Donald Trump, fake news and the 'enemy media': Honest editors don't hold power over corporate interests
This is certainly an unsettling move by the Trump administration. It is troubling that the administration is cutting the media off at its knees. As the media is suppressed, the administration is coaxing its base into the arms of statist propaganda machines.
Last Friday, several news organisations, including The New York Times, Guardian, CNN, Politico, Buzzfeed, BBC, and the Daily Mail, were excluded from an informal press “gaggle” at the White House. The White House has denied allegations that these publications and broadcast outlets were denied access to press secretary Sean Spicer’s informal briefing.
The first thing to note is that the gathering, which originally was scheduled as a formal daily briefing in the White House press room, took place off camera. Under previous administrations, there at least has been a guise of civility and a friendly relationship with the press. Cameras are meant to indicate transparency. It would have been immediately clear that CNN or the New York Times had been prohibited from the briefing if the usual formal briefing had taken place. The informality of the briefing and the fact that it was taken off camera is crucial to the subterfuge.
The administration made this quiet move shortly after Trump had declared that the “media is the enemy of the American people.”
This is certainly an unsettling move by the Trump administration. It is troubling that the administration is cutting the media off at its knees. As the media is suppressed, the administration is coaxing its base into the arms of statist propaganda machines. A dearth of information is a really dangerous thing. As outside sources of information dry up, the administration will go virtually unchecked.
But how did the media end up in this position in the first place?
What really struck me reading the opinions produced in the wake of this event was the emptiness of the rebuttal. These publications have nothing to fall back on but platitudes about the first amendment and the “republic.” I would argue that these publications don’t really have a leg to stand on now that their authority is being questioned. I would posit that the media is not our enemy, but not necessarily our friend. The media might not be the enemy of the American people, but I’d argue that it’s not quite a friend either.
Let’s start with the conceit of journalism. News organisations pride themselves on spreading information that the public must know. Transparency, holding power accountable, and honest reporting are bulwarks of democracy. But how do publications and broadcast outlets fund this noble endeavor? They are beholden not only to their readership, but also to their corporate sponsors.
The argument could be made that corporate interests motivate publications to compete for information, thus incentivising muckraking and good reporting. But what happens when a thirst for the “scoop” or exclusive access actually prevents honest reporting from happening?
In 2016, the Intercept revealed that a Politico reporter sent a copy of an article to a Clinton aide before it was published. In the email, he admitted that he was a “hack” and asked the aide to tell him if he had “f***ed anything up.” Sending copy to a source, especially to a politician running for office, is a massive journalistic taboo. Essentially, this journalist asked an official in a position of power to censor him.
I’d argue that this isn’t a rotten fruit scenario. If anything, corporate media interests incentivise this sort of relationship. To different degrees, many journalists at national publications ended up becoming media proxies for the Clinton campaign. There is very little surprising about this, considering that currency in media is information. Friendly access means exclusive open access, which means credibility, clicks, and subscriptions. As long as the media organisation’s motives are corporate, fallible journalists will toe and cross lines to access information.
Until now, media organisations have maintained their reputations as an independent arbiter of news. But now, these partial truths about media subjectivity are being leveraged against the outlets with malicious intent. Journalistic credibility is an easy target because the media does not always tell the whole truth.
There are, of course, laudable journalists who will not succumb to the pressure of the government, even when the stakes are high. But something like the Watergate scandal still aligned with the corporate interests of the Washington Post. The scandal sold many papers.
When the corporate incentive to cozy up to certain politicians is greater than the incentive to muckrake, then a breach of the public trust is bound to occur. Corporate incentives are like a spigot that turns the flow of information on and off.
The media is currently doing a pretty good job in covering Trump. This is mostly due to the oppositional relationship between the administration and the public. Getting clicks on an article is dependent on muckraking at this point. A publication like the New York Times will sell more papers being skeptical of the administration.
This wasn’t the case during the campaign, when the press was really aping the concerns of its readership. It ended up elevating Clinton in comparison to Trump instead of doing its due diligence, reporting the facts about both candidates, and actually letting the readership decide. Again, these decisions are rational. The organisations wanted eyes on their papers and Trump-bashing was a great way to get them.
But these decisions are coming back to hamstring publications that are doing some honest work now. Revelations about the Russian hacking scandal are bound to be questioned when the media was reporting for Clinton to counterbalance Trump throughout the election. This is how Trump can call a whole organisation “fake news” and still have people rallying behind him.
We live in a world where journalists are constantly compromised. Ostensibly, there is a wall between journalists and publishers. But this wall is porous. Of course, there are honest editors who see the morality in informing the public. But when speaking truth to power might hinder corporate and other interests, there is very little an editor can do to fight these interests.
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