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The trumping of neutrality: Trump’s belief that the media has ganged up on him isn’t entirely misplaced

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Times of India
Date: February 21, 2017
URL:   http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/right-and-wrong/the-trumping-of-neutrality-trumps-belief-that-the-media-has-ganged-up-on-him-isnt-entirely-misplaced/

Those who read accounts of President Donald Trump’s 75-minute press conference on February 16 may well have concluded that it was “surreal” (a headline description in a New Yorker column) and characteristic of the dysfunctional administration that now governs the United States. Some pundits even went so far as to call the exercise “insane”.

However, those who watched a live or recorded version of the event may have come away with an alternative impression. Trump is by no means a riveting speaker, but he is an effective communicator who uses conversational language to drive home a point. He used these skills to stress that his first four weeks in office have been frenetically purposeful, that he has his eye firmly set on his campaign promises and that his commitment to drain the Washington DC “swamp” hasn’t waned.

In operational terms, he made it quite clear that he would come down heavily on “insider” leaks that make governance and the conduct of foreign policy impossible, announced a five-year ban on lobbying of White House staff and boasted that his administration was a “fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that i can’t get my Cabinet approved”.

Interestingly, few of these points – apart from his steadfast denial of any Moscow links and his explanation of why his erstwhile national security adviser had to go – made it to the big headlines. What dominated the media discourse and, presumably, the Beltway conversation was his unending jibes at media organisations, including a rant against CNN’s partisanship. His assertion that “the public doesn’t believe you any more” and that the media’s “level of dishonesty is out of control” was calculated to ruffle media feathers. It worked, even as supporters cheered his plain speaking.

During his spirited banter, Trump made a curious observation. “Real” news, he argued in the context of his former NSA’s controversial conversation with the Russian ambassador, could also be “fake” news. To him what mattered was not merely the bare bones content but the presentation: “I just see many, many untruthful things. I see the tone. The tone is such hatred.”

Trump’s interpretation of “fake” news may not be universally shared but his belief that the media has ganged up to paint him as a monster isn’t entirely misplaced. The media may claim to be dispassionately professional – as many of the foot soldiers undoubtedly are – but when it comes to Trump, detachment has been thrown overboard. From plain mockery – something that President Ronald Reagan endured uncomplainingly – to outright visceral hate, neutrality is not a term the media can seriously claim in its portrayal of Trump.

This fierce partisanship is also not confined to the US media that was united in its disavowal of Trump ever since he started winning primaries. When the BBC reporter asked a question, Trump couldn’t resist a snide aside – “There’s another beauty … Just like CNN” – perhaps alluding to Conservative charges of the publicly-funded corporation’s apparent anti-Brexit bias during last year’s referendum.

But he could just as well have directed his sarcasm at that section of the global English language media that takes its cue from the New York Times (whose loathing of India’s prime minister couldn’t be more transparent) and Guardian. Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s sage advice to analyse Trump rather than demonise him, is unlikely to be appreciated by desi editors who inexplicably feel that the Not-my-President crusade of American coastal elites is also their battle.

Part of the distortion stems from the liberal and cosmopolitan group-think that defines English-language newsrooms, added to which is the trade union mentality that prompts any attack on media integrity to be interpreted as an assault on free speech and democracy. The free media is accustomed to being spoilt and prickly.

Yet, regardless of whether the media is yet to get over its shock at having backed the losing side, Trump’s charge of media “hatred” of him is spot on. The outrage over immigration controls proposed by the new administration, for example, doesn’t take into account that this is also the trend all over Europe, not to mention India’s concern over illegal migration and demographic changes.

Then there is selective indignation. The mindless rioting in parts of Washington DC was wilfully glossed over in the euphoria over the Women’s March. Further, as Trump pointed out, there was media silence over the shocking Wikileaks disclosure that Hillary Clinton was leaked the questions to be asked at her debate with Trump in advance – an act of cheating that should offend all notions of fair play. Trump was also not kidding in saying he would have been roasted alive had he been guilty of the same offence. And there was little media tut-tutting when Ivanka Trump’s designer label was withdrawn from a major department store simply because she was her father’s daughter.

Trump is a unique US president who is seeking to jolt his country out of a stagnant consensus culture. He has become an allergy to Western intellectual elites accustomed to certifying right and wrong. The media should certainly reflect the turbulence over the changes, but it must not become a player in the game. The return of detachment and neutrality is overdue.
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