US election deadlock reveals media malaise

False prophets: the mainstream media claimed that a Biden landslide was on the cards.

Is the US media fit for purpose? The world was told the US election would end in a resounding victory for the Democrats. By missing the true picture, the media has revealed its deficiencies.

It all seemed so easy. Texas would vote Democrat for the first time since 1976. The GOP would lose the Senate. And Donald Trump’s voter base would collapse everywhere, ravaged by the pandemic that he has failed to control. At any rate, that was what the polls promised.

Yesterday the world woke up to a different reality. The Lone Star State remained red. The needle on the Senate had not yet shifted. The number of votes cast for Trump had soared across the country.

In 2016, the media was humiliated after anticipating an easy Clinton victory. Four years on, there was ample assurance that newspapers and broadcasters had learnt from these mistakes and the polls predicting a strong Biden victory would be correct. Could they have been wrong again?

The Fourth Estate has historically prided itself on its ability to reflect and shape opinion, sometimes to the point of boorishness: after the Conservatives won the 1992 UK election, The Sun claimed responsibility with the headline “It's The Sun Wot Won It”.

Now, with the possibility of a second botched election performance in a row, the US mainstream media seems out of step with the country’s electorate. “There's already”, declared economist Eamonn Butler on Wednesday morning, “one clear result: American politicians, pollsters and press don't understand the American people”.

While the media mocked Trump’s gaffes and scorned his outrages, they discounted the enormous number of Americans who felt otherwise. By buying into one narrative about the president, they downplayed others, such as the country's prospering economy. If we can no longer trust the media to provide accurate insight into the issues animating society, why should we trust it at all?

Besides, the mainstream media may no longer be so mainstream. The New York Times has 6.5 million subscribers — a mere 1.9% of the US population of 328 million. News networks MSNBC and CNN respectively boasted 2.7 million and 2.4 million prime time viewers this month, a paltry portion of the country. As Americans increasingly receive their news from other sources such as social media, the very idea of mainstream media may need a rethink.

Defenders of the media could argue that a few inaccurate election polls is hardly reason to question its health. Polling errors are nothing new. From the unanticipated success of Harry Truman in 1948 to the Conservative Party’s shock 80-strong majority in the 2019 UK election, it has long been an inexact science. The media’s ultimate strength comes not in predicting the future but in reporting on events as they happen with a critical eye.

For better or worse, news outlets have always served to reinforce the inclinations and expectations of their audiences, sometimes to the exclusion of other points of view. "Many liberals”, writes Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, “are turning to elite media to find their own values expressed”. The media’s apparent myopia may accurately reflect a time of polarisation, where different groups in society have struggled to find common ground.

Is the US media fit for purpose?

Fool me twice

Fighting fit, say some. Media channels have always reflected the perspectives of their readers rather than that of society as a whole. And bogus polling aside, newspapers and networks continue to provide valuable reportage and hold the US administration to account. If anyone is to blame, it is us for not being more sceptical about the polls.

Barely alive, say others. Despite increased engagement during the hectic Trump era, only a small section of society regularly read or watch the mainstream media. The American media’s second potential polling day catastrophe demonstrates its inability to adapt to the concerns of the present day, and reveals its failure to represent more than a small fragment of society.

You Decide

  1. What responsibility does a newspaper have to its readers?
  2. Is a functioning media necessary for a democratic society?

Activities

  1. Design a newspaper front page, with a headline and picture illustrating the latest US election news.
  2. Write a letter of complaint to a newspaper or broadcast news service of your choice, explaining what improvements you believe it should make.

Some People Say...

“Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.”

Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher and political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that a free media plays a fundamental part in a democratic society. It aims to foster debate, provide criticism of political and societal actors, and investigate power to ensure that decision-makers are held responsible for their actions. By providing a platform in which views are aired, it can allow governments to better understand the concerns animating groups and individuals in society. And by selecting which stories to tell, it helps form a common news agenda.
What do we not know?
There remains debate over the nature and extent of the media's ability to influence its audience. “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth,” proclaimed American civil rights leader Malcom X, “because they control the minds of the masses”. Yet while newspapers and networks often aspire to influence public opinion, there remains no way to precisely measure how successful they are at doing this, especially as publications with a particular standpoint tend to attract like-minded readers.

Word Watch

GOP
An acronym of Grand Old Party, a nickname for the right-wing Republican Party. Founded in 1854, it is actually 26 years younger than the Democratic Party.
Lone Star State
A nickname for Texas that references its history as an independent republic between 1836 and 1845.
Fourth Estate
A term coined by 18th century statesman Edmund Burke to describe journalists as distinct from the three 'estates’ — the nobility, the clergy and the commoners — of medieval European societies.
Mainstream media
A collective term for the established media outlets that are seen to reflect and influence the thoughts of the average citizen.
Gaffes
A gaffe is a blunder, from a French word meaning “boathook”.
Elite media
The members of the mainstream media believed to influence the political agenda of other media organisations.
Myopia
Literal or figurative short-sightedness, from ancient Greek term meaning “short-sighted man”.
Poll
The process of voting in an election. In Shakespeare’s day, it described the top of your head.

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