In this unusual presidential campaign, we are witnessing a frightening departure in American democracy — the rise of a European-style autocrat — and the media, especially cable television news, has been painfully complicit.
Perhaps most concerning is that Trump, the Republican nominee, has been engaging in a mad bromance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and striking an "I know best" pose about solving America’s problems — a dangerous political strategy for someone who admits that he has never been fond of reading. Using traditional democratic means, he could become America’s first autocratic president. Based on his own statements, often contradictory, he could decide to go around the established institutions of governance and create an unorthodox, one-man presidency. It is not coincidence that the word "fascist" has often been used to describe his ascent to power.
The media has played an essential role in propagating the rise of Trumpism. Although the phrase “fair and balanced” brings to mind Fox News (a network that in a single two-month period in 2011 devoted more than 52 segments to the supposed illegitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate), the culture of the news media in America demands that reporters and producers strive to be fair and balanced. The “on the one hand, on the other hand” emphasis of our journalistic culture has far-reaching consequences, creating a false, artificial equivalency that often leads to distortion. The media seems trapped between the traditional quest for objectivity and the demands of a new political challenge.
We are watching a major party candidate distort the truth and lie about important issues of our time, and the media is struggling to hold the candidate accountable. The data is clear: Trump lies more frequently, more thoroughly, and on matters of greater importance than any candidate of the modern era. Why is it so hard for the news media to bring accountability to this election?
Thanks in part to technology, the media’s role as a gatekeeper has collapsed. There is no longer the morning tradition of paging through the newspaper to make sense of the world — or sitting down as a family to watch the nightly newscast. Few Americans can name the major nightly news anchors. From cable news to social media, choices abound. And one of those choices is Donald Trump, who with 10.6 million twitter followers can “go direct” any time he likes, bypassing traditional gatekeepers to the public.
But technology is not the only culprit. Our political institutions are out of touch with the American people. The neighborhood political party meeting has gone the way of the dodo bird, and the two major parties have created an infrastructure that rewards candidates who are effective fundraisers or personally wealthy. Along the way, Americans have grown to distrust their political parties. That distrust combined with the disruptive power of our technology yield unrepresentative candidates who thrive on a distracting brand of populism but remain unserious and unprepared for the challenges of leading our country. As we have seen this cycle, the speed with which outside challengers can maneuver unencumbered by the hierarchy and weight of traditional institutions leaves the political establishment dangerously exposed.
It is gradually dawning on the Acela corridor that their consensus about the state of the country is not widely shared outside of Manhattan or Washington, D.C. A report from The Washington Post last year looked at data and discovered that 1 in 5 reporting jobs in 2014 were in D.C., New York or Los Angeles — a ratio that was 1 in 8 ten years earlier. The consolidation of the news media to these three cities has led to a national media insulated from the realities of most Americans. Meanwhile, the collapse of local news institutions means that Americans don’t have independent eyes and ears in Washington DC. A recent Pew study shows that 21 of 50 states do not have a single local daily newspaper with its own dedicated Congressional correspondent.
As technology creates a huge volume of media channels, diffusing attention and challenging the very idea of the “public”, the wheels are finally coming off our political institutions — and into this moment steps Donald Trump, a consummate showman and brilliant producer of television. He has effectively become the executive producer of all our cable news channels, using a combination of Twitter outbursts, in-person appearances and phone-ins to dominate and shape what little remains of our national conversation.
The media, bewildered by technology’s attack on the business model of news, insulated from the realities of most of America, adrift without experience, respond by covering Trump as if he were already president — waiting breathlessly for the latest Tweet or live event. Trump is everywhere.
It is at this moment that the news media — American journalists — must embrace a measure of courage and ferocity in order to bring a measure of order and understanding to the chaos. It is time to re-shape our news values to understand the dangers of false equivalency — and to get back in touch with everyday Americans. We need courage not only in our news media, but in our business and civic communities. With the collapse of the newspaper advertising model and the economic pressure on the television news model increasing, we need new business models to create and protect local news.
This is no time for timidity or delay. There is an urgent need for the media to boldly call a spade a spade. It takes no genius of special courage to see the looming threat to American democracy. Its name is Trumpism.