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Larry Donnelly: American politics is in a bad state and the TV networks aren't helping

Donnelly dismays at the polarised and simplistic discussion of politics in the US from all media sources, not just Fox News.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

SINCE COVID-19 SADLY came into and took control of our lives, most of us can probably point to new habits – good and bad – that we have developed. One for me is staying up far too late at night.

Courtesy of our costly subscription to Sky, I have been tuning in regularly to Cable News Network (CNN) and to The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.

At first, I was doing so out of fright, looking on with one eye open to assess how the country of my birth was dealing with the pandemic. Then there were the nightly car crash press briefings from President Donald Trump. And I have kept watching.

One side or the other

What has truly struck me is the wholly transparent anti-Trump agenda of both the host, Mr Blitzer, and the guests who appear on his programme. It is a relentless torrent of attacks on Trump for his blatant mishandling of this public health crisis, his deaf ear to the legitimate outrage of the Black Lives Matter movement and his total unsuitability to be President of the United States.

I seldom disagree with what is said. But it seriously disturbs me that the steady drumbeat – Donald Trump is the worst! – is almost never interrupted on a news station whose guiding statement reads as follows.

Our mission is to create the finest possible news product and to present hard-breaking, national, and international news, as it unfolds. We deliver unparalleled perspectives across multiple categories, including political, medical, financial, technology, entertainment, and more.

As best as I can tell, however, only one perspective on President Trump is welcome on The Situation Room and other programmes I have watched on CNN. Again, Donald Trump is the worst!

I turned to Twitter to express my frustration during the week. The tweet provoked a significant reaction. It is important to preface at the outset, as the tweet did, that the widely and appropriately lampooned Fox News is a thoroughly biased right-wing network and that its coverage of American politics and current affairs is often laughable.

Fox News presenters, such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, are apologists for President Trump and refuse to let the truth get in the way of their naked attempts to curry favour with him and the approximately 40% of the citizenry who revere the bombastic New Yorker.

Many who reacted concurred with the content of the tweet. One interesting response from a trenchant Trump foe based in the US outlined how she was fed up with the left trying to “outFox” Fox News, first Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, hosts on MSNBC, and now CNN.

She finds the petty shots at the president anti-intellectual and believes that it distracts from proper reporting of crucial political decisions and turns off viewers in the middle. She concluded that it is bad all around.

In the interest of balance

Others took the opposite view. The prevalent sentiment in their tweets was encapsulated in this reply: “What’s the problem with a relentless anti-Trump rant? The time for impartiality in relation to Trump is long over.”

Another asked, “how do you offer ‘reasoned political analyses’ of a pathological liar who is inept, corrupt, shameless, and narcissistic?” It’s a fair question to a certain extent. I have no difficulty with full-throated criticism of Donald Trump. I usually nod right along with it.

But news programmes should not be designed to propagate or to confirm repeatedly a particular ideology or one take on an issue or a politician. Instead, all ideas – within the bounds of reason – should be put on the table, discussed and debated by forceful advocates who approach them from different angles.

Additionally, through incisive and neutral expert analysis of polling data and opinion surveys, news programmes should strive to provide those who tune in a reliable picture as to which individuals and ideas are gaining currency in the public mind.

In short, and above all, they should inform. In a dramatically polarised country, therefore, it is nothing short of tragic that numerous media organisations – especially the cable news networks – are failing the people so badly in this regard.

Rather than informing, they are merely reinforcing perceptions and prejudices on the right and the left. Allowing for the reality that Americans have a multiplicity of options to choose from to obtain their local, national and international news in broadcast, print or online formats, the figures are stark nonetheless.

Views, entrenched

In a 2018 Washington Post Fact Checker poll, 22% of Republicans identified Fox News as their most trusted source of news; only 1% of Democrats agreed. On the flip side, 19% of Democrats looked to CNN first; just 3% of Republicans did the same. Americans go for the news they want to hear: Trump is the worst! or Trump is the best! The impact is incalculable: the chasms in an incredibly divided society expand further.

There are myriad factors behind why we are where we are. The corporatist or capitalist critique – that this was pretty inevitable in a system driven by ratings and advertising revenue – is a persuasive one.

In this vein, the niche carved out by National Public Radio (and television) and the growth in following it has experienced recently is encouraging. But whatever the complicated origins of the overall state of affairs in 2020, it is lamentable.

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Of course, fault can be found on this front in Ireland. Some conservatives claim it would be hard to unearth, for instance, a staff journalist in a Dublin newsroom who voted against the referendums on marriage equality or repealing the 8th Amendment and that the media’s treatment of these issues, albeit subtly or subconsciously, seemed to reflect that unanimity of opinion at times. Their concerns have a degree of validity.

On the left, activists have a point when they object to some of the fringe-dwellers who are granted prominent platforms in a ham-fisted effort to ensure an exact 50-50 equilibrium. But perfection is unattainable and the media does an infinitely better job of reporting on politics in a balanced fashion here.

I am not shy about firing back at those on this side of the Atlantic whose reflexively anti-American instincts lead them to make sweeping, often false generalisations. But when it comes to media coverage of politics in the US, their disapproval is not without merit, notwithstanding the unmistakable condescension that can accompany it. And for once, I don’t have a riposte at the ready.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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