As someone who will not be forced to endure the ramifications of Trump’s domestic policies (being an Australian) I am often asked what it is about Trump I particularly don’t like. His potential racism (or at the very least failure to confront racism), his misogyny, his narcissism, his ineptitude, his complete detachment from reality, all for the most part do not affect the day to day running of my life in so far as I can avoid his insufferable attempts at portraying a world leader on the T.V.
Certainly there are huge geopolitical consequences to his incoherent “foreign policy” (affording him the assumption there is actually an intent behind it) however even these effects will bear varying and debatable consequences for me personally.
So why then do I legitimately fear Trump, the President of someone else’s country? I fear him not so much for his policies but due to his rambling utterances that don’t just risk damaging the USA, but risks irreparable damage to the institutions of democracy around the world.
It is generally believed that for a democracy to function effectively it is expected to have three independent branches. The Government (elected by the people to write the laws), the police (to implement the law), and the judiciary (to uphold the law). All three must be strong and independent of each other for democracy and the rule of law to succeed. There is then a fourth slightly less formal pillar of democracy, often referred to as the Fourth Estate, the media, who is entrusted to fearlessly observe the functionings of the other three pillars and hold them to account through the court of public opinion.
Trump, as the elected Government, has unashamedly attempted to undermine every single one of these pillars in the USA. He has made claims against the integrity of the electoral process and attempted to influence the judiciary and the investigations of law enforcement. However these are such brazen and observable attacks against such immutable institutions that the damage has, so far, been superficial only. But it is his unrestrained attacks against the media, the fourth pillar of democracy, that terrifies me, not just for the damage it is inflicting upon the USA, but upon the broader international community.
We rely upon the media to uncover corruption, misuse of power, and shine a light on any threat to our democracy so the power of the anger of the masses can rectify the situation. Time and time again when our democracy has been threatened it has been an investigative journalist who has initiated the first tentative steps towards remedy, and time and time again, when we have witnessed the emergence of a dictatorship we observed the predictable and calculated assault on free media.
Trump’s attacks have manifested themselves primarily through his popularisation (not invention as he claimed) of the term ‘Fake News’. By using it against media outlets, not that had been proven to spread falsehoods, but instead against those that had presented narratives that contradicted his interpretation of reality. He propagated the notion that ‘Mainstream Media’ was a homogenous entity with a common agenda. His supporters go so far as to suggest a conspiracy from this collective and that any of us that fail to acknowledge this are either in denial or actively complicit in the conspiracy ourselves.
So what is this beast, ‘mainstream media’ and why is it so recently maligned when it has served us so well for decades?
Firstly we must dispel the myth that ‘mainstream media’ is by any means a single entity. ‘Mainstream media’ is simply a term that refers to the multitude of privately and government owned media entities that have, for an array of reasons, found themselves to be amongst the more immediately recognisable sources of information today. Let’s examine some of the best known international media outlets as a sample. CNN, Fox, The Guardian, and BBC.
CNN was founded by Ted Turner in 1980, it is more or less owned by the huge multinational conglomerate Time Warner which is a publicly traded company and therefore obliged to comply with all transparency requirements that are incumbent on all publicly traded companies. It is effectively owned by shareholders, everything from hedge funds to mum and dad investors. According to Nasdaq there are no less than 1,135 holders of Time Warner shares. There is ultimately little stopping you from becoming a part owner of CNN today.
Fox News was created by Rupert Murdoch in 1996, it is owned by 21st Century Fox. Whilst Murdoch still serves as Chairman and CEO the company is, just like CNN, also publicly listed and the Murdoch family actually only control about 17% of the shares.
The Guardian has existed as a Newspaper in the UK since 1821. In 1936 a company called the Scott Trust was formed and took ownership of the Guardian and its sister publications for the express purpose of securing the “financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian free from commercial or political interference”. It has a constitution ensuring editorial independence and there are no shareholders or owners to benefit from profits.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), is the public broadcaster for Britain and is the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees. It is ultimately funded by domestic fees and taxes within the UK with a quarter of its revenue coming from selling BBC programs or its 24 hour news channel. It has an independent board and legislated editorial independence.
None of this information is hard to find and there is infinitely more in-depth information available for anyone who has a desire to research it. But what is obvious is none of the four entities are in any way involved with another, they are in fact intrinsically in competition with each other within the same market. They all have a varying history of how they came to be, varying degrees of editorial independence and vastly different methods of earning and re-investing its profits. The notion that media companies such as the four I have just mentioned feature as part of a homogenous conspiring group is a myth confined to the beliefs of conspiracy theorists. If I had the time to feature more media outlets we would see even more variable stories of formation, ownership and editorial independence. Each has their cultural leanings and political persuasions that are often self-perpetuating. A left leaning journalist usually has little aspiration to join Fox News whilst the Guardian may have little time for an aspiring journalist with right wing views, and all could be accused of ‘playing to the crowd’ of their known consumers.
What all these entities do have in common is the fact they rely primarily on one thing for their success, their reputation. Their survival is almost entirely reliant on the premise that the consumers believe that they are telling them the truth. Any instance where any one of these entities have been found to have misled its customers has caused immediate almost irreparable damage. If any media entity that is reliant on its reputation for survival was found to have intentionally lied to its consumers then the result would be fatal.
This is why all these entities still exist. There is no example in history of mainstream media, as a collective, lying to the public. None. All, from time to time, have made embarrassing errors. Many choose to focus your attention on things they want to instead of things it doesn’t, but this should not be presented as lying. Certainly they will over-sensationalise, they may provide hyperbolic opinions, but no reputable media organisation has ever lied to you, if they did they would quickly fail as a business model.
So what is Fake News then? Far from the targets of Trump, the term was actually coined to cover the proliferation of small websites created by unknown entities, with absolutely no reputation, posing as news. For these groups, quite often the creations of a single unknown person, there was almost no consequence if they were found to be entirely fictional, and they often were. They often made money by creating click bate that would be spread and shared on social media a thousand times before anyone had bothered to fact check. They have even been linked to more sinister origins such as foreign actors. Whilst CNN and Fox rely on large corporations to want to advertise on its broadcasts, a small independent website has virtually no broader responsibility to maintain a strong editorial reputation.
Consider, if your source of news has either no advertising on it or advertising from less reputable brands, this is not so much a sign of independence as it is a sign it has almost no obligation to be accountable for the information it provides.
(At this point you might realise you are indeed reading an article on a page with no advertising. Well spotted. I created this website for minimal cost and am beholden to absolutely no one for the content I post. The difference is I am not purporting to be a news website, I am not presenting disputable facts or reporting an occurrence. This is an opinion piece and nothing more.)
Ultimately the cynicism with which you approach the media should be a healthy one. Yes every major news outlet has their own agendas the same way every historian has his or her personal inescapable bias. It is a good idea to never accept what you hear immediately without cross checking, look for alternate sources to corroborate what they are saying. However there simply is no evidence to suggest any major media entity have ever intentionally reported false facts. In the media game reputation matters; it does make a huge difference what website is reporting; it does make a difference what journalist is speaking to you, and at risk of over simplifying a complex land scape, the larger the media entity the more they have to lose from being found to have not told you the truth.
Trump wants you to doubt what mainstream media reports. He wants to create an environment where the Fourth Estate loses its capacity to ensure the integrity of the other three pillars of democracy. If he succeeds, as every dictator has managed to do before him, Trump will be free to dismantle the remaining pillars in obscured silence, and this should terrify us all.