THE MEDIA AND ITS FUTURE IN THE AGE OF THE PANDEMIC
The role of the mainstream media (MSM) is one of the most hotly debated and highly polarizing subjects in America today. There are two principal views on this issue. On one hand, there are those who argue that the MSM is a true defender of freedom and democracy in America today. Their opponents criticize the media for its bias and systemic misrepresentation of American reality; they blame the media for supporting violent protests and thus contributing to the growing chaos and instability in the country. It hardly comes as a surprise that the first group includes mostly those who are directly associated with the media establishment or work in the MSM outlets. The second group includes many supporters of President Trump who voted for him in the last presidential election. President Trump is perhaps the most vocal critic of the media establishment.
Ben Smith–founding editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News who has recently joined The New York Times as its media columnist—has taken up this controversial subject in his recent article “Journalists Aren’t the Enemies of the People. But We Aren’t Your Friends.” In his article, Smith mounts a strong defense of the media establishment. He has nothing but high regard for the role it plays in the current political turmoil. Smith largely dismisses criticisms levied against the MSM. He attributes these criticisms exclusively to direct instigations coming from President Trump who uses attacks on the media to serve his political agenda. In Smith’s view, the MSM is a staunch defender of freedom and democracy in America and thus serves the interests of the American people.
Smith rests his defense of the MSM on one fundamental argument. Although he admits that those who work in the MSM are not immune to subjective biases and ego trips, their main enterprise retains its integrity. It has been and remains largely about “the broad, dogged and often revelatory work of reporting.” The MSM, Smith contends, delivers what the public needs and wants: objective and reliable representations of reality.
Needless to say, Smith’s article abounds in examples that illustrate his claims. Smith presents his facts as self-evident; his air of self-assuredness leaves no room for doubt. The reader gets the impression that what the author offers is nothing short of objective truth.
Claims of knowing objective truth always give pause to a critical reader—one who is in the habit of questioning such truths and accepting them only after careful examination of possible alternatives. A critical reader knows that facts are never self-evident. They always have a subjective aspect. The selection and interpretation of facts are a result of subjective human choices. For this reason, no fact is indisputable until alternatives are examined and either accepted or rejected. Smith presents his facts as an objective without performing this critical procedure.
One important assertion that Smith makes is that the current criticisms of the media are largely fabrications instigated by President Trump who uses them to deceive and mislead his supporters. This argument largely follows the familiar narrative that liberals and their supporters heavily promote. According to this narrative, President Trump has skillfully conned common Americans into supporting his agenda. What gives one a pause in this narrative is the fact that it does not even consider a possibility that supporters of Donald Trump are capable of making an independent judgment; it off-handedly denies them any autonomy and agency.
There are many critics who disputed this narrative. One may agree or disagree with these critics, but this criticism certainly deserves attention, particularly if one makes such categorical claims as Smith does. The fact that Trump has taken advantage of the views and opinions held by 63 million Americans who voted for him in no way proves that they have not developed these views on their own. One can certainly see Trump as the creator of the movement that brought him to power, but one should at least consider, in the interests of objectivity, a possibility that Trump is not a creator of this movement but rather is its creature. A surfer takes advantage of the wave that carries him, but few would make a claim that the surfer creates this wave.
A similar problem arises with another assertion that Smith makes. He blames President Trump for putting the brand-name establishment media on the ballot in the coming elections. At no point does Smith consider a possibility that those who support President Trump may have their own legitimate misgivings about the MSM and these misgivings may be the main reason why criticisms of the media are so wide-spread in America today.
Smith’s chastisement of President Trump for his efforts to polarize American society may also legitimately appear to be one-sided. An objective observer of American politics could not have failed to register the polarizing opposition to President Trump that had arisen even before he was elected and has not subsided since then. This opposition has fed the frenzy that sustained repeated attempts to oust a legitimate president who was legally elected according to the existing laws and rules. It is no small matter that these attempts represent efforts to undo the will of the American people.
Smith makes a big deal about what he sees as false statements, or lies, that, according to Smith, President Trump tells. He praises the journalists–whom he portrays as nothing short of heroes–for exposing these lies and, as a result, paying a heavy price in the court of public opinion. Smith may or may not be correct in this view, but a skeptic should not miss an opportunity to ask one question: Even if one agrees with Smith, is this so unusual as to make a big deal out of it? Is the MSM immune to misrepresentation of facts? What makes President Trump so exceptional in the eyes of the media establishment other than the fact that this establishment sees Trump as the enemy? Have Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, or for that matter, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris never resorted to misrepresentations and lies? Why does the supposedly impartial MSM focus exclusively on President Trump, and not on others?
President Trump, Smith argues, has created a crisis by attacking American political norms and institutions. Again, one can legitimately object to this assertion. Smith refuses to see what many find to be obvious: President Trump directs his attack against elites and their monopolistic domination, not norms and institutions. One cannot equate opposition to elite rule with the undermining of norms and institutions. Anti-elitist attitudes have deep roots in American political culture—the fact that is reflected in the documents that constitute the foundation of the American constitutional republic.
The point of this discussion is not to dispute Smith’s assertions. The point is simply to show that Smith does not consider legitimate objections to his assertions. He fails to consider counter-arguments before he makes his claims of objective truth—and that is a serious problem. He may be justified in dismissing them but not before examining them. One cannot dismiss something off-handedly without at least giving it some consideration.
An objective description is one that includes all possible views of reality. Smith does not observe this important condition. Therefore, his representations do not consider all possible views of reality; they are partial and incomplete. They ultimately depend on his subjective choices and, therefore, are subjective and arbitrary in their nature. The categorical tone in presenting facts as objectively true is insufficient for making these facts true and objective. Such claims do not abolish the influence of subjectivity; they merely disregard it. By not addressing the issue of subjectivity, Smith leaves it unrecognized and, as a result, fails to examine it critically. The lack of critical examination does not eliminate subjectivity and its pernicious influence; it merely renders it invisible and, consequently uncontrollable and absolute.
In portraying his colleagues in the MSM, Smith tries to convey an unmistakable impression that this is a very unique and exclusive group of people. Unlike others, they are uniquely capable of perceiving and representing reality objectively. The exclusive nature of this claim has distinct elitist overtones. Smith sees the members of his guild as the sole purveyors of objective information who have a monopoly on truth.
He makes the media people look like heroes who stand up for what is right. By the very nature of their enterprise, members of this group are very special; they perform a very important function in society.
Such claims play down the fact that members of the MSM are merely humans and, like all other humans, they are guided not only by their aspirations for truth but also, and inevitably, by their subjective inclinations. Smith’s view of his cohort strikes one as very unrealistic. The problem of subjectivity is not an irresolvable problem, but its solution does not lie in unwarranted claims of special status and disposition, but in a critical examination of one’s own subjectivity. As Smith’s article shows, neither he nor his colleagues are particularly predisposed to such critical self-examination.
Smith’s claims and arguments on behalf of the MSM reveal his fundamental blindness to subjectivity and its influence. His elitist claims are unsubstantiated and gratuitous. They merely reveal his subjective conviction that the media people are very different from others. Smith fails to recognize a simple fact that elitism, thinking oneself as something exceptional, is a highly subjective view. Such an elitist approach obfuscates the fact that the MSM is an elite institution that represents the interests of the elite rule as a whole. Those who work in the MSM are an integral part of this rule. When they reserve for themselves a special role of the purveyors of truth, they merely assert their self-proclaimed exclusive privilege of elite rule. As such, their “revelatory reporting” represents little more than efforts to defend elite rule and to manipulate the public in the interests of the elites.
As one reads through Smith’s article, one realizes that it was prompted by the growing dissatisfaction with the MSM in American society. Public opinion is increasingly turning against the media establishment. Even those who work in the media are not happy with the way it works. They increasingly recognize that the current media operational model does not work. Smith and other journalists, for example, express serious doubts as to whether their efforts have “swayed a single Trump voter.” In order to remedy the situation, they seek to modify their practice so as to broaden their appeal. As one of the journalists interviewed by Smith for the article tells him, the media is now “trying to make it [the MSM practice] a little more centrist, to appeal to everybody.” Some even entertain extremely radical game-changing proposals. For example, Lewis Raven Wallace, the author of a provocative new case against detached, “objective,” journalism, even goes so far as to urge fellow-journalists to stop attending White House press conferences, thus renouncing one of their primary functions to serve as a link between the government and society. “If they [journalists] are serious about safeguarding democracy,” Wallace states, “they need to be building collective power around not even being in that room anymore.”
The problem of a new media practice that Smith raises in his article is undoubtedly very important. However, as one reads through the article, one increasingly realizes that Smith is nowhere close to finding a solution. The article fails to provide even the most general outline of a new practice.
In order to solve a problem, one should correctly identify its source. Smith and others in the media establishment see President Trump as the source of the problem they face. They totally misunderstand the nature and magnitude of what is going on in America and the world today. They do not understand the processes that shape the contemporary world and how they affect the media. As a result, they cannot produce a solution.
The source of the media problem is not in some fortuitous circumstances or personalities. It lies deep in the structural relationship between the media and society. They completely misunderstand the cause of popular discontent. The rise of President Trump is not the source of this discontent. The source, both in America and in the world, is the growing opposition to elite rule. This opposition affects the existing media establishment, as it is an integral part of elite rule.
The problem that Smith identifies is due to the elitist approach in the current media practice. Broad segments of society resent media control and manipulation of public opinion. The media tries to impose its own vision on society, thus hindering the capacity of ordinary individuals to formulate their independent political will and opinion. Inspired by new possibilities created by advances in communication and information technology, and motivated by increased awareness of autonomy and agency, common people seek inclusion and empowerment; they want to be equal and active participants in the process of political decision-making.
President Trump is a symptom, not a cause of this search. Indeed, he rides on the aspirations of the broad segments of the American public, but his supporters pursue their own agenda. President Trump uses the appeal of anti-elite attitudes, but he does not create them. He rides high on anti-elitist appeal, but his political future will depend to a large degree on whether he will be able to fulfill the egalitarian and democratic aspirations of common Americans. It remains to be seen whether President Trump will be able to institute a new practice based on a non-elitist approach, or whether he will merely substitute the new elites for the old ones. His legacy will very much depend on finding a solution to the problem of elite rule.
The current political crisis is certainly a very trying period that has brought many hardships and much suffering to the American people. It tests their will, their capacity to survive, and save our civilization. However, this period of trials and tribulations brings also opportunities for rethinking old practices and approaches and for creating new and more viable ones.
Today, American society is fully engaged in a search for a new and broadly democratic practice, including the new role for the media. American public rejects the old elitist approach and increasingly embraces a more democratic one. One can see this new approach emerging in social media networks. These networks operate on broad egalitarian principles. They provide the platform for interactions among equals that formulate their political will and opinion.
The new media practice is universally inclusive and empowering. It is not conducive to elite rule. It relies on interactions among equal agents. This new practice does not eliminate leadership and the important function performed by leaders. But it does significantly transforms the traditional conception of leadership. The new role of leaders consists of facilitating, coordinating, and regulating interactions among equal agents. Their global position allows accessing local interactions, identifying new ideas that emerge in these interactions and disseminating them throughout the network. In performing their function, leaders supervene local interactions that make their activities possible. They no longer have a monopolistic position that allows dictatorial authority. They do not have monopolistic control over public discourse; they are no longer in the position to manipulate public opinion. Both leaders and local agents are equal participants in the common enterprise.
As one can see, this approach is not unidirectional as in the current media practice—from those at the top to those at the bottom. It is decidedly bi-directional. Media provides a platform, space where equals interact and shape their views and opinions. They do have leaders, but the role of these leaders is vastly different than the role of the media elites now. They do not have a monopoly control and therefore, they cannot dictate and manipulate the public. Their role is to facilitate and regulate interactions among equals; they articulate views and opinions that emerge in the course of these interactions. Those on the global and local network levels rely on each other and are locked in a mutual and cooperative relationship.
Attempts to revive, as Smith and others do, the old elite ways are doomed. They will not be able to re-assert their monopolistic position in controlling public discourse. Changes in communication technology and information practices have broken their monopoly on the media; it no longer exists and there is no way to revive it. Americans have gained and embraced their newly found freedom and they will not give up this freedom.
American society is now in the middle of a profound transformation. Rethinking traditional practices and experimenting with new ones are the tasks that Americans face in their daily life. They understand that failure is not an option. Human history has witnessed many failed attempts to create a future that humans deserve, but these failures have not stopped us from trying; they only strengthened our resolve and determination to achieve our goal.
Dr. Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, New York.