Media Culture Wars
Who’s right in these turbulent, culture-clashing times?
Politicians and reporters should operate in separate cultures. Journalists should be suspicious of politicos, who in turn, will claim media bias when they don’t like articles written about them. But now Donald Trump has raised this culture clash to a whole new level.
Trump says The New York Times, CNN, and other mainstream media have joined the enemy camp, promote “fake news,” and function as an “opposition party.” Reporters and editors say freedom of the press is at stake.
Who’s right? The answer isn’t as easy you might think.
Trump and his supporters have created a right-wing cultural climate, claiming that the mainstream media reflect liberal, East Coast-establishment views. They appeal to a deep-seated, and often correct, perception that we’re not getting the straight story from the mainstream press.
All the old rules seem to have shifted with Trump’s ascension to power. Traditionally, the mainstream media followed the lead of the opposition party, giving the new administration a 90-day honeymoon from sharp criticism.
But Trump got no honeymoon. In fact, the matrimonial suite was replaced with a bed of nails. What happened?
In years past, the top media played a key role in defining who was a legitimate presidential candidate and who was not. Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Bernie Sanders, all of whom had substantial popular support, were deemed to be outside the mainstream. By contrast, Democratic and Republican party presidential nominees were automatically considered legitimate. The two kinds of candidates received decidedly different coverage.
When the mainstream media criticized legitimate candidates, editors required careful balance by including opposing viewpoints from the other political party. Candidates outside the mainstream are attacked with only a cursory response from the offended party.
“Strong, progressive populists are much more likely to be dubbed fringe than right-wing populists,” said Norman Solomon, media critic, and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy. (Solomon is a longtime colleague and co-authored a book with me.)
Labor unions, environmentalists, and civil rights activists are dubbed special interests but “rich white guys somehow are not special interests,” he said.
But Trump presented a unique problem for the major media. He opposed major international trade pacts, criticized NATO, slandered leading Republicans, boasted of groping women, and attacked immigrants. By the time of his nomination at the Republican Convention last year, most of the major media considered Trump to be outside the mainstream.
This informal designation continued throughout the campaign and into the opening months of his presidency. For the first time in my memory, the media actually called the president a liar. Previous presidents have certainly lied, e.g., George W. Bush and the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But major media news stories never called Bush a liar.
With Trump in power, the media are divided. The New York Times, CNN, and major TV networks have continued to expose Trump lies. Fox News and other conservative media now support Trump, at least when it comes to lowering taxes for the rich and wasting tens of billions on military spending.
This media split reflects an on-going battle within America’s ruling elite. A substantial number of corporate CEOs, high-ranking military and intelligence officials, and politicians oppose Trump. Others have decided he can be controlled. They hope to channel the anger of Trump supporters into mainstream Republican policies that favor the rich.
And even liberal-leaning media feel conflicted. Media corporations buffeted by financial losses due to declining viewership were ecstatic at the huge jump in ratings due to the daily Trump follies.
CBS CEO Les Moonves famously told a Morgan Stanley investors conference last year that Trump’s participation in the campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Most of the ruling elite—and their media allies—yearn for a return to the days of old with the relatively narrow debates ensuing between centrist Democrats and right-wing Republicans. They thought they saw this return to normal during Trump’s speech before a joint session of Congress in March. He read from a teleprompter and struck a less-strident tone. Suddenly all the media declared him “presidential.”
But that lasted barely 48 hours when Trump claimed that Obama had tapped phones at the Trump Towers. So Trump became un-presidential once again.
This is a seminal time for media culture in the United States. The White House treats much of the mainstream media as the enemy. At least for now, the days are gone when editors and high-ranking reporters played tennis with White House staff and dined on fine champagne at their dinner parties.
It’s time “for the establishment press to break once and for all from the ‘access journalism’ that has constrained its courage and independence,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Talbot.
Now’s the time for the mainstream reporters to write serious investigative stories and expand the notion of acceptable sources.
If Trump and his advisors are right-wingers outside the mainstream, why not quote insightful left-wingers? Call Noam Chomsky to get his reaction to escalating wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Interview Cornel West about Black Lives Matter. Quote former Texas politician Jim Hightower about the loss of blue-collar jobs.
Most importantly, get out and interview ordinary people being impoverished by Trump’s policies. Now is the time for the mainstream media to defend freedom of the press by showing what a real free press can do.
This report appears in the May edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on May 11, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.