A recent Rolling Stones article, “Stop Whining About ‘False Balance’,” argued that media consumers, not the media, are more to blame for the ascendancy of Trump. Therefore, media should just “shut up.” But that is what the Trump campaign wants everyone to do.
So, let’s continue whining about false balance, and maybe we can find a way together to get Trump to shut up.
It’s clear that Trump has gotten where he is today not only because of his support in the GOP base, but also because of the way in which a majority of Americans consume their media—or more to the point—how they consume their “news entertainment.” But Trump is a media master of deceit, and he has surrounded himself with the best of breed—Roger Ailes and Stephen Bannon—to accomplish the task at hand.
This nefarious media trinity has set out to displace the intellectual virtue that has traditionally grounded the institution of the American free press, and replace it with their morally bankrupt and anti-democratic vision of what gets reported, how it gets reported, when, and to whom.
It is critically important that we continue to call out Trump’s campaign goal for what it is—to dismantle the bedrock of journalistic ethics in order to use media for no other purpose than as an opportunistic instrument to promote himself.
In the process of us discussing the particular problem of covering Trump and Clinton—the problem of false equivalency, contextualization, and blacklists—we have unearthed the central issue that we all face this presidential election season. That is, the social challenge of discerning (1) spectacle, (2) simulacrum, and (3) public policy.
There are three forms of news media: matters of domestic and foreign policy, spectacle, and spectacle to heighten collective enjoyment of consuming matters of domestic and foreign policy.
Today, media consumers like to be entertained. We like a public show—at least in our everyday lives, and especially when nothing is really, truly on the line for us personally or on the line for society as a whole. (There is an argument to say this is never the case, but let’s be honest, not every American is a social justice advocate.) Media outlets use news entertainment as a source of revenue that helps to preserve the greater good of the institution of the free press, and in light of the 21st century decline in print consumption. And so a win-win situation has developed between consumers of media and creators and reporters of it, in that the media creates and we consume “clickbait stupidity” when we want comic relief from moral discernment on policy issues.
The challenge arises, however, when spectacle to heighten collective enjoyment of consuming matters of domestic and foreign policy, particularly in this presidential election season, overwhelms society’s ability to debate public policy issues in the public square.
Trump, et al., has used the pure form of spectacle to overwhelm the press in order that internal institutional chaos, rather than collective moral discernment, be placed at the center of our public policy debate. But he has also used the mixed form of spectacle and consuming matters of policy. He has done so by turning our personal weakness for comic relief from the throbbing reality of the real world, and the media’s weakness for institutional self-preservation, into his tool for keeping us arguing amongst ourselves.
Trump and his media masters of deceit have created a new form of news media: democratic nihilism.
Democratic nihilism uses spectacle to heighten pre-existing racial, economic, and institutional tensions that create political chaos, breaking down communication on public policy issues in good faith. It places the spectacle of the media master of deceit at the center of our public policy debate instead—in the event we may see him as “the cure-all” to said chaos—and while we play the blame game trying to get off of the media hamster wheel Trump placed us on, he and his cohort ends up winning.
Democratic nihilism also entails replacing both politicians in good faith, and the moral discernment of public policy issues in the public square with false prophets.
Trump isn’t a democratic politician in good faith, he is an icon of the Vulgar “I,” and he has purposely sought to create an increasingly difficult political environment for moral discernment amongst us. He is intent on achieving the pinnacle of American power, and will do so by any means necessary, including the degradation of the free press, the breakdown of communication between the free press and society as a whole, and the collapse of moral discernment in the public square.
In this way, President Trump will be nothing more than an imitation of the iconic image of the American president, and his administration, nothing more than a substitute for what makes American democracy worthy of that name.
Next, public policy.
There are other forms of democratic nihilism, however. One of which is the media suggesting that their “higher responsibility to properly inform the public” is a ship long sailed.
The “higher responsibility” of the American media is a shared responsibility with their readers, obviously. But to shrink from that great, traditional investigative task, one that continues to make American democracy democratic, is a failure of journalistic courage.
What is needed in any presidential season, and particularly in this one, is the investigative courage to objectively outline the details of the candidates’ public policy agendas, lead the collective moral discernment process in the public square—not in a “zeal to be fair” to the media masters of deceit—but in a zeal to preserve the integrity and openness of the public policy debate and the democratic process itself.
Journalistic courage is found in that unity of purpose and in the responsibility we all share for the common good of American society as a whole.
There is an absolute (“snobbish,” if you will) truth in journalistic ethics and it drives the structural integrity of the institution itself and its relationship to the citizens it is accountable to. And that is, at the very least, it must fight, with everything its got, to open up and keep open an authentic public policy debate in order that there be critical thinking, targeted discussion, and fundamental discernment surrounding the competing visions of human dignity, freedom, and equality that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are presenting the American people with today.
Yes, we need to keep on whining about “false balance” because the problem we are experiencing—the inability to publicly discern between a Donald Trump presidency and a Hillary Clinton one—gets at the deeper challenges we face as a nation today.
Yes, we need to keep whining because it gets us talking about what the media and media consumers can and must do in the face of the spectacle of Trump. It gets at what the media and media consumers can and must do in the face of an identifiable simulacrum of “what makes America great.” And it gets at what the media and media consumers can and must do in the face of a trinitarian media master of deceit—Trump, Ailes, and Bannon—and their anti-democratic attempt to set a public policy agenda for our society in bad faith.
Yes, we need to keep whining because that puts us on an investigative road to uncovering the end of all stories—i.e. that Trump and his media cohort, in their thirst for ever more privilege and ever more power, are attempting to destroy precisely that democratic institution which is not only responsible to, but also responsible for, creating the freest society in the history of the world.