My final paper for Modern Media Systems. Enjoy!
As Modern Media has changed and evolved over the past several decades, so too the world has changed alongside it. Compared with United States Presidential elections in the past, 2016 was an anomaly that proved that the evolution of modern media has had a profound impact on not only our presidential race and our politics, but our nation and world as a whole. The evolution of Modern Media paved the way for a Donald Trump presidency, signaled the beginning of the post-truth era and contributed to the ever-widening divisions that exist within our country.
To understand how the evolution of Modern Media has contributed to the above changes in our world, one must first understand the evolution of Modern Media in and of itself. When George Washington was first elected in 1776, there were believed to have been fewer than fifty newspapers in print in the United States. This number would increase more than five-fold by the beginning of the next century with growth spurred by federal law that made it cheaper to deliver newspapers through the postal system. (1) As the number of publications increased, so did the number of different view points and perspectives put forth. This paved the way for the development of the partisan press, as newly-published and newly-emboldened editors became the mouth pieces for their side’s point of view. Enter the partisan press. Furthermore, many newspapers operated at a financial loss, and were subsidized by political parties, so long as they were aligned with the party’s agenda. (2)
While newspaper continued to grow and established itself as the main form of political media coverage of the day, another technological advancement more than a century down the line would greatly change the game. In the early stages of the 20th century, radio broadcasting was in it’s infancy. Drawing on advancements made by Italian inventor and engineer Guglielmo Marconi, broadcast radio began to hit the air waves en masse in the wake of World War I. As this technology continued to advance over the next several decades, millions of Americans would eventually own a radio and use it to listen to the news of the day. As radio became a major industry with major dollars up for grabs, media had once again fundamentally changed. While many newspapers were originally funded by paid subscription or by readers paying per copy purchased, broadcast radio was paid for by advertising revenue.
With radio being free for anyone who owned a radio receiver and had an interest in listening, broadcasters would need to recoup their expenditures, and a bit extra to make it worth their while. This set up the for-profit radio industry, and to a large degree for-profit media. While in the past, media outlets had been in the business of creating worthwhile content to entice readers to purchase their paper, they were now more and more becoming in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers.
As radio continued to evolve and more and more stations were on the air, radio listeners were once again presented with more options, which meant that there was more opportunity for “niche” radio stations to become economically viable. With this, there was the opportunity for radio stations to become very partisan and biased, yet still tap into a large enough audience to sustain themselves economically. This model of an industry in it’s infancy becoming larger, more diverse and eventually more radicalized, biased and agenda-driven would again play itself out again and again as new mediums came into vogue. From the penny press to social media, from the 1700’s to the 2000’s, nearly every set of eye balls to read a story would eventually equate to the generation of revenue, due to the business model of for-profit media.
With the rise of the television in the 1940’s and ’50’s and the evolution of this technology to include cable and satellite broadcasting over the next few decades, there was an explosion in the number of networks available for viewers to choose from. As the number of options increased and the number of households who owned a television and subscribed to either cable or satellite-subscription services increased exponentially, there was again a market for more biased and agenda-driven television to be consumed. With this came a rise in cable television news networks such as CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg, and more.
Alongside the increase in the number of partisan radio and television broadcasting networks, there naturally came a corresponding rise in consumption of this heavily partisan media content. As a result, many Americans began to choose what they wanted to watch, and ultimately what they wanted to believe. When doing so, they chose not only what they wanted to believe, but also quite specifically what they did not want to believe. Furthermore, many readers, listeners and viewers would not just choose what they did or didn’t want to see, they would tune out and vilify viewpoints that differed from their own. This great number of choices in which television news station to watch, or which radio personality to listen to has brought with it great peril. In this writer’s opinion, the proliferation of highly-partisan media has directly resulted in the creation of a post-truth era and the ever-widening partisan and idealogical divisions that exist within our country.
These issues have only been exacerbated by the growth of the internet and more specifically the creation and rise of social media. With this Facebook phenomenon and the invention of the smartphone, users now have an endless supply of media content that they are plugged into seemingly 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. With a market that has become flooded with biased media content yet still craves more, we have collectively seen a society evolve which is happy to pick and choose what it wants to see and believe, regardless of whether it is true or not. With a gluttonous population that merely wishes to consume media, instant gratification and outlandish headlines oftentimes produced merely for their shock value, we are now witnessing a race to the bottom in which Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” becomes more vast every single day.
As the internet and social media has continued to become infinitely larger and more prominent, so has the ability for individuals to publish themselves and therefore influence others in geographically disparate locations. Without any checks and balances, formal journalistic training, ethical standards and behind the anonymity of a computer keyboard, these self-publishers have the ability to create news material of highly questionable factual correctness; oftentimes being complete fabrications. This “fake news” burst onto the radar of millions of Americans just last year as Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States. Now that anyone has the ability to publish or say basically anything at any given time and pass it off as fact, it should come as little surprise that many will use this newfound power to spread misinformation and further their own agenda. After all, propaganda is nothing new and has allegedly existed since at least the ancient Roman Empire. This is just a very effective modern interpretation.
In addition to private citizens being able to potentially publish “fake news” completely unchecked, with virtually no consequences, it is now known that a foreign government or other organization could use this as a tool to help overthrow a government or alter the results or outcome of a democratic election. While the purpose of this paper is not to accuse, investigate or try to prove whether or not the Russian Government helped elect Donald J. Trump, it seems to this writer at least, that foul play in regards to the intentional dissemination of fake news during the 2016 Presidential Election occurred. Whether or not this was done to benefit eventual winner Donald Trump is again not the purpose of this paper, but the precedent that this establishes is very real. Now that we know that “fake news” exists, who’s to say what is “real news”? Furthermore, if something is accused of being “fake news”, then who is to argue that it is not indeed real?
In the wake of September 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush was able to successfully use the national tragedy to pass new legislation which would increase the power of the executive branch and to start multiple wars in the middle east. He justified these actions under the guise of “combatting terrorism”, which would ensure that his actions received broad-based public support. Donald Trump can now do something similar with the proliferation of “fake news”. Just as Bush labeled any enemy of the state as a “terrorist”, and therefore had public and legal support to invade that party’s sovereignty, Trump can label any information he does not like or agree with as “fake news” and will have public support among his base and the Republican majority in our legislature to condemn the truth and promote his agenda.
With the election of Donald Trump to the United States Presidency, hence becoming the most powerful man on the planet, we have officially moved into the “post-truth era”. We now live in a world where things that are actually happening are considered to be “fake news”, “conspiracies”, “hoaxes” and more, whereas things that are not actually happening, or don’t pose significant threats to our society are being portrayed as existential threats to our populous. Despite the fact that climate change has been proven by modern science to have a direct correlation to man’s actions, and is harming our planet at unprecedented rates, and therefore posing the most grave threat to humanity of anything on earth, it is officially denounced by our President and the majority of the ruling party; a party which was elected democratically. This is perhaps the most blatant example of how the truth no longer matters to a large percentage of Americans, and can readily be replaced by a viewpoint more friendly to the desired output of whoever is pulling the strings; in this case, fossil fuel revenues. When confronted with undeniable evidence that their viewpoint is wrong, many Trump supporters, conservatives, democrats, climate-change deniers or otherwise will only become more steadfast in their opposition to differing viewpoints and galvanized in their support for the candidate or viewpoint of their choice. This is all part of the remarkable phenomenon of those that will happily deny the truth, in the face of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong. These illogical loyalties spell danger for the future of the American electorate and for our democracy in general. These same loyalties are influenced by what these individuals have heard, seen, or read in the media.
Unsavory media hype men have often worked under the ethos of “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” to create tabloids and other media content that would in effect be able to generate sales of their publication, either in the physical sense or in drawing higher ratings and more advertising revenue, but never before have we seen such a blatant disregard for the truth as we do now. Living in the post-truth era with a President like Donald J. Trump, we must ask ourselves how we got here. Listening to Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech was exceptionally relevant for this writer, especially at this current time period in American history. The lowest-common denominator has supplanted good, honest journalism as the flavor of the day and the American public – consumers to the enth degree – have bought it hook, line and sinker. With a populous who has become addicted to television, gluttonous consumption and the need to always be plugged in, “trash tv” has not just become a mainstay of American culture, it has become American culture itself. Our nation’s official representative to the world is now a flamboyant showman with a penchant for drama. He’s bold, brash, has a super model wife and flies off unhinged, because he knows he can get away with it. America has become the bombastic asshole of the planet.
When Donald J. Trump officially began his candidacy for the Presidency in June of 2015, he utilized his celebrity status to get himself onto television and gain a platform to reach millions of Americans. When he opened his mouth and began referring to Mexicans as rapists, he galvanized that platform to work for him for free. Living in the wasteland that Minow feared and predicted, Trump’s xenophobic, fear-mongering message was one which allowed him to gain an estimated $2 billion in free media coverage. Despite the fact that he lied constantly, did not present a coherent plan on how he was actually going to “Make America Great Again”, nor have any experience in politics, he won the White House in large part due to name recognition. The rest of his key to success was to tap into resentment and anger, and to play on the fears of ordinary Americans.
Trump didn’t merely “win” the election due to his undeniable skill and knack for playing the media, and the American public, as fools. The Democratic party also, in many ways, lost the election due to party corruption that squashed the popular uprising of Bernie Sanders and guaranteed that they ran a deeply flawed candidate in Hillary Clinton. Regardless of what one believes politically or ideologically, one can not deny that Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a true populist movement that had captivated the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, the media conspired to ensure that he would not, or at least hinder, his chances of winning the Democratic nomination. The continued media narrative that “Bernie couldn’t win the black vote”, despite the fact that he had been a civil rights activist since 1968 and proposed raising the minimum wage among other things, proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as he got thoroughly beaten by Hillary Clinton in heavily black states like South Carolina, when it mattered the most. The under-coverage of Bernie is also something that can not be denied, with Bernie receiving just a small percentage of the media coverage that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received.
While Trump won media coverage due to his celebrity status and outlandish, controversial statements, Hillary Clinton won her media coverage by being deeply entrenched in establishment politics, where the establishment had already chosen her to be the mainstream Democratic heir to Barack Obama’s throne. In either case, it must be acknowledged that the media played a significant role in the eventual nomination of both candidates to become the mouthpieces of their respective parties. Though it is true that much of the “liberal” media was increasingly negative in their coverage of Trump, the old popular media and PR adage “any press is good press”, rang true once again. Again benefitting from supreme name recognition, Trump could rely on his charisma, media savvy and celebrity showmanship to close the deal. After all, he is the inspiration for the international best-selling book “The Art of the Deal”.
As stated above, a major component to helping Donald Trump become the 45th President of the United States was that the Democratic party ran a flawed candidate who failed to adequately inspire the Democratic voting base to go to the polls and vote for her. Once again displaying how the modern media influenced this election, it was again readily apparent that Bernie Sanders was the victim of a lack of media coverage when compared with his Democratic Primary rival Hillary Clinton. During the 2008 campaign, Hillary was the presumptive nominee for the Democratic nomination. Her lead was slowly eroded however by the younger and more charismatic Barack Obama. Each time that the two candidates debated live on television, Obama ate into Hillary’s lead, eventually surpassing her and securing the Democratic nomination. Having learned from the past, the Hillary Clinton campaign worked with her former campaign chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (in 2016, the head of the Democratic National Committee) to reduce the number of debates from twenty-six in 2008 to just six in 2016. This number was later brought up to nine, after lobbying by Sanders. (3) Furthermore, they moved the debates later on the calendar so that prospective voters, especially independents, would not have adequate time to register as Democrats and therefore participate in the Democratic Primary process; helping secure the victory for Clinton.
By once again working to minimize the amount of time that the non-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders – who identifies as an Independent but generally caucuses with Democrats – had on live television in front of the American public, the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media worked together to do everything that they could from keeping this insurgent candidate and his populist movement from derailing Hillary Clinton’s plans to be the Democratic candidate for President. Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall that Hillary Clinton may very well lose to Donald Trump in a head to head election, every poll conducted before the Democratic convention showed that Bernie Sanders would win a matchup against Trump by a significant margin. Hindsight is always 20/20, and we now know that Bernie would have likely won against Trump, but again, living in the post-truth era, facts were ignored, in large part by the media, and a price was eventually paid.
Modern Media has evolved significantly in the past five years, twenty years, one-hundred years and more. From the days of the penny press to the “fake news”, social media-dominated, post-truth era of a Donald Trump America that is deeply divided, media plays a major role. Modern media will continue to evolve and there will undoubtedly be more growing pains, but most informed individuals will agree that an unburdened media is indispensable to a functioning democracy. This writer can only hope that the negative impact of living in this post-truth era with the President that we have elected will galvanize our society to pay more attention to the good that does still exist within our media, and that it will inspire a renaissance in the field of truth-based, investigative journalism itself.