Donald Trump and the Decline of the Fourth Estate

Donald Trump and the media just cannot get along. One day, he pretends the press does not exist and addresses Americans directly through Twitter. The next day, he gives a journalist the cold shoulder for a question or comment that he does not like.

This show of force between the press and the leader of the most powerful country on Earth is not something to brush off. It is a tangible sign of the decline of what is often called the fourth estate.

The mass media, which we once believed could make or break a government, failed to influence enough voters to stop Donald Trump from entering the White House. Why did their arguments fall on deaf ears?

Information Cascade

For those in the public choice school, voters are rationally ignorant. Since individual votes have practically no influence on electoral results, voters tend to be rationally apathetic. They pay little attention to electoral campaigns and do not inform themselves about political issues.

This flaw in our democratic system has long allowed the mass media to influence election results. How? By launching information cascades.

It is simple. Because it is expensive to do your own research, citizens rely on the media most of the time. Information that appears on TV or in newspapers is considered true. Contradicting or arguing against that information is risky. Additionally, rather than put their credibility on the line, voters would rather go with the flow and do as others do. They follow the flock.

Let us imagine an American voter who must choose a presidential candidate. Suppose that, at first, this voter slightly prefers Trump because the candidate’s policies better connect with him than Clinton’s. Since there is hardly any time to analyze each of the candidates’ policies, the voter is not certain about this choice.

The media focuses on this voter: the rationally ignorant person who is likely to flip and vote the way the fourth estate prefers. People thought it would be enough to expose voters to months of commentary from analysts and specialists, apparently more informed and shrewd than electors, who near unanimously favored Hillary Clinton.

The Media Is Losing Influence

Why did voters not succumb to the anti-Trump offensive led by major U.S. media outlets? The increase in social media sources may have offered voters a low-cost way to find information that reinforced their own preferences.

Voters may have felt deceived in the past and are now doubting the quality of information they receive from the mainstream media.

No matter which of these hypotheses is right, they both lead to the same conclusion: Information cascades are less efficient and, consequently, the fourth estate is in decline.

This is good news for those who believe the media should not be able to influence electoral results. However, it is bad news for those who see the media as an essential counterweight to state power.

As for the media elite, it is a lesson in humility that’s even harder to accept, considering that it is coming from Donald Trump, whose attitude and behavior are to say the least… debatable.

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