A major ideological war has commenced in America between the media and power. It is a war that hacks back to halcyon days and one that the Age of Enlightenment seemed to have declared for one party. Contending parties in this war are new American President, Donald Trump and the mainstream media of America.
Resolution of the war could lead to a reiteration of the roles of the press or modifications of existing theories, notably the social responsibility theory.
Trump brings to the battle the full armoury of the Office of President of the United States, his popularity with American voters and the backing of the White Anglo-Saxon Pentecostal Church. The White Church claims God sent Donald Trump for these times. There are many Nigerian supporters of Trump who hate the American media, notably the CNN, in defence of Trump. Trump fought long odds to become President of the USA.
On the other side are the major media organs of America. They include The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post. Other forces on the press portion of the battle include The Huffington Post, NBC News, Time, Esquire, New Yorker and various local titles. Across the ocean, other media outlets are providing supporting firepower. They include The Guardian and the venerable BBC.
One of the many battles of this war is raging currently in the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal over its editorial direction and stance towards Trump. The majority of journalists therein question the seeming compromise and support of Trump by the paper’s editor, Mr Gerard Baker. While the journal continues to do its job scrupulously, journalists therein are concerned about tone. The Wall Street Journal belongs to Rupert Murdoch, a man with a record of turning his media properties, including Fox News and The Times of London, into ideological mouthpieces of conservatism.
On their part, the media have a long history of fighting battles for relevance with authority figures and are now well-entrenched to fight the ideological battle.
Twitter maven Trump only on Friday, February 17 declared the media “the enemy of the American people.” He stated:
Donald J. Trump ?@realDonaldTrump.
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes <https:is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American People!”
Earlier, his chief strategist Steve Bannon had called the media the “opposition party”.
On the surface, the war is a fallout of the last US election. In the run-up to the US General Election that Trump won, most of the media endorsed his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The media, as well as pollsters, projected a win for Clinton. Eventually, Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to Clinton.
Through it all and particularly on assuming office, Trump has sought to delegitimise the American media by branding them as bearers of fake news. It is a battle for control of minds and hacks back to the days of Emperor Kings or to Africa where rulers insist that they only have the final say on matters.
Trump has come with a desire to upturn many things in America. Evidently, the role of the American press is one of his primary targets. He does not want a press that probes, questions and continuously targets power holders, making them accountable in words and deeds to the citizens.
Centuries of practice have seen the American press established as defenders of democracy. Indeed, a former American President, Thomas Jefferson, underlined the importance of the media to American democracy. During his time as the US minister to France, Jefferson penned a letter to a statesman from Virginia, waxing poetic about the importance of a free press.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787. “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them”.
The relationship between the media and power has of necessity been adversarial. Prof Fred Omu captured this well in the popular book, Press and Politics in Nigeria: 1859-1935, his history of the early Nigerian press. It tells of the struggles of the pioneers with the colonial administrators. Section 2, subsection 2 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution similarly establishes a basis for an adversarial relationship when it charges the media to uphold the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy of Nigeria and hold the government accountable to the people.
Many governments do not like the media on account of its role in holding government accountable. Governments with an agenda that runs against the currents are particularly prickly about the media. In the case of Trump, the man who deployed the media to run a campaign against a sitting President for years now considers those same vehicles for his projection as bearers of fake news. It was not fake news when the media reported his birther campaign against Barack Obama.
Trump admires his friend and Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. He would like to exercise absolute power in America as Putin does in Russia. Trump has tried to intimidate judges, educators or just about anyone with a contrary view. The President of America has issues with the rule of law, sacking the acting Attorney General, and fights with his intelligence team. The other day, he gave short shrift to a Jewish-American journalist with a medium sympathetic to Trump because he did not even wait for the journalist to conclude his question. Trump does not want a whiff of contrariness. He shouts it down.
Trump is acting like disgraced former President Richard Nixon who also saw the press as enemies. He told Henry Kissinger in 1972, “The press is the enemy, the establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy.”
The American media has operated with the philosophical underpinning of the social responsibility theory of the press, itself an outcrop of the Hutchins Commission Report of 1947 that affirmed the significant role of the media in modern society and the need for it to exercise its enormous powers with a responsibility to society.
Robert Hutchins and his 12 wise men took four years to write their report. Time magazine publisher, Henry Luce, commissioned the effort at a time when the media was subject to much criticism. Big and powerful publishers were unpopular with the public, while the public suspected the motivations and objectives of the press.
The situation today recalls that era. Trump has many supporters who see the news media today as evil, unfair or unbalanced in their coverage. The CNN, with its global reach and its pitched battle with Trump, represents for many a symbol of what is wrong with the media.
However, the media have clearly won the first battles of this war that promises to be long and sustained. Through their reportage, they have exposed falsehoods in the Trump administration and forced the resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn. They subject every utterance of Trump to intense scrutiny.
Longer term, the media would depend above all on its fundaments in this long war. Those fundamentals are the practice of verification and the canons encapsulated in the four pillars of the Code of Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists. Those enjoin journalists to Seek truth and report it; Minimise harm; Act independently and Be accountable. Across the world, journalism ethics deal with the principal concerns at the heart of the profession. These are truth, accuracy, fairness, transparency, proper representation, attribution and the right of reply.
Practising ethically would be the main defence of the American media in the war. Interesting times ahead.
Nwakanma is on the Adjunct Faculty of the School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University
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