The news media, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom are crying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,” today over their failure to foresee Donald Trump’s victorious campaign for president of the United States.
In this case certainly, flogging yourself for your sins is somewhat justified.
Unfortunately, the pundits and analysts are already falling into a trap of their own making—the narrative already is that metropolitan media elites ignored the pain and rage of the mostly white voters in America’s heartland.
There already two widely circulated articles by Americans from small towns.
One is by Sarah Smarsh from Kansas in The Guardian: Dangerous idiots: How the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans
In many ways I agree with the media ignoring smaller towns (one unspoken reason is that that these days small town markets are considered too minor by the bean counters to even bother about.)
This is what I said when I posted a link to Smarsh’s article on Facebook:
This article about the failings of the American media also applies to Canada, with a media elite ignoring the realities of the lives of people living outside of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. On the issues in northwest British Columbia (and I suspect elsewhere) I have to say that since I retired from CBC News in 2010 and came back here to Kitimat, BC my respect for the Ottawa press gallery has gone down by 95%. By that I mean mostly the commentators and columnists?—?for the CBC, Globe, and definitely the National Post who have become experts on the issue of northwest BC, the coast, First Nations and pipelines, who sit in their cubicles and pontificate expertly about things they actually know almost nothing about. Even when reporters came into town and I acted as an unpaid fixer, they stayed for two days, three at most, talked to the usual suspects and then flew out.
Another small town example is Joshua Benton from Louisiana on NiemanLab with The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse.
Jeff Jarvis, metropolitan elite at the City University of New York puts it this way in A Postmortem for Journalism also writes:
Journalism has failed to listen to, understand, empathize with, and serve many communities—it sees only the mass. I include in that indictment its failure to reflect, respect, and then inform the worldview of the angry, white men—and women—who became the breeding ground for Trumpism.
There’s a lot of truth to that, and to the role of click bait, the painful transition to the digital world and the economic collapse of journalism.
But it’s just one narrative.
That’s because every media post-mortem I’ve seen so far show’s YOU’RE STILL NOT LISTENING.
What was the main thing that Trump supporters said? What was the number one thing that wasn’t racism, misogyny, and rage at the collapse of local economies, Islamophobia or parochial America firstism?
The number one thing was “authenticity.”
More specifically the Trump supporters say “He tells it like it is,” (even if he was actually lying).
I heard Trump supporters say that again and again and again throughout the campaign, “He tells it like it is.”
The Trump supporters hate spin.
Everyone, except corporate executives and political operatives hate spin. But spin today is part of the information ecosystem. There’s corporate spin, government spin, political spin. We’re all sick of the spin.
It was Donald Trump, an ultimate spin master who recognized he could spin himself to the presidency by hating spin.
As journalists we too often have to go along with it because we have no other choice.
So let’s put a lot of the blame on what happened squarely where it belongs?—?the message track public relations industry which now employs more people worldwide than journalism does.
Spin. Spin. Spin and more spin. As journalists you’re so used to the immediate enemy that you no longer recognize that how dangerous that enemy is.
So let’s ask a question. The term “implicit bias” is used a lot today in race relations. What if there’s an implicit bias in journalism actually in favour of spin because we’ve become so used it that it’s become second nature?
False balance didn’t start with the Trump advocates on cable news. False balance started when journalists accepted (or had to accept because they were overworked) the phony statements that come out every day from the media relations of whatever company or department or politician you’re dealing with today. False balance began when news shows felt they had to book smooth talking phony spokespeople (some of them former journalists) to get that side of the story. False balance began when you didn’t have the airtime or space to challenge an outrageous statement.
False balance began when you shoot a 30 second clip with a young woman (yes 95% of the time it’s a young woman who looks good on camera) who says nothing really about the story you’re trying to do but you have include the clip anyway.
It gets worse when message track media relations simply issues an e-mail statement that means nothing that you have to include in your story. You know it’s crap, but you use it anyway. The media relations department congratulates themselves on putting out another fire.
The audience at home, whether a well paid elite in a big city or a plant worker in a small town both say the same thing. “That’s crap!”
It begins to add up.
In working in a region where there are multiple environmental problems and multiple proposed energy projects the words you hear again and again are “cumulative effect,” the cumulative effect of too many environmental stresses or too many industrial projects in one small area.
Just like cutting down one tree doesn’t affect the forest, the first example of modern message track spin didn’t have any affect. Cut down ten trees and you begin to see gaps. Cut down a thousand trees and the ecosystem is under stress. Clear cut an entire forest and there is nothing left of the ecosystem. A hundred thousand spins, a million spins undermine the system, destroy trust and in the end are a threat to democracy.
We all know it but it’s time that it was said. The public relations industry has responsibility not only for the election of Donald Trump but also for Brexit. (Remember how Tony Blair “sexed up” the reasons for the Iraq war?)
It wasn’t always that way. Yes there has been PR at least for a century.
When I started out as a journalist 40 years ago, there were PR people but they had a different job. They knew (at least in the days of large news staffs) that the reporters would find out the story anyway. Their job was to put the facts, yes facts, in a corporate context.
If you were dealing with the police or the military, it was often the same. They would go so far, up to a boundary you knew and they knew they couldn’t cross. So you sometimes found your way around that boundary. Today most journalists don’t have the contacts or the time to recognize there is a boundary.
An example, on my first job on The Sudbury Star, back in 1975, if there was an accident, with a fatality or serious injury at one of the mines or smelters, I would quickly get a call from the PR department giving me the details. In those days they were smart enough to know that everyone in town would know within a couple of hours anyway.
These days in industrial towns the PR people (when they talk at all which is seldom) give a carefully crafted message track email that says little or nothing. Everyone in town knows something happened, but with the facts withheld, the rumours (often wild rumours) accelerate on Facebook. In some places the local PR people don’t even have the authorization to issue releases on their own initiative, everything has to be approved by suits in head offices tens of thousands kilometers away.
That’s not very smart. But that’s the way it is these days.
Then’s there the case of no balance, when a company decides not to issue a statement and hope the story might go away.
The story might go away but the public idea that it is all corporate crap doesn’t go away. Cumulative effect. Cumulative effect of media relations spin creates a demand for “authenticity” even if it is the phony authenticity of a Donald Trump.
We have to ask how much has journalism’s regurgitating of corporate and government spin contributed to the loss of our credibility?
It’s likely that more people began to believe fake news, not just because their social media feed is a conformation bias silo but because they’ve been fed faked up news for years by media relations and carefully crafted message tracks.
If responsible journalists, once they get over the mea culpa of today begin to sit down and really reconsider their role and what can be done under today’s economically precarious conditions, getting back to really challenging the message track agenda has to be high on the agenda, no matter how difficult it is or how little money your organization has or how little time they give you.
Giving up false balance spin has to be a priority not just for the off the wall fringes but for every bit of corporate nonsense.
For media relations, especially those former journalists in the spin rooms, it is time that you look in the mirror and realize that you, the public relations people, have become among the greatest threats to democracy and freedom we are facing today.