News And The Trump HangoverBloombergQuintOpinion
It’s been three weeks since the U.S. elections and it already feels like a long time ago. I had to undergo a minor surgery around the time of the U.S. elections and I watched the events unfold from a hospital bed, in probably the only way it should have been watched—under the heavy influence of sedatives and painkillers. I’m not American and I have to admit I had no real interest in county-level poll counting or predictions but now I know where Milwaukee, Clark, and Wayne Counties are, and I know more about Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona than I should.
This election felt important not just for the United States but for the world. This vote felt like it was a vote against populism, strongmen, demagogy, authoritarian tilts, destruction of institutions, misinformation, and many other things affecting our long-term mental health. Donald Trump was a symbol, this was a vote that seemed like the beginning of something that might have echoes around the world. Or not!
Bump To Slump?
It was also a election which was an important marker for the news industry. The last few years have seen the news industry experience what is often called a ‘Trump-bump.’ Exaggerated or not, most news organizations of note in the United States have seen a huge increase in viewership, readership and revenue from what seemed like a never-ending news cycle driven by an erratic head of state who fueled it himself with his constant outbursts on Twitter. The New York Times had 1 million subscribers in 2015. As the Trump presidency draws to a close, it now has more than 7 million, so far in 2020. Cable news giants like Fox, MSNBC, and CNN reaped record revenue even through rampant cord-cutting.
It may be an over-simplification but a lot has been written about how Trump’s 2016 victory may have saved journalism even though the country and perhaps the world has probably been worse off for it.
So, now that Trump has lost the elections—albeit still not conceded—and we have a sliver of hope that there may be a return to some semblance of normalcy, will we see news media stagnate, if not return, to its annual decline? In four years, the world has changed and so has the media landscape.
Not a day passes when you don’t get all sorts of misrepresented realities and even outright lies on your social media feeds and your chat groups. The divisiveness is not just in political ideology but in everything—nothing has a strong foundation left. Science, facts, reality are all now movable, questionable. Everyone’s living in a partisan bubble and this is a global phenomenon. While this has led to the proliferation of outlets spewing all sorts of conspiracy theories and false narratives, it has also fueled a need and demand for credible news sources with editorial integrity.
Split In The Middle
Nearly half the population of the United States voted for Trump and by conjecture, half of them either believed most of the misinformation the President of the United States himself spread or just didn’t care enough for the facts. Trump’s outsized following on Facebook and Twitter meant he could reach directly to his fan base and despite a few delayed and arguably feeble fact-checking mechanisms put in place by these social media giants, he continues to fabricate his own version of events. This was also drummed up by heavily right-wing media like Fox, Newsmax, One America News Network, or Breitbart. As I write this, many of them have been continuing to fan the flames by questioning the election outcome.
It’s often debated if it was the ecosystem of wilful distortion of realities that led to Trump or was it the other way around. I believe it is the former and one thing is certain, that ecosystem isn’t going anywhere.
In fact, with Trump and the right-wing in the opposition, it is likely to become more active and possibly more dangerously delusional.
The media has been split along partisan lines for some time and both sides of the aisle have benefitted hugely from it. Fox and its right-wing compatriots, often called the alternate media, have seen remarkable growth in audience and revenue. Mainstream media has played the role of the resistance, and has also grown. The roles will soon be inverted with Fox & Co. playing the opposition for the next four years. I am of the view that both mainstream or credible news media and alternate media will continue to grow, albeit more slowly.
Credible news media organisations will need to evolve from being stuck in a vicious news cycle generated by one unhinged character and his abuse of power. They will have to continue with its function of holding the new president to account, resist the temptation of an endless post-mortem of the Trump term, or fawning over someone who will no doubt be better than him. A Biden presidency is unlikely to have the upheavals of the last four years even though a Republican Senate might lead to several new battles. The next four years should see a gradual resumption of normalcy and will have to be about lending a sort of certainty in these uncertain times. The good news is that despite the Covid-19-led slowdown, some of the large credible media outlets are going into the next phase much healthier—in revenue, in reportage, and confidence to deal with the blitzkrieg of misinformation that is sure to be unleashed on the world.
What Does It Mean For The World?
So why is this relevant to any of us outside the United States? For one, the spread of fake news is on an even larger scale in some places around the world. Many countries are run by strongmen or populists who have taken comfort from the fact that the centre of democracy and capitalism was run by someone like Trump who shared their authoritarian tendencies. Trump’s disdain for institutions, the press, democratic values has echoes in several places. It was evident he was, in some ways, part of a growing club of leaders who shared these traits. So, the damage Trump has done is global and its influence is far-reaching. But Trump was trumped by strong U.S. democratic institutions which withstood this constant assault and finally pushed him out of power. Some of the other countries may not be that lucky.
The kind of media that fostered and was favoured by Trump has its parallels in India.
We have our own versions of Fox, Newsmax, or OANN here and the difference is that they are far more popular and effective than less sensational and more credible news outlets. While the U.S. has strong media organisations that cater to both sides of the aisle, it is far more concentrated in India. This has come from the regulation of ownership and an overdependence on government advertising apart from genuine awe of the ruling party’s strength among the masses. Besides, it’s so far been great for ratings. A recent regulation of digital media will further concentrate media ownership, in probably the only area where it is still fairly free. All these reasons explain why the whole media ecosystem is leaping to the right.
There is a clutch of credible media companies growing in a narrow, subscription-led environment. However, a big portion of advertising—what’s left after Facebook and Google are done with it—will continue to go towards less-credible media, unless there is a sea change in the way advertisers think. While some companies have taken a conscious decision of not advertising in any network that sows divisiveness and spreads misinformation, they are still far and few. Fringe ideas and views have gone completely mainstream and they have advertiser backing.
Also Read: News And The Subscription Equilibrium
All these factors are leading to a wider distrust of media, even of those that have strong editorial standards in place. People can’t differentiate between what’s news and facts and what’s made up in a troll factory. We all experience it every day, even on family WhatsApp groups. You have several instances today where a set of media will interpret a story or even economic data in completely opposing ways. This muddies the water and chips away at credibility.
Ultimately, this is not healthy for the media as a business either. As more organisations start leaning in one direction or position for various reasons—growth, survival or just staying on the government’s good books—this will lead to only a few with deep pockets or influence left standing.
If we have learned anything from the news nightmares of the last four years in the U.S., it is that alternate news media doesn’t sound the death knell of journalism with integrity. In fact, it can be a great opportunity for credible news organisations to grow in audience, revenue, and influence. But it will take an entire ecosystem to be built that adheres to those higher standards and that includes advertisers.
If not for journalism, do it for the money!
Parry Ravindranathan is a global media executive and has worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera English, Network18, and CNN.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.