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ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg answers questions from WCSU students and faculty on Sept. 17, 2019 following his lecture, “An Enemy of the People Speaks: Fake News, Propaganda and the Age of Trump.”

Source: MediaSpace at WCSU

By: Joseph Oliveri 

There isn’t a more accurate microcosm of both the folly and brutality of the American empire than Donald Trump. But his attacks on what he calls “fake news” have uncovered something undeniable. 

The accusation that Donald Trump is an anomaly doesn’t make much sense in the context of what leaders in his party have stood for and how they have impacted the world, historically speaking. Policy-wise, he’s a rank-in-file Republican. He simply lacks the veneer of civility his predecessors managed to master before ascending to office. 

While it isn’t unusual for presidents to have contentious relationships with the press, the frequency and conviction with which Trump attacks the Fourth Estate makes him sort of an outlier, at least in consistency. He’s rightly reviled by individual journalists and media figures, who, despite what the president says, are not reneging their pledge to be objective and balanced by decrying him and his administration. As a result, in August 2018, over 300 newspapers joined forces and published pieces to respond to the president’s comments in solidarity with each other. 

“Journalists are trying to do a job,” the San Jose Mercury News editorial board wrote.

After rattling off a litany of difficult and dangerous undertakings journalists are tasked with on a day-to-day basis, the Hartford Courant said:

“we’re not trying to tear down our nation. We’re trying to strengthen it. For we believe in the foundational premise behind the First Amendment… That’s the life of your typical journalist — the ‘enemy of the American people,’ in the words of our self-serving and misguided commander in chief. The enemy? Really?”

The product of a movement coordinated by The Boston Globe, these pieces have justifiably emphasized the importance of a free and adversarial press. The press should, to the utmost degree, be at liberty to call out what is wrong and insufficient about our government and its leaders. That a journalist should fear repercussions for reporting the truth is undoubtedly wrong and symptomatic of a steadily weakening democracy. This isn’t just to “inform” citizens or keep them “up to date” on current events—it’s a service. A journalist is not just reporting the facts, but giving people an alternative to dangerous conspiracy theories and manipulation by the government. 

On some level, however, the president has managed to tap into something. At the same time, he’s getting upset at the press for the wrong reasons: if we are going to continue to condemn the president’s exaggerated attacks, then we do need to be scrutinizing the media we consume, while not demonizing journalists as individuals doing their jobs.

We shouldn’t be naive, though. The average person isn’t exactly in love with US mass media. 

It’s no secret that most major news outlets are owned by corporations that wield exorbitant power over ordinary people’s lives, particularly the tens of thousands they employ for barely-livable wages. It’s the reporting narratives of these outlets, which often dictate popular opinion, that has been criticized for ignoring stories about corporate abuse and power. 

Writing for Rolling Stone, veteran investigative reporter Matt Taibbi puts it best:

“the public is not stupid. It sees that companies like CNN and NBC are billion-dollar properties, pushing shows anchored by big-city millionaires. A Vanderbilt like Anderson Cooper or a half-wit legacy pledge like Chris Cuomo shoveling coal for Comcast, Amazon, AT&T, or Rupert Murdoch is the standard setup.” 

Brian Hanley wrote for The Huffington Post:

“If the mainstream media began covering our nation’s asymmetrical distribution of wealth, if our electorate became more informed about the disintegration of the middle class, … people would rise up and demand real change. That’s a notion that absolutely horrifies the executives of Comcast and Disney.”  

It’s also untrue that high profile personalities aren’t already conscious and vocal about the problem; they have been for years. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart remarked at the University of Chicago in 2016 that the news media has begun to behave “like a remora, waiting for crumbs to fall off the shark,” in that its symbiosis with the wealthy status quo has reached a point where integrity has taken a back seat. 

Co-author of Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, linguist Noam Chomsky, challenged BBC reporter Andrew Marr back in 1996, when Marr retorted that Chomsky was too hard on journalists for being beholden to their superiors’ corporate interests. “If you believed something different,” Chomsky tells Marr, “You wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” Even worse, a Gallup poll from 2016 reported that only 32% of people trusted reporters “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly…” 

The media’s defects are structural ones that have a plethora of unfortunate consequences both abstract and tangible. In a nutshell, the media should be an adversary, not an accessory, to the interests of the status quo and political dual-hegemony. There are plenty of journalists who abide by a code of ethics, but I think our current “situation” is largely due to the historical legacy of the media’s co-conspiratory relationship to corporations and to the government, who do not exercise just and democratic behavior. 

Jeff Bezos should not own the Washington Post or essentially pay NPR to run positive stories about his company, but he does. MSNBC should have been shamed for canceling its most popular program because its host had too many anti-Iraq war guests on, but it wasn’t. CNN should not have fired one of its contributors for criticizing Israel, but it did

The mainstream media has often enabled or ignored, rather than stood up against, the overreach of corporate and political influence by lending credence to select options, using specifically coded rhetorical and aesthetic approaches in reporting, and choosing which advertisements to run. The coverage of the Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syrian wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, climate change, mass surveillance, torture, police brutality, and American intelligence agency-supported anti-democratic coups, among other things, come to mind.

Technology will continue to develop at an ever-increasing rate. Mass media, I imagine, will experience the same rate of change, but I have hope that individual journalists will come together and make the changes necessary to ensure that the industry as a whole will distance itself from corporate and political influence and remain free and adversarial. 

If the media is so concerned about the “foundational premise behind the First Amendment,” then it should hold the superstructure of American imperialism and bipartisan corruption to the same standard it holds Trump’s manners. Our shame as a country did not begin with Trump’s election, and it certainly won’t end when he leaves office. 

If we want to say that a free press is a paragon of democracy, then some kind of damage control needs to exist. The best kind? For reporters to be conscious of who’s pulling the strings. When we rally behind the press, we need to support people, not the logo next to their name.