September 2018Theory

Why is it so easy to say the media is the enemy?

A scholar-activist at the Poynter Institute down in Florida took note in mid-August of the fact that over 200 newspapers around the country planned to write an editorial Thursday, Aug. 16 making the case in a variety of ways that Prez Trump is wrong, that media are not the “enemy” of the people of the United States.

Well, they sure followed through. See the coverage here -- indicating the number participating this morning has actually risen to over 350 publications. The New York Times, which joined them, also provides excerpts from other editorials.

The neocon Bezos WaPo was not among them, no surprise.

The Poynter Institute is a think tank for journalism, and Al Tompkins, a longtime teacher there, wrote on their blog about this effort – wondering who would listen and who would not.

“Lots of journalists were surprised after the 2016 election” Tompkins said. “We vowed to listen to the public more, to find out why we were so surprised to hear that the public didn't love journalists and a growing number didn't believe us.” [emphasis added]

How does that happen? People write endless thousands of words to inform, and to persuade people to change their minds. But Tompkins remembers a recent Poynter seminar session when the host university’s chancellor told the workshoppers “We may be in danger of becoming a people who are not changed by discourse.”

Trump is contributing to that with his continual, toxic attacks on the press. But it was in place well before Trump; President Obama told David Letterman “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. What the Russians exploited — but it was already here — is we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.” Rachel Botsman’s report in The Guardian (where Obama was quoted) also referenced a January, 2018 survey that found 63% of the 33,000 respondents said “they no longer knew how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods.”

As one veteran academic historian of journalism says, the fading model of “high modern” media was the newspaper front page that provided a “map of the world” as of the day of publication. Now much digital media is “disintermediated,” throwing unmapped information piecemeal at a dizzied public. If the public can’t or won’t “tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods” is that because of the lack of a map in today’s media – or smoldering resentment of an industry/profession that had the elitist nerve to impose their map on people in the first place?

Whether these dismaying observations about media and the public’s estrangement are due in part to Trump’s rants about the media or – as others suggest – the effects of social media dominance is a tough call. Readers of the Washington Socialist are anything but Trump supporters, but we may take a long look at our information habits and practices and realize that we may be just as impervious to new, mind-changing information as those self-identified “deplorables” who think Trump critics are “fake news.”

As democratic socialists it is pretty much in our comradely DNA to not only bring a materialist analysis to our current chaotic information environment but to recognize how many different ways, for how many class fractions different from ourselves, the materialist perspective emerges and plays out. But we are busy and beleaguered folks, and sometimes the informational autopilot is too convenient a heuristic to pass up. So it can be hard to change one’s mind, even when the evidence points that way.

And the newspapers who vigorously editorialized today may want to ask themselves, as Tompkins observes, why “We punish politicians who, confronted with better evidence, change their minds” as flip-floppers. “We have to make it safe to change your mind,” he argues – and that means the editorial writers too, and perhaps the democratic socialists.

“Before you publish your editorials extolling the virtues of journalism, ask yourself: How are you doing with that listening tour?” Tompkins asks.

Few think that media are the “enemy of the people” that often features in Trump tweets – Tompkins is doubtful that Trump believes that. He was a celebrated publicity hound in the New York press for most of his career and learned to push the right buttons to stay in the public eye. But he is clever about turning an unfavorable (to him) media into a threat and much of the media is playing into his hands. Given that environment, until we develop a more instinctive grasp of the “hidden injuries of class” than Trump, we need to become more sure-footed.

Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan recently told the NYT political writer Mark Leibovitch – while watching a Trump tweet sail by, sizzling – Trump “just wants to see your heads explode, and he just wants you to spend the next 12 hours talking about this.”

The media don’t sound like enemies so much, perhaps, as Trump patsies. In an era when apparently discourse is less and less involved in changing minds, the media that roared, 350 strong, on Aug. 16  may want to recalibrate their stance, avoiding their fixation on the shiny objects of the latest tweet. And work on that listening tour.

Listening is never a wrong move. For anyone.

A version of this article appeared on the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace August 16.

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