By now we are all too familiar with the utter failure of the mainstream media to anticipate both the fact and extent of Trump’s victory on November 8th. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Trump’s electoral triumph was indicative of a mass sea change throughout the world involving a nationalist blowback against secularized globalization. However, as was demonstrated by the mainstream media’s blindsided election coverage, this mass nationalist blowback is not just affecting the political landscape, it is also affecting the world of mass media as well.
In what follows, I want to look at the emergence of the so-called mainstream media and its dominant journalistic worldview. I then want to contrast this worldview with the rise of the so-called alternative media in the midst of what we will term a network society, and how this rise eclipsed the role of the mainstream media in the 2016 election.
Why is the Mainstream Media so Liberal?
First, we often refer to the mainstream media as the ‘liberal media,’ but I want to unpack that a bit and ask: Why is it that the media is so liberal? For you grammar nerds, I use the term ‘media’ often as an inclusive noun, in accordance with Oxford Dictionary usage, so I tend to say the media ‘is’ rather than the media ‘are’, just for the record.
So why is the media, the mainstream media, so liberal? The media bias was so rampant in this election cycle that Michael Goodwin of the New York Post was forced to write: “American journalism is collapsing before our eyes.” So why is this? Why have the various media outlets been so quick and devout in throwing their support behind Hillary Clinton?
There was a time that journalism embraced its role as political advocate. For most of the nineteenth-century, print media was explicitly partisan in its perspectives, and openly sought to persuade an increasingly literate public to particular political positions and policies.
However, at the beginning of the twentieth-century, journalism, along with Western society as a whole, went through two fundamental changes reflective of a cultural turn towards secular liberal values.
First, journalists began to reimagine their craft as an extension of scientific rationalism which sought to analyze events objectively and impartially, irrespective of the preconceptions of the reporter. According to media historian Richard Kaplan:
Under objectivity, journalists adopt the pose of scientist and vow to eliminate their own beliefs and values as guides in ascertaining what was said and done. Supposedly avoiding all subjective judgments and analysis, the journalist strives to become a rigorously impartial, expert collector of information.
This is why the journalist is never part of the story he or she is covering, since such an inclusion would violate the perception of objectivity. This ‘perceived absence’ is a primary way in which journalists establish themselves as mediators of information comprised of data and facts.
While the first change involved the journalist conception of knowledge, the second change involved the journalist orientation towards values. Scientific rationalism erects new boundaries of knowledge that effectively censor religions, traditions, customs, and cultures from the realm of what can be known. Indeed, scientific facts are considered objective precisely because they transcend the biases and prejudices innate to cultural values and norms. And so what emerges from this pre-commitment to scientific rationalism is what has been called a fact/value dichotomy: facts are objective while values are subjective, facts apply to all while values apply to only some. Thus, as the journalist transforms into an impartial observer of economic, political, and social events, he or she begins to view moral and religious sensibilities in terms of personal lifestyle values which are relative to individuals or cultures. Today, virtually every media outlet features prominently a “Lifestyles” section where we can learn about everything from the sex habits of entertainers to our horoscopes.
There is, I believe, an inescapable global consequence to these twin commitments of secular liberalism: inexorably, the secular liberal reimagines the world bifocally as comprised of those who embrace secular liberal values on the one hand and those who reject them on the other. Those who embrace secular commitments are by definition rational and liberal, while those who reject them are by definition irrational and repressive.
And when journalists transcribe this bifocality to the political arena, it is applied to two political parties: one which, through its support of abortion, LGBT rights, and strict separation between church and state, demonstrates its commitment to secular liberal values, while the other, through its insistence on traditional morality and social structures, demonstrates its resistance. Thus, one party is viewed consistently as rational and liberal while the other party is viewed as irrational and repressive. And when challenged on such a perspective, journalists can always fall back on objective and impartial ‘facts.’
This is why Trump has been consistently portrayed as a mere odious oaf and his supporters as ‘degenerate.’ In her ‘basket of deplorables’ comment, Hillary Clinton went on to describe such deplorables as those suffering from a myriad of phobias – homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia – in other words, such people are by definition irrational and neurotic and repressive. I think that it is the press’ neoliberal commitment to scientific rationalism and moral autonomy that is behind so much of the disparaging characterizations of Trump and his supporters.
Nationalism and the Rise of Alternative Media
However, once again, there has been a massive blowback over the last few decades against this secular liberal monopoly of the media, comparable to the nationalist and populist blowback against globalists. Now the irony here is that this media blowback has been successful precisely because of globalization, and this is because the new media, or the alternative media is the product of scholars call the network society. In contrast to past societies that limited associations between people to populations within single areas, we live in a world connected by mass media and telecommunications. In this world, associations between people are not limited to time, place, or location, but in fact extend far beyond historic frontiers, such that this post can be read by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
One way of thinking about this network society is as a mass global conversation. More people are talking to more people than ever before. And these network-based conversations in effect create virtual communities, consisting of conversations between people associated indirectly through some kind of trans-local communication network.
So scholars of network societies such as Jan van Dijk have noticed that people with information and communication technologies such as social media have the power to start their own relations of information and communication and spheres of influence and management. Thus, they can shape a politics of their own and bypass the monopolistic representation of their own government’s politics via an establishment media. In other words, our age is one where the bureaucracy of old is being replaced more with what’s called an infocracy; the rule by information.
And so, we live in a world today where more people own a mobile device than a toothbrush; where if Facebook were country it would be the largest population on the earth. Many of you I’m sure are familiar with the role social media played in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, where protests were organized, or videos of political violence were featured. In many respects, the so-called Black Lives Matter movement is a social media movement, it in many respects survives through virtual communities and conversations.
Now, the important point here is that the network society has provided the virtual space for the rise not merely of an alternative media, but a media for the alternative right. And so while Fox News tapped into disaffected conservatives, those disaffected by the dominant mainstream media’s liberalism, it seems that social media provided the virtual space for a mass transnational network that challenged this globalized economic and political world order that even so-called conservative Republicans were a part of. A number of articles have documented how the so-called ‘Far Right’ of Europe has dominated social media. And here at home, websites such as DrudgeReport, Breitbart News, and InfoWars receive tens of millions of hits daily and billions yearly. Keep in mind, Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is Trump’s current campaign manager.
And what this neo-right network society has done is provide an alternative news world to that of the liberal mainstream media. And I think we’ve come to the point where we can compare the relative strength of the respective news networks. So what we’ve had thus far is the liberal media giving the single most hysterical coverage on Trump conceivable, continuously referring to Trump as a racist, incompetent, narcissistic, lying, philandering, odious oaf – and Trump still won the election! The negative results on Trump from the convergence of such coverage have thus turned out to have been rather negligible.
But compare this to what happened in the last week of the campaign to Hillary Clinton after FBI director James Comey announced they were re-opening Clinton’s email investigation. Her public persona in many respects collapsed, as was increasingly the case with her campaign, and I would argue that’s because Clinton was more and more perceived in terms of the conditioner class, or what is more popularly known as the establishment. The narrative represented by the mainstream media, that are freedoms and happiness are dependent on the rule of a class of experts and engineers has given way to an alternative narrative, and that’s the one of Brexit and Europe’s so-called Far Right, that we are in fact being ruled by an elite, a secular aristocracy, who believe they are above the law, that they can redefine every aspect of social and cultural life in their own image, that they are indispensable, and that they know best how to organize and govern our lives, that our traditions mean nothing and in fact are discriminatory and repressive, as Tim Kaine said, they want to incite a ‘Catholic Spring’ to overthrow repressive medieval moral tyranny of the Catholic Church, that scientific reasoning gives us all the knowledge we need about the world, and that religion is merely a personal private preference that has no objective meaning to the moral and intellectual life of a nation.
And people are rising up and saying in effect, no more, with the alternative media becoming one of the primary platforms for information sharing and mobilization.
In the aftermath of November 8th, the results of such speak for themselves. A recent article entitled “How Matt Drudge Won the 2016 Election” underscores the influence of the alternative media on world events. We are transitioning from an old media context that largely lectures its constituents on news events and interpretations to a new network society wherein the constituents are active participants in what constitutes a news event and its variant interpretations. An elite establishment media versus a nationalist populist media, and in 2016, the ascent of the latter overwhelmed the decline of the former.
And that’s how the alternative media defeated the mainstream media in the 2016 election.
Also, enjoy our new book, Ever After: How to Overcome Cynical Students with the Role of Wonder in Education, which you can download for FREE here.