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The Trump victory: The media has put itself on trial again

Let not the Trump win become another stick to beat the liberal media, or, indeed, an exercise in self-flagellation. If a politician revels in sexist remarks, espouses bigotry, resorts to hate speech, they must be exposed journalistically

columns Updated: Nov 10, 2016 21:42 IST
US President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York
US President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York(REUTERS)

In the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, a much-respected writer-activist known for his liberal views had accosted me at a dinner: “I heard you on television suggest that Narendra Modi could be the BJP’s prime ministerial choice in 2014. You are wrong, India will never accept a divisive figure like him.” In July 2013, when we did an election tracker poll claiming that Mr Modi was the preferred prime ministerial choice by some distance, the same gentleman rang me up: “Change your pollsters, they are being influenced by media hype.” In May 2014, when Mr Modi won a spectacular victory to become prime minister, I received an sms from my friend again: “How could this happen? This is not the India I know. I am depressed.”

Read: People want the truth, says ‘India’s Donald Trump’ Subramanian Swamy

The Indian liberal’s plight in 2014 is perhaps mirrored in the US in 2016. I have little doubt that many Americans are “depressed” at Donald Trump’s famous triumph. In Washington last month, a journalist-friend was happy to buy me a drink, relieved he said that the Trump campaign had come unstuck by sex tape revelations. Now, as he, like so many other pollsters and pundits, are wiping the egg off their face after getting the US election verdict so horribly wrong, the question should be asked: do we in the media and the opinion industry allow our personal biases to influence our professional judgment?

Let’s be honest: much of the Delhi-based mainstream media like the Washington press corps have a liberal outlook. Nothing wrong with that per se. Believing in the values of tolerance, equality, individual liberties should be central to a profession like journalism. But what happens when populist right-wing demagogues, be it a Modi or a Trump, strike a chord with millions of voters in a democracy. Do we disregard their views simply because they do not match our beliefs and compromise our credibility in the process?

Read: Not an ordinary election: News media rewrites playbook for ‘liar’ Trump

In countries as large as India and the United States, Lutyens’ Delhi and Capitol Hill Washington can never represent the popular mood. In the 2016 US presidential election, America’s ‘rust belt’ — once industrial power-house states like Michigan and Ohio – became its Hindi heartland, reflecting the plight and concerns of the working class over identity and job losses. The Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated most powerfully here in the manner that the “achche din” war cry echoed in the bastis of a UP and Bihar in 2014.

And yet, the fact is, a large section of the media wasn’t willing to accept the dominant sentiment on the ground. As the iconoclastic liberal film-maker Michael Moore, while predicting a Trump win in July this year, had forewarned his ideological fellow-travellers, “If you think Trump can’t win, you need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real.”

Read: Lessons of Trump victory: The media’s liberal values must not colour its judgement on elections

Moore is not wrong. Many of us in the television business in particular live in an air-conditioned “studio bubble”, a comfort zone where we are surrounded by familiar talking heads and predictable voices. Pundits with pre-decided opinions are given disproportionate air time and saliency in preference to the “real” people in the bazaars and mohallas of a vast country. A studio-driven media model can falter at election time if it gets disconnected from people. As can pollsters who get trapped in statistical jugglery and computer data.

Pollsters and journalists cannot afford to live in denial mode: an edit page article, a studio debate or an opinion poll might gainfully analyse an issue but can it really get into the minds — the anger and the frustrations — of millions of faceless voters? Which is why we need to shed our ideological blinkers (and possibly, our intellectual laziness) and become the eyes and ears of society rather than simply an echo chamber of the elite studio chatterati.

At the same time, let not the Trump win become another stick to beat the liberal media with , or, indeed, an exercise in self-flagellation. Let’s not forget that many of us in this country did predict a Modi victory in 2014 even if one may have had reservations over the brand of politics he represented. Let’s also not allow the toxic chamber of social media’s cheerleading armies to push us on the defensive and threaten a deeper commitment to truth-telling as journalists. So if politicians like Trump revels in sexist remarks, espouses bigotry, resorts to hate speech, they must be exposed journalistically. Our liberal values must not colour our judgment on who is winning or losing an election. That is at the heart of being a true journalist rather than a noisy propagandist.

Post-script: Last month, I interviewed under-graduate students in Washington’s prestigious Georgetown University, the overwhelming majority of whom were Clinton supporters. I immediately tweeted how America’s millennials were with Clinton, forgetting a cardinal principle: a presidential race is not a school monitor election, so rushing to instant judgments based on small focus groups is injurious to professional health!

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and an author

The views expressed are personal