Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Know Your Enemies

Donald Trump, who received approximately five billion dollars in free media advertising during his presidential campaign/reality show, is rightly being condemned from all sides for his self-serving claim that mainstream media sources are "enemies of the American people." The phrase has an ugly history, as noted by journalist Veronika Bondarenko: "Over the course of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters." 

Freedom loving people of course need to stand up to the Trump/Bannon attacks on the First Amendment and other constitutional freedoms. On the other hand, let's be wary of attempts by the mainstream press to exaggerate the extent to which they do in fact serve the interests of The People. Just because an institution is not the "enemy" of the people does not mean that same institution is a "friend" to them. In a free market media system, the people are "units" sold to advertisers. Fox News or CNN, for example, says to a pharmaceutical company, "we can deliver 8.2 million units to see your product ad in prime time on the evening of the State of the Union Speech." The more units that can be delivered, the higher the ad rate. That some great journalism is produced under those conditions is remarkable. That lots of crappy journalism is produced under those conditions is to be expected. That a con man like Donald Trump figured out how to play this system all the way to the White House would be funny were it not for the fact that he now commands the most powerful military in the history of the world. 

A common response by the mainstream media to Trump's accusations of their enemy status has been to call on establishment figures as character witnesses. The most pathetic example was NBC's recent decision to trot out former President George W. Bush to make a statement about the need for an independent media to hold the powerful to account. 

While it is nice to hear the former President express a coherent thought about the need for a free press, the fact of the matter is that during his time in office he was rarely held to account. The mainstream media's performance in the lead up to the Iraq War and its immediate aftermath remains as arguably the lowest point in the history of American journalism. As the war dragged on only comic Stephen Colbert and an occasional journalism student seemed interested in pressing for real accountability. 

If Matt Lauer and NBC wanted to provide viewers with a sense of how a compromised media can undermine democracy and destroy lives, they should interview more Gold Star Families who daily live with the consequences of a media that failed to hold leaders to account. 

Don't hold your breath waiting for those interviews. The best media criticism of the last 50 years--think George Seldes ("The Real Fascists of America are never named in the commercial press."), Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Bob McChesney, Chris Hedges--has shown how American corporate media more often than not finds ways to marginalize, ignore, misrepresent, or undermine peoples' movements for peace, justice and a variety of additional causes. This does not make corporate media the "enemy" of the people, but it does force passionate citizen activists to dedicate valuable time and resources to finding ways to attract media attention and struggle to get stories framed in ways that might actually motivate citizen action. Few citizens have the kind of training necessary to engage the media in this fashion, which is one of the major reasons why so many critical local, state, national, and international stories remain unknown or under reported. 

Clearly, the Trump/Bannon strategy is to exploit the existing disgust with the mainstream media to facilitate the rise of Breitbart.com and other Alt-Right vehicles as legitimate alternatives. How does the mainstream media defend itself in such an environment? Here's a thought: develop trusting relationships with listeners, readers, and viewers. Since it seems that subscriptions to mainstream media sources are actually increasing under Trump, these sources should treat the new subscribers to a new business model. Instead of responding to Trump, respond to the subscribers--develop a citizen based news agenda. Or as Jon Stewart put it recently, it's time to get your groove back. 

Mainstream media are not and must not be the enemies of the American people. But if they do their job ethically, they can help us all to discover what and/or who are the real enemies of the American people.