false, say it right at the first time of reporting it. You can’t just pass on his tweet, because journalism is not passing along a false statement from somebody. We have to be careful to make sure it is false.

Q: If you had the power, what laws or restrictions would you pass to suppress Fake News while uplifting credible, reliable outlets?

A: First off I would have a law where social media would be regulated as publishers. So Facebook would be treated like the New York Times, a publisher, or NBC News, a broadcaster. So it’s actually responsible for what is on it’s platform. Number two, I would — it doesn’t apply in the United States, but in most of the rest of the world the libel and defamation laws are horrendously wagered against journalism, so I would change all those. I would change the rules on Freedom of Information Acts to make every piece of information available to the public instantly online and list the very narrow group of prescribed reasons why not — that would terrify most governments by the way. And I guess we have to have some modern definition on the books of defining hate speech and free speech. I would go back to the ‘do no harm principle.’ Free speech that you disagree with, dislike, or are offended by is still free speech. Free speech that causes obvious harm to people– you have to define the harm. I have to say though I’ve never desired to be a lawmaker or politician, I’m happy being a journalist.

Note: Answers have been edited for clarity.

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