How to Read Trump’s War Against the Media: Reflections from the Media Wars in Turkey (Part II)


We ended Part I with two questions. How did Islamists gain a voice in Secularist media outlets, supportive of secularist business, in Turkey? What position do foreign media corporations take toward Islamists? We wish to clarify that in the context of our discussion ‘Islamist’ does not mean radical Islam or Jihadism per se. Rather, Islamism, as we use it here in relation to Turkey, employs Islam primarily as a reference to a strongly held “national myth”, a mystical ‘reason to believe’ for “greatness”, as well as a resilient propaganda leverage that undermines the old order Secularist worldview in Turkey. In this sense, Islamism appears to be a forceful and legitimate political movement within the boundaries of the parliamentary regime. It thus appears to be the new glue, uniting “the nation” within a renewed self-confidence and spirituality. If we put it in Gramscian terms, it is the new myth and ideology associated with the rising “historical bloc” which aims to create “the nation” after its own image. We sense Islam is used in a similar vein as Christianity in the U.S. as a façade for the patriotic worldview of team Trump, hence our parallel with the U.S. If Turkey is a Little America, then America is a Big Turkey.

Instead of using The Apprentice TV series and Twitter as Mr. Trump to re-create the ‘national establishment’, Mr. Erdoğan used the network of Fetullah Gülen, an exiled Islamic cleric now residing in the U.S. in Pennsylvania. Gülen was funded—although we’re not exactly sure by whom but can guess—to establish a newspaper and network of educational institutions to promote a so-called “more democratic” Turkey. From the outset this served the vested interests of AKP and helped their rise to power against old order Secularists.

Zaman newspaper as the voice of Gülenists representing the so-called moderate Islamists—from its modest beginnings in the mid-1990s—was gradually transformed into a most prestigious news outlet. Zaman won international design awards. Some independent intellectuals willingly wrote for the paper, making it credible in the public eye. By the late-2000s, sales began to rival those of secular media outlets. Meanwhile secular media tycoon Aydın Doğan of Doğan Holding (sometimes dubbed as the Turkish Rupert Murdoch) saw sales fall at his media outlets.

Mr. Erdoğan repeatedly attacked Mr. Doğan publicly and in the press, likening him to the gangster Al Capone. In response Doğan attacked Mr. Erdoğan in his Secularist press. He did so when Mr. Erdoğan rejected his offer to buy stakes in an Anatolian oil pipeline. In short, the Secularist national establishment was being blocked from partaking in lucrative business deals by the Islamists.

The Turkish media wars evolved into a space of motley, hostile voices. Since Islamists were subject to an overabundance of ‘flak’ in secular media outlets Islamists fought to take control over a larger swath of Secularist media. In an early morning raid in 2007, the Secularist ATV television channel and parent company Sabah newspaper were forcibly taken over, put up for tender and sold to an Islamist business. Former employees were fired and replaced with Islamist ones. To justify the takeover in the public eye, Islamists charged the Secularists with tax evasion, widely slandering them in their media.

For years now, we’ve witnessed the media war between Secularists and Islamists, sometimes on our screens and sometimes on our streets. Secularists had no choice but to emulate Mr. Erdoğan’s ‘strong hand’ style to convince their Secuarlist electorate they were capable of fighting back. Secularist business leaders pleaded with the AKP to tone down their harsh rhetoric, claiming democracy was at stake. But Mr. Erdoğan has never backed down and never apologized for insults inflicted on the media, women, opposition parties, secular intellectuals, academics, students, unionists, lawyers, artists, musicians, the list is long indeed. In fact, Mr. Erdoğan keeps right on going, just like Mr. Trump.

All was well within the rising historical bloc until Mr. Erdoğan clashed with Gülen causing a disharmony of interest within the Islamist team itself in late 2013. Now, not only the lingering Secularist-Islamist feud but also an Erdoganist-Gülenist battle over conflicting business interests kept busy the political agenda of “the nation.” Due to years of endowing Gülenist networks with a free hand, infiltration of their members into schools, government offices, the police and army—to name but a few institutions—was widespread. Once the fight within Islamism set in, Gülenists saw arrests and takeovers of their businesses. Zaman was silenced.

It is instructive to add that by no means are Gülenists an authentic democratic actor, as this evidently surfaced in the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. And so it is with HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), who pushed an alleged democratic agenda, also flawed for its opportunism. Founded following the 2013 Gezi Revolt, this party pilfered the unity of authentic protest voices at Gezi against the feud, only to end up supporting minority Kurdish issues over democratic issues for the majority. HDP didn’t keep their promise.

Meanwhile Secularists kept warning what they viewed as undemocratic and highly dangerous sectarianism unfolding in Turkey. The Cumhuriyet newspaper—founded in 1924 under Atatürk that remained the most respected paper—came to be the center of a wider democratic opposition against the government of Mr. Erdoğan and published accusations over AKP’s alleged involvement in the Syrian war. Cumhuriyet journalists were accused of being traitors and terrorists. In short, the ‘strong hand’ silenced the Cumhuriyet, too.

Then the 15 July, 2016 coup attempt and threat on Mr. Erdoğan’s life happened, striking fear and loathing in the nation. The threat was real for all, including Secularists. Erdoğanists swiftly purged Gülenists from the state institutions through mass arrests by the thousands. The leader of the opposition party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s convoy was shot at a month later, proving to Secularists that it is better to maintain their silence. Put it this way, since these horrific events last summer the media has now become a de facto ‘one-voice’ “soft power,” promoting almost solely vested interests of Islamists.

When it comes to international media corporations’ co-ventures or take-overs of Turkish outlets, CEO’s place their bet on the best thoroughbred. They don’t care how the horse was raised. Indirectly, Fox News in Turkey furthers the views of Mr. Trump’s neo-conservative patriotic team while CNNTürk—once able to further the views of the neoliberal globalists—is now under the careful watch of Mr. Erdoğan. The U.S. media war only adds salt to the open wounds of the Turkish media wars, which are now, pretty much over for us.

It is clear to us why Mr. Trump is so against the CNN/Time Warner merger. This merger would strengthen the Democratic team corporate mouthpiece against Mr. Trump and harm his legitimacy in the public. This merger is definitely not in the Trump camps’ best business interest. Fox News, owned by the Murdoch volk, is a supportive voice for Mr. Trump. Little surprise Warren Buffet bet on Clinton; that George Soros called Mr. Trump an ‘imposter’ and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, all slandered Mr. Trump. These gods of finance capital don’t wish to lose their lucrative business networks of profit. As pointed out in Part I, we see conflicts in business surface daily, like Amazon and Expedia joining the Washington lawsuit against Trump; one example of many yet to come.

What will be crucial for Mr. Trump—as it was for Mr. Erdoğan in his early days—is that he delivers on promises because opposition media will constantly seek to undermine his efforts. Media pundits bash Mr. Trump with ‘infotainment’ a term we borrow from Robert McChesney. Actually all mainstream media is ‘infotainment’ now. Journalists with near celebrity status don’t really report news but engage in gossip-like sessions on whatever subject, including Mr. Trump, hence his lashing out at them.

Recall the Propaganda Model and how The New York Times sets the agenda. Mr. Trump Tweeted: ‘I am happy to hear how badly the @nytimes is doing. It is a seriously failing paper with readership which is way down. Becoming irrelevant!’ Recall Mr. Trump’s comment to the CIA ‘journalists are the most dishonest people in the world’. But his journalists are no less dishonest! Chief strategist Steve Bannon astutely declared ‘the media is the opposition’ and should ‘shut up’. In Turkey we’ve heard similar statements time and again. Like here, journalists in the U.S. will likely be blacklisted, sacked, shot at, even jailed. While we could list countless similarities between the Turkish and U.S. predicament, for sake of brevity, we highlight the most prominent ones.

Women are used in the feud. Despite a powerful force for progressive change, women are polarized into teams. In Turkey’s case women’s dress (headgear) was amplified in the media wars. Post 2002, there’s been an exponential increase in violence against women here. Women were told not to laugh. Women were told they should rear three children. Abortions, performed with ease here, came under fire. In the U.S. Planned Parenthood is on the chopping block. How very odd to see mainstream media outlets like CNN international provide such liberal coverage of the Women’s March on Washington, inclusive of CNN’s Van Jones partaking in and speaking at the march. No wonder Mr. Trump tweeted ‘bad use of celebs’ (Scarlett Johansson, Gloria Steinem, Alicia Keyes, Natalie Portman, Madonna, among others) directed at the Clinton team. Team Trump uses Pro-Life women as a counter attack.

Then there is Mr. Trump’s extreme vetting directed at Muslims. The issue promises to be a hit in the media wars to inflate polarization, witnessed in the airport protests. The war on terror, established under the Bush administration and continued under Obama, is ‘business-as-usual’ under Mr. Trump. Peaceful, democratic organizers are accused of being terrorists, as was Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian activist involved in organizing the Women’s March on Washington.

Then there’s voter fraud. While mainstream media is baffled why Mr. Trump is obsessed with voter numbers and turn out at his inauguration, we know why numbers matter! We lived this too when Secularists accused Islamists of inflating numbers at mass rallies by duplicating participants in Photoshop. In actuality, masses were bused in by the AKP, as visual evidence of their majority vote. Mr. Trump alluded to ‘Crooked Hillary’ on the campaign trail and does so to challenge corporations siding with the Hillary team, just as Islamists did to Secularists. Key figures from corporations, even political office, will end up in court when Mr. Trump exercises the ‘rule of law’ to forcibly seize corporations, bank accounts and property from the opposing team.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdoğan are masters at ‘othering’. Mr. Erdoğan repeatedly stated that since Atatürk, no political party had done anything for the people. Mr. Trump made the same claim at his inauguration, blaming all former presidents and the political establishment for doing nothing for the American people, apart from leaving the nation in ‘carnage’. Incredible. This is déjà vu for us.

Religious discourse gradually seeped into everyday life in Turkey, where it wasn’t so under the Secularists, prior to AKP. Everything from bridge, road and tunnel openings, to speeches in parliament or at universities, Mr. Erdoğan uses the chance to make references to Islam. At first this looked like an attempt to unite the country as Muslims but in fact it was (and still is) Mr. Erdoğan’s vision for Turkey’s future, a future where youth value their religion first. While Mr. Trump may not be an overtly religious man, we cannot say the same for U.S. neo-conservatives. We predict religious rhetoric will by far surpass ‘may god bless America’. Ceremonies and rituals fortified with religious and militaristic fervor—to what Veblen referred so often in his writings—will be the renewed ‘statecraft’ of the twenty-first century.

And finally, siding with the workers. Secularists and Islamists, as with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, pilfer from the left and convert to the right. Jobs may be promised but as Mr. Trump signed executive orders for the pipeline go ahead, another order was signed simultaneously to remove regulations. This is our Turkish experience also. We saw a splitting of Turkish unions on Islamist and Secularist lines to divide the working class. When British American Tobacco (BAT) bought TEKEL—Turkey’s near one hundred year state-owned tobacco company—they swiftly shut TEKEL down leaving thousands unemployed across the nation. When workers formed a tent city, resisting for over 72 days in Ankara in 2009, they faced severe police brutality. Mr. Erdoğan called them traitors, terrorists. For us, there can be no doubt workers in America will be in for a rough ride. With no regulation, accidents can and will happen, as was the case with the Turkish Soma coal mining disaster in 2014, killing 301 miners after a mine explosion. AKP’s position over the disaster was simply that such accidents are the fate of coal miners.

In sum, to answer our questions at the outset of this article, Secularist media was either forcibly taken over or completely silenced by Islamists, with the 15 July, 2016 coup attempt ensuring this silence. International media corporations collaborate in this enterprise. Our days of fervent struggle here have drawn to a close. One issue remains, voting on a new constitution in a referendum most probably in April.

In the mid-2000s when one picked up a newspaper or flicked TV channels s/he could read or listen to vastly different news. Today, a few marginalized papers voice an opinion but have no sway over the masses. In the heyday of our Turkish media wars newspapers, and mainstream TV channels, were meretricious in their selective coverage, like in the U.S. today. Veblen knew this very well. For him it was ‘business-as-usual’ in how people are told what they ‘like to believe’. He said:

“The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers, and then tell them what they like to believe. By this means he maintains or increases the circulation. His second duty is to see that nothing is said in the news items or editorials which may discountenance any claims or announcements made by his advertisers, discredit their standing or good faith, or expose any weakness or deception in any business venture that is or may become a valuable advertiser. By this means he increases the advertising value of his circulation. The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.” (Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Business Enterprise, 1904/2013, USA, Martino Publishing, p. 183).

The meretricious nature of business through its representative mouthpiece media must be in harmony for the dominant class to rule, for if a ‘disharmony of interests’ takes hold, the national establishment will be in shatters and the underlying population in disarray. This is the crisis of the state, the crisis of hegemony.

So let’s finish. Hey ‘masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’ its time to rise against business feuds to build an autonomous media space and perhaps a society of autonomous individuals outside the horizon of the leisure class. If not, we’ll merely be spectators watching an endless fight for those who always want the whole cake. And it’s never certain who among them will win. Like Veblen knew so well, business is sportsmanship—like two opponents competing to outdo the other on a golf course. Let’s face it; all this media drama is far more exciting than the drudgery of work, or a TV series for that matter, right? But beware. We have to remain sober. If we cannot create an autonomous democracy then we will just watch the game go on and then the danger is we lose our senses and fall into the game too! Autonomy will be postponed to another spring. All will be hegemony, real or desperately desired.

Anita Oğurlu holds a Ph.D. in Humanities & Cultural Studies from Birkbeck (University of London). She co-authored “The Laic-Islamist Schism in the Turkish Dominant Class and the Media” with Ahmet Öncü in The Neoliberal Landscape and the Rise of Islamist Capital in Turkey, edited by Neşecan Balkan, Erol Balkan and Ahmet Öncü (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015). Oğurlu has done extensive research on economy and culture in interwar period Germany, Britain, France and Turkey vis-à-vis a specific focus on autobiographical authors from that period. Email: 

Ahmet Öncü is Professor of Sociology in the School of Management at Sabancı University in Istanbul. Most recently he co-edited Absentee Ownership and its Discontents: Critical Essays on the Legacy of Thorstein Veblen with Michael Hudson (ISLET, 2016); and The Neoliberal Landscape and the Rise of Islamist Capital in Turkey with Neşecan Balkan and Erol Balkan (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015). In the aftermath of the Gezi Revolt he reinterpreted capitalist modernization in Turkey and its contradictions in “Turkish Capitalist Modernity and the Gezi Revolt” (Journal of Historical Sociology 27:2:151-176, 2014). Email: