Western democracies are witnessing a battle of the R-words; namely, respect and ridicule. In recent years, advocacy of respect has almost become a cliche. Even so, in the public debate, ridicule is increasingly present.
On CNN’s State of the Union program last Sunday, Dana Bash interviewed Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. The presenter asked the two journalists to compare political journalism at the time of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
Bernstein ran the familiar journalist self-praise line that the media “is the last bastion of truth that makes democracy function”. He said the coverage in the mainstream press of Trump had involved “some of the greatest reporting of the presidency that we have seen in the last 50, 60 years”. No surprise there.
Woodward, however, adopted a more nuanced approach, stating “the tone is a big issue here”. He added: “In lots of reporting, particularly on television commentary, there’s a kind of self-righteousness and smugness and people kind of ridiculing the President.” Woodward commented that “when we reported on Nixon it was obviously a very different era but we did not adopt a tone of ridicule”.
And that’s the point. In decades past, ridicule was common in political comment in comedy programs such as Saturday Night Live. These days it has moved into the mainstream media, print and electronic. Once the best journalists tended to report what they regarded as facts. Now, increasingly, the tone is one of mockery, especially when the target is a political conservative such as Trump. In Australia, John Howard and Tony Abbott, among others, also have been targets of the sneering media.
It’s common to blame the increase in anger-driven ridicule on the rise of social media. But the truth is that political sneering is prevalent in mainstream television, radio and print outlets. Moreover, some media outlets have invited practitioners of ridicule on to their letters pages and into their opinion columns.
Take The Sydney Morning Herald, which once was regarded as having the finest letters page in Australia. Last Tuesday, the Herald letters editor decided to run a contribution from a certain Bert Candy in Glenvale, Toowoomba. He objected to the fact Alexander Downer, when high commissioner in London, had drinks in 2016 with one-time Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos. This led, in turn, to a report from the Australian to the US government about possible involvement by Russia in the US presidential election.
The issue merited considered discussion. But the Herald’sletters editor invited ridicule into the paper. Now, agree with him or not, Downer is regarded as a successful foreign minister. In short, he deserves respect from his critics. It was not to be. Candy began with a reference to “Lordly Downer … he of the fishnet stockings, product of private school fagging, bullying little ex-foreign minister, friend of Woodside Petroleum, squeaky, plum-in-mouth sycophant of royalty and self-serving stalker of privilege, went out on a night of debauchery at an expensive London wine bar with the like-minded American Republican insider and, in a drunken haze, was told a secret”.
The letter went on in a similar vein of anger-driven ridicule based on assertion. For starters, there is no evidence Downer or Papadopoulos engaged in “debauchery” or that either man was in a “drunken haze”. And the fact, when foreign minister in 1996, Downer put a fishnet stocking on one ankle to help promote a musical is of no relevance to what might, or might not, have occurred in London two decades later. Candy’s letter was not printed by accident. His contribution was chosen by the Herald’s letters editor ahead of others. It demonstrates Woodward’s point about the emergence in the mainstream media of a tone of ridicule unrelated to facts.
Large sections of the Australian media, led by the ABC, Fairfax Media and Guardian Australia, appear to regard the Trump administration as some kind of freak show. Sure, the US President is invariably unorthodox and, at times, inconsistent (a tendency found in many a politician). Yet he did defeat Hillary Clinton in November 2016 so he cannot be accurately regarded as a fool.
As journalist Jason Riley (a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York) said on Fox News last weekend, Trump had a successful 2016 — despite the many predictions to the contrary. The Trump administration wound back regulation and introduced substantial tax reform. It also presided over increased energy productivity and took some steps to replacing the Obamacare health system.
Certainly, this is not the agenda of the Democrats, most of the members of the Washington press corps or The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN. But this is a Republican administration, not a left-of-centre Democrat one. Certainly, Trump has experienced failures and difficulties — just like his predecessors. This warrants reporting that has a fact-based, emotion-free tone.
But this is unlikely to occur since so many journalists and commentators have become sneering, self-righteous activists who believe their morality is of a higher order than those with whom they disagree. In the contemporary media, ridicule rules and is used as a weapon against political conservatives.