In his just published book Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War over the Truth, Howard Kurtz, a former Washington Post columnist, explores how the media became the ‘opposition party’ to an unlikely President. It delivers a compelling account of how, by refusing to engage in proper debate and resorting instead to insults and fear-mongering, the fourth estate betrayed its historic mission to hold power accountable to the public. He warns that the media’s failure to grapple with the major issues of the day risks damaging their reputation to such an extent that it may never recover.
Kurtz accuses his colleagues in the media of living in a like-minded bubble. He says journalists feel that they have a duty to oppose and if possible depose the President. Thus the media increasingly believes that the rules of reporting the news, with their emphasis on balance and objectivity, no longer apply to them. So extreme and personal have the divisions become, he says, that the media and liberals, Trump fans and Trump bashers are unable to talk to one another. It seems that everybody has closed their minds to criticism and become wedded to their version of the truth, from which they will brook no dissent.
The irony is that Kurtz shows how the Punch and Judy show between Trump and the media boosts the fortunes of both parties in their own circles. First, the contempt heaped on Trump by the media merely distinguished him from his amorphous Republican rivals. This made Trump the standout star. When he went on to become the official Republican candidate, media hostility reached near fever pitch, which consolidated his anti-establishment credentials at a time when the public was looking for a disruptive outsider. Meanwhile, hating and baiting Trump boosted subscriptions to New York Times and the Washington Post Journal. It also sent viewing numbers among cable news networks, such as CNN, soaring. Right now, it seems that this exchange of expletives and disrespect is the new ‘normal’.
The recent White House Correspondents Dinner, which President Trump refused to attend for the second time, provides a classic example of how this plays out. As the journalists insulted Trump over dinner, he held a mass televised rally near Detroit. There he said that he didn’t want to spend his evening “with a bunch of fake news liberals who hate me”. He added that however lowly the media thinks of him, they loathe his supporters, whom Hilary Clinton labelled a “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”, even more.
Hilary Clinton broke the cardinal rule of retail-politics, or selling anything, by making transparent her overwhelming contempt for the people she wanted to persuade to vote for her. The media also broke the cardinal rule governing the fourth estate. That is the rule that says that to remain trustworthy the media must maintain the distinction between opinion and news. Instead, the media presented their opinions as if they were facts – as in statements of truth – and therefore beyond debate. That partly explains why the media dubbed Trump ‘post factual’ and, to be fair, why Trump replied in kind by crying ‘fake news’ put out by ‘fake media’.
Kurtz usefully exposes these competing claims as being very often mere assertions or evasions or distortions or sometimes outright lies hurled by both sides at each other. As he puts it:
Everything you read, hear and see about Trump’s veracity is filtered through a mainstream media prism that reflects a lying president – and virtually never considers the press’s own baggage and biases.
Everything you read, hear and see from the Trump team is premised on the view that media news is fake news, that journalists are too prejudiced, angry, and ideological to fairly report on the president.
Reading Kurtz’s account of the sometimes hilarious inner dynamics of the relationship between Donald Trump’s squabbling team and the media, encouraged me to re-read The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch. That is because Lasch’s much earlier work gets to the root of the cultural and institutional crises that Kurtz’s book so masterfully brings to life.
In his book, Lasch describes the sad demise of old-fashioned partisan journalism, which conducted a conversation with its readers. This positive culture was replaced, he says, by commercial and political persuasion disguised as information; much the same way Vance Packard had talked in the 1950s about advertisers being ‘Hidden Persuaders’.
In sharp contrast to those who think the media’s decline could be reversed if only they would become better fact-checkers, Lasch argues that our modern obsession with providing information robs words of their authority. In other words, words are increasingly being reduced to instruments of publicity and propaganda, as opposed to being a potent means of persuasion based on the construction of rational arguments. He places some of the blame for the media’s waning influence on Walter Lippmann, who advocated that the role of the press was to circulate information rather than to encourage argument. As Lasch says:
The decline of the partisan press and the rise of a new type of journalism professing rigorous standards of objectivity do not assure a steady supply of usable information. Unless information is generated by sustained public debate, most of it will be irrelevant at best, misleading and manipulative at worst.
This supposedly superior media culture gave rise to a supposedly more responsible press which prioritized conformity; not only among the media but also among those who wanted to be favoured by it. In this new risk-averse cultural world, which predates the internet and explains current demands to tame it, the media, business and politicians recoiled from engaging in controversy. In this climate, it was seen as daring and essential to be considered dull.
So while the media might now be involved in a controversial battle with Trump, their motivation is merely to restore the status quo, which compels people and institutions to play by their rules. So it is no wonder that anybody who says anything out of the ordinary today still risks getting the sack. It is no wonder that corporations mostly adopt a media-pleasing, self-denigrating grovelling position whenever they get criticised, which I call apologise, reform and move on (ARM) PR.
Since Lasch published his book in the mid-1990s, the sidelining of old-time editors, essayists and orators, who made no secret of their agendas and biases, has gained momentum. Today, cut and paste ‘churnalism’, which is largely based on information fed by a growing army of public relations consultants, is predominant within the media.
This contemporary media and political culture, of course, pleases advertisers who wish to be associated with respectability. But it has seriously undermined the media’s once-prized role as the facilitator of proper public debate. And over time it has created fertile ground for the likes of Trump to connect with the masses by bursting the media bubble with a loud bang by refusing to play the game set out in the official instruction manual. Put another way, the media’s weakness is Trump’s strength. Beyond the expression of incomprehension, insults and a futile search for a conspiratorial explanation to account for Trump’s success, he stands unchallenged in the public arena. It seems that the best hope people have of ousting him is an indictment, which is hardly inspiring.
On a grander scale, this explains, I suggest, why the media today holds little to no sway over large sections of Western public opinion. It also explains, I suspect, why the media and their favoured politicians appear impotent in the face of populists who have a better sense of what really concerns the mass public in our polarized societies. As Kurtz argues superbly, journalism has lost the plot because it has become too emotionally involved. And more worrying still, they are totally detached from the issues that trouble large sections of the mass public.
At the heart of this issue is a failure of leadership and professionalism within the media itself. However, public relations could play an invaluable role in improving the climate of public debate.
We are in a great position to help our friends in the media get their argumentative voices back. Though I accept that our contribution shall never be as useful as journalism’s might be. That is because we are much more constrained by our paymasters than are self-driven freewheeling hacks in the fourth estate. But if individual PR professionals have their hands tied, that provides no excuse for our professional bodies to be bound by the same self-interested caution. Because what our society requires urgently, before things become irreconcilable, is the restoration of proper robust debate in which opposing sides engage and listen to each other.