Monday, September 23, 2019

‘The Fourth Estate’ Not ‘The Almighty’

During much of his current term President Donald Trump had to fight accusations that he had had a secret covenant with the Russians, who helped him rig the 2016 presidential election. There were three prime accusations. The first was that a Russian organisation, ‘Internet Research Agency’ (IRA), which influences poll outcomes through social media campaigns, was deployed to run down his opponent Hilary Clinton and boost his election. The second was more serious and was about a possible hacking of the computers in the Democratic Party election offices by the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. Had this been proven it would have turned out to be not just Trump’s own ‘Watergate’ but far worse! The third was about ‘obstruction of justice’.

This article is not about whether or not President Trump was guilty or not of the misdemeanours he was accused of but about their treatment by the American media. The accusations levelled by Trump’s political rivals were orchestrated by internationally visible sections of the American media like ‘CNN,’ ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’Times’ journalists won two Pulitzer prizes for the ‘Trump-Russia’ stories!

The US Attorney General William Barr appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the allegations.  The report Mueller submitted in March this year did not find any substantive evidence to prove the allegations. As Byron York observed in his September 10, 2019, ‘Washington Examiner’ opinion piece


The story did not end there. Some of The New York Times’ readers and its own staff were not happy. York wrote ‘many on the Left faulted [The New York Times] for being insufficiently anti-Trump! At this point, the issue spilled out of the media domain. It is no more about disseminating information or offering comment, however judgemental could it be. It is now more an ethical dilemma, a reflection of the media scene back home in India. Should a media organisation behave like a consumer goods supplier or restaurateur and cater to the tastes of a consumer – assuming a majority of readers the paper caters to are of a certain political leaning – or remain steadfast to an ideal of sticking to the truth? And remain neutral till the issue is settled one way or the other in the appropriate forums? The Times is now caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis of its own making.

The paper conducted an internal town-hall meeting for its newsroom staff to assuage ruffled feelings. It was necessitated because of an uproar over a headline about the president’s alleged ‘racism’ and tweets from the paper’s staff. ‘Slate’ published a transcript of the recording of the Times’ town-hall meeting edited and curated by Ashley Feinberg. The Times’ Executive Editor, Dean Baquet and Publisher A. G. Sulzberger addressed the meeting.

A defensive Baquet seemed to find fault with the readers. He suddenly remembered that it was not the duty of the media to run political campaigns, but as an independent media hold administrations accountable! He pointed out the obvious: 

“They [the paper’s critics who want Trump’s head] sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president.”  

What should be worrying in this episode is the apparent political conditioning of the staff. Shouldn’t newspaper employees be trained to be neutral observers and faithful reporters rather than political instruments?

Both York and Feinberg felt that Baquet’s remark that “the story changed” was significant. York wonders whether having spent a lot of time and energy on the ‘Trump-Russia’ story (and failed) the Times would spend the next two years on the “Trump-is-a-racist narrative”?

The ‘The Fourth Estate’ in the headline does not refer to Geoffrey Archer’s eponymous novel but to Edmund Burke’s laudatory reference to the press. By the by, Burke’s first three estates, contrary to popular misperception, were ‘the Lords Spiritual’, ‘the Lords Temporal’ and ‘the Commons’.

In Irving Wallace’s brilliant thriller, ‘The Almighty’, the protagonist inherits a newspaper, a fictional rival of ‘The New York Times’. The conditional inheritance stipulates that the paper which was way behind its traditional rival should surpass its circulation for at least one day in the succeeding year. In order to retain ownership, the protagonist recruits a gang of terrorists to stage events and then scoop them as news. He sets himself up as ‘The Almighty’!  

The present media might not go the whole hog to stage terror incidents to scoop stories, but they were, in the past, halfway there. The way they stoked war hysteria for George W. Bush to bomb Iraq in the second gulf war in 2003 to destroy elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was near enough. Are the Times’ and The Washington Post’s anti-Trump campaigns one of a piece with their earlier war campaigns?

The article first appeared in The Times Of India Blogs 

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