There’s that old saying that journalists like to use to defend themselves. “Don’t shoot the messenger.” It no longer has credibility. The messenger has become the divider.
On the impeachment story, if you followed one set of media, you would conclude that the President was guilty as charged of pressuring the Ukraine government to do an investigation of the Bidens.
If you followed the other set of media, you would think the opposite: that the whole thing is a sham orchestrated by the Democratic Party and the “deep state.”
Testimony thus far demonstrates that Donald Trump did what he is accused of doing. Whether it warrants impeachment or not can be debated. But on the Biden accusation, witness after witness has given compelling condemnatory testimony; it’s a slam dunk.
But that’s not the way the public sees it. In large part because of the descent of American media into two competing camps – “armies” might be a better word – the public verdict on the impeachment issue is divided sharply along partisan lines.
The media are constantly lamenting the woefully polarized state of the union. But in their coverage of the country, they foster the division. Conservatives beat up on liberal media with soap-box bluster all day long. And vice versa. There is not much in between.
By all rights, Mr. Trump and his Republicans should be falling in public favour in this impeachment fight. But in the polls they’re holding their own. Their media battalions are so strong - Richard Nixon had no such media infrastructure to defend him – that they can make any amount of bilge credible. They turn the story on its head, and claim it’s all an elitist conspiracy.
Some headlines from the past few days: “Media has one standard for Trump, another for Biden.” “Drive-by media cash in on impeachment hysteria.” “Public ignores Dems’ demands to watch impeachment farce.” “No one is above the law – unless you’re a Democrat.”
That’s a small sampling of the poppycock. Add to it the gospel of Fox News crusaders and that of radio talk blowhards.
They appear to be doing a good job of selling their snake oil. The big impeachment show on Capitol Hill isn’t attracting great numbers. Just 13 million or so viewers watched in each of the first two days of the hearings. That’s only about four per cent of the number of Americans – an estimated 300 million – that own TV sets. A big game in the National Football League draws more than 13 million. The Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and the James Comey Russiagate testimony drew much larger audiences.
The American media landscape has been dramatically transformed. On my first tour of duty in Washington, covering Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, there was a mere fraction of the political coverage there is today. There were the evening half-hour news broadcasts on the major networks, some Sunday panels and not much else. Panelists didn’t shout at each other. On the political spectrum the networks were predominantly centrist.
The changes since have been well documented. The onslaught of all-day cable coverage, of the internet, Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, CNBC. Pundits and panels opinionize around the clock. It’s advocacy journalism run amok. A 2017 Reuters Institute study found that America’s media environment is more polarized than that of any other Western country.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo is a good example of the new way. He is sharp as a tack, well informed, quick on the draw. He could do great journalism. Instead he harangues, he interrupts, he chastises. As if putting on armour, he shouts, “Let’s get at it!”
Mr. Trump, who departed the fact-based world long ago, has dramatically broadened the media divide. On a daily basis he makes the media the story, depicting, in enemy terms, journalists who criticize him. They are all compartmentalized, their objectivity made suspect. To a degree, it works. His supporters believe the froth, not the facts.
There’s no big public broadcaster in the U.S. like the CBC here or, in Britain, the BBC. On the private networks, ratings are boosted by ideological bombast. While the truth often lies somewhere in the middle, with the media hived off in ideological quarters, it is not often heard.
The media keep yelping about a polarized America while continuing to fashion it.
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