Never before has the fourth estate been in such poor health after four years of abuse by a president. Biden now has a chance to put his money where his mouth is on transparency and tie aid and arms sales to journalists’ protection, in particular in the Middle East.
One of the most extraordinary elements of the Trump era of pseudo-governance was how his own relationship with the fourth estate and how they reacted to him, exposed the press – in particular the U.S. giants – as never being more servile and weak than ever before. Trump literally showed the world how pathetic U.S. mainstream media is in its compliance with his own tawdry agenda to manipulate it. It was literally like watching journalists begging for more and more material from him while they say “we know this is BS, but please don’t stop”.
This is partly for two reasons. Much of it is about money for most of media and how Trump’s legendary litigation against journalists and anybody who would not agree with him ended up creating a name to be feared in the newsroom. But it’s also how Trump became a household name and that it became too difficult for journalists to continue working on deeper subjects when the U.S. president just tweeted something incoherent or plain stupid – and writing about it provided the immediate traffic that mainstream media editors demand of their journalists.
In fact, there’s a third more salient reason which might appear vitriolic and churlish on my part, after being a journalist with over thirty years behind me: quality. With the advent of social media and the cash crisis which this inflicted on many of the big titles, proprietors went out to seek a new generation of journalists and editors, who, to be honest, were simply a different class to the old school staffers. This new generation were expected to deliver many more pieces per day and this meant replicating a lot of material which was buried on the deep web. These journalists consider the internet to be their source base anyway, so writing about Trump’s latest tantrum would be considered news for them in any case.
In these realities Trump was an absolute genius. According to veteran journalist David Cay Johnston, Trump has spent most of his entire career cheating and fooling journalists and so to stay in the media spotlight, it was entirely obvious that his chief strategy from the beginning was to just keep talking and tweeting stupidity. This would stop most journalists working on real issues like healthcare, environment, the economy or even investigating Trump himself. Even before becoming President, Trump would telephone journalists and editors for years pretending to be a PR consultant with valuable information which usually served him immediate purposes. He even used to send material in the mail to journalists’ houses, unsigned of course.
Indeed, the four years which have passed have been an all-time low for the press in America which have proved time and time again they can be called to press conferences, even if they are not allowed to ask the kind of questions the president wanted. They can be insulted, humiliated, banned from key events and generally treated like servants of the president and the office he holds, in exactly the way you would imagine a fragile state in Africa to be. In short, U.S. media failed spectacularly to hold Donald Trump to account which has set a terrible precedent for others who look up to him. Worse was how journalists refused to adhere to any kind of collective standard and stand up to Trump. No one walked out on Trump. No one said “no sir, that is not acceptable to talk to my colleague like that”. No one campaigned to improve Trump’s behaviour. And so he continued.
Hey Joe, where ya going…?
Joe Biden, it is claimed, wants to restore confidence in the press. And for this, he will have to be a top gun and make enemies. He will also have to lead by example and not just set a standard for others and not himself to adhere to.
“President-elect Biden believes that the media is a critical piece of our democracy; that transparency is incredibly important,” Biden’s campaign press secretary TJ Ducklo said. “You’ll remember we opened all of our fundraisers this campaign, opened to press so that folks could see what was going on and what was being said”, according to CNN.
Ducklo said Biden also believes “that the media’s job is to hold him accountable. He is there to do the people’s work. And, you know, he welcomes that relationship. He welcomes their role, the media’s role in our democracy. And I think it will be, frankly, the polar opposite what we have seen the last four years.” A reset is about to begin, according to Brian Stelter.
A ‘reset’ indeed. But it shouldn’t only begin and end with allowing access to fundraisers. Journalists should have unfettered access to all Washington institutions, including the White House, shouldn’t be turned down for interviews by the President and other top officials (a trend Trump started) and should over all be taken more seriously. Why is it that not more journalists are investigating Trump’s alleged tax fraud, sexual assault and business misconduct which are just starting to get attention by fringe media outlets?
It’s really all about what kind of a society you want for your children and future generations. Under Trump it was hard to see America, at times, as even a modern democracy when you looked at how he treated the press. He claimed to hate the press and we should have seen the warning signs when he declared that the press is the “enemy of the people” when in reality is the servant of the people. In reality, he didn’t hate them. He absolutely loved them, as they made him what he is.
But if Biden is serious about leaving his term in office with a legacy which unites America, he would do well to reform and protect the fourth estate. We need to see the institution and everything it stands for upheld. Transparency is key. And if Biden is really serious about restoring the sanctity of media and their institutions then he needs to target the giants from day one. This is harder to imagine though given that CNN was literally frothing at the mouth (or at one point weeping) in its repugnant support for him during the election debacle. The quality of CNN’s reporting around the world – or lack of it – all contributes to the over all standard of human rights deteriorating and journalist’s work becoming remedial at best, and outright disinformation at worse.
But I would like to see more honesty about where content comes from. I would like Biden to force CNN and others to have on screen icons for content which is produced along the lines of ethical journalism and the rest which is invariably sponsored content and these days masquerading more are more as legitimate. Watch CNN for any real length of time and you will see short little films which flash up, sometimes for as little as 30 seconds, which in most cases are paid for ads – but they are not presented as such. This is disgraceful for the No 1 broadcast news outlet in America and sets a really bad example to others. Also, the number of Republican commentators on the network contributing to the co-called debates is shocking.
Tying aid and arms sales to journalists’ protection
Internationally too, American can set the benchmark under Biden. In the Middle East, we have seen since 2011, when the Arab Spring swept across the MENA region a crackdown on anything whiffing of democracy which threatened the elites. Opposition groups quashed, their leaders arrested, beaten and sometimes even tortured whilst detained illegally – and all this because of an almost blind side by local journalists in these countries who are too afraid to report on these matters at all. Countries which Biden is keen to wield the rod at like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – which have extraordinary levels of self-censorship as well as astonishingly high levels of journalists locked up – should be targeted for their treatment of the press. If the U.S. is going to take the lead on human rights it mustn’t forget to make the link between aid packages or arms deals with the protection of local journalists to write and investigate freely. In 2011, many Arab countries’ hard core leaders in the region thought they dodged a bullet by succeeding in crushing journalists’ zeal and pulling off a revolution in itself to silence the press entirely. If Biden is serious about the MENA region and building a better relationship based on human rights, then he needs to include a new role for journalists in these countries. If this had been the case, perhaps the Yemen war would have been called off years ago; the Khashoggi murder might not have even happened and Arabian princesses from the Gulf making the headlines in the UK press might not be almost the weekly news event that it has become.