Backstory: Why Did the US Media Miss the Trump-et Call? Question of the Day

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.

US President-elect Donald Trump (L) gives a thumbs up sign as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

US President-elect Donald Trump (L) gives a thumbs up sign as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Many aspects of the Trump and Modi electoral victories lend themselves to comparison but on one aspect there couldn’t have been a sharper divergence. While the Modi triumph after the Indian general election of 2014 was more or less anticipated by both pollsters and analysts alike – almost willed to happen by the Indian media well before the fact – Trump’s emergence as the designated 48th president of the US came as a shocker, as underlined in a timely analysis by The Wire (‘Not One Major Poll or Analyst Predicted Trump Defeating Clinton’, November 9). This failure to suss out the popular support he enjoyed does raise some uncomfortable questions about the nature of the establishment media in the US today and their lack of connect with large sections of the population.

Could it be that they were immune to the anxieties that beset white America, especially white male America, as an analysis carried in The Wire three days after the elections seemed to indicate (‘Trump Campaign Reflects GOP’s Older Politics of White Identity, Class and Gender’, November 11)? Could it even be that their repeated attempts to call out this man for the obnoxious, repulsive boor that his words and stances showed him to be made little difference for many voters, and may in fact have contributed to enhancing his appeal? Could it be that his consistent abuse of the mainstream media, his open jibes at reporters and anchors, his calls to his supporters to throw out mediapersons at his rallies, actually touched a chord with his base? Could it be that the media, by focusing on Trump constantly through their negative stories, contributed towards giving him a larger-than-life persona in public perception, even as it helped shore up the “clickability” of their own content? Could it even be that the mainstream media have been rendered irrelevant in a polarised country, and that their once much theorised agenda-setting role is now largely fictional? Scary questions that have implications for the future of the media as well as for electoral politics – and not just in the US alone.

Trump, apart from having successfully diminished the writ of the once powerful mainstream media, was able to score big in harnessing the power of social – Twitter especially – to get intimate with supporters and to project himself as the natural choice of ordinary people. The story goes – and given its misogyny it is entirely characteristic – that in 2014 long before the presidential race had got off the ground, Trump had tweeted on the appearance of former Hollywood star Kim Novak, who is in her early eighties and was considering making an appearance at the Oscars. The tweet went: “I’m having a real hard time watching. Kim should sue her plastic surgeon”. Rich this, coming as it did from a man with a toupee, but the fracas it caused – Novak herself was publicly distraught – could have been a personal introduction to the power of a missile wrapped in 140 characters.

During the presidential campaign, Trump not only had a team that could recreate his tone and tenor in social media messaging, many clusters of volunteers sprang up online to keep the Trump presidential mission alive by rebutting, trolling, posting, uplinking, retweeting and, of course, purveying information of uncertain provenance – much as was the case during the Modi campaign of 2014. The Wire carried a searing, introspective rant (‘Lies on Facebook Trumped Real Journalism in This Election and the Problem Will Get Worse‘, November 11) that called out Facebook as having become a gigantic respository of falsehoods, with the writer citing posts with headlines like ‘Hillary Clinton Calling for Civil War If Trump Is Elected’ and ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’, which attracted hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. Such deliberately constructed pyramids of misinformation would seem to suggest that facts will not prove an impediment to the newsgathering of the future.

Finally, the question: How much attention should the Indian media, including cyber news sites, be paying to the US presidential elections, given the innumerable issues of great public concern playing out right here in the country’s backyard? The Wire carried several pieces on the US polls, including some offbeat fare like the one titled ‘Why the Women’s National Republican Club is Rooting for a President Trump’ (October 24), which captured the drawing room talk of a very curious species – women for Trump. It would have been easier to answer this question in the age of the Sean MacBride Committee and the arguments that were raised at that point about how the priorities of news reporting were being dictated by the North and what the unbalanced flow of media content meant for the international information order. Fact is that change, when it came, has been very uneven. Today, there’s nothing quite like the cold grip of globalisation at the scruff of the neck to drive home to the world the vast implications of a Trump presidency. For starters, here is a man who wants to ‘make America great again’, by arresting migrants illegally re-entering the US, tightening visa procedures, putting a Cold War-like ideology test to prospective Muslim visitors, and expanding the country’s military investment. There has been some commentary in The Wire on what the Trump presidency would mean for India (‘Apprehensive World Leaders Need Not Worry Yet, the US’s Peculiar Political System Will Keep Trump in Check‘, November 9), but the days ahead would demand a careful, calibrated look at the prospects Trumpism holds for the people of this country.

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On a completely different note, did The Wire really have to carry that tad patronising, tad misinformed, tad opaque piece ‘Women’s Cancers Are Curable for the Rich But Often a Death Sentence for the Poor‘ (November 2)? Don’t get me wrong, there are useful bits of information in the piece. Who can disagree with the argument that there is very little funding for women’s cancer in the developing world, or that “women’s cancers are a major threat to development”? But the panacea being suggested – the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, amplified by a visual and caption that went ‘The Gardasil HPV vaccine: easy to get in Europe, not so easy in Africa” – needed a background check. A health activist responding to the piece put it this way: “The article appears to promote the HPV vaccination along with screening, without recognizing the fact that despite vaccination, screening would still be required, and it does not provide complete safety against HPV leading to cancer. There is also no cost-benefit analysis in bringing in the HPV vaccination to developing countries, given that the rate of cervical cancer has come down drastically just by universal screening, prior to the introduction of the HPV vaccine. In any event, it is not known yet if the HPV vaccine does actually prevent cervical cancer, as the girls who have undergone vaccinations were in their adolescent years and the disease generally surfaces after the age of 40. Finally, although there have been reports that it has helped in reducing genital warts, it is still too early to make a final pronouncement on its efficacy.”

What makes the piece less than transparent is the fact that one of its contributors had been involved in the screening trials in India and elsewhere, as the principal investigator and co-investigator, and this conflict of interest has not been acknowledged in this article. By way of clarification, the piece was not commissioned by The Wire. If it had been, some of this background information would surely have figured in the story. This only means that more editorial discretion is required to be exercised when it comes to carrying material from other platforms, keeping local realities in mind.

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