Aiding and abetting the rise of Trumpism

November 22, 2016

Ryan de Laureal takes a critical look at some of the soul-searching taking place in the corporate media about the failures of its coverage of the presidential election.

MUCH LIKE the UK referendum vote in favor of leaving the European Union before it, the recent U.S. election outcome has shocked the media and political establishment out of a self-induced stupor.

For over a year, most major news outlets gloried in their Trump/Clinton coverage, benefitting from record news consumption and advertising revenue. Last December, Lee Fang of The Intercept reported on the comments of Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, about the "phenomenal" impact of Trump's candidacy in the Republican primaries for advertising revenue. "The more they spend, the better it is for us," Moonves said in a presentation to investors. "Go Donald! Keep getting out there!"

Like most journalists and pollsters, Moonves was probably confident that Clinton, the candidate preordained by the establishment as the Democratic nominee long before she even officially announced she was running, would easily defeat Trump if he ever made it out of the primaries.

Now, as the world comes to grips with the reality of Trump's victory, we have witnessed every explanation under the sun as to how it could have happened. Was it a Russian plot? Fake news spread via Facebook and other social media? Or was it an October surprise courtesy of the FBI? How could a racist bigot with a documented history of sexual assault possibly beat the establishment favorite?

An NBC News segment on supposed Russian influence over the U.S. presidential race
An NBC News segment on supposed Russian influence over the U.S. presidential race

Over the past few weeks, editors of the country's major news outlets, like the leaders of the Democratic Party, have issued lofty paeans for national unity, reconciliation and respect for the results of the electoral process.

"We Americans can be heartened by Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Obama's decency" in their "gracious" concessions to Trump, wrote the New York Times in an editorial. "Mr. Trump...may chart an independent course. We can hope against hope that he will shed his campaign persona for one befitting a nation's leader. We do so without illusions--ready to support him."

Thankfully, the election outcome has spurred a flurry of organizing and resistance, as people across the country refuse to show decency or support to a man who deserves none, and refusing to accept the absurd and undemocratic results of an election where the losing candidate won the popular vote by more than 1.7 million votes (and counting).

NONETHELESS, THERE has still been a degree of soul-searching among the media elite at Trump's victory.

The publisher and executive editor of the New York Times wrote a letter to readers admitting that he and his colleagues are asking themselves, "Did Donald Trump's sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome?"

The Times chiefs went on to pledge to "rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism: That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences," and to "hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly."

While this may sound like a much needed promise to investigate the inevitable abuses of the Trump administration, a closer look at the statement can shed light on corporate journalism's mixed record when it comes to speaking truth to power.

For one thing, is there any doubt that the New York Times wouldn't be renewing its vows to hold power accountable had Hillary Clinton been the winner of the election? Surely the unquestioned kinship that the corporate media bosses feel for Clinton and other "conventional" politicians of both parties has something to do with why they underestimated the vast discontent with status quo politics that drove this election.

Beyond that, there is a contradiction between the aims of holding power to account and being impartial. As Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept wrote in March, the cowardly cover of objectivity benefited Trump for much of his campaign:

Under this framework of corporate journalism, to denounce Trump, or even to sound alarms about the dark forces he's exploiting and unleashing, would not constitute journalism. To the contrary, such behavior is regarded as a violation of journalism. Such denunciations are scorned as opinion, activism and bias: all the values that large media-owning corporations have posited as the antithesis of journalism in order to defang and neuter it as an adversarial force.

FOR MUCH of the campaign season, the corporate media fanned the flames of Trump's ego while largely failing to denounce his racism, sexism, and bigotry.

It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Trump received billions of dollars worth of free media coverage over the course of his campaign, dwarfing the amounts received by all other candidates--among the three major broadcast TV news networks, Trump was the second-most-covered topic of 2015 (after winter weather).

In return, media companies raked in profits from their "news" coverage that reveled in Trump's entertaining spectacle and controversy. CNN was able to charge 40 times its usual prime-time rate for advertising slots during the Republican primary debates.

Meanwhile, Trump's ally Roger Ailes at Fox News ran his news network--until he was forced out because of accusations of sexual harassment--as an openly non-objective cheerleading outlet for Trump and his surrogates to directly communicate with a constituency that turned out passionately for him in the primaries and general election.

While media coverage alone cannot explain Trump's improbable victory, his unprecedented media domination undoubtedly helped to propel him from fringe to frontrunner in a matter of months.

And the Clinton campaign, working hand in hand with their media surrogates, deserve a share of the blame.

Thanks to leaked e-mails revealed by WikiLeaks, we now know that the Clinton team utilized its allies within corporate journalism both to plant pro-Clinton stories in the different news outlets and to pursue a "pied-piper" strategy of "elevating" Republican candidates with extreme views like Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson--in the hopes of turning them into "leaders of the pack."

The idea was to use these supposedly fringe candidates "as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right"--in order to lock them into "extreme conservative positions that will hurt them in a general election" and "muddy the waters on any potential attack lodged against HRC."

The outcome of this strategy was an epic fail. The media, fulfilling the wishes of Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, turned up the Trump, gave him a pass on his bigotry, and raked in the dough.

Trump ramped up the attacks on his rivals and became the runaway frontrunner in the Republican race, unseating establishment favorites like Jeb Bush. Clinton sank further into the quicksand of e-mails, e-mails and more e-mails.

The irony is that it was the media's cozy relationship with Clinton, not Trump, that played a role in the final election result. But don't hold your breath waiting for that mea culpa from the New York Times.

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