The US media and its search for smoking guns
The journalists from America’s mainstream media crowding into a rare Donald Trump press conference last week seemed unaware of the reason for their presence. Mr Trump didn’t invite them for a serious conversation on allegations of scandal or even to offer clarity on the policy intentions of an administration that takes office this Friday. This was pure political theatre in which the journalists were a prop, allowing Mr Trump to perform a ritual humiliation of the liberal media.
Mr Trump’s last press conference had been in July, because why bother showing up in person when mainstream news outlets routinely select their day’s top story from his most provocative tweet of the day?
His Twitter provocations often coincide with reports into controversial policies or conflicts of interest, and they reliably shift the media’s focus. On the day Republicans began dismantling the Affordable Care Act, potentially leaving 30 million Americans without health care, many news outlets led instead with a Trump tweet about WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
The continuing media obsession with tying Mr Trump to Vladimir Putin may even be working in his favour. Coverage of allegations about Moscow ties and blackmail threats has failed to resonate with ordinary Americans who voted for him. The reason even many former Obama voters in the Midwest swung to Mr Trump was despair over declining standards of living and a deep mistrust of the liberal establishment who failed to acknowledge the negative economic consequences for many Americans of the globalisation they championed. Many of those voters view the focus on scandalous information on Mr Trump simply as political cage-fighting.
The ubiquity over the years of the “-gate” suffix in American political headlines is a reminder of the persistence of the Watergate trope – information leaked by United States security services to the Washington Post in 1973 that resulted in the ousting of Richard Nixon – and the assumption of the “-gate” trope is that publicising scandal raises the possibility of removing an incumbent. A similar outcome would seem to be the objective behind the torrent of revelations about Mr Trump and his campaign. But the Watergate effect was only possible in an era when the source of the news that reached most Americans was one of three daily papers, three television news networks and a weekly magazine. That monopoly began to crack decades ago with the onset of cable TV. It was shattered by the internet and then pulverised by the emergence of social media.
The adage that “you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts” no longer applies when Americans get their news from sources citing vastly different sets of facts. The new media landscape allows citizens to tune out information they don’t want to hear because it challenges their existing biases. Simply, there are no longer any sources recognised as providers of a universally accepted set of facts around which political debate will revolve.
Mr Trump emerged as a public figure by mastering this fractured landscape, where distinctions between news and entertainment were increasingly blurred and where the business model’s reliance on “click-bait” favours provocation. He connects instinctively with a public likely to judge the veracity of information not on its own merits, but according to existing attitudes towards the news outlets publishing it. Thus the logic behind his off-the-cuff remark last summer that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters”.
But while painting him as a pawn of Moscow is certainly unlikely to weaken Mr Trump’s political base, his empty promises on health care and job creation are a real weakness, because failure to deliver will increase the pain of many people who voted for him.
It’s critically important, therefore, for the media to focus on what Mr Trump’s government and their allies on Capitol Hill are actually doing – not simply what they say about what they’re doing.
It’s more important than ever for the media to focus on the reality of ordinary Americans, and the effect that government policies have on their lives. The danger of focusing the news conversation on Mr Trump’s personality should be obvious from the 2016 election campaign, which his rivals both in the Republican primaries and the presidential race waged as a fight over why Mr Trump was not fit to be president – and lost.
Mr Trump’s real weakness may, in fact, be the likelihood that the self-serving ideology of the billionaires who dominate his cabinet and the Republicans in Congress will result in policies that fail to deliver on the vague promises he made the struggling middle class and impoverished working class. The move to scrap Obamacare, for example, looks likely to plunge many Trump voters into a world of pain, while billionaires loot the treasury with another tax cut.
Trump voters are more likely to turn on him when they realise that his policies are going to bring further pain rather than relief, than when they are presented with lurid tales of alleged Moscow shenanigans. The mainstream liberal media needs to face up to its failure to report adequately on the crisis of economic anxiety and social despair in middle America that got Mr Trump elected in the first place. If they don't rectify that now Mr Trump could, as he said on the campaign trail, get away with “murder”.
Tony Karon teaches at the New School in New York
Updated: January 15, 2017 04:00 AM