U.S. President Donald Trump on February 16 gave an encore performance to his pre-inauguration press conference in New York, and berated several media houses for peddling what he described as “fake news”, refused to answer questions from certain news channels, and hurled the usual epithets at the press including “deceitful”, “dishonest” and “liars”, besides mouthing verifiably untrue statements, not to mention a few embarrassing gaffes.
Unsurprisingly, the next day’s news cycle kicked off with a torrent of blistering criticisms of Mr. Trump’s performance, including not only fact-checking articles but also a multitude of reports describing the 45th President’s disdain for political correctness, his tendency to sound narcissistic, and his lack of concern at being caught while speaking untruths. If this Trumpian spectacle of media-bashing followed by smug takedowns of the President in the next day’s media is to become a fixture on the U.S. political firmament, it will not only produce raw nerves on both sides and battle fatigue over the coming months, but it will also gradually erode the very foundational pillars of democracy that the U.S. is built upon.
Challenging primacy of mainstream media
It is true that ever since the rise of social media and the concomitant emergence of quasi-media outlets such as anti-secrecy groups like WikiLeaks, the primacy of mainstream media has been challenged as never before. Prior waves of technological advancement, which include the rise of radio news in the 1920s, of television news in the 1940s, and of online news in the 1990s and beyond, saw the mainstream media adroitly adjust itself to the new environment and emerge refreshed to fight the battle for viewership in new landscapes.
Yet social media, quasi-media and blogs have wrenched an essential power away from mainstream media —the power to be a purveyor of facts. It is this power of social media in particular that the new breed of strongman political leaders across the world, with populist policy leanings, have come to tap into so effectively that they have tipped the balance of power and the perception of untrammelled credibility away from mainstream media, to the point where the latter can be freely demonised as “news traders” and merchants of “fake news.”
The way forward
In the case of Mr. Trump, the U.S. media is slowly coming to realise that an entirely different playbook is needed, and definitive strategies for fighting back are under discussion. These would include, in addition to the strong tradition of fact-checking that the U.S. media already follows, describing the President’s untruths as outright “lies”, which is also a description of the intention behind the statement. Many in the media still struggle with the idea of making this a standard practice, but equally hard to ignore is the question: what other options do mediapersons have given the deliberately misleading disregard of facts by their President?