Soon enough, valid, replicable, verifiable studies built on solid data will demonstrate the role media played in ending the destructive tyranny of the Trump regime. Some research will point to increased fact-checking, others to the tightened oversight of the presidential election debates, and more will suggest that the Twitter and Facebook bans of the waning days of the Trump years propelled his fall and the sputtering of his insurrectionist mobs.
Evidence collected during predetermined time frames will provide robust support to these claims and drive conclusions that the “free press” of this “great nation” saved our Democracy and ejected a would-be tyrant and his violent seditionist followers. Perhaps, but this “free” press” is, of course, not free. “Our” media are capitalist profit engines. Whether the media you turn to are social or local, national or niche, they are simultaneously the products and the promoters of the system in which they exist. They are not free to the people they immerse in ads and promotions and come-ons. Nor are they free themselves from the dictates of ever-shorter deadlines, profit and “progress” that require growth and expansion and ever-greater reach and monopoly.
If it is true that the media “watchdogs,” lame or comfortable in fat laps though they may be, did save us, that is the sort of partial and shaded truth that hides big lies. Anyone who lived through these times, and by that I mean the past 12 to 50 years, has seen the erosion and near-disappearance of nonpartisan truth telling and disclosure by the media as they morphed into political amplifiers and purveyors of a smorgasbord of easy-to-digest, entertaining niblets tailored to support the narrow realities of a nation of deeply divided couch potatoes who came to view democracy as a spectator sport.
There is more than enough blame to spread well beyond the comfortable confines of media near-monopolies, more than enough shade to throw on corporations and moguls, politicians and lobbyists, voters and haters and those too apathetic to be either. The media are far from alone in their culpability, but that fact does not reduce the heavy blame they bear for the near destruction of this democracy.
It is, after all, the media who magnify the lies and the liars, the fights and the gossip and the nonsense conspiracies, the racism and vulgarity, and the celebrity of violence and terror and dishonesty that became the daily diet for this nation. It is the media who ignore or downplay the grassroots movements to get out the vote, to support the rights of marginalized peoples. It is the media who fail to prominently and repeatedly display the efforts of those who fight every day and sometimes win the freedom of those falsely accused, unjustly jailed, the children caged, the adults deported, the Black men stripped of their votes, the women beaten and raped and murdered in their homes. Neither these crimes nor their redress are the front-page news, the big-headline tweets or memes in a media whose bytes and blasts favor the deeds of big white men always first and foremost.
The media will suggest that this disproportional attention to the Trumps of the world, the slant and skew of the reality they feed us merely responds to the definition of news: the actions and reactions of the powerful, the moneyed, the prominent, the famous. That is a self-serving tautology that obscures the fact that they, the media themselves, determine who is powerful, what is prominent or famous. They direct the attention and confer the authority, credibility and microphone that translate into power. It is they, the media themselves, who decide which actions and reactions matter most, which people and events receive coverage, and what is said about them.
In self-defense, they will say that each of us now holds that power in the palm of our hands. They say we can alter the world through our tweets and posts and blogs and bytes. But it was Trump’s tweets and lies that they broadcast and repeated as if fact, not ours. And if Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook in his last days tells us anything, it is that the powerless can be made to disappear in a millisecond.
I do not wait for the media to face their own complicity, their culpability. They will not. It is, as it has always been, the work of the people to uncover the lies and to defend the truth and the values that we say are our birthright. We should not look for our efforts to draw the attention of the media that find their purpose aligned with the profits that flow from a sycophantic obsession with the few, the moneyed, the defilers of democracy. Instead, we must find our own reality locally and fight for it globally as we always have. Fight on!
A former weekly newspaper owner and editor, Susan Dente Ross has taught law and media, creative writing and critical thinking in universities from North Carolina to Washington and Canada to Israel for the past thirty-five years. She is a member of the English faculty at Washington State University.