Mainstream US media is guilty of collective capitulation.

Donald Trumps victory shows how American journalism failed itself and the world Facebook/ Donald J Trump
Voices US Presidential Elections Saturday, November 26, 2016 - 18:12

The head of a western wire agency told me when results from the elections in the United States (US) started coming in and were pointing in President-elect Donald Trump’s direction he realised they were not prepared for it. In other words, there was not much copy readied in advance about the man who was soon to hold the democratic world’s top job. 

This is not an isolated incident. Many such stories followed, including that very embarrassing one where Newsweek printed over 100,000 copies with Hillary Clinton on the cover as Madam President and had to pull them. News networks – CNN in particular – were incredulous and looked everywhere except within to see how Trump was winning. As writers of first draft of history, they drew a blank. As interpreters of America to non-Americans, they were cyphers. As global media leaders, they had hit rock bottom. 

Journalists are human beings and disappointment is natural, but for almost 24 hours till the final results were in, experts (who else) spoke about rigged elections, Russia’s interference (foreign hand) and related issues instead of just accepting they had goofed up, and goofed up badly. America was not talking with Americans. It was talking down to them and the rest of the world. The voters had other ideas and nobody gave them the time of day skewed electoral system or not. Parallels were aptly drawn with Brexit. During that vote, a few people in London were speaking to few people in London who had collectively concluded that the vote would not pass. It did. The people had spoken. 

Personally, I believe Donald Trump himself, but more importantly people he is putting in place could set the world on a perilous trajectory. Michael Flynn, the man who encouraged the setting up of the ISIS is National Security Adviser (NSA). Racists and white supremacists are in the run for top jobs. You expect a certain type of response from Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China or Angela Merkel’s Germany if you are a student of geopolitics. We have also grown accustomed to the broad lines of political thinking by the Republicans in the US narrated largely by the media for mass consumption. If the media loses the plot – and in this case it is specifically clueless about what kind of a Republican Trump is – it points to a serious breakdown in national discourse. 

I was weaned on the BBC and Time magazine in addition to a host of Indian newspapers. My late father would joke that 18 months before US elections, we could stop reading American media as they would only be speaking about themselves and their future leaders. Growing up I read anything I could lay my hands on much before I decided to become a journalist. As someone who has benefitted from an American education and trained under some of the top hands in journalism, I am shocked at the ineptitude and arrogance of the commentary and analysis that followed the results. Decisions taken in Washington affect the whole world. Policy options that get the US nod are built into bilateral and multilateral organisations. Everything from the United Nations (UN) to the Bretton Woods institutions (the Bank, the Fund and the WTO), relationships with nations including with friends and foes are heavily underwritten from Washington and its allies. Such is the power of the country that the first carriers of news across the world are American networks and agencies often at the cost of national evidence.  Mainstream US media is guilty of collective bias and capitulation. 

As the results were coming in, I watched a few interviews with future first lady Melania Trump and a couple with her stepdaughter Ivanka Trump. The latter is going to be a major issue, but more of that in another post.  Melania Trump did not lose her cool when questioned by some of America's top journalists repeatedly about her husband’s gross remarks about women, nor did she think she had anything to answer for. They were a normal couple, she had opted out of the campaign to be with their son Baron and believed that there was a concerted media campaign against her husband. She is allowed to think what she wants. One comment spoke to me. She told most of her interviewers that ever since her husband had joined the race for the White House, the media had not found a single positive thing to say about her. That is a telling observation from someone who grew up in a small town in Europe and is on her way to becoming the First Lady of America. Laziness and wishful thinking are a deadly mix in newsrooms. 

It is not the first time we in the media have got it wrong and it will not be the last. I remember during a debriefing in Geneva after the first Gulf War, experts said they did not have ground intelligence. The same kind of intelligence was missing in the Bosnia war and one general even said tanks and planes can never kill the will of the people if they decide to stand up and fight even if they only have sticks and stones. Here we are just talking of ballot boxes and the failure of journalists to get out in the back of beyond and feel the pulse of the people. There is another lesson for us in the media. Poll predictions need new methods. Time is long over for fitting numbers to play to political platforms. The story of the media and Donald Trump is only just beginning and it is not about his double chin. 

 

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