As the results of the 2016 election came in, the mainstream media in America and around the world demonstrated their inability to cope with the challenge of a president Trump within the conventional paradigms of journalistic objectivity, balance and fairness. Or, rather, to cope without normalising the most conspicuously overt racism, sexism, and proto-fascism ever seen in a serious candidate for president.
As street protests broke out in Portland, Oregon in the days after the election, for example, BBC World noted the police definition of the events as a “riot”, in response to what it coyly described as “some racist remarks” made by Donald Trump during his campaign.
A man whose comments were denounced even by his own party chief Paul Ryan as “textbook racism”, and whose references to “grabbing pussy”, “a nasty woman”, “Miss House Keeping” and other indicators of unabashed misogyny horrified millions in the US across the party spectrum, was now president.
For the BBC, henceforth, criticism of even the most outlandish and offensive remarks – when judged by the standards of recent decades – would be severely muted, if not excluded. Suddenly, rather can call a spade a spade in coverage of Trump’s hate-mongering campaign, his ascendancy to office had legitimised those views, and the process of normalisation had begun.
The mainstream media have largely followed suit in this approach to Trump’s victory, bestowing a new respectability on what before election day had been generally reported as absurdly offensive statements and policies. One can without too much imagination foresee Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke becoming an expert commentator on CNN or MSNBC (or at least on Fox News).
In News Corp outlets all over the world, from Sky News and The Australian here to Fox in the US, commentators and pundits were to the fore in constructing legitimacy around his policies, insofar as anyone really knows what they are.
This descent into normalisation of the hitherto unacceptable, occasioned by Trump’s democratically endowed seizure of political power as of November 8, is very similar to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
Hitler’s ascent, and all that came from it, was a product of free choices made in ballot boxes, and of free media coverage which moved to the extreme right with the ruling party.
Then, as now, a demagogic populist exploited perceptions of victimhood and “anti-elitism”, targeting ethnic and religious minorities as “the enemy”. No-one forced national socialism on the German people, or on their media, nor on the many Western media such as the Daily Mail in England that spoke out in his favour.
Post-November 8, the mainstream media have shown their inability to engage with the enormity of what is happening in Western and global politics within conventional paradigms of objectivity. Left to them, the slide into fascism will simply become another news story, another “he said, she said” performance of balance, legitimised by the fact that this is what democracy has delivered. No matter that in the 1930s the same obeisance led to the Holocaust.
This tendency is not the fault of the mainstream media, nor of their journalists, who are simply applying the professional codes and practices with which they have been raised. But they will need to do better.
For those in the media who wish to stem a slide into democratically legitimised fascism in the next four years – and similar processes are now unfolding in Europe, Australia and elsewhere – it is time to rethink the appropriate response of “objective” journalism to the post-factual politics of extreme subjectivity.
This article appears in US Election Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign: early reflections from leading academics (Lilleker, D., Jackson, D., Thorsen, E., Veneti, A., eds., Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community; Centre for Politics and Media Research, Bournemouth University, 2016.
Authors: Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology