Me­dia los­ing war on Trump

The very una­nim­ity of the US press pre­vents it from fully un­der­stand­ing the rest of Amer­ica

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Thomas Frank

These are the worst of times for the Amer­i­can news me­dia, but they are also the best. The news­pa­per in­dus­try as a whole has been dy­ing slowly for years, as the pa­thetic tale of the once-mighty Chicago Tri­bune re­minds us. But for the hand­ful of well funded jour­nal­is­tic en­ter­prises that sur­vive, the Trump era is turn­ing out to be a “golden age” – a time of high pur­pose and moral vin­di­ca­tion.

The re­spectable east coast press loathes the pres­i­dent with an amaz­ing una­nim­ity. They are ob­sessed with doc­u­ment­ing his bad taste, with find­ing faults in his stupid tweets, with nail­ing him and his as­so­ci­ates for this Rus­sian scan­dal and that one. They out­wit the sim­ple­minded bil­lion­aire. They find the dev­as­tat­ing scoops. The op-ed pages come to re­sem­ble Demo­cratic fundrais­ing pitches. The news sec­tions are all Don­ald Trump all the time. They have gone bal­lis­tic so many times the pub­lic now yawns when it sees their rock­ets lift­ing off.

A re­cent Al­ter­net ar­ti­cle I read was com­posed of noth­ing but mean quotes about Trump, some of them lit­er­ary and high-flown, some of them low-down and cruel, most of them drawn from the main­stream me­dia and all of them hi­lar­i­ous. As I write this, four of the five mostread sto­ries on the Wash­ing­ton Post web­site are about Trump; in­deed (if mem­ory serves), he has dom­i­nated this par­tic­u­lar met­ric for at least a year.

And why not? Trump cer­tainly has it com­ing. He is ob­vi­ously in­com­pe­tent, in­no­cent of the most ba­sic

knowl­edge about how gov­ern­ment func­tions. His views are re­pug­nant. His ad­vis­ers are fools. He ap­pears to be dal­ly­ing with ob­vi­ously dan­ger­ous forces. And thanks to the wipe­out of the Demo­cratic party, there is no re­ally pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tional check on the pres­i­dent’s power, which means that the press must step up.

The news me­dia’s alarms about Trump have been shriek­ing at high C for more than a year. It was last Jan­uary that the Huff­in­g­ton Post be­gan ap­pend­ing a de­nun­ci­a­tion of Trump as a “se­rial liar, ram­pant xeno­phobe, racist, birther and bully” to every sin­gle story about the man. It was last Au­gust that the New York Times pub­lished an es­say ap­prov­ing of the pro­fes­sion’s col­lec­tive un­der­stand­ing of Trump as a po­lit­i­cal mu­ta­tion – an un­ac­cept­able de­vi­a­tion from the two-party norm – that jour­nal­ists must cleanse from the po­lit­i­cal main­stream.

It hasn’t worked. They cor­rect and de­nounce; they cluck and de­ride, and Trump seems to bask in it. He re­flects this in­cred­i­ble out­pour­ing of dis­ap­pro­ba­tion right back at the press it­self. The old “lib­eral bias” cri­tique, a mi­nor de­ity in the pan­theon of Repub­li­can para­noia since the days of Trump’s hero Richard Nixon, has been el­e­vated to first place. Trump and com­pany now use it to ex­plain ev­ery­thing. And the news me­dia’s rep­u­ta­tion sinks lower and lower as they ad­vance into their golden age. What ex­plains this daz­zling dis­con­nect? Yes, Trump is un­pop­u­lar these days, but not nearly as un­pop­u­lar as he de­serves to be (among other amaz­ing things, he is now re­ported to be more pop­u­lar than Hil­lary Clin­ton).

How can our opin­ion-lead­ers be­lieve some­thing so unan­i­mously, and yet have so lit­tle suc­cess per­suad­ing their erst­while opin­ion-fol­low­ers to get in line?

One part of the ex­pla­na­tion is the struc­tural sit­u­a­tion of the news me­dia. As news­pa­pers die off, their place in the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness is taken by so­cial net­works of both the for­mal and in­for­mal va­ri­ety. Thanks to Face­book and Twit­ter, these days we read only that which con­firms our bi­ases.

Once upon a time, per­haps, the Wash­ing­ton Post could sin­gle-hand­edly bring down a pres­i­dent, but those days have passed.

But there’s also a se­cond rea­son that is even more fun­da­men­tal. The truth is that the unan­i­mous an­tiTrump­ness of the re­spectable press is just one facet of a larger ho­mo­gene­ity. As it hap­pens, the sur­viv­ing press in the US is unan­i­mous about all sorts of things.

There are their views on trade. Or their views on what they call “pop­ulism”. Or their views on what they call “bi­par­ti­san­ship”. Or their views on just about any­thing hav­ing to do with the de­cline of man­u­fac­tur­ing (sad but in­evitable) and the rise of the “cre­ative” white-col­lar pro­fes­sions (the smart ones, so mer­i­to­ri­ous).

This is one of the fac­tors that ex­plains the many mon­strous jour­nal­ism fail­ures of the last few decades: the dot­com bub­ble, which was ac­tively cheered on by the busi­ness press; the Iraq war, which was abet­ted by jour­nal­ism’s great­est sages; the al­most com­plete fail­ure to no­tice the epi­demic of pro­fes­sional mis­con­duct

that made pos­si­ble the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis; and the rise of Don­ald Trump, which caught nearly ev­ery­one flat­footed. Ev­ery­thing they do, they do as a herd – even when it’s run­ning head­long over a cliff.

These things don’t hap­pen be­cause the jour­nal­ists that re­main are lib­er­als. It hap­pens be­cause so many of them are part of the same class – an ex­alted and priv­i­leged class. They are pro­fes­sion­als and they be­lieve in the things that so many other pro­fes­sional groups be­lieve in: con­sen­sus, “re­al­ism”, cre­den­tialling, the wis­dom of their fel­low pro­fes­sion­als, and (of course) the stu­pid­ity of the laity.

This is the key to un­der­stand­ing many of their bi­ases – and also for un­der­stand­ing why they are so ut­terly obliv­i­ous to how they ap­pear to the rest of Amer­ica.

It com­pletely de­fines their war on Trump, for ex­am­ple. They know what a politi­cian is sup­posed to look like and act like and sound like; they know that Trump does not con­form to those rules; and they re­act to him as a kind of for­eign ob­ject jammed into their creamy world.

The news me­dia needs to win its war with Trump, and ur­gently so. But as long as they un­der­stand that war as a cru­sade to re-es­tab­lish the old rules of le­git­i­macy, they are go­ing to con­tinue to fail.

Thomas Frank is an Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and his­to­rian

Ev­ery­thing they do, they do as a herd – even run­ning off a cliff

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