Media madness — or sanity?’ Dawn

5th October 2016
by Javed Jabbar

A GAP of 16 years occurred between the first American presidential candidates’ TV debate in 1960 and the second in 1976. There should be a gap of another 16 years till the next. With a pervasive media, America in particular would benefit from ‘time off’ from the self-perpetuated 24-hour TV news cycle and candidates’ direct face-offs.

The Clinton-Trump encounter on Sept 26 was reality pandering to TV. The second debate due on Oct 9 stimulates an advance question. Will a medium which inherently magnifies theatrics and posturing divert attention from the need for a sustained, in-depth face-to-face discussion by the candidates instead of glib two-minute statements and laughter-seeking witticisms?

Trump may be a symptom rather than the cause. But the medium’s ambivalent power has been used to fabricate a candidacy for one of the world’s most important public offices by exploiting TV news channels’ addiction to sensation, slander and superficiality. Trump relishes the fact that, whereas the Clinton campaign invests tens of millions of dollars in expensive TV advertising, he spends only a fraction. Because, for the past 15 months TV news is gifting him absolutely free, abundant projection of his bizarre persona and utterances.

Are the harmful effects of lavish coverage of a patently dubious subject neutralised by other parts of the same media’s — or other media’s — more truth-based content? There’s the vicarious aspect of human nature attracted to aberrant material. If lies are absorbed first, and actual facts come later, lies have a curious capacity to linger.

Total US viewership for the first debate was estimated by Nielsen at 84 million, including both free-to-air channels like NBC 18.2m, ABC 13.5m, CBS 12.1m, and cable TV (eg Fox, a Trump supporter) led with 11.4m, CNN had 9.8m, MSNBC had 4.9m. With the lowest share, MSNBC later presented probably the most scathing, comprehensive critique of how celebrity rather than substance shapes popular support for Trump. The irony that this rebuttal was viewed by only about five per cent of viewers who saw the debate does not detract from the truth, and the rebuttal’s value.

Some websites like Politico also provide reality checks. For instance, by one count, Trump utters an outright lie every three minutes and 15 seconds. One estimate numbered his false statements in the debate at 34 in 90 minutes. When fiction is unleashed with hurricane fury, many news media also help demolish facts, and further feed the fury. His obsessive use of Twitter on ludicrous issues such as Miss Universe typifies his priorities.

In her otherwise mature, balanced remarks, it was disappointing that Hillary Clinton did not promptly contradict Trump when he incorrectly blamed the Democrats for the “worst trade deal ever” ie Nafta. It was Republican president George H.W. Bush who oversaw negotiations (1989-92). Nor did she forcefully point out that most economic experts do not primarily blame Nafta for America’s later economic problems. Nor did she counter that, contrary to Trump’s attempt to portray America’s current condition as “desperate”, the latest data from the Census Bureau shows the largest decline in US poverty since 1999 occurred in 2015. President Obama’s tenure has seen a positive recovery from the 2008 recession.

A US presidential election is a global, not just one nation’s, concern — especially when Trump is the first candidate in the country’s 260-year history without a shred of experience in politics, legislatures or the military. He remains unaware about even elementary concepts of nuclear weapons strategy while aspiring for the authority to use them. This huge flaw is also accompanied by grossly deficient character. Referred to by one of the MSNBC analysts as “a pathological liar” who has never apologised for his falsehoods — whereas Hillary Clinton at least belatedly regretted her email irresponsibility — the combination of appalling ignorance, amorality and bigotry unceasingly covered by TV news channels poses potentially damaging implications for the whole world. It also poses solemn challenges to news media owners and media content controllers to conduct critical introspection for better practices, and prevent facilitating the emergence of dangerously unfit candidates by providing indiscriminate coverage.

The despair felt by, presumably, the majority of Americans, several of whom this writer met recently, is reflected in editorials and op-ed articles in leading papers. On the morning of the first debate, a single, full New York Times editorial was captioned ‘Why he should not be president’. In June, one of the same journal’s respected columnists called his country’s current condition ‘The madness of America’. Even the harshest critics of some of America’s external policies and its internal inequities would surely like the Nov 8 polls to result in tributes to ‘the sanity of America’.

The writer is a former senator & federal minister presently visiting the US.