After years of reckless conduct, the Trumpist news networks are waking up to a terrible hangover, and their star presenters are being called on to take accountability. At a time when fake news guns are roaring in our election campaign as well, there’s a lesson to be learned
During Donald Trump’s stormy four years in the White House, while much of the world looked on, jaws dropping in stupefaction, there were those who enthusiastically climbed aboard the rollercoaster ride. Trump was the engine driver, shoveling more and more coal into the furnace. The Republican media and their major talents were the passengers, hanging out of the windows, beer in hand, yelling enthusiastically until they were hoarse. It was fun, fun in the way that only breaking loose from all restraints can be. And to them, it was also a smart business move. In the United States, like Israel, managers in the media business tend to make decisions when they are crouching in a corner for fear of “but the people like it”.
One of the greatest and ugliest moments of this media era was the coverage of Trump’s claims that the election was “rigged”. The process of voting and counting the votes differs from one state to another, and in many states vote counting machines are used, manufactured by two large corporations, Dominion and Smartmatic. Reporters, commentators, talents – all maintained, without batting an eyelid, that the voting machines enable fraud, that they can be hacked remotely and valid votes deleted, or that the operators threw out entire bundles of ballots. And according to the “activation” concept which is so familiar to us here in Israel too, the fake reports were echoed by a network of sworn supporters – human and robotic – echoing claims of being silenced and all the good that Trumpism showered on the world.
The age of Trumpism (which will endure for the coming years, even though theoretically, “Elvis has left the building”) has given birth to several concepts that have attempted to reshape the way that classical new media is meant to work. For example, that there is no one single truth. I have my truth, and you have yours. “That’s my truth”, formerly ridiculous lingo from the world of reality shows, has in one fell swoop taken control of an area of occupation, which on the face of it, is guided by a professional ethos that is meant to abide by a search for the one pure truth. My truth can be some bit of nonsense that I just made up. Or a crazy conspiracy that someone tweeted. Now it’s my truth, so what are you going to do about? You wave your hands and yell, your face red with anger, that I’m making it up and it isn’t true? Fine, that’s your opinion. That’s your truth. And if I have caused to you lose it, it’s my gain.
And there was also the cynical undermining of the delicate balance between news and opinions. The argument over the blurred boundaries between the two has persisted for decades and encompasses all media, from print to digital. Some may say that this mix cannot but exist, since even the most basic of editing considerations – “what I publish and what I don’t publish” – are in fact “opinions”. And it’s not only what I publish, but how I publish it. If I’m on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum, I will cover stories about the plight of the asylum seekers on small boats, buffeted by the waves, with no savior in sight. If I’m on the right-conservative side of the spectrum, I might possibly completely ignore their story. But I also might choose to tell the story of illegal infiltrators who are storming Europe in droves, unchecked. In the pre-Trump era, no one doubted that in both cases, the reports would present facts: there are people who have fled their countries in boats, and it’s all documented and filmed. Facts were facts, the framing was the message.
In the Trump era, the media that sided with him were given license to destroy the old order. But they didn’t exactly destroy it: in fact, they took the old principles and understanding and used them in a twisted way that was planned and cynical. It’s perfectly okay to broadcast unsubstantiated reports, without checking them, without a shred of evidence that supports your arguments – and then to say, “There is more than one truth, all I’m doing is reflecting the truth of people who think differently from you”, or “Oh, so you thought that this was a news report? Not true, stupid, these are just my opinions”.
And so the elections have come and gone, and power has been transferred despite the storming of the Capitol. In the strange calm that has suddenly settled after the orange haired man has fallen silent and his fountain of tweets has been silenced, there were suddenly two loud noises. First it was Dominion, and then, just recently, Smartmatic. The defamation suits filed by the two against Fox News and a series of their talents, individually, total four billion dollars. Fox rushed to send one of its prominent stars, Lou Dobbs, packing. The less well-known right-wing networks, Newsmax and One America News, which have been tagged by the American right as rising stars after Fox let them down by shifting a little to the center (of course, everything is relevant), have already received warning letters, and they are most likely next in line. In a desperate move, they broadcast “clarifications” that were almost bizarre, in which they admitted to having reported unfounded, unchecked allegations. Arguably, Dominion and Smartmatic did not display courage by waiting for the dust to settle and the administration to change, and only then file their suits. But on the other hand, their move can be seen as part of the return to normality, which the US has so desperately been seeking after the dizzying ride on the Trump rollercoaster. In this new-old world, a very simple fact of life is making a comeback: You report unsubstantiated lies? Bad move, you’ll probably get hit by a lawsuit and pay for it. You are probably accountable for what comes out of your mouths.
All of which leads us to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Scarily, there are people in Israel who are reproducing Trump’s campaign methods without blinking an eye (clearly, they were less impressed by the outcome), and so, not long after the elections were kicked off, warnings of fraud at the ballot box already began to be spread, including a smear campaign against the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Judge Uzi Fogelman, and sophisticated attempts to take over the polling station committees and the team of “double envelope” counters. It seems that we are only just starting out, and that the real filth will start to bubble up in the last few days of the campaign, including the familiar threats of storming the house of representatives, or in Israeli jargon, “Razing the Supreme Court by a D9 bulldozer”. All that remains is to imagine who will be wearing the horns here. The individual lawsuits against hosts and commentators of the American networks should cause the message to be received by a few antennas here in Israel too. The antennas of political elements, but mainly those of news entities who have become addicted to the fearful “balancing method”, in which they feel a strong need to feature a bullshit artist in every news debate.