Donald Trump wants a lap dog media, as is apparent from his outbursts against NBC and CBS during his recent pseudo press conference. The irony is that Trump would probably not be President were it not for the role of the major media. And here I do not mean merely the frequency with which the media featured Trump—the free airtime so to speak—awarded no other candidate. Mainstream reporting reflected the Washington consensus on military and economic matters and the calculated decision to neglect the other extraordinary event of the campaign season, the astounding success of Bernie Sanders. The media themselves and the rest of us have paid a high price for that neglect.
The corporate media have objected to Trump’s explicit refusal to take questions from reporters he deems hostile. Yet during the primary campaign those same media gloated about the ratings and ad revenues their Trump coverage was bringing in. As Leslie Moonves, CBS CEO put it,” “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
And just as Trump fails to acknowledge reporters deemed critical of his administration, major corporate media hardly acknowledged Bernie Sanders’ existence. Commenting on campaign coverage leading into the early primaries media watchdog FAIR [Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting] pointed out: “Obviously, Trump is the GOP frontrunner and it’s reasonable that he would get more attention than Sanders, who’s running second for the Democrats. But 234 total network minutes for Trump compared to just 10 network minutes for Sanders?”
Media neglect of the issues Sanders represented also took more subtle and insidious forms and thereby contributed to Trump’s success. The media consistently portrayed Clinton as a “free trader,” while Trump was deemed a protectionist. NAFTA and the TransPacific Partnership established special corporate privileges in such areas as patents and copyrights. Dispute resolution provisions also systematically undermined domestic protections of worker rights and consumer safety.
By not recognizing the one-sided nature of these agreements, the media are less likely to pick up on the suffering of the working class of all ethnicities. In addition, the major corporate media stars themselves are very successful, highly compensated professionals not likely to have experienced foreclosures or absence of medical care.
Trump can hurt major corporate media in ways that really tell, especially through anti-trust activity by the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission. Were he to do so, it might create some extreme ironies. In subsequent editions of his classic, The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian exposed “the fast-moving media conglomeration that was putting more and more media corporations in fewer and fewer hands with each new merger. …” Bagdikian is credited with having made the observation that “Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ on a ukulele.”
A diverse, independent media is essential to a liberal democracy, but even before Trump our media were hardly diverse and independent. The media must be protected against the crudest forms of bullying, but they also need to be prevented from the kind of consolidation mania that has brought citizens fewer real choices and higher fees. One largely unspoken aspect of the Trump’s campaign success lies in is ability to turn community frustrations into attacks on the media. Such a strategy, however, would not have worked as successfully as it has were the media not as obviously part of the elite consensus and scornful of the working class.
The corporate media are multinational conglomerates that are themselves closely tied to and dependent on ad revenues. Bagdikian has documented the role that mass advertising played in creating one newspaper monopolies in major urban areas where many once thrived. Despite slippage of their revenue sources, they are still very dependent on that revenue stream.
Combatting Trump’s media agenda is more than a matter of resistance to his worst attempts to bully and harass the White House and national press core. It must include policies that would expand the number and variety of media, including FCC encouragement of such outlets as community radio, tax credits for individual citizen contribution to the media of their choice. Saving the media from Trump is more likely if the media are themselves more respected. Social media are no substitute for thorough investigative reporting by those dedicated to it as a full time occupation.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email Jbuell@acadia.net.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017
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