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Media in the time of Trump(Hindu.)

There’s already a whiff of Russia’s hand in the U.S. President’s win, and the crisis in the American media is playing out as a Cold War plot.

Behind the black-and-white contrast of the Cold War conflict, we always knew there was a cloak-and-dagger world that only had shades of grey. Assassinations, betrayals, coups d’état, espionage and proxy wars went on, so that our brightly-lit world of freedom and democracy could thrive.

The news media provided us with sober reports of political leaders doing their public duty. In our spare time we indulged ourselves with spy thrillers about heroes undertaking wet jobs on Manchurian candidates and other wrong-doers. The media industry helped keep these worlds apart, treating the one as news and the other as entertainment. We knew that wasn’t quite so, but we all behaved as if it was.

Russia hand in the U.S. poll

That compact has been blown apart amid recent accusations against Russia around U.S. President Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Allegations that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, helped Mr. Trump win, together with the latter’s “So what?” response, perfectly symbolise the rupture of the earlier agreement. The widespread alarm at Mr. Trump’s reaction indicates not only that we may not agree about what the Cold War was or why a crisis of the media emerges as a return of Cold War fears. The media industry itself joined the worlds it used to keep apart, in helping to elect a showbiz figure as president. Mr. Trump’s victory occurred in a blaze of free publicity, entertaining audiences while attacking the credibility of national news.

In a country whose political system the new president declares is a swamp to be drained, the media have somehow eluded serious scrutiny. At least we elect politicians. In contrast, the media themselves get to define what is meant by public interest, and even to judge the effects of their work. They regulate themselves and are largely exempt from state intervention. They usually congratulate themselves on the results; self-criticism is rare. Until now, this was the American model of a well-functioning democracy.

Now we have a president who directly addresses millions of his followers and bypasses traditional gatekeepers, while denouncing unfavourable news as “fake” or “sick”. The media industry may have helped Mr. Trump win, but they are iced out of power. Their recommendations may count for little, and certainly they have nothing like the clout they are used to wielding. The emergence of social media in shaping a series of parallel and warring publics obliges us to get beyond complaining, and try to figure out how we got here. If the crisis of the media plays out as a Cold War plot, maybe going back to the Cold War will offer some ideas to resolve it.

Truth versus propaganda

When seen through a Cold War lens, America was safeguarding the world’s democracies. The process of transforming an isolationist nation into a superpower was not just about foreign policy. Mass society as we know it took shape at the same time. The infrastructure for achieving consensus on a range of policy matters was established through the expansion of communication technologies that could be treated as transparent and trustworthy. True, schoolchildren are no longer taught to “duck and cover”, and no one now asks if there are Reds under Hollywood’s beds. But those early events of the Cold War comprised the shock treatment preceding a long period normalising the equation between media and society.

A media industry dominated by a few corporations agreed on what was truth and what was propaganda, and on what could be public and what could remain secret. Walter Cronkite, who opinion polls in the ’60s and ’70s found was “the most trusted man in America”, had a daily sign-off on the CBS Evening News, that expressed this view as a statement of fact: “And that’s the way it is.” Television showed the world as it really was, or so many people believed; if it was not on TV, it could not be that important.

During the Cold War, the media embedded technologies of mobilisation within society that could be switched on and ramped up if required. In doing so, it blurred the distinction between civil and military domains, between the free give-and-take of ordinary life and the command-and-control systems of wartime. But although the media belonged to the Cold War military-industrial complex, they were celebrated as a symbol and guarantor of modernisation. They were part of the U.S.’ auto-immune defense system, distinguishing its friends from its enemies, helping to protect American interests and filtering out inconvenient truths.

Political debates on technological control did arise, but unfortunately, were relegated to conspiracy theories — and to Hollywood. Any serious policy would have meant state intervention, and smacked of Communism. It is interesting, however, that corporations like Facebook and Twitter call themselves technology companies, and resist identifying themselves as “media”, implying that the very name would impose certain behavioural norms on them. A media policy should have traction today.

We already have rules regarding surveillance, privacy and data storage, not as a result of top-down leadership, it has to be pointed out, but due to scandals in the wake of WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Mr. Trump’s victory itself has the whiff of scandal, a popular insurgency favouring a rogue capitalist, foreseen neither by the polls nor the pundits. The news of Russian hackers compounds the scandal. How we respond depends on which war we think we are fighting.


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