As the liberal media embraces an anti-populist business model, the left must continue to forge an independent opposition, argues Des Freedman
The success of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote shocked a lot of people – not least journalists from much of the elite media which had dismissed the possibility of these events ever taking place. Trump’s victory, according to Liz Spayd, then the public editor of the New York Times was:
The night that wasn’t supposed to happen, that had almost no chance of happening.
For the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson, Brexit was “uncharted territory” and “most people, including me, didn’t see the results coming”.
Immediately following what were seen as traumatic and exceptional events, mea culpas were offered and promises made to reconnect with the voters that journalists had apparently neglected. As Spayd put it, we need to “think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers”, while Robinson concluded that:
Boy, do we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves tough questions about whether we’re interviewing the right people, asking the right questions.
So what has happened in the past 18 months and how have liberal journalists changed their behaviour in response to a new balance of forces marked by the rise of nativism and nationalism on the one hand – and the popularity of left movements inspired by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders on the other?
Bad politics, good for business
The answer is: apparently not a lot. Mastheads have been modified – for example, the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan – and mission statements revised, such as Guardian editor Katharine Viner’s lengthy manifesto in which she promises relentlessly to “challenge the economic assumptions of the last three decades”.
“Robust” editorial stances have been widely adopted in order to challenge authoritarian populists, epitomised by the New York Times’s decision publicly to denounce Trump as a “liar” and wall-to-wall anti-Trump coverage across liberal US cable news.
True, there have been a few more left-wing voices in British broadcasting but they’re usually treated more as curiosities and outliers than as representatives of movements that ought to be taken seriously. And woe betide those leftists who dare to critique the “mainstream media” – they’re likely to be dismissed either as “conspiracy-minded” or accused, as Susan Sarandon was when talking about the failures of elite journalism in an interview in The Guardian, as “inching towards the space where the extreme right meets the left”.
While this anti-populist strategy has generally been good for business – there has been a spike in subscriptions to, and audiences for, liberal media outlets in the past year – it is much less clear how effective this will be in challenging the racism and xenophobia the liberal media profess to despise. Indeed, parts of the strategy seem simply to be replicating some of their earlier errors that prompted US networks to give unprecedented coverage to Trump during his election campaign – just as the BBC saw fit to feature Nigel Farage and UKIP in 25% of all Question Time programmes since 2010.
‘Nazi next door’
For example, the New York Times’s commitment to cover the parts of the US population it had previously ignored seems, in reality, to be geared towards a determination to focus on neo-Nazis and high-profile Trump supporters rather than on exploring the rather more complex issues that might have led to support for Trump. Within the space of three days in November, the paper managed to publish a hugely controversial “lifestyle” feature on “the Nazi next door” followed by a lengthy magazine cover story on one of Trump’s closest allies, Fox news presenter Sean Hannity.
In the UK, several of our most popular news programmes gave uninterrupted airtime to the right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, one of the few people who Donald Trump follows on Twitter, to explain why she thought that it was “irrelevant” whether the Islamophobic videos retweeted by Donald Trump were misleading or not.
“It’s a difference without a distinction,” she said. Tell that to the victims of the violence of Britain First.
How will this kind of controversy-seeking coverage either shed light on the conditions in which populism is finding a voice or heal the wounds of a “divided nation” which liberal journalism claims to do? If the BBC really wanted to confront the source of anger and disaffection in the UK, it would have covered the evidence, published in the British Medical Journal, of 120,000 deaths since 2010 that have been associated with austerity. Instead, it refused to cover a story that it claimed was merely “speculative” – as if the BBC’s newsroom has never speculated, for example, on Jeremy Corbyn’s political future or about the identity of Prince Harry’s future wife.
If the Guardian wants genuinely to confront the neoliberalism that has, in Katharine Viner’s own words, “seized the public realm” (presumably achieved with the help of some of her own commentators), it will have to do more than send John Harris on the road every now and again and instead commit resources to reporting systematically the inequality and rage that lie well beyond the Westminster consensus.
Perhaps the Guardian has gone on a recruitment spree to provide more journalists to fulfil Viner’s mission – but all I’ve seen is its decision to launch a £42m venture capital fund to secure long-term investments in artificial intelligence and payment technology.
In the US, the Washington Post (owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos) has hired dozens of new journalists – but these are mostly for its video teams and a new “rapid response” investigative unit. The booming (not failing) New York Times is adding a new kids’ section and developing its visual storytelling skills but, in neither case, is there evidence that its promise to get to grips with a changing political geography will be matched by boots on the ground where they’re required.
Given the collapse in local journalism and the growth in “news deserts” in both the US and the UK, we desperately need more reporters rooted in local communities and a determination to reveal complex tales of alienation, frustration and resistance. Yet the resources to make this happen are largely provided by philanthropists and start-ups, rather than the more familiar voices of professional journalism.
Liberal journalism is profiting from Trump and Brexit – but it’s not at all clear how well audiences are being served. Not for the first time, the most effective opposition to the pernicious politics of the right isn’t going to come from the liberal establishment but from the blogs and campaigns of a committed left.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), chair of the Media Reform Coalition and secretary of Goldsmiths UCU.