In one of the world’s most memorable elections, rookie politician Donald Trump defeated the seasoned Hillary Clinton to become the US president. This despite the fact that a majority of the mainstream American media — the enlightened, informed, cool set — hated him and regarded him as the scum of the earth. It tried its best to ensure he didn’t win.
Many reputed publications forgot about balanced journalism for a while. The New York Times splashed daily front-page stories against Trump. Huffington Post ended every article on Trump with this — “Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the US.” (Incidentally, right after Trump’s win, Huffington Post removed this note from all past articles, calling it a ‘clean slate’ exercise for the new president, whatever that means).
And yet, Trump won, fair and square. Opinion polls were proved wrong, and Clinton supporters (most US TV channels) watched in dismay as Trump came and took it all. Some admitted they were wrong. Others remained in denial and said things like “I can’t believe this is happening.” Still others like the New York Times remained condescending, writing statements like “we believed in democratic values, but we were wrong”. Really? Wasn’t this, in fact, democracy at work?
Do note, whether a Trump presidency would be good or not is not the scope of this article. However, it is important for the American, and even the Indian, media to take some learnings from this election — a point I made when Trump got the Republican nomination, despite all so-called pundits dismissing him as a buffoon. One needs to understand why, despite all its intelligence and articulation, the liberal media could neither read the level of support for Trump, nor use its skills to convince American voters not to vote for him.
Here are some lessons for the elitist US (and Indian) media:
- You are not as smart as you think. Yes, you watch the most esoteric documentaries on Netflix and read the most obscure books. However, consuming high culture doesn’t necessarily make you a better observer of society or give you good judgment. It does make you cooler though, and maybe that’s what it really is about for you — to look cool on your Facebook page and in front of your friends.
- People are the key. In certain professions such as politics, entertainment and the media, it is the people — voters, audience or readers — who make you. Calling them dumb, stupid, backward is elitism. The moment you think you and your colleagues are smarter than the public, an elitist alarm button should go off. Find out what people want. Discover the truth. Then articulate. Don’t think you know better and you will “tell” them. Listen to them first. They would have told you about Trump.
3. Unfair criticism always backfires. Trump is no angel. Certain actions of his (including the infamous groping claim) are indefensible. He has made inappropriate statements. Talking about them is fine. However, to label him or paint him as an evil monster only creates more sympathy among his supporters (the same happened with Modi in 2014). If the media were more balanced about Trump, and then brought out his follies, they would have had more impact and credibility. Instead, their hate only created sympathy for Trump.
4. Do not impose your views on others. Some issues are contentious. Religion, feminism, terror from a particular religion, race and illegal immigration are all issues that have several sides. To say only your way is the right, moral and holy way to look at things, and anyone who doesn’t agree is ‘deplorable’ is silly. Discuss and engage. Don’t patronize.
5. Get out of the bubble. If you really want to be an honest observer of society, get out of social media. It’s full of people like you and creates confirmation bias like nothing else. “But everyone hates Trump” — remember people saying this? Guess not everyone did. Only people in your Facebook and friends bubble did. Similarly, American media could do well to move out of New York (yes, other cities admittedly aren’t as cool). Indian media could move out of Delhi too (why don’t you? It’s polluted as hell anyway).
Good journalism is about balance and a quest for the truth — whatever that is. When you do that, you gain credibility. And with that credibility, you can eventually influence people. However, if you simply abandon the quest for truth and impose your opinions, you will have no impact. Hope both the American as well as Indian media will drop their wannabe-cool snobbery and come back to their roots — of finding balance and truth.