U.S. Media’s Malignant Obsession With Trumpism
The sensational nature of the news cycle puts a myopic focus on all things MAGA, to the exclusion of all other things.
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In the past few years, what feels like a renewed national attention to the injustices carried out by the Trump administration has consumed U.S. media outlets. Amid the constant upheaval, coverage of the internal day-to-day circus of executive-branch and D.C. politics has become the central—if not entire—component of U.S. news.
“Americans do not realize that the whole world is watching them,” a journalist from Pakistan told me once. Youth on the brink of adolescence, she said, more often than not knew just as much about the latest news on the U.S. candidates as they did about politics in Pakistan. We were sitting around a table in Kathmandu, Nepal, with a group of journalists from across the region—India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives. We were gathered at an International Federation of Journalists conference on press freedom and participating in discussions about the independent media landscapes in their respective countries.
Several attendees expressed that listening to their colleagues speak about the instances of censorship they faced over their critical coverage of local politics shared many similarities with their own experiences not so far away. The general consensus was that it is easy to put on regional blinders, even to events happening in neighboring nations. But all the journalists gathered around the table shared a common perception that people in the United States did not understand the extent to which North American news dominates the global media landscape.
That was in 2017, and despite the chaos of our current news cycle, the U.S. media’s approach hasn’t changed. It remains a mostly insular landscape of news that focuses heavily on the dealings of those in power — often without providing enough factual context or rebutting blatantly false information. According to a Media Matters study conducted between January and February 2019, major media outlets’ did not actually correct claims made by President Trump in their tweets about his misinformation 65 percent of the time, or an average of 19 times per day.
Similarly, corporate U.S. media often highlights the voices of mainstream movements against Trump and neglects the perspectives of people who are most marginalized by current policies. A recent study by Danielle Kilgo and Summer Harlow in the International Journal of Press/Politics examined local and metropolitan coverage of 2017 protests in Texas and found that reports prioritized the voices of people at the Women’s March and anti-Trump demonstrations and more fully fleshed out their reasons for being in the streets. Meanwhile, protests around issues such as anti-Black racism and Indigenous people’s rights received much less in-depth, attentive coverage.
Communicating the latest news in national politics, particularly in terms of breaches of power and the Trump administration’s attempts to strip people of their rights, is essential. However, this focus should not compromise attention to news happening in other parts of the world and foreign conflicts in which the U.S. has intervened or is actively involved. There is much to be learned by following news in other countries—many of which, these days, are facing struggles against their own governments that, while different in context, share many of the same core issues of racism, discrimination, and corruption that plagues America.
A wave of popular uprisings has swept the globe in recent months, as mass movements on almost every continent call for systemic change, demand government declarations of our planet’s dire climate emergency, shifts in power, greater human rights and economic transformation. International media has largely failed to provide meaningful coverage and deliver context that does justice to these demonstrations.
A Fair.org study of media attention to four major protest movements across the globe in 2019—in Hong Kong, Ecuador, Haiti, and Chile—revealed that the New York Times and CNN focused primarily on covering Hong Kong, and less consistently published stories on movements in the other three countries. Encompassing all coverage by both outlets from each protest’s beginning through late November 2019, the study counted 737 total stories on Hong Kong protests, 36 on Chile, 28 on Haiti, and 12 on Ecuador. The study’s authors reason that the outlets more heavily covered Hong Kong because of a more robust “understanding [of] who is protesting and what they are protesting against” and that “the target of Hong Kong’s protesting is an official enemy of the U.S.”
These numbers illustrate the undeniable links between corporate media coverage and U.S. foreign policy and economic interests. When major media sources prioritize coverage of an issue to the benefit of their own funders, audiences are misinformed and become less able to critique and form their own opinions about the dealings of the U.S. abroad.
In Bolivia, longtime President Evo Morales was removed from office under pressure from the military in a coup d’etat on November 10 that escalated into a government take over by self-declared, vocally racist politician Jeanine Áñez. Despite evidence of the newly declared president’s anti-indigenous and fundamental Christian ideology, outlets such as Time have called Áñez “a women’s rights activist and television presenter,” while others, including the BBC have validated the undemocratic takeover of the presidency by referring to her as “President Áñez.” Independent outlets in Bolivia were quick to call the events “a coup” — while in the U.S., a debate ensued over whether or not Morales’s ouster constituted “a coup.” The delay in U.S. media clarifying its language around what happened in Bolivia sets up an entirely false perception of current events in the South American country— where people mobilized to demand Áñez’s resignation and continue to push for democratic elections, as well as justice for the people who were murdered in the aftermath of the coup.
A number of factors contribute to U.S. audiences’ lacking knowledge of foreign issues, including our relative geographic isolation from much of the world and the historical tendency of media to behave “as obedient partners with their government, and with marauding American corporations exploiting weaker foreign countries,” Ben Bagdikian writes in his book, The New Media Monopoly, now in its 20th edition. Coverage of foreign issues has always been tainted by U.S. interests, and taken an approach of “concealing its unsavory acts or seeing them as an ultimate necessity for the world.”
As media has become increasingly monopolized by fewer and fewer corporations, the range of far-reaching mainstream publications that provide international stories beyond quick take news has become very limited. So too has the number of correspondents permanently reporting from the ground in foreign capitals; at least 20 U.S. newspapers and other media outlets got rid of all their foreign bureaus between 1998 and 2011, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Bagdikian wrote in 2004 that the U.S. had less correspondents abroad than any other major western country and “the result for U.S. media is a remarkably small pool of expertise on foreign culture and politics within their own organizations.”
The number of U.S. journalists covering foreign issues abroad is down, but even less prioritized by media outlets is the sourcing of information from non-U.S. perspectives. Global media outlets rarely turn to locally-based experts to speak on the record to news in their own countries; more often, journalists turn to local “fixers” who guide them to interviewees and rarely get recognized as the reporters doing the leg work. Outlets such as the Global Press Journal, which publishes stories by local journalists generally based in the global South, is an example of giving more leverage to people who understand the news through a non-U.S. or imperial lens.
“There is a hunger for authentic voices—not the same handful of pundits on the network shows who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong,” writes Amy Goodman, host and co-founder of Democracy Now! (an independent daily global news outlet where I am currently working), in her book, Democracy Now: Twenty Years of Covering the Movements Changing America. Independent media outlets, both in the U.S. and abroad, play a crucial role in allowing people to speak for themselves and sourcing news more directly from the ground up. Seeking out information from globally focused independent news outlets needs to become a more common practice by people not just working within media, but also by those who are consuming it.
Undoubtedly, lifting our gaze from the scramble of American politics and considering current events on a more global scale is not just beneficial, it’s essential. The world is on fire and now more than ever, there is power in gaining a greater understanding of conflicts in other places, and building a more robust acceptability around stepping outside of the U.S. media bubble. International media coverage is not important just because it raises awareness about events on a global scale and counteracts engrained navel-gazing domestic media practices; it also has the capacity to bring about international solidarity in response to people who are suffering under various forms of injustice. It is the media’s responsibility to be aware of and thoughtfully follow international events, not just for people in the U.S., but for people in other places who are also impacted by the reverberating impacts of U.S. policies.
As Nepali journalist and editor, Kunda Dixit writes, “media does not just hold a mirror up to society. It is the mirror.” The imbalances of our attentions reflect decades of internalizing a reliance on U.S.-centered information, and it is time to reframe the dynamics of global media power by initiating more cross border readings of current events, encouraging international collaborations on reporting and looking at news in other places even as our media culture attempts to keep us caught up in the throes of North American politics.
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