Recently, I have had reason to revisit a journal article I published in 1996. The essay, titled “The Fatal Gap” argued that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, then having just won leadership of the first ever autonomous Palestinian Council, was not a legitimate leader of the vibrant civil sector it purported to represent. Donor money and political support was, I suggested, misdirected to the PLO as civil society in Gaza and in the West Bank had been running both places for years, had a non-violent agenda and understood better the needs of Palestinian people. Better to back local NGOs rather than the PLO I argued.
As I read this I was struck by an odd and unexpected similarity with today’s America.
Like the PLO, President Trump has been elected on the basis of a revolutionary prospect. His frame has been to upturn the current status-quo and to “drain the swamp” of its bottom dwellers and to radically change the structure of power in Washington. It’s all hot air of course and will not happen, but, the revolutionary intent is well established.
The PLO found that translating a sense of often violent revolution into the mundane day-to-day action of government was difficult if not impossible. The dynamics are too different to be managed by a small number of the same people who have fought at the barricades.
One Gazan I spoke to, with a keen eye for European history, called the then leader of the PLO, Yassir Arafat,”the Napoleon of Palestine.”
Trump’s administration seems afflicted with the same problematic transition.
The connections don’t bear a lot of comparisons. But, the point I want to make here is that from the mid-1990’s onwards, the PLO sucked up all the attention. The media equated the PLO with Palestine and vice-versa. The result was, as I had predicted, aid and support went to the PLO, the squeakiest wheel. Civil-based groups in Gaza and the West Bank were starved, the people suffered and, the region was even riper for more extreme elements. The Palestinian people have never recovered, and desperation, frustration and alienation remains a force in the region.
This is a common problem. The best or most worthy causes are not always the ones we learn about in our news and current affairs feeds. The fatal gap I noted in my essay is actually still very noticeable globally. But, I was wrong to focus on political leaders as the source of this dysfunction. It really rests with our media industry.
In America today, the same gap is there. The relationship between the state and the citizenry will widen, as it has already, under a Trump Presidency. As in Gaza and the West Bank, and as in examples around the world too numerous to mention, a fascination with centralised power and an obsession with its travails will ensure American civil society will be marginalised as the state and it’s peripatetic leader suck the air out of the rest of society.
It is as if the currency of politics is traded only in the halls of state power and in the crippled minds and bucket mouths of those who walk there. And so, a fatal gap.
Since the Trump election, I have been enjoying attempts by some media outlets to explain the Trump phenomenon and to take on his foibles. Some have sought to contextualise the man’s ascendency and to bravely attempt to lay out the implications his vague ideas and random decision-making processes will have.
But, one thing concerns me. These publications, despite the intelligence and wisdom of their content, are keeping the spotlight on Trump. Mainstream media has, almost exclusively focussed on the post-victory manoeuvres – the lead up to the inauguration, the inauguration speech and concert and the early days of the presidency. This means, the inevitable fumbles and falls, the predictable blusters and the petty tweeting all receive headline coverage.
There is a lot of confusion in media circles about how to cover Trump. Some are, as above, trying gamely to take him seriously. Others are falling back on a kind of wry, occasionally shrill tirade on Trump’s myriad of shortcomings. While this rightly holds Trump’s feet to fires of truth, so far he seems to have asbestos soles.
Others again are getting caught up in reporting about reporting on Trump, the personality, as the wheelbarrows of BS the new president trundles out becomes overwhelming and suffocates actual editorial process.
These approaches only deepen the gap.
The current direction of news media seems ignorant of one of the real positives in Donald Trump’s election. It is becoming ever clearer that Trump presents the moment when freedom loving democrats (small d) are actually forced to adopt the the credo that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
This possibility needs to be understood as a good thing; any challenge is an invitation to step up. And, lets face it, our systems needs us to, and has done for some time. Indeed this moment should have happened long ago, at least since the global financial crisis of 2008, but likely long before then. The liberal, capitalist, state-based system has failed the majority of the world’s population and its environment. We need a new model. This essay is not the place to suggest what that might be, but many will surely acknowledge this as fact.
The value of this possibility, paradoxically perhaps, is that real power may fall from the grip of those who have tended to hold it tightly, for at least the last 50 years. Big government, unwieldy bureaucracies, greedy corporations and leagues of hungry advisors and consultants have been running America, and most other nations down an ever narrowing path, pushing us all into the pointy end of a triangle.
This vision is actually what America voted for. The Democratic Convention got it awfully wrong and nominated Hillary Clinton of course. And once she was there, the disgruntled American voter had nowhere else to go. But they got it right. We need change. Trump, the man and his policies – those we can guess at – are woefully off the mark. But the widespread reaction to him is the best catalyst we’ve had in a generation.
The revealing truth about Trump’s victory is that it is reflection of the fact that many Americans want to see the end of the current system, or at least important parts of it. They may not say so, they may not even know it, they may be deluded in their actions, but that is what they have voted for. The sub-text of Trump, the subliminal message is that “If he can win the Presidency, then America is surely broken.” The American voters have just proven it.
The only intelligent response to his victory is to take a paraphrase of Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t want to join a club that lets me be a member. Who wants to be in system in which Donald John Trump can become a leader? What does this say about the system?
But, this is a narrative the news media seems unable, or unwilling, to follow in a way that reflects the true course of the public’s manifest interest.
You might expect, for instance, news coverage of President Trump’s inauguration would dominate the news cycle. A Google search I conducted a few days after the event confirmed the item was a huge news story. On January 25, a Google search for all reference to “Trump Inauguration” returned 46.8 million links.
A search at the same time on “Women’s March on Washington” returned just 9.87 million, a ratio of almost five to one.
Something like half a million citizens taking to the streets in mid-winter on the day a new President becomes official, because of that very fact, surely suggests a strong counter story to the Trump inauguration. Given the demo crowd in Washington has been assessed as three-times larger than the audience assembled for President Trump’s big moment and that this march and others contributed to a total of some millions protesting their President’s very presence, in what one network described as “one of the largest days of protest in US history”, suggests the mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere, got the balance wrong.
This is despite the fact that a large number of news reports on the inauguration were likely critical or negative on the Trump inauguration. But that coverage – good or bad – is in itself a force of empowerment for the President. In bossing the news cycle and online chatter with the new POTUS, news media ensures that the power he wields is underlined. Media consumers are told “The presidency still counts more than millions in protest.” The institution is legitimised by the blanket coverage it receives in an sort of Pavlovian dynamic with the media public – big story thinking means we are still supposed to offer our fealty to the rants of the man in the White House and to submit to the big picture beamed down upon us.
THE REALITIES OF NEWS MEDIA
So, why did the media give the women’s march and others, relatively little coverage?
The reasons have to do with shifts in the media industry over the last decade and the ramifications this has had on newsrooms.
As editors are forced to choose between, say Trump’s inauguration and a street march – even a big one – resource constraints will push them towards doing what is easier, takes less staff, is organised and will provide guaranteed copy to a guaranteed deadline. An inauguration fits this requirement. You get your camera spot, or a place in the shutter-bay, and get your shots set up. The presenter or writer knows where he is she will be, what will happen when and will have already taken notes on what aspects he/she is likely to report on – in fact the reporter will almost always have a transcript of important speeches prior to their delivery – and, if doing live feeds, what will be discussed then.
It’s formulaic and predictable.
A protest march is something else. It’s messy and rarely runs to a schedule you can trust. You don’t really know where to go, what vantage point works best or is likely to yield the most newsworthy image or moment. The people – the talent – that may be interviewed may be incoherent, may not speak English, may swear, may not speak well enough to be interesting or know how to address the camera, mic or journalist. Things happen fast and generally without warning. Live feeds can be completely disastrous. Its a scramble.
In short, a protest march, even one that’s well organised, is a nightmare.
Another layer of the media industry’s decline has been its attempts to find the lowest common denominator in their choice of story and editorial line. Human beings are not rational beings, coolly calculating each and every proposition through a filter of reason and common sense. We are a pulsing bundle of prejudices and assumptions, mistaken facts and outright lies told to ourselves. We are constantly looking, like water down a hill, for the easiest path with the least obstructions and challenges.
In terms of news, this generally translates to something like “Tell me what I know.”
Moreover, news media has to hold the attention of individuals constantly diverted and prodded by innumerable distractions. Drama therefore, becomes a value as the more immediately compelling the story – the more shocking, outrageous, titillating or saddening – translates to upticks in the real-time quantitative measurements that online data research can provide. Immediacy is the key and in this landscape, things like context and nuance, or the need to explain something become as Krypton to news industry executives. Quantity is key. Quality is Quantity. True quality is simply an option to be included in a SWOT analysis.
As such, reporting on say, a protest march on the day of a new President’s inauguration may require an explanation. It may tax the minds of media consumers because its unusual and seems uncomfortable. It’s not easily digested and may require questioning, applied thinking, asking questions, doing background, finding connections, the sort of thing most people (including journalists) are too busy, too stressed or simply too lazy to consider.
This is theatre for the masses and its called news.
This is set in a context of sharpened competition among media outlets, a red-in-tooth-and-claw melee that recalls the 1920s and the era of Yellow Journalism. Not only is news being subject to being editorially assessed on its entertainment value – as news audiences are increasingly barraged with content, much of it free – it is being jostled and buffeted by others seeking to attract the sought after clicks and meme-worthy stories.
A recent example of this environment is Buzzfeed’s report on the claims made by an alleged British secret service officer, that Donald Trump has “deep ties” to Russia. The claims had been airing on the Hill prior to Buzzfeed’s editorial decision to run the material in full – some 45 pages – and Buzzfeed surely felt it was worth hoisting. But, Buzzfeed’s editors pulled their punches. “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors,” the editors wrote. “BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect.”
While one can debate the editorial decision to expect ordinary readers to make an assessment on a long, complicated document that security professionals had struggled to verify, the point is that Buzzfeed most likely didn’t run the piece for its objective news value. It ran it because it knew that the running of it would be a valuable news item. They would get some cross promotion by virtue of them being named as the publisher and they would get traffic as everyone would flick onto their site to see what the fuss was about. They were right. The story of them running the piece became the story.
Its brand awareness and the number of clicks that drove this story, and countless others, forward. The media is mirroring the President in it’s circular motion disguised as forward movement; trying to look real even as the walls of the echo chamber close in ever smaller.
One serious casualty of rabid competition is the camaraderie which has characterised news journalism, especially beat or topic-based journalism, like say, the White House press gallery. For a long time, media has, while competing with each other, reached for the higher goal of actual disseminating truth. Cross-checking of facts with other reporters – “did you get that quote?” – and various other small acts of kindness among journos has been part of the landscape.
That is less so now and may become extinct in the Trump era. When CNN’s Jim Acosta was point blank refused an answer to a question on the allegations aired in Buzzfeed, at President elect Trump’s first news conference since his election, the press corps just swam right on by like the whole matter was a turd in a swimming pool. The clapping of Trump’s supporters sounded like the arms of the media hitting the water, swimming madly to keep up with the new President’s selective finger. In their clamour to get the President to pick them, they passed up the opportunity to make a stance against this fairly unprecedented act, and put a line in the sand on behalf of the media and of the watching public.
What afflicts modern news media is less due to any ideological choice. It is likely a reaction to a problem of a logistical nature, referring to resource limitations and the mechanics of putting together a media story.
We’ve been here before of course.
OCCUPY NEWS SPACE (NOT)
The Occupy Movement started as Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park in the second half of 2011. Fired up by the apparent escape from justice of those who had seemed to embody the greed of the age and who had seemingly perpetrated the biggest financial disaster in history, the Occupy movement, as it was to become as it spread around the country and around the world (I spoke with a gaggle of “occupiers” parked outside the Reserve Bank building in Sydney’s Martin Place around this time, one of whom vowed “I’m never leaving here.”) wanted, well, something better.
The thing with the Occupy Movement, now going by the cooler and more abbreviated #ows, and its myriad offshoots, is that it never really had an aim beyond the occupation, outside of a pretty broad and inarticulate vision of separating money and politics. It was avowedly leaderless, professed adherence to no real ideology, carried no manifesto as such and articulated no concrete demands or policy alternatives.
What the movement did manage was to occupy a public space of high value and high visibility and to create there a working anarcho-syndicalist commune where ownership of everything, including ideas, was shared. “Public works” like keeping the space clean, was meticulously organised on a volunteer roster. Meetings arrived at decisions and positions as much by osmosis as by a formal, adversarial, dynamic of debate and vote.
It evolved into less a political protest and more a lesson in how an alternative society might look.
This was something neither the political/corporate establishment, nor the mainstream media could work with. An episode of the TV series Newsroom, with Aaron Sorkin showing off his up-to-the-moment scripting, factored in an Occupy-like gathering which the eponymous newsroom program is obliged to cover.
The hapless producer sent out to background the demo and to find an on-camera talent, played by Dev Patel, gets frustrated with the disorganised and de-centralised beast that confronts him. Patel’s character, Neal, ends up finding a photogenic female to act as spokesperson and she is rather mauled by the fictional news show anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels who asks her the kind of pointed policy questions mainstream media would, and finds her wanting.
This conclusion is telling. The program’s thrust appears to be that any political movement that can’t articulate itself in policy bytes and neat, headline ready demands isn’t really worthy of coverage or wider interest. This seems arrogant and unworkable. How are ordinary people, expressing widely acknowledged grievances, supposed to find time in busy and stressful lives to devise intricate and workable policy positions and political strategy, and then present them coherently and succinctly for media consumption? Isn’t that what paid politicians, think tanks, academics and consultants do?
The problem is not that concerned or alienated people can’t articulate their concerns and ideas. It’s that they often do it in a way in which those in whom our society invests in to lead us aren’t capable of comprehending.
That’s due, to some extent, to the fact that news media isn’t making them.
#ows was actually less about a political agenda and more about how to live. It was an attempt to display the place of politics and business, not as driving a society, but as being driven by it, as subservient to its needs and worth little without a wider social integration.
But, mainstream news media, as Newsroom‘s Will McAvoy did, simply tried to force it into the box of state-based policy oriented conformity and thus, misrepresented its meaning and undervalued its potential.
One of the founders of #ows, Micah White, has gone so far as to argue that OWS was ineffectual because it did not fit the media’s frame. In an interview in 2016, White outlined his belief that OWS was “a constructive failure.”
“…the paradigm of protest, the theory of protest, that underlies contemporary activism is broken. The main idea underlying contemporary protest is that, if we get millions of people into the street with a unified message and they’re largely non-violent, then our elective representatives will have to listen, and real change will happen. But we’ve seen repeatedly that, when activists actually achieve this remarkable feat – it’s happened during Occupy Wall Street, the anti-war marches in 2003, the climate marches – it doesn’t yield the social change that activists are demanding. Too many in the activist community are subscribing to illusions about what creates mass change.”
His solution is to find ways to get those with alternative support and ideas elected. The thinking should be, he says, about “How are social movements going to gain power?”
Another prominent thinker at the time of the moment of #ows is the academic Gene Sharp. His “from Dictatorship to Democracy” publication – a 93 page guidebook on shaping and running a protest movement – became something of a bible to those supporting the various uprisings in the first years of this century’s second decade.
Both White and Sharp, as central actors in the most febrile few years of this century so far, felt and feel that gaining power is the key. Both also give space to the need to communicate the message to gain popular support and to begin to break the grip of a regime that needs removal. One of Sharp’s core “campaign strategies” is “Communication of the resistance news to the general population.”
But, what both fail to understand is that mainstream mass media does not have the will, nor perhaps even the capacity, to receive and to disseminate truly revolutionary ideas. Micah White’s volte face on his own progressive ideals, and his march into the statist, elitist and ritually rigged maw of the election cycle stands as a damning testimony on the news media’s inability to bridge the fatal gap he himself had done so much to identify and articulate. His broken idealism looks a like like that of the wild horse who submits to its owner’s harsh and unyielding treatment, not because it wants to, but because it has no other alternative.
Micah White is correct is noting that #ows was a constructive failure. But the failure is not owned by #ows, it is owned by the mainstream news media and the state itself as both proved unwilling to accommodate its movement.
In a way, both state and mainstream new media need each other. Both are declining in power. Credibility is at an all time low for both institutions and the so-called margins of political and social activity – gender, workers, anti-war, anti-capitalism – are widening by the day.
And this we are also seeing with the rise of Donald Trump. Everything about his campaign and his shining new administration suggests that he believes the news media’s role is to act as his stenographer. Whether unwittingly or brilliantly, he has honed in on the symbiotic relationship between the two ailing dinosaurs – the liberal capitalist state and the mainstream news media – and worked them both to gain a power base from which to launch his world view.
Even as news media belatedly rushes to get on the bash-Trump bandwagon, it is maintaining his power and that of his position, simply by allowing him to dominate the news cycle. Good, bad or otherwise, news mentions of Donald Trump serve the dual purpose of allowing news media to tell a rollicking good story, full of conflict, risible moments and thriller-like hanging chapters and give Trump himself an endless array of spotlights in which to bathe his TV-ready citrine features.
The satirical tsunami that will continue to roll during his administration – led now to a large extent by SNL’s Alec Baldwin and his Trump Trick – runs the risk of lauding the man even as it seeks to bring him down. Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast series “Revisionist History” talked about “the satire paradox” whereby American humourists too often play for the laughs and drop the sharp edges they should be wielding. Gladwell uses the example of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, whom he argues, Fey captured hilariously, but not necessarily pointedly. Palin appearing next to her on SNL only underlined how beneficial Fey’s faux Palin became to the real person.
Baldwin’s Trump runs the same line and his audience ends up simply laughing at someone, even as their country slips away from them. Trump, dutifully, huffs and puffs about the lack of respect. But, it’s just playing his part and he knows better than anyone that Baldwin is a Trump positive.
Mainstream news media played its part in Trump’s ascendency during the Presidential campaign. His colour and noise, like baubles for a child, drew news editors in and ended up dominating the agenda. Initially, the coverage was largely mocking and media organisations found a mine of copy in Trump’s misquotes, lies and missteps. But, even a critical news spotlight, if one is thick skinned enough, becomes a solarium. The subject can bask in it, look good, glow with the attention.
America’s state apparatus and media industry may be failing, but no-one will notice if they both keep serving up the world’s biggest and best soap-opera-cum-comedy-cum-thriller-cum-cautionary tale. With content like this, everyone’s happy right?
Well, only for so long. Once even Trump supporters realise he’s taken them all to the showers and that they’re not there to have a wash, this cosy system will crumble.
Which is why media needs to act now.
WAR ON OTHER FRONTS
CNN is generally considered the progenitor of the wall-to-wall war coverage that is now de riguer across most news media at such times, especially TV. The world’s first 24/7 news broadcaster fashioned a sort of on-going drama, with ceaseless output, excruciating details (down to the boots a soldier might wear or his/her diet) and early forms of embedding to get close to the action. Filling 24 hours every day with one topic needed some imagination, even for a war, and CNN managed with remorseless will to complete its mission to do so, its producers striding about like Cecil B DeMille across the war-stained sand.
It was during Desert Storm (was the name meant to sound like a movie or is it just how we’ve come to see these things now?) in which Peter Arnett and co., more or less invented digital era, rolling coverage, blow by blow, war coverage. Authenticity was not entirely the aim (one notes anecdotes passed to the writer from an Australian correspondent in Iraq at the time who would hijack CNN’s expensively lit and lovingly stage managed backdrops, for his own to-camera pieces before they packed up to leave). Getting facts right was not necessarily the point either and it was certainly never intended that such coverage would ever suggest that a war had at least two sides and that its context may be more complicated than an anchor’s grab in front of said extravagantly set-up backdrops.
These days any self-respecting news media organisation cannot consider itself credible if it can’t get amid the bombed buildings, the shattered lives and the daily dramas that accompany any war. For most news organisations, there are two ways to get this kind of copy. One is through embedding, one through freelancers.
The concept of embedding would have been laughed out of the press tent in Vietnam, but these days, its hard for news organisations to get copy any other way. The cost in independence is of course offset by the excellent copy war front-line war, even slightly stage managed, can provide.
The other way, through freelancers, relies upon what might be called old school journalists getting into trouble, getting actually fired at or trapped in enemy territory. While these reporters give news media a whiff of the old days, the freelancers themselves are offered little support from their paymasters, and are regularly left to swing in the breezes of modern conflict when the inevitable shit hits the fan. These fearless and dedicated reporters generally have to pay their own way and take massive, even reckless risks as their editors goad them on but rarely actually promise a commission or a paycheck.
The broad result of both strategies is a Hollywood style version of war and its implications – more John Wayne and the Green Berets than the realities and environment of war and conflict. Its range is of the moment and therefore bereft of context, its aim is drama not truth and it is always one-sided, displaying the “right side’s” heroism and sacrifice.
News media’s reasoning for the value of war is obvious. But, its choice of topic seems odd. Even as news moguls chase conflicts like those in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, and package them to within an inch of reality, other, possibly even bigger, wars exist everywhere. And they are crying out for media interest. Think domestic violence, think hate crimes, think child pornography, think homelessness, think poverty, think refugees, think drug abuse, think corporate greed, think human rights, think social justice. All these and more are battlegrounds in today’s America, where real people are fighting real dangers and are being defended and aided by real heroes.
And in Trump’s America, there will be so many more. Climate change, immigration, foreign policy, environmental law, minorities, the list could go.
All these areas are at least as valid for media coverage, indeed war coverage, as any war in any country or any Presidential speech full of lies, bragging, ignorance and more lies. Why not embed reporters in these battleground areas? Why not report from these frontlines? Why not have blanket coverage and constant live updates on events in women’s shelters or prisons, soup kitchens or on the streets with the homeless? Why not cover the stories daily of the vast majority out there in the real world who are struggling to hold their lives and their families lives together, how they are going, how people are helping, how some have got on the winning side of life, and what can we do to contribute as individuals and as a nation?
Why not have a Homelessness correspondent or a Social Justice correspondent just like we have a White House correspondent?
Why not cover the protests and marches, the demonstrations, the stunts, the sit-ins, live, just as a Presidential presser might be covered: respectfully, with high production value, and intelligently, contextually framed.
The reality is that for all the marches, protests, demos and well rehearsed indignation, this will take some time. The anti-Trump honeymoon will sour and fall out of love with itself. It will be worn down by the relentless babble coming out of the White House. The story will cease to be interesting and will fade.
Humans are narrative driven mammals. we need stories to guide us and to light our path, at this time more than ever. Mainstream news media needs to find better stories, the kind that can sustain us all.
The paradoxical, ironical truth is that the Trump administration may be the best thing that has happened to mainstream news media in recent memory. It is both a challenge and an opportunity, often common bedfellows. But, it’s not in the way many seem to think. It’s not because POTUS 45 provides such eye-catching content; its because his politics have created the opportunity for news media in particular to recapture its market, to establish a more powerful and resonant brand identity with the majority of voters at least who didn’t vote for him.
Trump is how mainstream news media gets its mojo back because Trump is unknowingly, fatuously regenerating the civil society beast that the American elite has fought off and weakened for decades. And that’s where the real stories are for those who want to look. That’s where news media has to be, because that is where the future is.
The fatal gap is there for the media to close.