When Trump Killed Media Criticism

In a seemingly bygone era, one core tenet of “progressive” political commentary was unflinching critique of what was once scornfully labeled “corporate media” — the collection of multinational conglomerates that churn out thinly-disguised propaganda for profit, saturating the airwaves with infotainment whose principal aim is not to inform, but to reinforce establishment dogmas. During the George W. Bush years, I remember being drawn to the then-fledgling “liberal blogosphere” because of its contempt for the “mainstream” media — the insular, chummy, power-serving elites who wouldn’t know adversarial journalism if it slapped them in the face. Discontent with that state of affairs spurred the creation of internet-based alternatives which would act as a check on the mainstream’s worst impulses. It was simply taken as a given that the major American media organizations were to be looked upon with extreme skepticism, if not outright hostility.

Today, that dynamic is almost entirely inverted. Media organs formerly derided as emblems of a decrepit establishment have suddenly been imbued with the moral authority of “Resistance.” The most prominent media critic in the country is now Donald Trump, and his daily ravings have impelled distressed liberals to rally behind celebrity TV reporters like CNN’s Jim Acosta, at whom Trump frequently directs his ire. Acosta, the talking head who follows Trump around the country pantomiming activities that to the untrained eye resemble journalism, is heralded as a valiant steward of the First Amendment and the last line of defense against the encroachments of right-wing mobs. All responsible citizens are expected to stand in solidarity with Acosta when Trump tweets something mean about him, while gravely intoning that such tweets portend the total destruction of press freedom in America.

This would’ve seemed completely bizarre only a few years ago; the idea that outlets like CNN require left-wing support because their celebrity figureheads occasionally squabble with the celebrity president. The fundamental vapidity of the Trump-Acosta feud was best demonstrated at a rally in Tampa several weeks ago, when the Trump-supporting hordes encircled the TV talker and shouted epithets — only to later ask him for selfies. It was as if no genuine principle of press freedom was really at stake, and both parties simply enjoyed the performative aspect of appearing as though they were at each other’s throats.

Even the docile members of the White House press corps are regarded as modern-day journalistic heroes for shouting questions at Trump of almost zero substance, because without them asking about every trifling development in Russia investigation, the Republic would crumble. These access-driven reporters, once understood to sacrifice their integrity and critical distance in pursuit of proximity to power, are now touted as the last line of defense against the total extirpation of the Bill of Rights.

Undermining the “mainstream” media’s credibility and exposing their inherent flaws and biases, once a central ideological project of “progressives,” has fallen out of favor as these corporate entities increasingly depict themselves as avowedly anti-Trump. Gone are the pretenses to journalistic objectivity that the big media mainstays previously held fast to; Twitter has made hiding their true beliefs increasingly impossible. While this development isn’t necessarily bad — journalistic objectivity was always a sham — it’s dampened the appetite for strident media critiques that used to exist in spades in “progressive” circles. Now skepticism of CNN’s motives is reflexively associated with the Right. And while it’s true that Trump’s “fake news” mantra differs majorly from any critique that left-wing skeptics might proffer — Trump encourages a kind of nihilistic, authority-worshipping reality rejection masquerading as legitimate criticism — the valid points he does sometimes raise get automatically dismissed simply because he’s the one who raised them.

For instance, when Trump charged on August 5 that media malfeasance has often led to war, figures such as Meet the Press host Chuck Todd were absolutely aghast: “This is outrageous,” Todd fumed. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to say to someone accusing me and my colleagues of causing war.” Despite his prominent position in American media, Todd is apparently unaware of the voluminous history of the press playing an integral role in selling every military conflict the US has ever been involved in, including the Iraq War, during which Todd was a working adult journalist. For him to still have not internalized the ways American media assisted in “causing” that conflagration is a sure indicator of delusion.

Todd’s remark is the kind of thing that would’ve set “progressives” ablaze with anger during the Bush years, but today rushing to his defense is a prerequisite for opposing Trump — even when Trump’s observation is unassailably accurate. Likewise, when the crowds at Trump rallies chant “CNN Sucks,” all right-minded citizens are supposed to respond with horror and declare that CNN does not suck, but rather is good. Well, maybe CNN really does “suck” — perhaps not for the same reasons that enraged the chanting crowds, but still: CNN’s fundamental suckiness remains inalienable. That’s not to deny that there are some individual journalists and editors within CNN who occasionally do decent work. But they do this in spite of the overall corporate structure of CNN, not because of it. CNN as an entity was once understood to represent a stultifying influence on American life, with culpability for fostering the politics-as-entertainment ethos that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Now, with CNN leading the anti-Trump resistance, such criticisms are less and less tolerable in “progressive” enclaves.

It has also become standard to bemoan how low “trust” in the media has fallen, with Republicans rejecting its authority at record rates while Democrats’ trust has “zoomed,” according to Gallup. But why is “trust” in the media treated as some unalloyed good? Had a pollster asked me the same question — “do you have a great deal of confidence in the mass media?” — I’d have replied with a resounding “NO,” even if the reasons for my answer are quite a bit different from the average Fake News-hating Trump supporter. And I say that as a member, in some sense, of the media. The point is: unreserved “trust” in media entities can breed credulity and passivity, just as unthinking “distrust” can produce paranoia and know-nothingism. It’s easy to dwell on the excesses of the braying Trump hordes, but the converse is also cause for worry: liberals and “progressives” vesting corporate media entities — the kind they once condemned as a matter of course — as repositories of absolute truth.

Note from MT: I’m working on a new media-related project, details of which will be announced soon. For now, if you wish to contribute financially, best way to do so is via PayPal or bitcoin. Thanks!

Roving journalist