The Great American Blind Spot


The Great American Blind Spot

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

It’s now curtains for the greatest show on earth. The US elections are done and dusted, with a “stunning upset” and a “shocking victory” for Donald Trump. In reality, the people most stunned and shocked are the ones sitting in media offices across America. The biggest losers in the US election, are mainstream liberal voices like the New York Times, CNN, and the New Yorker.

I am no supporter – or even an apologist for – Donald Trump, but isn’t it the media’s job to hold a mirror to society and report the “truth” from the ground? Despite several interviews with Trump’s admirers, the CNN refused to believe that he was even running for president of the country. Analysts from the channel at no point bothered to appear neutral – one even called him a turd that couldn’t be polished. Predictably, as the election results started pouring in and the country’s map turned redder by the minute, CNN anchors looked like they had been roofied. The BBC’s ticker, meanwhile, continued to show Hillary in the lead long after Trump rallied ahead.

The night before the polls, CNN had him down 4 per cent nationally, which would have resulted in a landslide. Their anchors kept reassuring themselves that Clinton could still win; I think I even heard one of them say, “We can still win”. An ABC anchor actually started weeping on air when the channel called the election for Trump. All of us have our biases, but for heaven’s sake, don’t be smug about it. Don’t assume any election is sealed until the voters have had their say.

Ever since Trump got the nomination, much of the American news coverage surrounding him was negative. Which is fine: Trump’s campaign was premised on racist xenophobia and the personal qualities he espouses are despicable and needed to be called out. But what mainstream media failed to understand was the simmering sentiment that he was tapping into. Show after show portrayed his supporters not as honest working-class people in financially unsteady positions, but as hicks and idiots. According to this article, Trump supporters, by the liberal media’s definition, are “uncouth, ill-educated bigots”. And showing support to Trump likens you to “racist hillbillies, rednecks, and suburban dolts”.

The media onslaught was encouraged by comedians and talk-show hosts, who picked on Trump for his sexual transgressions as well as his all-round idiocy. Bill Maher was sued when he hilariously compared Trump to an orangutan, but continued to make the reference almost every time he spoke about Trump again. John Oliver has called Trump a “back mole” on America’s shoulder that needed to be treated before it got bigger. He also once rooted for Trump to run as a joke. The night of the election, comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart confidently asked viewers to go out and vote to prevent “that angry tax- and draft-dodging little orange groundhog” from becoming president.

The parallels between Trump’s election and the success of Brexit are obvious; both were dubbed “unbelievable” outcomes that deserved no attention by the media of the respective countries.

All of these people were so confident Trump would never be elected president. And all of them got it wrong. This London Review of Books article, written a couple of weeks before the result, provides an insight into why this might have happened. “Online, we talk more and more to those we agree with,” she writes. “And when we do talk to those we disagree with, our discourse coarsens. A lot.” This is what the American media was up to: Talking to people who agreed with them, and dismissing everyone who didn’t. The American electorate was set up to fail with this attitude because it was easier to focus on personalities, rather than the fact that “democracy was on the ballot”.

It is understandable that a deeply polarised, personality-based campaign makes it tough not to take sides. So the media takes sides; it tries to build support by mildly distorting facts to suit their point of view, or that of their preferred candidates. Despite the high turnouts at Trump rallies, and the growing voices of concern about Hillary’s past, many are amazed that the people of America took this decision. This is partly, in my opinion, because of the media’s irresponsible and myopic view toward the election.

Sites like Breitbart and ConservativeReview that openly endorse Trump are accused of peddling “propaganda”. Meanwhile, about three months ago, the liberal media literally stopped being news people, took off their suits and ties, and wore “I am with Hillary” T-shirts. They, in my estimation, let themselves and the people down with their one-sided coverage, dismissive humour, and lack of respect for Trump supporters. All of this could only have added to the anger of the average Joe.

We blame Arnab for a lot of ills plaguing Indian media, especially TV news. However, the bright stars in independent and neutral media, those who try and sit on the high moral ground, have been getting it wrong for a while now, in India and the US. I understand that as an individual I am allowed to have my point of view, based hopefully on facts and a multitude of opinion. But does a media house or channel have the same right? Does it befit the media to ignore the groundswell of disaffection with the establishment? Shouldn’t the media have made millions of Americans aware of the magnitude of this point of view?

The parallels between Trump’s election and the success of Brexit are obvious; both were dubbed “unbelievable” outcomes that deserved no attention by the media of the respective countries. Similar situations have been playing out across Europe and look likely to continue in France, which has displayed a growing affinity for the Far Right.

So how did the media become so oblivious to the facts on the ground? One argument that the New Yorker makes is that in a social-media-saturated America, people on either side of the divide “communicate over each other, rather than with each other”. “They regard news stories not as new information to be ingested and considered but as potential ammo to hurl at the other side.”

The founding principles of independent media, even when it comes to reporting opinion is to provide all points of view to the viewer/reader. That principle was abandoned completely. Maybe everyone expected to take heart in the fact that Trump was not a “good guy” hence this “taking of sides” was justified.

But in the process, independent media’s credibility has gotten compromised. Along with Hillary, the American media has lost. And perhaps the damage done is greater here.