There’s an arresting moment early in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury in which Steve Bannon explains the mechanics of alt-right politics.
Aides are nonplussed by the timing of the Trump administration’s immigrant ban, imposed on a Friday night, a moment of maximum inconvenience and exposure; timing that all but guarantees emotionally charged chaos and a hostile press.
‘But Steve Bannon was satisfied,’ writes Wolff. ‘He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between the two Americas — Trump’s and liberals’ — and between his White House and the White House inhabited by those not yet ready to burn the pace down.
‘Why did we do this on a Friday when it wold hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protestors? almost the entire White House staff demanded to know. “Err … that’s why,” said Bannon. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” That was the way to crush the liberals, make them crazy and drag them to the left.’
Here we have a quick demonstration of a new political method. It’s not designed to advance any particular policy position, the routine of conventional politics. The point of this new politics, this politics of the social media age, is trolling: the simple art of using rhetoric and political acts to provoke a reaction.
Suddenly a lot makes sense. Tony Abbott makes sense. Donald Trump makes sense. So much of social media makes sense.
The politics of the new right is a deliberate, calculated provocation. This is strategic of course, playing to an angry base while upping the ante of political rhetoric, marginalising opposing voices by pushing them to greater extremes.
This is a political position only made possible by the acquiescence of a media class caught between worlds, a media that trades on its historic reputation for fairness and a pursuit of objectivity while acting often to push a political line, either because of its own political convictions or purely for populism and profit.
Is that good enough? In this new moment of wilful political cynicism, is media acting as we might expect the fourth estate to act: to advance the cause of truth as a social good? How should media respond to political rhetoric tailored specifically to inflame? It can hardly ignore what is the prevailing political reality, and yet, like the tree that falls in the forest unseen and unheard, if a hyperbolic claim is made and goes unreported …
The challenge stands: if a political utterance is demonstrably false, or overtly and emptily provocative, what is the media responsibility to interrogate it and place it in appropriate context?
We’re not stuck for examples. A minister of the crown, a voice that carries the time-worn authority of government, insists that the people of Melbourne are so terrorised by African crime gangs that they dare not walk the streets at night … how should this be reported, this demonstrable, cynical falsehood?
It’s a question fundamental to our moment. If media is being played by politics, how ought media respond? If goodly chunks of the political discourse are intended simply as provocative hyperbole, how should that hyperbole be relayed … if at all? With the simple straight face of conventional he said, she said reporting? Or should it be filtered or contextualised? And who makes those judgments round what is empty hyperbole and what is reportable assertion?
The problem is that routine reporting places charged hyperbole and downright falsehood on a level playing field with measured statements of fact. There are examples beyond measure of political media reporting cynical misinformation with the same sense of gravity it applies to rock solid fact: ‘there is a debt and deficit emergency, he said’, ‘the government, if re-elected will privatise Medicare, she said’.
If politics — professionalised, knowing, cynically manipulative — plays on the press’s compulsion to report and thus validate the outrageous for purely political purpose, what responsibility does the press have for the consequences of that validation?
The interdependence of politics and media goes beyond the new right’s outrage baiting. Press and politics form an increasingly interrelated realm: it’s not for nothing that we have framed a contemporary notion of the political class that embraces both politicians and media.
This ought to work well enough, but events have conspired to make it at best a dysfunctional relationship, at worst something that actively poisons the public sphere.
The recent African gangs story is a grotesque example of how media and politics work almost in collusion. At best the story is a rolling description of a political position; bad enough because that position should at least be interrogated. Worse, it’s media acting as a like-minded accessory to a position that is a thinly veiled dog whistle to both prejudice and fear. Worst, it’s media, like the Herald Sun, acting as the active instigator of a misrepresentation of reality calculated to have a social and political impact.
The press has always acted from time to time as a campaigner or advocate, championing issues of policy, politics and morals. The emptiness of modern politics puts the campaigning news organisation in a new light though. Just as politics now stoops to empty — but cynical — emotional manipulation, the media who campaign in parallel are doing something equally cold and calculatedly opportunistic.
The newspaper, for example, that exaggerates crime statistics to promote a crude political position does nothing more than lie in order to provoke fear. It’s the worst possible betrayal of public faith.
The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer showed a continuing global decline in trust in institutions, a discomforting hallmark of our moment. In the thick of all that, the public faith in journalism showed an uptick, set against the continuing decline in faith for media outlets. The sense here is of a public yearning for something more, something truthful that it can trust. That’s journalism’s continuing challenge.
Jonathan Green is a writer and broadcaster. He is editor of Meanjin.
This article first appeared in Eureka Street.