Donald Trump, #QandA and the media question

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The media love Trump, heard ABC Q&A last night (Caricature by DonkeyHotey via Flickr [CC 2.0])

Bashing that amorphous entity known as “the media” has become casual and automatic. 

It’s almost always doing something wrong, be it influencing electoral outcomes or creating electable monsters. It hardly helps that the President of the United States is very much the object its perverted fancy even as he detests it. More than any other politician in history, Donald Trump is the system he condemns — its toxic product that speaks back with rage.

The Sydney Writer’s Festival component of the ABC Q&A program on Monday took a different turn – of sorts – from the usual dreariness we have come to expect from political hacks and think-tankers who provide answers that rarely meet with the audience questions. There was no pre-packaged government line that seemed only slightly modified by an opposition view that, on close inspection, seemed identical. And the panellists assembled had an international flavour to them, even if most tended to hail from across the vast Pacific pond.

The opening question was appropriate enough, if only typical for a certain presumption:

“Should the media accept responsibility for the election of Donald Trump?” 

In one sense, this is a non-question, unless asked by political strategists and statisticians keen to understand swings, moods and influences. Such terrain is not merely rocky to traverse but hard to find.

It used to be said that Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun would have sufficient sharpness to shave a percentage point or two off the party it reviled. 'It’s the Sun Wot Won It', screamed the paper in a headline on 11 April 11 1992 one day after the UK General election, suggesting that it had been indispensable in tipping the balance away from Neil Kinnock’s Labour to the beleaguered, greying Tories. 

On the day of the election, the paper ran a squirm-inducing headline of warning:

'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.'

Academic attention has been paid to such influence, though concessions to speculation and inaccuracy are always made. 

Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee and David Struckler did suggest in their 2015 study that The Sun’s endorsements were critical for the party that ultimately won on the day, with 525,000 votes going to British Labour in 1997 (the year of Tony Blair’s first victory) on its famous switch of favour; and 550,000 extra votes for the Tories in 2010, when it again turned favour.

'The magnitude of these changes, about 2 percent of the popular vote, would have been unable to alter the outcome of the 1997 General Election, but may have affected the 2010 Election.'

Yet the barb against Trump tends to fumble and fail at one vital point. 

“You guys,” claimed comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, “are obsessed with Trump.  Did you used to date him? Because you pretend you hate him, but I think you love him.” 

On this line of reasoning, it would be appropriate to accuse Wolf of doing the same: a hate that is actually a form of love as loathing. (The material for a comedian being furnished by Trump is spontaneously vast and few can resist the dank temptation.)

With all this, the amnesiac consumer of politics in the 24-hour news cycle would do to remember that many news establishments refused to give Trump column space till it became impossible not to. He was slotted into the entertainment section, languishing in middle or back page territory.

But he mentioned, and did, the unmentionable. He transformed entertainment into the political. Every political taboo (celebrated sexism, ridiculing the disabled, scandalising former prisoners, mocking the war dead) was shattered, even as his opponents were gradually defeated. Left reeling and gasping, Trump had to be covered as a fascinating grotesque, even though, in the view of panellist and Putin biographer Masha Gessen, the media “dropped the ball” in “treating him as a normal candidate”.

NBC News correspondent Katy Tur picked up on the vacuity of “the media did it” line:

 “The media does not deserve the blame if you don’t like Donald Trump.” 

Tur was on to something: that Trump had a legitimacy that the Democrats and anti-Trumpists refuse to consider, or acknowledge, however detested he is.

As Tur said, he is

“... a real thing and garnered real support within the country and he still has a lot of real support within the country that doesn’t come from people that might live on the coast.”

Where matters become confusing and entangled lies in the satanic genius of a celluloid presidency, when the office holder himself becomes a spectacle, one that breathes on around-the-clock coverage. Media cycles are cultivated, even if they can never be controlled — the odd Twitter explosion, the frequent absurd display; the news tickertape that glazes and assaults viewers. To kill Trump’s influence, slay the demon that is 24-hour news coverage. Keep bulletins to a minimum. Avoid, as far as possible, the Trump show as show.

A few of the panellists did identity that troubling phenomenon that came out of the Trump election of 2016: media representatives have become unwitting handmaidens and retainers. 

“There’s never been a person in any aspect of American politics,” reflected gloomy New York Times critic Wesley Morris, “this fluid or this fluent in the television televisual linguistic arts.”  

As Gessen remarked with undeniable accuracy, Trump did sail “to the white House on all the free air time he got”.

Such maelstroms must be escaped and to do so would not, argued Morris, entail making Oprah Winfrey or other celebrities presidential nominees. With an admirable sense of faith, he returned to the enlightenment promise of reason: good candidates with a grounding in sound debate and rational thinking might still be found and, even more urgently, had to be found.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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