It’s The Sun Wot Won It… the topsy-turvy world of American media – and why it’s dangerous

By Mince Pie

In this week of dramatic developments on both sides of the Atlantic, I write from 35,000 feet above the Indian Ocean, having made a last minute trip home to London. A week surrounded by tea, queueing and the British media offered up much food for thought.

The UK is in the grips of election fever (or rather election malaise). After 3 major votes (Scottish Independence, General Election, Brexit) in two years, the British people will head to the polls again on June 8th after Prime Minster Theresa May called a surprise “snap” election.

In that context, in a supposed world of 24 hour news, fake news and social media hysteria one would expect wall-to-wall election coverage with vehement opinions flying all over the place. And yet, the British seem oddly calm and level headed about all this and the invective of American politics seems strangely absent. So I started to wonder why that might be.

One could chalk this up to natural British diffidence and refusal to get too excited about anything in case it “starts to rain later.” I don’t think that’s it though. I have been a resident of Australia for the last three years and have seen the same thing there.

I think the comparative equanimity of British and Australian voters comes not from the absence of political invective in media but from who is supplying that invective. In the USA, the TV channels are fundamentally biased towards either left or right. The TV companies that soak up the majority of news viewing were founded with agendas in mind: MSNBC, Fox etc. Sure if you want unbiased news coverage on TV you can find it (on CBS for example) but the big audiences are with the commercial behemoths. In general, my experience of the US is that if you want a level headed approach to news reporting and news commentary you have to pick up a newspaper.

In Europe and in Australasia, this situation is completely reversed. Small countries (in either geography or population) that have national broadcasters (the BBC, the ABC, TF1, ZDF etc) have embedded the concept of the neutral TV news report. In the UK, the BBC is duty bound by its governance to report both sides of an argument (in fact it often gets in trouble with conservatives for “sympathizing with the bad guys” because of it). Even the majority of the commercial channels get their news coverage from one source – Independent Television News (ITN) – which has a long history of outstanding independent news reporting and investigation. Monopoly rules prohibit agenda setting moguls like Rupert Murdoch from owning 100% of the news coverage of their own channels. Sky News (part owned by Murdoch’s right wing News International) has a rightward, populist tilt but he can’t push it too far. Certainly not as far as he’s pushed Fox in the USA.

The print media on the other hand is entirely different. From the holier-than-thou lefty liberalism of the Guardian to the right wing invective of the Daily Mail, the British press is a whole smorgasbord of vibrant political opinions of all stripes. The press are famous for claiming responsibility for shifting elections, particularly close ones. The support of the key tabloids is still, even in the declining age of print, seen as crucial to any would-be-leader’s chance of success.

So, why does having an even handed TV news underpinned by biased newsprint produce a more stable political culture than the other way around? Why do the Brits and Aussies manage to keep a lid on the invective when Americans do not?

The obvious answer is that print is much smaller. 5m people will watch the BBC TV news in an evening. Another 2m will be watching an ITN production on another channel. At the height of its powers the Daily Mail will sell only a third as many copies as that. The quality press (the right wing Telegraph, the centrist but establishment Times and the lefty Guardian) will come up with around a million readers a day between them. This creates a natural foundation of people who get either all or at least part of their news coverage from more even handed sources. That doesn’t happen in the US. The only people getting unskewed news coverage are the readers of certain print publications (The New York Times for example) or viewers of venerable TV channels like CBS.

Print also encourages thought through its format. Long form content that uses only one of the senses (sight) is a relative rarity in the digital age. Whilst sensationalist headlines sell newspapers, they don’t get far without the content underneath them. TV news isn’t like that. A big headline, a few talking points and on to the next story with no pause for thought provocation or analysis is the staple of lots of commercial TV news operations.

A vibrant mix of news is good – it showcases new thinking, new ideas and ensures minority opinion is heard. Bias is good as long as it is balanced by a healthy source of objectivity. The British, French and Australians have a news culture where TV is even handed and print is politically skewed. The USA is the other way around – and its news culture is all the more divisive and dangerous for it.

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The [Free Press] is not the Enemy of the American People, but it still might not be able to stop Trump.

Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This is a turning point in Trump’s criticism of the Press. It is no longer just unfair to him, it is our collective enemy. We knew it was coming.  All the signs were there. Throughout the campaign Trump claimed he was running against a “rigged press.”  His supporters adopted a powerful and despised German term, the “Lügenpresse” or lying press, to describe the news outlets that brought down Richard Nixon.  Since his inauguration, he has called those same outlets “Fake News.” Yet still, even if it isn’t surprising, it is still shocking that Donald Trump, as an American President, is running Play #4 in the Dictator’s Playbook, and acting to discredit the Free Press as an institution of our democracy. Here’s what we can expect, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The American Press is pretty resilient, and at its best it has been heroic. Recently, our major news outlets have been running down every lead they can to hold Washington accountable, and they have been careful to substantiate each new bombshell story.  But for the Press to be most effective, reporters aren’t the only people who have to demonstrate heroism.  The great thing about our current situation is that we have an ample supply of the secret ingredient to Press effectiveness – whistleblowers .  From the unexpectedly bold National Park Rangers to the many members of the intelligence community leaking to the Press, the material is there for brave reporters and leakers to expose the Trump Administration.

People on the inside of a corrupt and dangerous administration are the ones who have to expose it, and that is happening. The reams of information seeping out of the executive branch have provoked comparisons to Nixon White House during Watergate.  It’s a great comparison, and it’s important to remember that Woodward and Bernstein could not have become Woodward and Bernstein without Deep Throat (Mark Felt) and their many other informants.    The New York Times and the Washington Post, in particular, have been delivering the hard, unbiased, factual reporting they delivered during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories.  They are rising to the occasion.  The problem is, 20 years of the scandal-ridden, unfocused 24 hour news cycle started discrediting the press corps before Donald Trump ever put on a red cap.

The Bad

On the day Trump took office, the credibility and effectiveness of the Press was already in pretty bad shape. This problem started before “fake news.” In fact, I would argue that fake news only took hold because the public had already lost faith in the Press. This loss of faith is dangerous, as any possible impeachment scenario will likely rely on evidence discovered by the Press. Two primary factors have left us in a position where the Press is one of two institutions that can hold the Republic together, but it may lack the credibility and effectiveness to do so.The first is the 24 hour scandal cycle, which dulls the public’s ability to separate a real threat from a minor political misstep and the second is the media’s alienation of individuals on the Left, Right, and Center of the ideological spectrum.

The first problem is that the salacious details of Bill Clinton’s sex life started a new Press paradigm of  seeking out and manufacturing scandal.  Gotta keep those ratings up! We impeached a President because he perjured himself over a blowjob.  The Press reported George W.Bush’s use of cocaine as if it were a major scandal.  Howard Dean whooping at a rally brought down his campaign.  To some extent, during Bush’s second term, the scandal manufacturing slowed down because actual scandals about the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina emerged, but the public as a whole paid less attention to the severity of those problems because every “scandal” was reported with the same seriousness and severity.  This got even worse under Obama.  The IRS “scandal” went on for months and the Benghazi reporting went on for years.  The public becomes numb to endless outrage.

The second problem is that since the 90s, almost everyone on the ideological spectrum has lost faith in the Press.  In the scandal industrial complex the news has become, people with different ideological beliefs want to pick the scandals they hear about.  The Right hasn’t trusted mainstream outlets since the Drudge Report broke the story of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. During the Bush Administration, the Left began to seek out media that would report on issues like Bush’s attacks on gay rights and abortion.  Finally, the center lost faith in the Press when, during the run up to the Iraq war and invasion, it traded its integrity for government approved access, and failed to expose the Bush Administration’s use of faulty evidence to lead the American People into a costly war, the consequences of which are still haunting us.  The Press put itself in its present position. As Radiohead says, you do it to yourself.

The Ugly

If the Press is or becomes truly discredited, and Trump really wants to seize power, he will likely act to limit its ability to disseminate information.  For some would-be Dictators this takes the form of legally rescinding the freedom of the Press, as Hitler did in the Reichstag Fire Decree of February 1933.  Others restrict content by opening a state media outlet, as Vladimir Putin did with RT, or purchasing hostile media while requiring transmission of government statements, as Nicolás Maduro has done in Venezuela.  Often, emerging autocrats muzzle the Press by simply murdering journalists, as Putin has unquestionably done. Knowing that Trump admires and consistently defends Putin casts Putin’s tactics vis-à-vis the Press in an alarming light. It is not inconceivable that Trump sees Putin’s tactics as a model. However, the Ugly hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, we have to read, support, and share reliable, fact based articles from reputable sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist. In a very real way, the ability of the Press to hold Trump accountable, as it did Nixon, depends on each of us, and our willingness to believe that it can.