Monday, 21 November 2016

Letter From NZ (About the American Media)

American Press Went Out on a Limb 

Now Suffering From Exposure

Liam Hehir

 Do you know why people sometimes call the independent media the Fourth Estate? The phrase takes it's meaning from the way European societies were organised in the Middle Ages.  Far from being an anachronism, however, the designation seems entirely appropriate when considering the jaw-dropping election of Donald Trump.

The various realms of Europe were traditionally divided into distinct "estates" under the Sovereign. The clergy were the First Estate, the nobility formed the Second and the commoners were lumped together as the Third.  These divisions formed the basis for Government today, with the representative bodies for each estate coalescing into parliaments or government assemblies.

Unsurprisingly, the least powerful of these was the Third Estate.  The press was christened the Fourth Estate in response to the French Revolution, during which the Third Estate effectively overthrew the other two. This could never have happened were it not for an explosion in newspaper and pamphlet publishing that excited debate and increased popular awareness of the affairs of state.

Given that we are still experiencing the repercussions of this event, the subsequent designation of the news media as a vital force in public affairs has always been taken for granted.

Not so much any more, perhaps.

I've previously expressed the view that claims of media bias should be treated with some caution. It's not that it doesn't exist (journalists are only human, after all). But because they cover controversial topics, reporters are always going to be accused of bias even when they go to great lengths to be balanced.  If you are a partisan of a particular candidate, party or cause, the chance are you will find fault with any coverage of the subject. It's just human nature.

That being said, it's impossible to maintain that the American media was an impartial chronicler of the last election. The manner in which it pushed for Hillary Clinton's victory was evident from the nature of its coverage and behaviour of American journalists themselves.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump's victory, ABC's Martha Raddatz – who actually moderated one of the debates – struggled to hold back tears as she talked about the Clinton loss. In mid October, it was revealed that a staggering 96 per cent of campaign donations coming from journalists went to the former secretary of state.

And what could be inferred from such conduct was more or less confirmed by Wikileaks. It turned out another debate moderator emailed Clinton's campaign chair to, among other things, brag about how he had successfully baited Trump, solicit question ideas and even offer campaign advice. Another prominent reporter was caught repeatedly running copy by the campaign for approval prior to publication. The questions in upcoming CNN debates were leaked to Clinton's staffers on multiple occasions.

It sometimes looks that, their forebears having done so much to sweep the First and Second Estates from power, America's reporters have now come to see themselves as the aristocrats and clergymen of the twenty-first century.

They certainly sound like would-be aristocrats when they talk about the lower income voters who flocked to Trump. You get the feeling that for many covering the election, "the peasants are revolting" is an observation that carries more than one meaning.  Jokes about hillbillies, rednecks and white trash may comfort you about your perceived superiority, but they also reek of the same hauteur that characterised the gentry of old.

Not much better are the anguished pieces about how these poor benighted people aren't to blame for their ignorance and what is really required is a better method of "explaining" to them why their values are wrong. Both approaches boil down to the same basic idea: that the serfs lack the dignity and agency required for citizenship.

They also sound like a priestly-caste when they insist that a particular spin on current events represents a metaphysical certitude. Where popes settle theological debates by proclamation of dogmas, news outlets settle legitimate political and policy arguments by the issuing of "fact checks" and "explainers".

And like many who assume such positions, they often prove unable to resist the temptations to hypocrisy. For every lament written about "post-truth" politics you can almost guarantee that the author will have written stories or cracked wise about narratives at odds with the empirical facts, but which happen to agree with their own pieties.

Now it finds the decline of its influence laid bare. For the best part of a year, the press has made the case against Trump's presidency (a case I personally found persuasive, for the most part).  But voters did not listen, did not care or did not trust the messengers. Whichever one, the press went out on a limb and is now totally exposed.

Like the Ancien​ Regime of eighteenth century France, American journalists lined up behind the status quo and found themselves on the wrong side of a revolution.

[The media's expose of Trump was appropriate.  Cheerleading and water-carrying for Hillary Clinton despite her manifold egregious unethical lapses was not.  (Not all MSM gave Clinton a pass for her corruptions, but most did.)  Hence the charge of bias, cant, and loss of credibility.  However, on the Right, Breitbart set itself up as the doppelganger of the Leftist media.  It, too, lost credibility, becoming little more than a rag. Ed.]

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