How the media is going to be, and has been, Trumped
On 11 January 2017, Donald Trump held his first media conference as President-elect, ahead of inauguration later today as the 45th President of the United States.
Writing in Medium, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev issues a stark warning that Trump’s media conferences are doomed to be like those of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Congratulations, US media! You’ve just covered your first press conference of an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear. We in Russia have been doing it for 12 years now — with a short hiatus when our leader wasn’t technically our leader — so quite a few things during Donald Trump’s press conference rang a bell.
Kovalev states that Putin, whose media conferences are carefully choreographed, appears to be a role model for Trump. In these media conferences, “Putin always comes off as an omniscient and benevolent leader tending to a flock of unruly but adoring children,” and:
- Facts don’t matter. Putin will always maneuver around any carefully crafted verbal traps that are laid for him. “He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit.” He can’t be challenged: “it’s a one-way communication, not an interview.”
- Colleagues are not partners or fellow advocates. Other journalists are fiercely competitive rivals , and “Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them.”
- Sycophancy and softball questions are a mainstay. He’s asked questions like “Mr President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food?”, often by women working for small regional publications. He’s even asked if a lot of media treat him unfairly, or about local issues that are nothing to do with him. And then “There will be people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies.”
- Journalists always lose. “Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.”
Kovalev’s description of Putin’s media conferences certainly appears to ring true with Trump’s 11 January media conference. However, Kovalev puts across the idea that Trump taking office will result in a media that is largely innocent and upstanding suddenly taking a turn for the worst. This isn’t the case – the picture is much more complex.
Trump has been a long time in the making, to the complete ignorance of much of the global mainstream media, as I discuss in the previous RealKM Magazine article The knowledge management implications of the Trump vote.
For quite some time, the basis for Trump’s rise has been clear to see for any journalist who took the time to look. After the Great Depression, wealth equality in the United States progressively improved, reaching a peak in the 1970s. However, since then inequality has grown again, returning to near the level of the Great Depression as shown in the graph below1.
All that Trump has done is successfully cash in on long growing frustration in conservative heartland over this rising wealth inequality, as Arlie Russell Hochschild reveals in a Mother Jones article on Medium. So pronounced is the divide that in an article in The New Yorker, George Saunders describes the United States as two separate subnations in one:
LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms. And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both subnations gape at one another through the smoke.
Further, rather than being victims of Trump, key elements of the US media are actually a critically important part of the Trump machine, and helped to facilitate his election. Notable examples are radio personality Alex Jones, who operates the website Infowars.com, and the Breitbart website.
A News Limited article describes how Alex Jones helped Trump win. For a truly frightening example of Alex Jones in action take a look at the Infowars.com video China is the Real Great Satan, America’s #1 Enemy, the first eight minutes or so of which is shameless product promotion. Jones’ interview subject in the video is Roger Stone, a controversial Republican strategist and close friend of Trump. Central to the interview is a conspiracy theory about Bill Clinton having given China missile technology in return for campaign donations. If you put “clinton missile technology china” into Google search you will see how widely believed this conspiracy theory is in conservative circles in the United States. Subsequent to Jones’ interview with Stone, in which they wax lyrical about how Jones’ product range helped Stone to become the picture of health, Infowars.com has claimed that Stone has been poisoned by anti-Trump operatives. Claims have also been made that Trump’s opponents plan to assassinate him (although this is perhaps not so far-fetched, given that four United States Presidents have so far suffered this fate).
I have experienced strong parallels to the Trump situation in Australia. In addition to what I’ve previously said in regard to voter frustration having given rise to the One Nation political party, widely believed conspiracy theories abound in One Nation heartland too. I had a disturbing encounter with one such theory when I was working for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in rural Queensland. The Citizen’s Electoral Council (CEC) political party, a precursor to One Nation, promoted a conspiracy theory in regard to Prince Phillip, WWF, mining company Rio Tinto, and Indigenous land rights. WWF became so concerned about the impacts of this conspiracy theory that they sued for defamation. While WWF’s court case was running, someone anonymously left CEC material at my workplace for me to find. The material called for CEC members to take up arms against WWF staff, which was just as frightening as the agendas linked to the conspiracy theories of Jones.
The ignorance, conspiracy theories, and pro-Trump agenda of various parts of the United States media make the situation far worse than Alexey Kovalev suggests. The media isn’t an innocent victim – it’s a big part of the problem.
Postscript: On 26 January 2017, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published the article The Science Is In: Greater Equality Makes Societies Healthier which provides an in-depth analysis of wealth inequality in the United States.
See also: The knowledge management implications of the Trump vote.
Header image source: Donald Trump at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Gage Skidmore is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.
- Saez, E., & Zucman, G. (2016). Wealth inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from capitalized income tax data. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(2), 519-578. ↩
Also published on Medium.