Media in Trump Times: Reporting and Attitude Cannot Be Separated

Donald Trump’s acting is absurd theater. Yet the media often report as if this behavior should be taken seriously. Yet some things cannot be discussed neutrally and objectively.  

Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki was once more phantasmagoric; I can hardly think of the right terms to describe it. Neither can most reporters, unfortunately—perhaps that’s the crux of the issue: with the instruments of political normality, journalism tries to process the absurd.

My perception is: Trump vomits and the majority of the media acts as if one could discuss the results in the form of a restaurant review. It is not as if I know a simple solution; it is, in fact, still difficult for me to clearly articulate the problem. But something is going very wrong with the German coverage of Trump, and I fear that it is symptomatic of the helplessness of classic media in this worldwide authoritarian backlash.

Three recent headlines in German media:

“Trump must smooth waves in the US after Helsinki summit”

“After meeting with Putin – pressure on Trump is growing”

“Trump explains and corrects himself”

This call-out is not accusatory; it concerns examples, which could appear in any serious German media (including Spiegel Online). That is precisely why it points to a systematic problem.

An Unintentional Journalistic Gift

The headline “Trump explains and corrects himself” is an unintentional journalistic gift to Trump, born of the desire to respect the usual editorial rules. His “corrective” claim, after 24 hours, that he had accidentally said “would” instead of “would not” is not even a bad lie and certainly no explanation or correction. It’s sheer bullshit.

But each of these headlines normalizes Trump’s worldwide farce as somehow acceptable political behavior, largely independent from textbook rules. These headlines delude us into thinking that politics are occurring within the normal democratic framework. In fact, we are watching absurd theater.

Each of these headlines could be exchanged for any article about, for example, collective bargaining, where an employer puts forward a bit too cocky of a suggestion for a net increase of only 4 percent in the Southwest fare zone, and is therefore under a bit of pressure from bad press.

Of course there is also – fortunately – additional commentary in most media, but that is not characteristic coverage. As mentioned above, one cannot report on vomit as a failed meal. You have to say that it’s vomit. Even beyond columns and commentary.

Trump hacks the news, and the news lets itself be hacked. Still. From the moderate language of the bourgeois media to the hyper-ritualized form of opinion columnists and broadcasters – everything is classic news, especially on visually striking television, where it screams: “What follows are legitimately normal political statements.” Even if that is precisely not the case.

One does not find a similar effect when the written media quotes appropriately sourced remarks. The Trump message is always co-presented, and develops its effect independent of the classic editorial gymnastics around it—even more so for those who are already skeptical of the media.

Censorship, Stalin, Cheese Murder

If Trump says tomorrow that the moon is made of cheese, then the headlines will read:

Trump: Moon of Cheese

Trump’s Moon Statement Rejected by NASA

Discussion of Trump’s Controversial Moon Opinion

Three days later we will see the effect on Facebook, in a variety of articles like: “NASA admits Neil Armstrong’s cousin was involved in a cheese factory at the time of the ‘moon landing.’” Or “Cheese Moon: What are they hiding from us?” There will be 200,000 likes. Then sympathetic debates will appear calling for the fears and concerns of bourgeois cheese citizens to be taken seriously.

The first questions in classical media then emerge as to whether just a little piece of the moon could at least theoretically be cheese – because of an error by Angela Merkel when amending EU cheese regulation No. 608/2004 L 50 in the year 2015. Whether or not that should be allegorically understood is unclear; therefore, it is almost certainly worth considering. Ultimately, the poor cheese moon citizens are forced into a worldview by the constant insistence of scientists that the moon is made of stone. You can’t even mention the cheese moon without raising a harsh objection: political correctness in the worst form—censorship, Stalin, and cheese murder.

To Call Lies ‘Lies’ Would Be a Good Start

As stated, I see no simple solution to this problem yet. Constantly sounding hysterical alarms is also nonsense, of course, but calling a lie a lie would be a good start, even if many journalists seem opposed to incorporating value judgments into their seemingly objective reporting.

But the necessity to do so can be observed in the news. During the widest broadcasting time between two World Cup Halves, statements by Alternative for Germany leader Alexander Gauland aired without any sorting. As if the AfD were a normal party, which of course it is not. To use the words of conservative Member of Parliament Johannes Kahrs: “The AfD is a radical far-right party!” Or, to use the words of left-wing intrigues at the incredibly surprising Christian Socialist Union: “brown-shirt filth.”

To consider the chairman of a “brown-shirt filth[y]” or a “radical far-right party” to be the owner of a common, acceptable and democratic opinion, I consider careless and dangerous. It matches the helpless normalization that we see in the headlines about Trump.

Don’t Let Trump Be Trump

It seems to me that journalists’ classic separation of reporting and opinion no longer works in times of authoritarian backlash. It is misused. I believe that journalists today, by virtue of their occupation, are champions of a liberal democracy, and that this fact should be more clearly represented in the news. One can and should separate reporting from opinion articles, but one cannot and should not separate reporting and attitude during these times.

This is directly related to journalism’s policy control function. This task can only be performed by media in a liberal democracy where pluralism is a value in itself. There is a well-known quote by the philosopher Karl Popper: “No tolerance for the enemies of tolerance,” and it is reasonably similar to pluralism.

At this point an excerpt from Federal Government Basic Law, Article 18 fits well: “Whoever abuses the freedom of expression … to fight against the liberal democratic constitution, forfeits these fundamental rights.”* What exactly that implies as far as consequences in editorial media, I don’t want to dictate to others; but it must be discussed, even if the discussion gets heated.

Liberal Democracy as a Conspiracy

In an authoritarian backlash, more and more people doubt both the value of liberal democracy as well as pluralism. It is no coincidence that these are the same people who constantly demand that the media should report “neutrally.” They mean to say that dissenting opinions should not take place at all. This is also the essence behind Trump’s call for “fairer reporting,” where he demands unfiltered and obsequious reporting of his lies.

From the point of view of the enemies of liberal democracy, liberal democracy is itself a conspiracy and journalism is a part of it. For that reason, consideration shown for someone posing as a victim of the right to liberal democracy is so catastrophically wrong—right-wing extremists would still feel like victims even if they had just been appointed Grand Emperor, because they declare the sheer existence of difference as a threat, just as Trump – the most powerful man in the world – still plays the role of the victim, which then somehow finds its way into news coverage as serious behavior.

From my point of view, realizing that free journalism is in itself a political position is the most appropriate media tool against the weakness of liberal democracy, because it is only possible in a liberal democracy. Honestly, this also means that we no longer have to pretend that we can report neutrally and objectively about events that cannot be neutrally and objectively reported from the perspective of liberal democracy. Don’t let Trump be Trump.

*Editor’s note: Article 18 provides in part: “Whoever abuses the freedom of expression, in particular the freedom of the press … in order to combat the free democratic basic order shall forfeit these basic rights. This forfeiture and its extent shall be declared by the Federal Constitutional Court.”

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