As the liberal media embraces an anti-populist business model, the left must continue to forge an independent opposition, argues Des Freedman, writing in Counterfire
The success of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote shocked a lot of people – not least journalists from much of the elite media which had dismissed the possibility of these events ever taking place. Trump’s victory, according to Liz Spayd, then the public editor of the New York Times was:
“The night that wasn’t supposed to happen, that had almost no chance of happening.”
For the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson, Brexit was “uncharted territory” and “most people, including me, didn’t see the results coming”.
Immediately following what were seen as traumatic and exceptional events, mea culpas were offered and promises made to reconnect with the voters that journalists had apparently neglected. As Spayd put it, we need to “think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers”, while Robinson concluded that:
“Boy, do we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves tough questions about whether we’re interviewing the right people, asking the right questions.”
So what has happened in the past 18 months and how have liberal journalists changed their behaviour in response to a new balance of forces marked by the rise of nativism and nationalism on the one hand – and the popularity of left movements inspired by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders on the other?
Bad politics, good for business
The answer is: apparently not a lot. Mastheads have been modified – for example, the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan – and mission statements revised, such as Guardian editor Katharine Viner’s lengthy manifesto in which she promises relentlessly to “challenge the economic assumptions of the last three decades”.
“Robust” editorial stances have been widely adopted in order to challenge authoritarian populists, epitomised by the New York Times’ decision publicly to denounce Trump as a “liar” and wall-to-wall anti-Trump coverage across liberal US cable news.
True, there have been a few more left-wing voices in British broadcasting but they’re usually treated more as curiosities and outliers than as representatives of movements that ought to be taken seriously. And woe betide those leftists who dare to critique the “mainstream media” – they’re likely to be dismissed either as “conspiracy-minded” or accused, as Susan Sarandon was when talking about the failures of elite journalism in an interview in The Guardian, as “inching towards the space where the extreme right meets the left”.
While this anti-populist strategy has generally been good for business – there has been a spike in subscriptions to, and audiences for, liberal media outlets in the past year – it is much less clear how effective this will be in challenging the racism and xenophobia the liberal media profess to despise. Indeed, parts of the strategy seem simply to be replicating some of their earlier errors that prompted US networks to give unprecedented coverage to Trump during his election campaign – just as the BBC saw fit to feature Nigel Farage and UKIP in 25% of all Question Time programmes since 2010.
‘Nazi next door’
For example, the New York Times’ commitment to cover the parts of the US population it had previously ignored seems, in reality, to be geared towards a determination to focus on neo-Nazis and high-profile Trump supporters rather than on exploring the rather more complex issues that might have led to support for Trump. Within the space of three days in November, the paper managed to publish a hugely controversial “lifestyle” feature on “the Nazi next door” followed by a lengthy magazine cover story on one of Trump’s closest allies, Fox news presenter Sean Hannity.