The Impolite Free Press in the Age of Trump | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Impolite Free Press in the Age of Trump

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Donna Ladd

Let's get this straight off the bat: There is no one reason that Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won enough electoral votes last week to become president. Coming off the election, many people are looking for one easy scapegoat—her email, Comey, jobs in the Rust Belt, white anxiety, racism, too little/much turnout of various groups, Facebook, poor media coverage, a divided nation, whatever.

It is a combination of factors that brought Trump to power, and trying to place easy blame is a waste of time when he is still making disturbing promises (while rescinding others) and appointing men like Steve Bannon to high posts in the White House. Instead, we must seek solutions to factors that are dividing America, and moving us closer to becoming a dangerous nation, and get to work on what each of us can fix.

I work in media, so that is where my focus lies. And, boy, is the press under fire. On the one hand, Trump is fixated on media that have dared question him, even tweeting about them after the election. As a new head of state, his obsession poses serious risks for a free press, which is key to actually keeping the U.S. a free nation and a check on leaders. This alone is disturbing, especially as the hate crowd jumps on Trump's anti-media wagon. Even FOX, and certainly Megyn Kelly, shows up on Trump's enemies list.

Then there is the smarter criticism of the media, especially national mainstream outlets that many of us believe helped normalize a dangerous man like Trump. CNN draws much ire, especially due to its employ of the controversial Corey Lewandowski of Trump's campaign, who then left and went back to Trump after last week's election.

NBC has taken heat for months, especially for news division head Andy Lack, who made it clear early on that the network was giving Trump a lot of airtime due to his popularity (as in, ratings). Lack got flack after working with Matt Lauer on twin interviews with Clinton and Trump that many believed were tilted toward Trump. Lauer certainly interrupted the woman candidate a whole lot more than the man. Trump even hosted Saturday Night Live on NBC.

The soft treatment of Trump—who had pushed the racist "birther" lie about Obama for years, and called Mexicans rapists and murderers and many other unacceptable characterizations—raised the question of "false equivalency." Were prominent media outlets equalizing the candidates in a dangerous way, making him more palatable and bringing the stateswoman down to his level to get ratings and to pretend to be "objective"?

Well, sure they were, or at least many of them, and especially cable news. Even though most smart journalists and media academics now fully comprehend the danger of trying to split every story equally down the middle, many of them still believe in the antiquated practice. It's how you get stories about legislation that only quote the officials on each "side," and never talk about people affected. It's how you get insipid pieces about our governor winning an education award that never explain the anti-public-school bent of those giving it. And it's how many came to believe Trump was a viable option for president.

But it didn't start with this election, and neither did the forces that helped him win. And pandering to racists and dangerous types didn't start with Steve Bannon, although he makes an art and a science of it. This Republican strategy started back in the Nixon era after national Democrats passed federal civil-rights legislation to end Jim Crow in the South, and lonely Dixiecrats suddenly needed somebody new to love them.

Sadly, this southern strategy hides in the reporting gap left by so-called "neutral," "objective" and "non-partisan" journalism—labels that always make me wonder what's really up. USA Today-style journalism of 30 years ago—back when parent company Gannett was buying up local dailies and shuttering or ruining them—provides the perfect cover for a political strategy to play to racists on TV. Just do it with false crime rhetoric or make it sound like the main people who need public assistance (or "entitlements") are people of color, ignoring all the elderly white women getting it, too.

A he-said-she-said outlet then quotes one official side and then the other with little in between, or little confirmation of either position or factchecking, which remarkably many newspapers and news websites don't bother to do. They give you few stories, marginal context (certainly about untended structural causes of crime and poverty) and, by splitting the baby in two, they make the two sides look equal even when they're not. Some even tell their reporters to count how many Democrats and Republicans are in each story, which results in the most partisan reporting you can find: all about political squabbling but little else. The people, thus, are nowhere to be found.

For years, the American public heard little about the southern strategy, and the political-party switch that made it possible. It's so bad that, today, many racism apologists will tell you that the Democrats started slavery, the Klan, etc., and deny the historic facts of the party switch. The media have taught those people no history.

And the so-called "alt-right"? We've reported for years on hate groups functioning just out of view, gathering thread, waiting for their turn to take back the nation. (See jfp.ms/confeds.) But they, too, are neutraled out of sight by so much of the media.

Trump didn't start this wave. All those years of racial strategizing in plain view, egging many white people to distrust just about everybody who is not them, got us to this moment. And, yes, corporate media clinging to fake equivalency and ignoring what they thought would go away helped paved the way.

All the while, real stories about people and what they face, feel and experience get lost, or now is hidden behind pay walls. Americans need to get to know each other, and it's not through a fake two-sided politeness that wants to divide us all into two neat piles represented by Democrats and Republicans.

Most of us don't fit there, and it's time media start to reflect what America really looks like, at our best and our worst and everything in between.

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