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Trump Victory: Some Lessons for US Media

11/23/2016 Anant Goel & Alan Kyle Goel

Trump’s Victory is a classic case of Veni, Vidi, Vici─ I came, I saw, I conquered. This Latin phrase was first said by Julius Caesar after winning a battle in Asia Minor─ now Turkey.

Trump’s Triumph

Trump's triumph came despite the constant carping, detractions, allegations, creation of diversions, misinterpretations, and manufactured opinion polls. We have witnessed the absolute stupidity and inane antics of US media against Trump an echo of what was also witnessed against Modi in India. In one of the world’s most memorable elections, rookie politician Donald Trump defeated the seasoned Hillary Clinton to become the US president. This despite the fact that a majority of the mainstream American media — the enlightened, informed, cool set — hated him and regarded him as the scum of the earth. It tried its best to ensure Trump didn’t win.

Balanced Journalism?

Almost all of these reputed publications forgot about balanced journalism for a long while. The New York Times splashed daily front-page stories against Trump. Huffington Post ended every article on Trump with this ─ “Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims─ 1.6 billion members of an entire religion─ from entering the US.”

(Incidentally, right after Trump’s win, Huffington Post removed this note from all past articles, calling it a ‘clean slate’ exercise for the new president, whatever that means).

And yet, Trump won, fair and square. Opinion polls were proved wrong, and Clinton supporters (most US TV channels) watched in dismay as Trump came and took it all. Some admitted they were wrong. Others remained in denial and said things like “I can’t believe this is happening.” Still others like the New York Times remained condescending, writing statements like “we believed in democratic values, but we were wrong”.


Wasn’t this, in fact, democracy at work?

Do note, whether a Trump presidency would be good or not, is not the scope of this article. However, it is important for the American media to take some learning from this election─ a point we made when Trump got the Republican nomination in May, despite all so-called pundits dismissing him as a buffoon. One need to understand why, despite all its intelligence and articulation, the liberal media could neither read the level of support for Trump, nor use its skills to convince American voters not to vote for him.

Here are some lessons for the elitist US media:

  • You are not as smart as you think. Yes, you watch the most esoteric documentaries on Netflix and read the most obscure books. However, consuming high culture doesn’t necessarily make you a better observer of society or give you good judgment. It does make you cooler though, and maybe that’s what it really is about for you─ to look cool on your Facebook page and in front of your friends.
  • People are the key. In certain professions such as politics, entertainment and the media, it is the people─ voters, audience or readers─ who make you. Calling them dumb, stupid, backward is elitism. The moment you think you and your colleagues are smarter than the public; an elitist alarm button should go off. Find out what people want. Discover the truth. Then articulate. Don’t think you know better and you will “tell” them. Listen to them first. They would have told you about Trump.
  • Unfair criticism always backfires. Trump is no saint or an angel. Certain actions of his (including the infamous groping claim) are indefensible. He has made inappropriate statements. Talking about them is fine. However, to label him or paint him as an evil monster only creates more sympathy among his supporters. If the media were more balanced about Trump, and then brought out his follies, they would have had more impact and credibility. Instead, their hate only created sympathy for Trump.
  • Do not impose your views on others. Some issues are contentious. Religion, feminism, terror from a particular religion, race and illegal immigration are all issues that have several sides. To say only your way is the right, moral and holy way to look at things, and anyone who doesn’t agree is ‘deplorable’ is silly. Discuss and engage. Don’t patronize.
  • Get out of the bubble you live in. If you really want to be an honest observer of society, get out of social media. It’s full of people like you and creates confirmation bias like nothing else. “But everyone hates Trump”─ remember people saying this? Guess not everyone did. Only people in your Facebook and friends bubble did.
  • Similarly, American media could do well to move out of New York (yes, other cities admittedly aren’t as cool).

Good journalism is about balance and a quest for the truth─ whatever that is. When you do that, you gain credibility. And with that credibility, you can eventually influence people. However, if you simply abandon the quest for truth and impose your opinions, you will have no impact. We certainly hope that the American as well as Indian media will drop their wannabe-cool snobbery and come back to their roots─ of finding balance and truth in their reporting.

In the Age of the Social Media, the Mainstream Media is dying slow Death by Thousand Cuts

Trump' victory was a sensibly crafted strategy and it was the heavy reliance on social media. In fact, using social media to mobilize the masses is a technique that is increasingly being used by politicians across the globe. And most of these leaders belong to the right-wing strand of politics. This made American media’s penchant for painting Trump as a monster backfire spectacularly.

Social media is also being leveraged by right-wing parties in countries such as India, France and Germany.

Social Media Designed for the Masses

In fact, since social media by its very nature is designed for the masses, these right-wing parties have sensed an opportunity in this technology. Social media is actually tailor-made for spreading rumors─ the so-called viral phenomenon─ and stoking people’s anxieties. It also provides people with a sense of anonymity which allows users to behave in a way that might be deemed inappropriate in public life. Thus, social media is perfect for spewing venom, misrepresenting facts, exaggerating and stirring up people’s passions. Again, these are things that are socially unacceptable in public life. But in the world of social media, they are par for the course─ what should be expected because of past experience.

Media for Basket of Deplorables

Hence, in social media right-wing parties [and Trump] found a tool to appeal to the lowest common denominator. These are people who aren’t particularly educated, don’t bother to verify facts, and are easily swayed by populist passions. In fact, during the American presidential elections of 2016, many Trump supporters admitted that their primary source of information was social media. They also confirmed their distrust for mainstream media which they believed totally pandered to Hillary and corporate interests.

As a matter of fact, mainstream media too is responsible for the current state of affairs. The big media houses have allowed themselves to be labeled─ right-wing or left-wing─ lowering public trust in them. Hitherto there was even a theory that if mainstream media parceled itself into different ideological boxes then the industry as a whole could claim objectivity. But this discounts the possibility of each mainstream media constituent being viewed as biased and therefore the entire industry being viewed as prejudiced.

And this is precisely what is happening today, allowing social media, with all its imperfections, to fill this perceived vacuum of objective news. Of course, social media itself is far from objective. But it provides a sense of free expression to the masses, making it seem objective. And this is what right-wing parties are capitalizing on to mould public opinion.

Let us be clear, we are not saying that social media is bad or the main stream media is going to become irrelevant anytime soon. In fact, social media can be a force for good and facilitate myriad entrepreneurial opportunities. In the same vein, mainstream media isn’t devoid of objectivity. But it needs to fight the perception that it is. Both mainstream media and social media can co-exist. However, mainstream media needs to fight the misinformation being spread by social media. It can do this by itself raising standards of objectivity and calling out manipulative social media rumors and trends. This will raise standards of journalism overall.

Mainstream media needs to take back some of the space it has ceded to social media. While the latter is welcome, it can’t be a substitute for mainstream media. If this happens, all kinds of primitive forces can take advantage of social media to mould public opinion.

[Curated content based on excerpts from posts, blogs, media articles, and sponsored research]

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