There are many ways that Trump has disrupted the normal mode of operations, whether pioneering a successful social media campaign, global investment patterns, and American politics more generally. Yet one sector has stayed relatively unfazed by Trump: The media.
Trump has been covered, throughout his campaign, as a normal politician would be by most journalistic outlets. They report what he’s said, a bit of context on why he’s said such things, and then go onto to report what those who disagree with him have said. Most journalists don’t stray from this standard method, concocted from decades of work to balance transfer of knowledge, objectivity, and safety from libel lawsuits.
Yet can this continue, when dealing with a man (and his associates) who flagrantly disregard all notions of truth and objectivity himself; who wants solely to steal the attention of those who read the headlines, angry or otherwise; who obfuscates whenever possible the truth behind a smokescreen of lies?
Take the reaction to Trump’s comments that his inauguration was better attended than Obama’s, with, according to him “a million and a half people”. It is objectively false: The number of trips on the Metro was significantly lower, and photographic evidence clearly shows the depreciation in turnout.
Given that most people will not read past the headline on any given story (Here’s an interesting article on the topic), this is possibly the most important part of the article. Not only does it reel people in, it sets the tone in the reader’s mind for what they are about to read. The headline is key.
So what were the media’s headlines? The Daily express’ was “Donald Trump inauguration crowd largest EVER spokesman says in attack on ‘FALSE REPORTS'”; Vox’s was “Trump claims 1.5 million people came to his inauguration. Here’s what the evidence shows”.; The BBC’s was “Trump claims media ‘dishonest’ over crowd photos”.
Whilst these headlines range from the Daily Express’ very misleading to the BBC’s more staid style, to anyone scanning the headlines, the impression they would be left with would be very different from both the truth and from what they would find if they read the article. Yet, given that headline is the most important part of the article, this discrepancy is clearly worrying.
The issue goes to the heart of what reporting should be when information is abundant, false claims and propaganda equally so, yet we have little enough time to sift and digest it all. Should it be a faithful report of what has happened, devoid of comment? Or comment pieces with the news interwoven? Both of these have their benefits, but most of all problems. Too faithful, and you mislead those who read the articles. Too much a commentary and readers become susceptible to manipulation, polemic, and even just losing track of the news.
Instead, it’s best if media outlets can fact-check as they go, and make it clear the verdict they’ve reached. Take Trump’s false inauguration crowd claims. A couple of outlets published their headlines just this style: The Washington Post’s “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift”, or Buzzfeed’s “Donald Trump Lies About The Number Of People At His Inauguration“. These convey the point Trump made, that he claims many more people attended his inauguration than actually did, whilst also making clear to people that, in fact, he is making it up. Those skimming the headlines get the most accurate information, and Trump’s attempt to manipulate the media and public is combated.
With such a history of lying, propaganda, and falsification, should the media stay ‘neutral’? Should they judge a statement or policy of Trump’s as they would a statement or policy of any other politician? Clearly not. Trump probably spends more time in a sunbed than he does telling the truth. With such a history of ignoring the truth, he’s lost any ‘benefit of the doubt’ that might be afforded to another politician. Treating his speeches with a high-powered lens, to investigate and expose him, would be advisable.
The news runs on a short time span. Imagine what was the biggest news stories last week. Difficult enough. Now last month. Very challenging. Now 6 months ago. You’d do well to get more than a couple. Yet many of Trump’s most heinous statements – that he groped women, he hasn’t released his tax returns, his bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and disabled people, his hypocrisy of not manufacturing in America himself – are quickly forgotten by most. The pomp and authority of the presidency, and perhaps a willful amnesia of Trump’s faults, to lessen the fear and dread, combine to obfuscate Trump’s past behaviour. For this reason, it’s clear that a running tally of Trump’s many issues, hypocrisies, and statements would be of great use. A compendium to draw upon when needed.
Perhaps you think I am being partisan, naive, or just plain dumb. Perhaps I am. But I’d say that democracy can’t function when there are ‘alternative facts’; when two people of different parties can no longer understand the other’s opinions; when the rivalry of parties becomes actively hostile; when a demagogue and propagandist is head of the government. We need to take action to halt Trump’s utilisation of the media as a propaganda mouthpiece. The longer we linger, the more pressing the problem. Trump has shown from his first few days in office he has no intention to rule as a “One-nation” president, as most politicians try to.
The media is one of the most effective ways to hurt Trump. His ego drives him, and he becomes enraged by those who oppose him, belittle him, or point out his flaws. The media his conduit to deliver his message. And the media has a job a responsibility to act with the integrity that comes with the power they wield.
The next 4 years will be formative for this century. I certainly don’t hold consider the possibility that Trump will govern well. But will we, as a society, emerge stronger, energised to resist any other attempt to subvert democracy? Or more divided by the legacy of he who tried? I hold out hope that the former may come to pass.