'The Others Are Morons -- Vote For Me'

05/04/2016 06:28 pm ET
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

While a stunned and increasingly alarmed surrounding world is trying to understand what it is they are witnessing, bragging construction billionaire, Donald Trump, is positioning himself closer and closer to the presidency of the world's most powerful democracy. How can such a person be so close to being elected as the Republican Party's candidate for the White House? Is he brighter than the other candidates? Is his policy coherent, clearly demonstrating an alternative approach? Or is this multi-billionaire simply riding on the crest of the wave because of a tremendous campaign budget?

Had German statesman and former Federal Chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt, still been among us, he would probably have emphasized an even scarier answer. To the very last, Schmidt, who died in November last year, was the editor of the successful German weekly, Hamburg-based, Die Zeit. This was where I met him in 2014 in connection with research for a book on the relation between media and politics.

 Helmut Schmidt spent most of his life on the observation and description of, and participation in, democracy. And he received me in the same office, crammed with books and yellowish tinged press cuttings, as he did when, in the late 1980s, I last visited him – for the purpose of putting what became the end of the cold war into words. 25 years later, his wrinkles deepened a little, the brushed-back hair considerably more grey, and the walls grown more tar-brown after another couple of decades of chain-smoking. Thus, considering the long pause between my first question and then, I feared for a moment that my long drive south on E45 had been in vain. But then the 95-year-old sucked the life out of yet a Reyno Menthol, exhaled, and answered:

”Democracy is a European invention. So is the very idea of media. The newspaper was invented in Europe, as was the radio. And the West has invented the television, the computer and the network between computers: the Internet. And we have exported democracy as well media to the rest of the world. This ought to be a good thing. But it isn’t,” Helmut Schmidt said.

”Because, today, the western democracies have developed into media democracies, and the media's influence is stronger than ever before in the history of mankind. The media are setting the agenda, deciding how populations perceive themselves and the world. Often, our main focus is on the negative and the shallow – maybe because media people believe this to be what people want, and where the money is. But the consequences are many, and they are serious. Primarily, because populations get a false picture of reality. Secondly, because the West is now suffering from lack of leadership,” Schmidt continued, before playing his trump card:

”Media democracies do not create leaders, they create populists.”

Schmidt mentioned another construction billionaire, former Italian prime minister and now scandalised, Silvio Berlusconi, who epitomizes the type of populist who will be elected in media democracies. I cannot but wonder whether – had he lived long enough to follow this spring's American campaigning – he would not have mentioned Donald Trump as a prize specimen.

Certainly, Schmidt's analysis was razor-sharp: In our modern media democracies, we run the risk that politicians become more focused on securing their own election or re-election than on providing solutions to societal challenges 5 or 10 years ahead. And spin doctors and media consultants will advise anyone wanting election to target their speech at the media's news criteria. When the media angle their content towards conflicts, drama, villains and victims, the headlines will go to the candidate who is best at creating conflict and drama and who will frequently, and quite one-sided, divide the world into easily recognisable villains and victims.

”The others are morons, Mexicans are rapists, I'll make you into winners. Vote for me.”

As Trump himself declares, outright immodest as always: ”The media loves me.” According to a count performed by The Tyndall Report, the Trump campaign did indeed attract more media exposure all through the year 2015 than all the democratic candidates combined. And, last year, Trump averaged a fourth of the overall political coverage by the major newscasts of the three television networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – combined.

According to evaluations by the independent Swiss media research institute, MediaTenor, which processes statistical data of news-media content, the marketing value of the media coverage ran into more than DKK six billions in the course of 2015 – an amount which by far exceeds Trump's direct campaign fund and gives him a gargantuan commercial advantage in his race against the other republican presidential candidates.

When the media applies a tabloid journalism approach, the tendency is that the political debate will be shaped accordingly. And the embarrassing questions to my beloved, yet distressed profession, urgently seeks answers:

Are we the ones who created Trump and his like? Is this because he speaks directly into our news criteria which loves the crude and the rude, the attacking, the non-conforming, the outrageous approach? Because, to a media trade under pressure, an entertaining fight is faster, cheaper and easier to cover than content which requires things as old-fashioned as documentation, the checking of facts and, not forgetting, research?

And worse still: Is serious journalism lost on an ever-increasing part of the voters who have long since ceased to trust traditional media and instead seek confirmation of their world view through friends and acquaintances on the social media or by the editing launch pads for sectional interests and ideological points of view – i.e. by views media? Are we moving towards a global mental obesity pandemic because the empty calories as to content have become so easily accessible, and because it requires true effort on the part of the individual to digest in-depth articles, watch television documentaries, let alone read a book?

Trump and others like him are the results of the credibility meltdown that strikes when large parts of the populations no longer have faith in the political elite. Either because they experience that there is a difference between what politicians will promise to do and what they will actually do. Or because visions and political content are replaced by rhetorical dodging, tactics and positioning. When journalists have become entangled with second-hand car dealers, estate agents and, well, politicians in population credibility surveys, this is, likewise, because increasing numbers of people experience a difference between what the media promise and what they actually deliver. We promise to deliver the best obtainably version of the truth, but many among our audiences do not experience that this is what we do.

And, a self-acknowledgement: Regrettably, they are not always entirely in the wrong.

For much too long, we media people have been hiding behind repartees when faced with criticism: Politicians just want to shy away from our critical questions and curb the freedom of the press. Managing directors are only after free advertising. Researchers don’t know what journalism is all about. And all others, for instance the so-called ordinary people, who will tell us that they are sick and tired of our world view – obviously not knowing what they're talking about – should rather get their act together. All this, according to the journalist profession.

But maybe this will make us listen: Journalism is the filter between reality and the perception of reality. How are we doing, then? Comprehensive surveys demonstrate a huge gap between facts and populations' perception of facts: The average Frenchman believes that 31 percent of the French population are now Muslims. The actual figures are below 9 percent. The Italians believe almost half of the Italian population to be unemployed. Unemployment rates for 2014 equalled 12 percent. Americans read and watch so many stories about teenage pregnancies that they believe every fourth woman aged between 13 and 19 destined to become pregnant. The factual figure is three percent. And, recently, Kristeligt Dagblad – a Danish daily –  covered a national survey, demonstrating that the Danes believe over a third of the world population to be without access to clean drinking water, whereas the accurate figure is 9 percent. The truth is that, in recent years, the numbers of murders, burglaries and deaths in road accidents have declined dramatically and – equally true: never before in human history did so few people lose their lives in warfare as is the case right now, in spite of the calamitous situation in Syria. Nonetheless, most surveys show that never before did we feel so unsettled. Could it be that the media are under the misapprehension that a good story can only be an unhappy one, forgetting the nuances and the overall picture? As Bill Gates once put it: The world is steadily becoming a better place to be. But this is not covered by the media, as no one will call a press conference about those children who did NOT die from malaria.

We need not look abroad to encounter this phenomenon. We find examples in our own backyard – as did the editor of DR television news, Eva Schulsinger when, recently, she and I were invited to London for the purpose of inspiring our BBC colleagues:

”A few years ago, we were preparing a summer series about youth and boozing. However, as new figures appeared, proving that Danish youths' intake of alcohol was actually on the decline, we dropped the story and instead initiated a hunt for another problem with which to pester the Danes during summer. Today, we would probably have run the story. When all is said and done, a good story is also a good story.”

It is important that we do not become TOO clever at working with hypotheses: Now, if I could depict the world in this light, that would make really good copy. And then the one-eyed journalist sets off in quest of such facts as will substantiate his hypothesis whilst omitting to seek out the figures, tables or research results that will provide a more nuanced picture – or perhaps even undermine his hypothesis. Next, he will incorporate expert testimonies in documentation of the truth value. Preferably from someone who will be prepared to give know-all and citeable statements. Then, all that is left to do is to contact a politician who will be more than willing to appear in the paper or on television, and then the story is complete. A story that will easily make good copy and which is not untrue. But is it true?

The question remains as to whether journalism has been abducted by business school logics claiming that journalism is nothing but a product to be marketed? That the ”customer” is always right. So, if clicking on Kim Kardashian, then he will get more Kim Kardashians That what is measurable will be measured? The risk is that when important matters are not measurable, the measurable will then become important. Because it is much easier to measure share, readership, page exposures and listening time than it is to determine whether the journalism we provide is to the benefit of society, makes people wiser and provides them with a better opportunity to make choices of their own.

It is not only in American news rooms that the need for self-examination appears. As a news trade, we now need to ask ourselves whether we have created an internal culture to promote media democracy which will again engender political populism and citizens left with a warped picture of reality.

We need to bring journalism back to its publicist roots. To a journalistic approach intent on creating opinions rather than attitudes. Where money is earned for providing journalism – not the other way round. Where you care about and for the society you serve. And where you remember that responsible journalism is not just about on whom to put the onus – rather, it is as much a matter of looking at the world with both eyes open, a matter of facilitating debates and providing inspiration for solutions to an improved tomorrow.

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