The American media is arguably a fallen heavyweight.
For a brief moment it looked as though The New York Times had learned its lesson. In late 2016 its Editor promised to ‘rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism’, by understanding and reflecting ‘all political perspectives’. The implication was that the newspaper had missed the rise of Trump and more worryingly, could not understand what caused it.
This admission was representative of an acceptance of failure across American media. On MSNBC, presenter Joe Scarborough criticised the groupthink amongst journalists that created the narrative that a Clinton win was inevitable. You would be forgiven for thinking that this groupthink was bound to be challenged and that media institutions would become better connected with America. Not so.
Instead, media organisations across the country have become less representative of the population and polarisation has as a result increased. Such organisations would likely respond to this charge with statistics on increasing racial diversity and the reduced dominance of male journalists in the newsroom. They wouldn’t be wrong. According to the Pew Research group, younger newsroom employees now represent the national gender divide (51 per cent male) and are also more representative of other ethnicities (non-Hispanic whites account for about 74 per cent of newsroom employees aged 18-49, compared to 85 per cent of employees aged over 50).
Yet behind these statistics is a far more worrying process. Intellectual diversity is being dramatically reduced. This week Bari Weiss resigned from her role as Editor at the New York Times and delivered a damning verdict of the paper. Weiss Maintains:
‘lessons have not been learned. A new consensus has emerged, that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job it is to inform everyone else’.
It is that final line which is so revealing. As newsrooms become less intellectually diverse (Weiss says she was ‘smeared at’ by employees for being a ‘centrist’), some organisations have adopted a new role. They have ditched the objective approach to reporting, crystallised in the mantra ‘show not tell’, and instead sought to define news by opinion. In the place of reporting the facts and allowing the public to make up their mind, numerous journalists took it upon themselves to decide if sexual assault allegations made against Joe Biden were true, or if Trump’s speeches were ‘divisive’ or ‘patriotic’.
Whilst it is clear that lessons have not been learned, it is also worth noting how difficult intellectual diversity is to achieve. One of the primary features that determines someone’s vote is education. If newsrooms wish to employ people with greater qualifications it is likely to lead to an amalgamation of similar opinions. In the last election Trump attracted 72 per cent of white non-college males. In the UK, 73 per cent of those without a degree voted to leave the EU. Both results were missed by the media.
Media organisations face a choice. They either abandon their new role and go back to reporting on events objectively — without, as Weiss argues, ‘moulding’ them to ‘fit’ a ‘pretermitted narrative’. Or they create new employment objectives. Targeting people with greater intellectual and educational differences, thereby replacing an overdominant focus on ethnicity and gender.
When Europe’s bourgeois grew tired of decisions being made by the same people — in this case, the King’s Court — through acts of revolution they created what Haberman describes as the ‘public sphere’. This was where the public developed its informal institutions such as coffee houses and newspapers, encouraging a free arena for debate. In abolishing the Court’s hegemony of ideas, new enlightened thoughts about liberalism and freedom spread.
A similar cloud of dissatisfaction is gathering in America. Voters of all opinions are becoming frustrated with the lack of representation from what Haberman terms ‘informal institutions’ — namely the newspapers. The difference this time, is that today’s ‘public sphere’ does not need to be broken. Voters can instead turn to their own private social media groups and enjoy a far narrower version of the debate. An extension of Haberman’s idea is that governments are only legitimate if they listen to the public sphere. A problem for American democracy is that there is no singular public sphere. Instead, there are fragmented private spheres consisting of social media groups and the conversations that take place at work, the pub, or the hairdressers.
A question we need to consider is this: when the public sphere no longer represents the public, is it any surprise that the media establishment keep being shocked by the opinions of voters?