Trump, truth and the media

The manner of Donald Trump’s electoral success presents the Western media – not just America’s – with an urgent and profound question: what is the role of truth in contemporary democratic political discourse?

In the midst of the US presidential campaign, The Economist newspaper devoted a cover story to the concept of “post-truth” politics, a term coined by an American blogger, David Roberts, in writing about American climate-change policy. With a climate-change denier now about to sit in the Oval Office, the urgency of the “truth” question becomes starkly obvious.

Denial of climate change is one of Trump’s more serious but less fantastical lies. Among innumerable outrageous untruths, he has asserted that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were co-founders of Islamic State (IS), that Obama was not a US citizen, and that Hillary Clinton had laughed at a 12-year-old rape victim. After the second presidential debate, The New York Times enumerated 27 specific lies that he uttered in the course of the debate. The term “trumped up” has thus been given a new lease of life.

In the relatively recent past when at least some plausible degree of truth mattered in politics, this would have severely weakened his candidacy. Not now. Trump simply condemned the media as corrupt, as part of a great conspiracy by the so-called “elites” against the American people. 

How did democratic politics become so detached from reality?

Clearly there are larger forces at work than anything the media alone can generate. A conventional but persuasive wisdom is emerging that millions of ordinary people, particularly in the Anglophone democracies, have been left behind by globalisation, and sacrificed on the altar of neoclassical economics. Evidence for this can be found in the Brexit vote and by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Voters trapped in these circumstances know only one big truth: their living standards, share of the cake, and place in society are imperilled or reduced. Against this big truth, which they live every day, untruths about who founded IS, about Obama’s birthplace or Hillary Clinton’s alleged heartlessness towards a child rape victim, count for nothing in the moral calculus.

It is in exploiting this sentiment that elements of the media, particularly in the US, are seriously culpable.

An outrage industry has burgeoned, in which radio shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh, and right-wing populist copycats such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, have made large fortunes and global reputations for themselves as purveyors of outrage.

Limbaugh is reported to have 13.25 million regular weekly listeners, an audience size guaranteed to generate a mighty revenue stream. He is also reported to be on an eight-year $400 million contract, which has been extended to 2020.

Online entrepreneurs such as Matt Drudge, jumped on the outrage bandwagon, adding to its momentum.

Turbo-charging the industry of outrage, however, has been Fox News, the creation of Rupert Murdoch and a former Republican operative, Roger Ailes. Under the ludicrously misleading slogan of “balance”, they conjoined the dynamics of talkback radio with the visual power of television and a bank of outspokenly conservative commentators to create the highest-rating cable news channel in the US.

Factual accuracy has not much to do with what these propagandists publish in the guise of journalism. Drudge has said that only 80% of his material is verified. Even accepting that improbably high number, the difficulty for everyone else is in knowing which 80%.

Longer term issues were at work as well.

The 24/7 symbiotic news cyclone in which social media and professional journalism are both caught up is destructive of truth. Material appears on social media, goes viral and becomes news for no better reason than that it is virulent. Newspapers, shrunken by the onslaught of the digital revolution on their revenues, with fewer journalistic resources and in a constant scramble for “hits” and “eyeballs”, amplify “news” without troubling with time-consuming verification.

Resultant fragile levels of public trust in the media have been exploited by Donald Trump, and the media have been in no position to mount a credible defence.

In the spring 2016 issue of Meanjin Quarterly, the political editor of The Guardian Australia, Katharine Murphy, faced up to this issue of trust by asking: What role for journalism if facts no longer count? She wrote: “We have to look in the mirror. Our intemperate excesses have discounted our own moral value. Our own behavior has helped fuel a lack of trust.”

This is a crisis for the media but also for the democratic process. The media has an ethical obligation to restore what it can of public trust. The starting point is to hew to the truth: verify material before publishing, make it more important to be right than to be first, and call to account people in public office who tell lies.