Before the election, I used to get my news generally from four websites: cnn, huffingtonpost, slate and politico. Don’t know how I settled on these, but there it was. If I wanted to check out conservative opinion, I went to Foxnews and later on Breitbart.
Since the end of the election I have generally avoided these sites. I voted for Clinton and seeing news of Trump and his side taking the victory lap was no fun. But he won, and that’s his right.
Everyone once in a while, like yesterday and today, I get curious what is going on. So I go back to the “neutral” cnn and the liberal huffingtonpost. And then after reading around for a little while, I feel this is pointless and skip it.
Why? Not just because of Trump. But because it is amazing how much CNN and Huffingtonpost are, however unwittingly, giving more power to Trump with how they are covering him. Then again, I suppose it is all part of the process.
We are in the midst of some big tectonic shifts in our society, in America and the world more generally. One of these vast shifts is that with the rise of social media, the idea that there is a uniform, shared structure among all citizens for news is being obliterated. There is no more Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, journalists who seem to merely provide the news and no partisan spin; whose very ethical character seemed defined by the sense that they held themselves to such a standard of neutrality.
But in the 60s for Cronkite and even the 90s for Jennings this was possible not just because of their intrinsic moral worth but because people were dependent 3 or 4 or 5 news outlets for their main national news. It was the very power Cronkite and Jennings had, or their network heads had, which shown through as the moral uprightness of not abusing that power.
Now, no one has that kind of power. Now there are dozens of options of where and how to get the news. We all know this. It is a buyers market.
This is called now the post-Truth world. But that is a misnomer, a Nietzschean exaggeration.
Truth hasn’t disappeared. Either Putin has something on Trump and told him about it, or he didn’t. There is a fact about that.
Nor has people’s desire to know that truth disappeared. Trump supporters aren’t saying the truth isn’t important. They just don’t trust some of the main media reporting on it.
What has become hard to decipher now is who to trust, and even more importantly, what media structures Trump supporters and critics together trust?
This question is pressing because, after all, CNN and the New York Times are themselves private companies. God or George Washington didnt ordain them as bastions of journalism. So if Trump wants to use, and trusts, the private companies of Fox and Breitbart, and will only trust those companies, on what neutral ground can he be blamed?
But, one might say, New York Times and CNN have earned their reputation, but Breitbart hasnt. Sure. The flip side though is that sounds like saying that the status quo should be trusted. And in American culture, and in the age of pluralism and overthrowing the oppressions of the past, that is the greatest sin. Breitbart and Twitter gave Trump the distance needed to stand apart from the news status quo and wrap himself in the halo of the outsider and the unprivileged.
For the last 50 years we have tried to divest the status quo of any any moral authority, and so now when Trump aims to do the same to CNN and the New York Times, we are left flat footed, unsure of how to defend the status quo as morally upright and trustworthy.
There are here vast questions about what shared public trust means in a pluralistic society. Fact is the models we have like Cronkite and Jennings are remnants of a less pluralistic society, where there was shared public trust because most of the public wasn’t really participating actively; they were merely letting those “in the know” who they had no option but to trust lead the way. But what happens when society becomes more pluralistic? What fosters the sense of shared public trust then?
It is amazing to think that the progressive thinkers of the last century hardly worried about this problem. I at least in my education or as a citizen have not heard it discussed. So the problem lies on the ground, like a gauntlet waiting to be picked up.
CNN, Huffington Post and others are ignoring that gauntlet, assuming instead that they as new organizations already speak from are space of a shared pluralistic public trust. They assume they already have IT, that special something which can hold a pluralistic society together.
And what is evident to many people, and has been evident to many people, including John Stewart and Noam Chomsky, is that no, CNN doesn’t have it. It has merely substituted quarreling pundits who smile at each other at times for the deep trust beyond political disagreements needed for a healthy democracy. This was in fact John Stewart’s main criticism of CNN all through when he was on the daily show: the tv pundits’ caterwauling is eroding trust, not increasing it, in a deeply divided country. Now when CNN poses as neutral, Trump merely has to laugh and act tough, because he knows liberals themselves laid the foundation for his critique of CNN.
And it’s even easier for Trump to dismiss Huffingtonpost and the like because it is not in the business of creating trust between people of diverse social and political views.
The surest way to minimize Trump’s power is to highlight the reality that there is no pluralistic, shared public space in America – no moral arbiter of public discourse. Then Trump would have nothing to fight, no grandstanding to do. He would then simply be judged on what he can achieve as president, and the people, even his supporters, would have nothing else to judge him by. And we can face head on the task of what public shared trust in a pluralistic society can mean, and how to foster it.
But, the self congratulatory press, like the self congratulatory Hollywood and the self congratulatory academia, will first make this harder, and make Trump’s life easier. For their confidence that they already occupy such a space of pluralistic trust will make them speak not to the real question of how to construct such trust but to the hackneyed issue that Trump is failing their purportedly inclusive and universal standards.
But they fail to see the practical contradiction of their speech act. If someone says, “I don’t trust you capture the public trust in a pluralistic society”, it is no help to simply reply, “Yes, we do! You are simply wrong.” Trump and the alt right would love to keep having this conversation for the next four years, and simply use it for leverage to do whatever they want.
And yet, the question remains, unaddressed by the media and by Trump: what can foster public trust across social and political differences in a pluralistic society? Those who are open to that question can lay the foundations for a future beyond all the headlines and news.