Post-Trump press-pective

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Donald Trump at the February 16 news conference at the White House. Photo: ANDREW HARNIK/AP

WHEN the most powerful person in the world, before and after he became that, has been making a series of atrocious comments and charges, many of them verifiably false—so much so that fact-checking has become an important and urgent preoccupation of journalism, and even journalism schools are figuring out how to institute modules on methodologies of fact-checking that can nail the lies uttered with Trump-like callousness and aplomb by politicians at large—are we supposed to scramble back to the drawing board to figure out whether we have got our moral bearings right, or hold steadfastly to the conviction that we are indeed right in saying that what is patently wrong is wrong? As we get habituated to Trump (what choice do you have; how can you wish away the President of the United States?), we also find ourselves under a combination of some kind of social pressure and auto suggestion to normalise his abnormal behaviour. And that is the danger, because that is when we flip over into that strange state of being that has been, quite fittingly, described as post-truth.

As a euphemism for post-truth, or perhaps by way of a concession that in our mundane lives we deal with the lesser quotidian truths, we have the other idea doing the rounds of alternative facts coexisting with, and complementing or countering, a given set of (accepted? settled?) facts. It does not seem to matter that these newfangled terms absurdly fly in the face of not just truth or fact, as the case may be, but of logic and common sense. This process of contestation invokes a Rashomon effect where there can be as many facts and truths as there are stakeholders invested in them. It is indeed a surreal “post” state of understanding and engaging with reality.

Or, it may be that in our diced and digitised world, marked by disruptions rather than continuities, there is no more place for a composite reality, that we have to deal piecemeal with fragmented and fractured reality bites, like so many pixels, or shards of mirror that will not become whole again. Permutations and combinations of factoids and digits assemble to make momentary meanings of one kind, and then disassemble to regroup again to mean something else. Maybe the age of meta narratives is yielding to one of a jostle of numerous sub and self sufficient mini-narratives. Maybe imperialism and hegemony are not a cumulus bearing down on us but are disbursed and operate at the retail level, subverting our capacity for unified resistance.

Be that as it may, what we are left to grapple with is, like stark polar opposites of this mutating process, the world according to Donald Trump at the one end, and a fierce resistance to the values he stands for across vast segments of civil society and by an unrelenting band of an influential liberal Western and global news media, at the other. A recent, much-discussed press conference by Trump (on February 16 at the White House) went like a venting of ire and fulmination against the fourth estate from start to finish on the pretext of unveiling sundry administrative and policy measures of the new administration in Washington. What stood out throughout was a President riled to his core by what he considered a pestilent press. His distrust of and anger against it seemed almost pathological.

He made it clear that he was—even if it was a formally convened press conference—speaking over, and above, and despite, the news media, directly to the people, because “the people get it, but much of the media doesn’t get it; they actually get it, but they don’t write it”. And that was because the press “speaks not for the people but for the special interests.” and “has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people”. “The level of dishonesty,” he added, “is out of control.” So, instead of lauding the unprecedentedly wonderful work he had done even in the few weeks he has been President “to drain the swamp of corruption”, to tackle ISIS, which has “spread like cancer”, and to establish a “strong military, strong law enforcement”, the press was peddling “stories of chaos” in his administration.

When he took questions from the journalists assembled in the room he also took a jibe at almost each and every one of them and freely attributed motives to why they were asking what they were asking, unless it was a crony-like query like the one about Melania Trump’s plans to open the White House for visitors, which allowed the President a chance to wax eloquent about the excellent work the First Lady, too, was doing and the raw deal she was getting in terms of publicity, and also fetched the questioner good marks from him. It was, overall, like a petulant school master showing his class of malcontents who the boss was—tut-tutting here, chiding there, and asking another to just sit down and put up. The journalist from CNN was at the heavy receiving end because his channel was “anti-Trump” and spewed “hatred and venom” against him. When the BBC correspondent rose to ask a question the President could not resist a mocking “here’s another beauty”. He made short shrift of the question itself. The New York Times and the Washington Post were in the same Trump-damning league. Fox News was where the President seemed to find some comfort and understanding in an otherwise blighting media environment, although that sentiment seemed to go unrequited, with one of the network’s familiar faces characterising this powwow with journalists (although this one was all about pows delivered and not about any wows earned) as “insane” and another Fox News anchor calling it “a press conference for the ages”.

Some of those rude moments turned out to be delightful too—as when the President pre-empted a catchy headline for the news the next day by predicting what it would be: “Donald Trump rants and raves at the press”, as he put it. At other times he seemed genuinely at a loss to understand the mismatch between what he saw and what the press saw: “I was there. I know what happened. You’re reporting something else.” He was, of course, in no doubt that what he chose to see was what the people were seeing, and what the press ought to be seeing. And because the press was not seeing it that way, he was convinced that “the public doesn’t believe you people any more”.

Funnily enough, too, some of what Trump was saying about the press, particularly about the growing credibility crisis, the trust deficit and the disconnect with the people, is already being addressed within the news media domain and is exercising the minds of practitioners, scholars and well-wishers of a free and democratic fourth estate. But when it comes from one who personifies counter-factualism as blatantly as he does, it clearly does not pass muster. After all, in the classic Laswell model of communication, “Who says what to whom…” is firstly important.

What direction this standoff between the President and the press in the United States will take will be important for the future of democracy. Will the President stand down and accept that the free press by definition will be adversarial to those in power, or will journalists, over time, readjust to this presidential press allergy as a condition they must learn to live with?

More ominously, will the President make taming the press part of his agenda in office and look at ways of circumventing the First Amendment to achieve this? While the U.S. is certainly a great and shining example of a democracy vibrantly mediated by a free press, it is not as if that freedom can be taken for granted, or that the state will not, if it has the chance, make inroads on that turf. Already, the whole area of the right to confidentiality, or protection, of journalistic sources is a bit iffy legally, and someone like Edward Snowden who exposed, among other things, how citizens are being lied to, spied upon and denied information that is their right and in the public interest, is officially considered a traitor and has to live in self-exile in Russia.

Rated 41st among 180 countries in the world index of press freedom (in the listing for 2016 by Reporters without Borders), could the U.S., under the Trump presidency, slip to a lower ranking in the years ahead? From the determination, courage and forthrightness with which the mainstream news media by and large have thus far been confronting the President, that looks unlikely. But then Trump is first and foremost a businessman who brings his commercial acumen, as he is himself fond of reminding us, to bear on most things he has to handle in his political office; and given the size and concentration of ownership of the American media, back-room and board-room manipulation may achieve what a frontal battle with the professional news media may not.

The state of press freedom in India, at a dismally low 133rd position in the same list of 2016, obviously leaves a lot to be desired. The press here does give the outer appearance of being boldly independent and irrepressible, but its inner workings and pressures, the self-imposed restrictions and censorship and the credulous or complicit manner in which a good part of the influential section of the news media lend themselves to, or are discreetly arm-twisted into, being a propaganda arm of the political party in power, are felt rather than heard or seen, especially under the present regime. Prime-time discussions on TV news channels, even so-called investigative scoops, often make the discerning mind alert to agendas and themes planted across channels which ultimately redound to the credit of the government.

Where press freedom is zealously guarded

What, one wonders, in contrast, would be the experience of countries where the freedom of the press is at its absolute best? The Nordic countries—Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland—have consistently topped the global press freedom index. During a visit last week to the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and interaction with the students there, the Ambassadors of the Nordic countries to India provided useful insights into how zealously and consistently these freedoms have been guarded and nurtured in these countries.

The Swedish parliament was the first ever legislature to pass an Act, as far back as 250 years ago, guaranteeing freedom of the press, and since then it has been an article of faith with both the government and the people there. Succinctly underlining this commitment, the Swedish Ambassador, Harald Sandberg, said: “Freedom of expression is for what the government does not like.” It is illegal here for the government or indeed any authority to seek the source of a media report, making for a regime of full protection of sources. Transparency in public administration and public documentation is the given. “Every single mail I send out is available to journalists,” he said, by way of illustration. Freedom of expression is so ingrained into the constitution and the way of life that “to use the national flag to wipe your shoes is legal, it may be in bad taste. To ask for part of the country to secede is legal, not sedition.” Going by our own touchy, overzealous, views on these matters, the Swedes must be a congenitally anti-national people.

In Norway, there are restrictions on hate speech, but that does not preclude space for extreme ideologies. The state in fact actually subsidises, without any strings attached, newspapers both of the extreme left and the very conservative Christian right, so that their views are available to the people along with those of the more mainstream parties in the political spectrum. As the Norwegian Ambassador Nils Ragnar Kamsvag, echoing his Swedish counterpart, put it: “Freedom of speech is very easy for all of us to agree on when it doesn’t cost anything.” Finland, which has been topping the list as the country with the freest press in the world, has big new challenges to overcome, including that of growing acts of intolerance against Jews and Muslims and what Ambassador Nina Irmeli Vaskunlahti described as among the world’s largest “troll factories” operating from neighbouring Russia. But the country has stayed the course without abridging press freedoms in any way and is confident it will overcome this difficult phase. Iceland alone in the group has slipped in the recent years to the 19th position, and the “principal explanation” for this lies, as Ambassador Thorir Ibsen explained, “in the language used by politicians against journalists”.

The unstinted freedoms of thought and expression sustained in the Nordic grouping, at a time when hate speech and xenophobia are becoming more vicious, point to the simple truth of U.S. Supreme Justice Louis Brandeis’ observation way back in 1927 that “to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.

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