In defense of the much-maligned US mainstream media

In recent years the mainstream media in the United States has fallen on bad times. Conservatives bemoan its alleged built-in liberal biases, while progressives and liberals lament its corporate ownership and its heavy reliance on official sources.

‘Corporate media’ has become an epithet. The digital revolution, the immense proliferation and influence of social media and the limitless space of the blogosphere were supposed to be the great equalizers, thus empowering individuals and small entities to provide the alternative media to the stale profit-driven corporate media. The blogosphere, the social media and the iPhone have opened up new vistas of human possibilities, and their liberating aspects, particularly in autocratic societies are undeniable. But this seemingly brave new world is also rife with pitfalls, where sharing of information and facts, go hand in hand with spreading of myths, deceptive stories, fake news, cyber aggression, and the spreading of manufactured realities.

The rise of cable television, talk radio and online media in general heralded the era of explicitly opinionated journalism, further blurring the lines between the traditional fact-based journalism and loud political advocacy directed at niche constituencies. But while it is true that the media landscape has been irrevocably changed, it is evidently clear that old claims that the mainstream media has lost its relevance are patently false.

Most of the major stories and serious investigative journalism in recent years have been the result of painstaking traditional reporting and not the work of the new media. And while it is true that the mainstream media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq failed in raising serious doubts and questions about the existence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, it nonetheless recouped relatively quickly.

Trump’s outrageous lies, his ceaseless dabbling with conspiracy theories and his brazen deceptions, have forced journalists and fact-checkers to hold him accountable.

Hisham Melhem

It was The New Yorker magazine and CBS television that uncovered the abomination called Abu Ghraib. It was the Washington Post that uncovered the secret system of Black Sites, which were detention facilities around the world controlled by the CIA where alleged enemy combatants were harshly interrogated and some were allegedly tortured. It was The New York Times that first uncovered that the Bush Administration had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans to search for evidence of terrorist activities, without the court-approved warrants that are required for domestic spying. In the current war on the so-called ‘Islamic State’ ISIS, publications like the Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, The New York Times and television networks and the National Public Radio have published and aired excellent investigative reports. The war in Syria claimed the lives of a number of intrepid and courageous American and European journalists working for mainstream media.

Over the years I have heard numerous complaints from Middle Easterners and Europeans about what they see as the American mainstream media’s problematic coverage of things Arab and Muslim. They cite information, statistics and findings to buttress their arguments, unaware of the irony that the sources of their information are the same mainstream media. I check some Arab publications for editorials and the opinions of very few columnists, but not for news reports, since there is at best a dearth of original reporting. The mainstream American media print and television remains my primary source of news and information from the Arab countries.

A two-pronged attack

The mainstream media in 2016 was subjected to a two-pronged attack, first by Donald Trump who sought to punish and boycott Journalists and their networks and publications if he deemed that they were too critical of him and the second by Russia using paid human ‘trolls’, websites, social media, and Russian-financed television stations to spread fake news, and misleading information to alter the course of the campaign, and to improve Trump’s chances of winning the race.

Russian trolls, according to US intelligence agencies, hacked the site of the Democratic National Committee, and Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and selectively leaked some of the emails. Clint Watts, co-author of a study titled ‘Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy’ said that "Russia's propaganda mechanisms primarily aim for "alt-right and more traditional right-wing and fascist parties."

Watts told CNN that, Russia's goal wasn't just to elect Trump. "The goal is to erode trust in mainstream media, public figures, government institutions -- everything that holds the unity of the Republic together."

American presidents and candidates seeking the highest office in the land have had problematic and at times tense relations with the media, particularly in times of conflicts or domestic scandals. But Trump is not simply engaging the media in hot debates, he is waging an unprecedented war on the very legitimacy of the American mainstream media, and more dangerously on the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights which guarantee freedom of expression. The man who was democratically elected, wants to exercise autocratic powers that the very constitution that he will put his hand on and take the oath to protect and defend come next January the 20th, does now allow him to do

Trump is fond of talking repeatedly about the Second Amendment, which states “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." But Trump rarely if ever spoke publicly or approvingly of the much more important First Amendment which guarantee the rights of the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press.

Hisham Melhem

Trump was very clear when he said few months ago that one of his goals is to change the legal system so that he could hound the media unencumbered: “I am going to open up our libel laws,” he added “so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money”.

In fact, Mr. Trump ran two parallel campaigns, one against his competitors and adversaries, and the second a vendetta against the “crooked media” or the “rigged media” where on many occasions he would double down on his two bête noire media outlets, The New York Times and CNN. Trump, diabolically exploited the existing American distrust of the media in general, to chip away incessantly on its legitimacy. In what was billed as his “thank you” tour, Trump was unabashedly triumphalist; he boasted endlessly about his victories, while insulting the “dishonest” politicians, and gloating about defeating Hillary Clinton. But he reserved his most potent venom for the “extremely dishonest press,” eliciting loud boos of approval, before he lashed out against a female television anchor who he claimed cried on the air when he won the presidency.

No American president before Trump has dared to obliquely attack the First Amendment by attacking the media. In his rallies, Trump would single out reporters, labeling them as “terrible”, “scum” and “illegitimate”, and he used to revel in the sight of his supporters hurling insults against the reporters. These are indeed perilous times for the American media.

Jefferson rebukes Trump

Trump’s war on the media, is ultimately a war on the constitution. Trump is fond of talking repeatedly about the Second Amendment, which states “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." But Trump rarely if ever spoke publicly or approvingly of the much more important First Amendment which guarantee the rights of the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press…Just as he does not discuss or defend Human Rights overseas.

Trump’s outrageous lies, his ceaseless dabbling with conspiracy theories and his brazen deceptions, have forced journalists and fact-checkers to hold him accountable, something he deeply resents.

He may have been required to read the Constitution in high school, but it is doubtful that he had read this most American of all American political documents in recent years. Thomas Jefferson, a very complex and immensely intelligent man harboring conflicting visions of human possibilities and potentials, had also a radical and prescient streak. For Jefferson, a free press is absolutely crucial for safeguarding the people’s liberty and to keep the government in check. In a letter he sent from Paris to Edward Carrington whom Jefferson sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress, he concludes that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:48 - GMT 06:48
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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