The election of Trump has exposed a media so incompetent, so unqualified in their important job, so blatantly ill-equipped to report news usefully to the voting public, that surely they must take a slice of the blame-pie in everything that Trump now does to a mostly unsuspecting America, and in turn, the world. Although I could write a thesis about all the media’s errors, to make this digestible, I will boil down the main problems into two buckets: false equivalency and the cookie-cutter narrative.
The false equivalency error came from the media’s automatic process of treating Clinton and Trump as being ‘just the same’. From the nomination onwards, Trump was given automatic credibility. His statements were reported without analysis, his words made into headlines without question or fact-check, his soundbites and tweets given an underserved legitimacy, because he was a big powerful man running for the top job. Trump never had to gain or prove his legitimacy for the role, because he was given it, automatically, by a media institution so used to reporting political contests from this perspective, they knew no other way to do it. He was fit to be President because he said so. No questions asked.
Importantly, this automatic legitimacy gave an equal amount of legitimacy to Trump’s supporters. The media’s expectation of Trump’s behaviour was so low that when his supporters were just as low, the media shrugged and reported it all like it was perfectly acceptable. No matter how vile, how badly behaved, how racist, how unthinking, sexist, hateful, unjust, how lowest-common-denominator they went, Trump supporters’ behaviour was accepted by the media as just an example of the just-as-legitimate-as-Clinton-supporters-other-side-of-the-debate.
These decimated standards and the resulting revolting behaviour don’t just disappear now that the election is over. Trump’s win have etched a stain, an indelible mark onto the American culture forever. The legitimising of hate and division is now permanent. How many times did you see a journalist sitting politely in a Trump supporter’s living room, sipping on a cup of tea, nodding empathetically while they told them how much they looked forward to throwing out the Mexicans? The media legitimise these views through normalising them into soundbites. You normalise these views and they become accepted and legitimate. You take down the standard of respect, the values of acceptance, and these abhorrent views spread like wildfire. How did Hitler come to power? Do journalism students study history?
But it didn’t end there. No, the false equivalency extended further, to the ‘they are just as bad as each other’ narrative. How many times did you hear a news report about the election start with words something like ‘as the two most unpopular candidates battle it out…’? On the morning of the election, Australia’s SBS were one of thousands of news outlets across the world who reported from the false equivalency lens with the headline: ‘US Votes: Americans pick their next president after divisive, bitter campaign’. Hang on, hang on just one second. Divisive and bitter why? This lens implies that Hillary Clinton played just as big a part as Trump in making the campaign divisive and bitter, slotting into the idea that the two candidates were equivalent, just as much to blame, just as unqualified, just as hot-headed, rude, abusive, and offensive and racist as Trump was for every second of every day of the campaign. Clinton held her head high every day, only once calling Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables. One slip and it’s all her fault?
Where Clinton had 24/7 coverage of her email scandal (which she had numerous times been cleared of as an error, low and behold she is human, if this is the only thing they had on her, she’s almost spotless after 30 years of service), this one scandal was given equivalency to Trump’s daily scandals, plural, which were so numerous that he got away with all of them, so regular that not one was given the full attention it deserved, so frequent that they were all swept under the carpet-of-Trump’s-election-circus-media-show, as if not one of them mattered or not one of them helped to tell the story of Trump’s illegitimacy to be leader of the free world.
Imagine trying to explain to future generations how a man who screwed over his workers and contractors, destroyed livelihoods and lives, bankrupted himself and others numerous times, boasted of sexual assault, was accused of raping his ex-wife, of assaulting a 13 year old girl, of tweeting profanities and abuse at all hours of the day and night – imagine explaining how this behaviour was framed as ‘isn’t he entertaining, doesn’t he have great news value, more please, boys-will-be-boys, there is no standard of behaviour anymore, no one is expected to behave properly ever again’. How did this happen? How did he win by lying and cheating? How did Trump, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, crawl through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side? Whereas Clinton dips her toe in mud and is forever framed as dirty and untrustworthy? How did these two distortions of reality happen? The media enabled it through the false equivalency phenomenon, otherwise known as lazy, unthinking journalism.
The Cookie Cutter Narrative
This morning on Radio National, journalist and experienced foreign correspondent, Hamish McDonald, hit the nail on the head in his criticism of the media’s failings in their reporting of Trump. He said Trump’s win shows the mainstream media have to ask themselves ‘serious questions’ and described their election coverage as ‘disgraceful’. McDonald explained that the newsgathering process should involve journalists going out and finding a story, and then writing the story and sending it back to the head office to be edited and published. Everyone rightly assumes this is how news reporting happens. But the way it actually happens is that, in his experience, journalists spend time in the field, then they get a message from head office, telling them what the story is. They then try to make the information they have fit that story.
As regular readers know, I am studying political narratives, so McDonald’s analysis hit me on the forehead. What he describes is a propensity for the media to make the facts fit a pre-defined narrative, rather than letting the narrative evolve from the facts. Any fact that doesn’t fit the story is excluded. The sources used for soundbites, low and behold, fit the story, and those who don’t fit are excluded.
So what was the predefined story during the US election? See above. The false-equivalency, two-horse-race, bad-candidate versus bad-candidate, divisive-campaign-both-their-fault email scandal versus Trump all-encompassing-circus story was all we heard. How often did we hear about Trump’s policy plans and the constant inconsistency on display? Was there any analysis of how much his policies might cost? How often was he called out for lying? When were voters told the impact Trump’s ‘climate change is a Chinese hoax’ position would have on the planet? When was Trump asked for any detail about how he would build a wall and why on earth would Mexico pay for it? When was he called out for the contradictory policy positions he would take within minutes of each other? It’s almost liked the journalists pretended they couldn’t understand what he was saying, or that it was all too hard to fact-check, or that he’s just a joke anyway so who cares what he’ll do, let’s just have a laugh and worry about it later?
When were voters told, in any sort of useful detail, what it would mean for poor Americans to lose Obamacare, which had only just started having a positive impact on the lives of uninsured Americans? Trump has said he wants to roll back globalisation, to reinstate closed-down-industries, to return workers to coal mines, to tear up free trade agreements. When did he ever get asked how on earth he would make any of this pie-in-the-sky roll-back-to-the-1950s actually happen? And how many of Trump’s voters are going to be completely surprised at what he actually does, and totally despairing when they find their situations made much worse by a failed lying snake-oil-salesman who was only in it for his own ego? Face palm.
It is maddening to now see, after the election, that the media are running around like headless-chooks trying to find out what exactly the Trump presidency means for the people of the world. After the election. When it’s too late. When there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The facts that come out of this post-election investigation, analysis and scrutiny of Trump didn’t fit the two-horse-narrative before the election and are all too-little-too-late now.
The media played their part in Trump’s victory by letting Trump play them like a violin. And now we’re all screwed. The moral of Trump’s win is that lying and cheating gets you to the White House. Thanks a bunch.