By voting to withdraw from the European
Union, Great Britain has chosen to leap into an abyss of the political
and economic unknown – a decision that will be felt far beyond
the British Isles. Populism and nationalism, fed by fears created
by the social upheavals of globalization and life-changing
communication technologies, are not unique to the British.
Similar fears in this country are causing millions of people to
want to elect as president a man who by every conceivable
measure is totally unfit for the job.
There are complex reasons for what is
happening in the world today. In my view one of the important
ones is the decline and fall of the responsible, mainstream
news media. We are seeing major consequences of what happens
when the news media don’t do their job, or do it badly.
The man who led the fight to have Britain
break with the European Union is Boris Johnson. He is a senior
Conservative Member of Parliament who was formerly the Lord
Mayor of London. I knew him only as the author of a somewhat
off-beat but interesting biography of Winston Churchill. But
Johnson was once a prominent journalist with the London Telegraph.
And according those who knew him, his stock-in-trade was
trashing the European Union.
In a recent scathing op-ed in the New York
Times, Martin Fletcher, a former London Times foreign editor
and Brussels correspondent, makes a compelling case against a
highly influential journalist who never let facts get in the
way of a good story. According to Fletcher, “For decades,
British newspapers have offered readers a stream of biased,
misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels.”
And the man who set the tone was Boris Johnson.
Fletcher writes, “Johnson made his name in
Brussels, not with honest reporting but with extreme euroskepticism,
tirelessly attacking, mocking and denigrating the European
Union. He wrote about European Union plans to take over Europe,
standardize condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos filled
headquarters. These articles were undoubtedly colorful but they
bore scant relation to the truth.”
Furthermore, as Fletcher explains, London
editors from competitive newspapers soon began demanding
similar approaches from their correspondents in Brussels. “They
wanted only reports about faceless Eurocrats, dictating the
shape of cucumbers that could be sold in Europe or plots to
impose a European superstate.” He concedes that the European
Union can be meddlesome, arrogant and incompetent, but “seldom
was the British reader told how (the EU) had secured peace on
the continent.” This is no small achievement considering that
Europe had been in conflict for centuries, and in just the last
century more people were killed in two world wars than at any
time in human history.
As for the American news media, many of us
felt instinctively that the rise of Donald Trump was something
more than the frustrations of white American males who never
attended college. There is now strong research data that Trump
was given an enormous boost by the American news media. It
comes in the form of a new report by the Shorenstein Center on
Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. (Full
disclosure: after my retirement from ABC News in 1995, I was a
Fellow at the Center.)
This report is based on an analysis of the
coverage of major news outlets in the year leading up to the
2016 Presidential primaries. It notes, “This crucial period,
labeled ‘the invisible primary’ by political scientists, is
when candidates try to lay the ground work for a winning
campaign – with media exposure often playing a make or break
This is the Center’s summary of its report:
“Major news outlets covered Donald Trump in
a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers –
a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the
polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone – he received far
more ‘good press’ than ’bad press.’ The volume and tone of the
coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.
“The Democratic race in 2015 received less
than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders
was largely ignored in the early months, but as (he) began to
get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders
coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top
candidates. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most
negative coverage of any candidate, In 11 of the 12 months, her
'bad news’ out- paced her ‘good news’ usually by a wide margin,
contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings.”
The Shorenstein Center’s study is based on
the analysis of thousands of news items on CBS, FOX, The Los
Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall
Street Journal and The Washington Post.
What it provides is a statistical answer to
Trump’s rise. But what it doesn’t mention here is the almost
gleeful way in which the news media treated Trump for nearly a
year. They simply couldn’t get enough of him. Clearly this was
tied to their ratings and their bottom lines. Trump claimed his
campaign was self-financed. In fact this was a campaign based
on an unprecedented amount of free media.
Unfortunately it was also a campaign that
was fact free – as doting media were reluctant to offend their
new political darling with unpleasant questions challenging the
veracity of his daily diatribes, insults and out and out lies.
The good news, is that this appears to be
changing. Not just the fact checkers, but the anchors and the
star reporters are no longer willing to be dupes for this
extraordinary snake-oil salesman. Let us hope that it is not
too late to help keep the American people from leaping into the
same abyss the British have just chosen.
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