In a speech in March this year at Syracuse University’s Toner Prize ceremony, US President Barack Obama spoke about the role of the media in promoting a well-informed electorate. The presumption that he and perhaps most people make is that a well-informed electorate makes smart political choices and can separate fact from rhetoric, fear mongering and hubris. This might or might not hold true in the 2016 US presidential elections as the bombardment of information via varied news sources is difficult to sift through, and the correlation to “smart political choices” is not a precise science.
Nevertheless, Obama made some important points about political journalism in his speech. The award, named after deceased former New York Times political correspondent Robin Toner, the first woman to hold that position, honours excellence in political reporting. Obama praised Toner as a “servant of the American public”.
“She had a sense of mission and purpose in her work. For Robin, politics was not a horse race, or a circus, or a tally of who scored more political points than whom, but rather was fundamentally about issues and how they affected the lives of real people.”
“She held politicians’ feet to the fire, including occasionally my own. And in her quiet, dogged way, she demanded that we be accountable to the public for the things that we said and for the promises that we made. We should be held accountable.”
In a world where journalism and politics are relatively straight cut, this should be the convention rather than extraordinary. But the US presidential elections campaign, much like our own politics in South Africa, is a voyage through a cesspit. Political players trade on vitriol, deception and fear and the truth is held hostage by irrationality.
Back in March, Obama had this to say about the media:
“A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more. The electorate would be better served if that happened. It would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they can’t keep.”
About the same time Obama was speaking, it was estimated that Donald Trump received about $1.9 billion in free publicity from the news media. Who knows what that figure might stand at now as the US media has continued to “hand him the microphone” to spout his fiery cocktail of racism, sexism and xenophobia, and use their platforms to defend his nonstop atrocious behaviour? It appears that many media organisations woke up too late to the realisation that the undiscerning coverage of the Trump circus from the primaries allowed him to trumpet whatever ridiculous statements he wanted to make to millions of people, and inadvertently helped to carry the Republican candidate to within reach of the White House.
Former Al Jazeera America anchor and PBS Newshour correspondent Ray Suarez says Trump was a “fun, new, shiny object” for the media – until he wasn’t. The media allowed Trump the latitude to flip-flop on issues without interrogation.
“Trump took both sides of every issue and sometimes three sides,” says Suarez.
As the media became more circumspect, Trump and his supporters began attacking journalists on the campaign trail, until it turned into a veritable free-for-all. The anti-media rhetoric is now a fundamental part of Trump’s election messaging – to the extent that he is blaming the media for his downward slide in the polls.
“It has been a sobering chapter in our history,” says Suarez. “Trump has pushed the media to places it has never gone before.”
Some of America’s most prominent publications have run hard-hitting pieces and editorials – almost as corrective measures to counter the initial Trump enthrallment. An editorial in the Washington Post in September titled “The clear and present danger of Donald Trump” said the following:
“If you know that Donald Trump is ignorant, unprepared and bigoted, but are thinking of voting for him anyway because you doubt he could do much harm – this editorial is for you… A President Trump could, unilaterally, change this country to its core. By remaking US relations with other nations, he could fundamentally reshape the world, too.”
The editorial went on to warn:
“His racism and disparagement of women could empower extremists who are now on the margins of American politics, while his lies and conspiracy theories could legitimise discourse that until now has been relegated to the fringe”.
The New York Times has also published some piercing editorials, as well as news articles to highlight Trump’s chauvinism. On October 24, the paper ran a two-page spread of 281 people, places and things Trump has insulted on Twitter during the campaign.
In South Africa, the capture of our state by a crooked and powerful political and business network has been met with fierce resistance by an active media community and civil society. Over the past few months, there has been a concerted effort to push back against this corrupt gang that has penetrated the state and the governing party at the highest levels. This clique used their own media platforms, institutions of the state, sections of the ANC and hired henchmen to deceive the South African public as they fleece government coffers.
They have made bold and frightening attempts to hijack the National Treasury, and would probably have succeeded had they not met resistance from an informed and active citizenry.
Through the work of the Office of the Public Protector, the courts, opposition parties, civil society and the media, the South African public is being empowered with information that a powerful group of people, including President Jacob Zuma, consistently tries to conceal. There has been a resurgence of journalistic excellence in South Africa, including on this website, to expose this nefarious agenda.
Daily Maverick turns seven years old this week at a time when our country is on a terrifying rollercoaster ride. This publication exists for one reason alone: to tell the story of the time we live in. We are proud of what we have achieved so far, including our role in exposing the agenda behind the failed attempt to prosecute Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Ours is not to hand someone a microphone. We try to define the bad from the truly awful, and occasionally we hold the power barons’ feet to the fire. We too constantly search for the good story to tell and to reflect the lives and struggles of the real people of our country.
The many, many people who make up the Daily Maverick family led by our indefatigable editor Branko Brkic aim to provide knowledge and perspective so that the Trumps in all their incarnations may never triumph – even when they have power. From a tumultuous election battleground in the United States to a dusty killing field of Marikana, we will continue to do so – for as long as we can. DM