by Richard King
The late Alexander Cockburn once suggested – mischievously, as was his wont – that the principal reason The New York Times published a “Corrections” column every morning was to convince its readers that everything else in the previous day's paper had been 100% true, morally as well as factually. In this way The Gray Lady maintained her reputation as America's premier clearing house for “All the News That's Fit to Print”: by reminding the world that she, too, was ever-so-slightly fallible.
Observing the meltdown in the US media in the weeks since Donald Trump became the GOP's man, it is hard not to think of Cockburn's zinger. Faced with the prospect of a President Trump – now highly unlikely, post-the Access Hollywood controversy – the media has moved from shock to repentance: Grub Street is jumping with journalists eager to take their share of the blame for the elevation of the Orange One. Nor, I think, are they wrong to do so, though the terms in which the mea culpas are currently being offered in the press manage both to miss the point and to highlight the very attitudes for which they should be apologetic. I'll get to those a little later. Suffice it to say, for now, that the media's self-flagellation in this instance smells strongly of self-aggrandisement.
The self-flagellation was discernible even before Trump's nomination. The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg, for example, suggested as long ago as May that the media was failing in its duty to voters, so wide of the mark had its predictions been. But it is only in the last few weeks that the sound of hats being dutifully chewed has yielded decisively to the rustle of sackcloth. Nicholas Kristof, also writing in the Times, struck an especially masochistic note: “Those of us in the news media have sometimes blamed Donald Trump's rise on the Republican Party's toxic manipulation of racial resentments over the years. But we should also acknowledge another force that empowered Trump: Us.”
Broadly speaking, the print and TV media have indicted themselves on two counts. First, they claim that in chasing the ratings more or less guaranteed by the Donald they inadvertently granted Trump around $2 billion dollars in free media and advertising and, in so doing, disadvantaged the other candidates in the race for the Republican nomination. Trump is a goose whose every honk heralds yet another golden egg: a shiny, priceless nugget of nonsense that no news outlet can afford to ignore, especially given the stunning collapse of the traditional media's business model. In this sense, it is claimed, Trump's political rise is mapped into the decline of traditional media. CBS CEO Les Moonves was explicit: “It may not be good for America,” he said of the Donald's candidacy and its attendant stupidities; “but it's damn good for CBS.”
The second indictment follows from the first. It seems that many in the media assumed that Trump was essentially self-satirising – that with a candidate this ludicrous it was necessary only to ventilate his utterances, not to subject them to scrutiny. This failure to “call bullshit” and to dig a bit deeper into Trump's bankruptcies and poor investments, not to mention his avoidance/evasion of tax, has allowed the plague to spread. As journalism professor Jeff Jarvis put it in an interview with Australian television: “Journalism has failed this nation. It has failed to inform the electorate.”
It is here that I remember Cockburn and his comments on The New York Times. For the subtext of this media culpa is that the press was not only more competent in the past but that its traditional objectivity and rigour could be relied upon to deliver the right candidate, or at least the right two nominees. In this way the media blows its own bugle even as it declares itself culpable: the Cheeto Jesus is an aberration born of its poor performance, this time.
There is, of course, some truth in this: the media landscape has changed dramatically since the advertisers started to move online and the new terrain is unconducive to “dead tree” journalism in particular. But it is also the case that the Trump insurgency is born of the very political consensus that the mainstream media has helped to build. Christopher Hitchens used to talk of the “ideology of objectivity” by which the press underwrites the status quo through a relentless emphasis on moderation, bipartisanship and the sensible centre. This “gatekeeper” role is the ideological projection of the fact that America's two-party system is effectively a one-party system, and that the party of power, the Beltway Party, comprises not just the politicians and their backers but also the many Washington “insiders” who depend on them for cash and access. Notwithstanding Kristof's touching suggestion that perhaps the media had been remiss in not talking to enough working class Americans, this deeper responsibility of the press for the Trump calamity is largely unacknowledged.
To observe the rather pompous way that certain newspapers and magazines have broken with their traditional “neutrality” by endorsing Clinton or disendorsing Trump is to see this ideology in action. The implication is that a careful poise of detached objectivity has been momentarily abandoned in order to meet a political crisis the like of which the US has never seen. But there is a difference between “objectivity” and merely acting as the referee between two kinds of conservatism: the Democratic kind and the Republican kind. Indeed, the media fetish for “balance” – “Well that's the view from Republican headquarters. Now let's cross to Barbara, who's with Congressman Tomnoddy at the DNC” – is itself a vote for status-quo politics. (Richard Salant's infamous insistence that the CBS network covered stories “from nobody's point of view” is the reductio ad absurdum of this mindset.) I should add that the notion that newspapers should, or even can, be politically neutral is a very American one. In the UK it is not even an open secret whose cause the major papers prosecute. Ever since Lord Beaverbrook, as editor of The Daily Express, declared his desire to “make propaganda” it's been taken for granted that British newspapers are partisan, often proudly and noisily so.
Further evidence of the media's muddled thinking is to be found in its depiction of Trump as a creature (or monster) of “post-truth politics”. This concept got its own Wikipedia page as recently as July of this year, and there is no doubt it deserves one: we do indeed live in a time of “truthiness” – a time in which there is a thoroughgoing confusion about what kind of information counts as evidence and in which conspiracy theories, denialism, and other forms of “epistemic closure” grow like bacteria on an agar plate. But, again, this crisis of truth and trust did not appear ex nihilo; it is related to the fact that the modern electorate no longer trusts its politicians for the very good reason that politicians have spent the last fifty years or so trashing their own brand in spectacular style. Referring to Trump and Boris Johnson in Salon Brogan Morris wrote: “these two politicians are popular – immensely so – because they've discovered they can reach the top simply by inventing their own versions of the truth.” Gosh! You'd think that Nixon and Kissinger had never lied about Vietnam; that the Pentagon Papers had never been published, or the Watergate building breached; that Reagan hadn't lied about arms to Iran or Bush and Cheney about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda; that the whole sorry lot of them had never inhaled or slept with that woman or lied about their emails … But perhaps I'm being a little unsubtle: It seems that when a career politician with a long and laudable history of cutting deals and screwing stuff up takes a “public position” and a “private” one she's merely being, um, Lincolnesque …
No doubt there are some distinctions to be delineated here; certainly there is a difference between the kind of lie designed to disguise an uncomfortable truth and the sort of bullshit that flows from Trump's mouth, though both are to be deplored. But my point is that the US media cannot treat Trumpism as a black swan event. No less than Sanders, Corbyn or Syriza, Trump is a political phenomenon, and there is a dialectical relationship – in point of both content and style – between him and the establishment to which he's mounting a challenge. It's no good relegating him to the entertainment section (as did The Huffington Post) or making endless jokes about his hair, tempting though that is. His politics – protectionist, parochial, paranoid – are going to be around for a long time, and they are mapped into the politics of the recent past.
The Access Hollywood controversy has all but sunk Trump; but it hasn't told us anything about the guy we didn't already know, or couldn't have guessed. If the press really means to make amends it will have to broaden and deepen its analysis in a way that acknowledges the rootedness of Trumpism in the political failures of the so-called centre. It will have to make a cultural change, in other words, not consign this episode to the “Corrections” column.
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