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Dispatches From Trumpland: Media In The Age of Fake News

As the sun rises over Boston, Andrew Kersley muses on the past, present and future of the US news media in light of Trump’s renewed attacks on journalists.

image: Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The sun rises over Boston. A new day dawns, but something feels different here in the era of Trump. The Boston Globe, once lauded for its heroic Spotlight investigation into pedophilia in the Catholic Church, has, much like the rest of the “Liberal MSM”, become the enemies of state in the absurd dreamscape that is Trump’s America. It did not take such abuse lying down. On Wednesday it issued a rallying cry that echoed across the front-pages and home pages of over 350 newspapers across the country; “Journalists Are Not The Enemy”.

Journalists are not the enemy… It doesn’t seem like something that needs to be said. This of course is a riposte to Donald Trump’s statement last week that the critical news media was “The Enemy of the American People”. It all seems like the kind of situation that could be plucked straight from the dystopian worlds of Orwell or Huxley. Much in the same vein Rudy Giuliani recently defended Trump’s refusal to talk to the Russia Investigation by saying “truth isn’t truth”. Surely I can’t be the only one who notices the literal parallels with 1984?

Whilst it may seem accidental, such seeming contradiction is central to the narrative Trump sells to discredit the media. It’s no coincidence we now live in a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news”. These exist so that men like Trump can create an alternative depiction of reality, one more acceptable to their fans and supporters and one more incriminating of their opponents. Indeed, if you cannot trust any of the media that is critical of Trump, then people’s only source for “facts” comes from him, his media acolytes and his status quo.  At that point he gains a monopoly on reality. It means he can construct his own world, in which his enemies are the people’s enemies, where questioning him is questioning the state and hurting his ego is hurting the nation. You can see the results. Just look at the treatment of those who want his Russia ties investigated. Or those who would kneel and exercise their right to protest institutional racism. Or even those who would dare to accurately point out his inauguration was smaller than Obama’s. This isn’t something unique to Trump of course; long time students of politics will remember when George Bush aide Karl Rove said of the administration’s decision to invade Iraq:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”

It has all reached a new height in the Trump era though.

What is harder to talk about however is that the media itself is not blameless for its current predicament. The sensationalist coverage of Trump by American news media before he even won the Republican Primaries, at the very least put fuel on the fire. Whilst this was often done because of his outrageous, false and often racist statements, it was just as frequently as a result of a rather fetishised obsession with his character. In short, for all his large and gaping faults, Trump is anything but boring. For an industry facing less viewership and readership as a result of changing technology, covering him has its attractions. Even now watching CNN, you would be very hard pressed to find a story not about Trump. Problem is such round the clock coverage, whether justified or not, was spun by supporters of Trump to show supposed Mainstream Media bias. Then combine this with the unchecked influence of social media, a platform that supplies 48% of Americans with all their news and has no process for fact-checking stories. Thus a noxious cycle was born, where the more media attempts to combat, correct or even factcheck Trump, the more the narrative of media bias gains credence. The result: 40% of Americans say they have no trust at all in the mainstream media. Slowly but surely Trump gains more influence as his critics lose it. This is not an accident. It’s actually a propaganda technique taken straight out of the (what a surprise!) Russian Handbook, nicknamed the “Firehose of Falsehoods”It would all be remarkable if the situation weren’t so horrifying.

Understanding that the fourth estate isn’t perfect however, only makes you appreciate just how perverse Trump’s actions are. Whilst people may disagree how free and representative the press is currently, no-one should argue that losing it entirely is the solution. Having institutions dedicated to informing the people, encouraging debate and holding those in power to account are undeniably the foundation stone of any free, functional or fair society.

In short: Journalists Are Not The Enemy.

The challenge that lies ahead for the American media is convincing people of that.

Writing this piece sitting in Boston, home of many of the nation’s founding fathers, you can’t help but feel the weight of history. Whatever you think of the founding fathers, these were men driven by a resolute belief in the importance of freedom as the basis of the State (albeit with truly unjust caveats). These ideas became the basis of what would become the nation of America. One of the most fundamental among these was a free press – the very first Amendment of the US Constitution. If it weren’t so cliché, I could include a quote from any number of them, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. Suffice to say enshrining the freedom of the press has been something integral to the nation of America from its very conception.

It’s hard to reconcile the apocalyptic rhetoric of a besieged fourth estate with the everyday reality of cities like Boston. As the sunlight wraps around the narrow roads and age-old alcoves of Beacon Hill, you would be forgiven if you found yourself disconnected from it all. It all seems ageless, eternal even.

Whilst it’s worth remembering life does go on, you cannot forget the extent of politics’ reach. Newly condemned buildings, unbridled income inequality and the ever growing homeless population (that has doubled since the 1990s) stand as a painful memento of that, even here. What the president does, reverberates everywhere, from the realpolitik of The Capitol to the peaceful tranquility of Beacon Hill. If there is no-one to publicly hold him, or those of his ilk to account, then institutional injustices can fester and go uncontested. It’s a testament to how backwards American politics has become that this needs to be justified, and more so that this justification may fall on deaf ears.

And so the sun rises over Boston, and America lies on a precipice. Whatever happens, you can’t help but feel like it’s a struggle for the country’s soul.

Andrew Kersley is Politics & Economics Section Co-Editor at Warwick Globalist, Staff Writer at The Boar and a Third Year BA History Student

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