Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (23 February, 2017)
In both the United States and in India, it’s striking to see how political leaders are framing the independent media as an anti-national force of opposition. Donald Trump built his entire campaign on demonising the supposedly liberal and elitist media, stoking the passions of his conservative base. He seems set to conduct his presidency the same way. He dismisses reports he dislikes with that now ubiquitous and meaningless phrase (so often tweeted in caps lock): “FAKE NEWS.” And last week he borrowed from the unimaginative phrasebook of all authoritarian leaders in branding the media both his enemy and “the enemy of the people.”
Trump is far more prolific and committed in his abuse of the media than an often taciturn Narendra Modi. But though the Indian prime minister has claimed that he lives “in fear” of the distortions of the press, the actions of his government and its allies in targeting certain journalists and networks suggest that the media has more to fear from him. His desire to launch a Chinese-style university to train journalists in the arts of propaganda reflects poorly on his commitment to an independent press.
The parallels between Trump’s and Modi’s relationships to the media are clear. Both leaders enjoy using Twitter to circumvent traditional channels. Both try to limit journalistic access and to centralise the flow of information (Modi has been far more successful here than Trump has so far). Both have a large following of fervent supporters who are convinced that the media (that they disparage as “liberal” in America, “secular” or indeed “sickular” in India, and as “presstitutes” in both countries) is biased against their dear leaders. And both seek to delegitimise the media to insulate their rule from criticism and to distract the public on questions of policy.
In response, the likes of CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have taken up the task of questioning and challenging Trump with gusto. But these outlets have also lapsed into a self-congratulatory mood. As the acerbic critic Hamilton Nolan has observed, a news anchor like CNN’s Jake Tapper has assumed an almost heroic mantle for the simple of act of “doing his job.” Similarly, Indian media personalities have been keen to drape virtue around their celebrity, casting themselves as intrepid warriors battling to safeguard the soul of the nation.
I am naturally a little suspicious of these self-righteous icons basking in the media limelight. There are, of course, many journalists who deserve adulation for the bravery of their work, for doggedly pursuing stories in the face of intimidation, threats, even violence. But we should never forget that the establishment media, like the organs of government, is an institution of power. Neither rulers nor journalists are worthy of slavish devotion.
I came of age politically when I was in university here in the United States, during the build up to the Iraq War. At the time, I was incensed by the cynicism and manipulations of the administration of George W. Bush, and I was saddened by the apathy of my peers. But I reserved a good deal of my frustration for the media. It seemed to me that the establishment media, including TV networks like CNN and the “paper of record” the New York Times, were falling lockstep behind the White House’s drive to war.
They didn’t do enough to question the administration’s claims, they adopted the president’s talking points, and they even seemed excited by the prospect of the invasion. Though the war was dreamed up by neoconservative ideologues in Washington, I blamed the media for its execution. The media helped beat the drums, fan the flames, and obscure the humanity of Iraqis. A quiescent public then let its government start a monstrous war that has so poisoned these early years of the 21st century.
I’ve been thinking about this period 15 years ago as that same establishment attempts to grapple with the Trump administration. The White House as a matter of tactics may now vilify the media, but not long ago that media was a meek handmaiden to power. The lesson here is that while a free press is of course necessary, it is not in itself sufficient. We can only demand rigor and professionalism from our journalists. The harder task lies, largely through education, in developing an engaged, civic republican culture among the public. With authoritarian politics on the rise, the future of democracy in both India and the United States rests on a citizenry willing to challenge and be challenged by the whirring narratives of the information age.