Trump presidency a chance for American media to reassert itself

Responsible journalists prepare to cover an incoming regime with vindictive track record

As the Trump team unveiled plans to eliminate Nasa research on climate change, one senior scientist noted that this would be like "ripping out the airplane's cockpit instruments while you are in mid-flight."

As inauguration day approaches, the same dire comparison could be made in other parts of American society. But a tentative sliver of optimism is also appearing, based on the realisation that democracy flies not on one wing but two, what Philip Pettit calls the electoral and the contestatory wings.

In theory, the latter will soften the extremism thrown up by the election result by empowering citizens to mobilise public opinion, make common cause in pressing complaints, use the courts wisely, and demonstrate in the streets.

If the potential to empower the public between elections is to have any success, however, the first and foremost concern must be how the media will perform. Will the system be fit for purpose, able to publish reliable, timely, accurate and relevant information in a healthy public sphere, where competing voices can be heard?

The so-called watchdog role of the media is proudly protected in the American media tradition, holding in high esteem Jefferson’s ringing assertion: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without damaging or losing it.”

Political advertising consumes huge swathes of wealth, as candidates seek to brand themselves in expensive marketing campaigns. But Trump had his own media style. His verbal attacks on the New York Times, the Washington Post and other organisations sought to delegitimise accountability journalism, with its penchant for fact-checking and asking awkward questions. He simply framed media critics as partisan.

Professional protesters

Thus, citizens who protested against Trump’s authoritarian views and links with far-right neo-fascists were “professional protesters incited by the media”. Journalists who produced unfavourable copy were ejected from press conferences and an alarming number of news organisations were banned.

All of this has created a profound sense of trepidation among journalists and editors as they brace themselves to cover an incoming regime with not only a track record of vindictiveness but control of the most sophisticated surveillance capabilities ever imagined.

The irony is that the mainstream media helped put Trump in the White House by covering his every word obsessively. As the Columbia Journalism Review shows in its recent oral history of Trump coverage, his Twitter feed of aggressive messages appearing in the early hours each morning not only nourished his core supporters of 25 million on Twitter and Facebook, but served as a news script for television editors who turned it into ratings-friendly headlines, which then went on to dominate the whole 24-hour news cycle: free diffusion without any interrogation of the more bizarre claims.

By some informed estimates, Trump benefited to the tune of more than $5 billion worth of free airtime. The candidate received inflated coverage for free, while television ratings soared.

Compounding this unhealthy media-politics synergy was the role of fake news circulated during the campaign, keeping Trump firmly on the news agenda simply because, much more than Hillary Clinton, fake Trump news produced an enormous flow of lucrative online traffic to the websites of young web entrepreneurs creating false and misleading news. No one checked stories for authenticity.

The amateur fake news factories were driven by profit, not politics. They farmed web content on a daily basis, conflating historical with current footage. Facebook algorithms also played to partisan biases, creating self-reinforcing echo chambers in online space, sealing off opposing ideas from other parts of the public sphere.

Breitbart News, home of the alt-right movement, found its aggressive output of racial slurs, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi rhetoric being mainstreamed daily on Twitter and Facebook. Its former chief executive will become the new White House chief of staff in January.

Libel and espionage

There is now an acute awareness in American journalism that this is a moment of high danger. The biggest peril is what the new administration could do in two areas of the law: libel and espionage. The chilling threat of both was felt during the campaign by a news industry with a strong sense its own weakness. There is no press council in the US, no strong journalism unions or robust editors’ associations, and the finances of many news outlets are severely weakened by the flight of revenue online.

Very wealthy backers of Donald Trump admit that they are involved in litigation finance, paying the legal costs of others who target media that offend their sense of privacy. Sued successfully by ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan for $150 million, Gawker News was forced by the cost of the trial to close, a warning sign of what can be achieved by billionaires working around the fringes of a distressed industry, willing to use big money in the legal system.

The full force of the Espionage Act has rarely been used against reporters and editors, but the New York Times and the Washington Post have in the past been threatened for publishing leaked information. Trump is widely expected to radically widen the culture of secrecy around Washington and close down whistleblowing.

The Espionage Act has been used in the Pentagon Papers case against Daniel Ellsberg and many government employees since the Vietnam War, including Edward Snowden, who exposed the NSA's Prism Surveillance Programme. Critics worry that the broad language of the Act could make news organisations, or anyone who reports, prints or publishes information from Wikileaks, subject to prosecution, no matter what public interest argument they present.

Taken together, these threats will make it quite a challenge for a cowed media system to navigate independently through the next four years.

Farrel Corcoran is an emeritus professor of communications at Dublin City University.