When the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, and now Donald Trump, are declared the latest ‘New Hitler’, we learn little except that they are enemies of the establishment. It means the ‘On’ button has been pressed on a propaganda machine designed for maximal demonisation, leaving no room for public doubt. This inevitably drives comparisons in the direction of Hitler and the Nazis.
The rationale is well-understood by the public relations community. Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on PR and communications, explained the spectacularly successful strategy for obstructing action on environmental issues:
‘People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt… Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.’ (Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups,’ Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)
Conversely, when action is required, the issue must be presented as one-sided, clear-cut, black-and-white.
This doesn’t mean that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a tyrant, and it doesn’t mean that Trump isn’t a grave threat to uncivilisation; it means that establishment enemies are described as ‘New Hitlers’ for reasons that have little or nothing to do with any threat they might pose.
In Trump’s case, the public was not being softened up for invasion, bombing and murder, although his liberal opponents have often ‘joked‘, with complete unawareness of the irony, about assaulting and assassinating him.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal Declares
The idea that journalism should offer a neutral ‘spectrum’ of views was unceremoniously dumped during the US presidential election. Hillary Clinton was endorsed by the 500 largest US newspapers and magazines; Trump by 20 of the smallest, with the most significant of these – something called the Las Vegas Review-Journal – reaching some 100,000 readers.
As with Jeremy Corbyn, from the moment Trump became a genuine contender, he was drenched in vitriol by virtually the entire US-UK corporate press. The smear campaign was epitomised by the baseless, Ian Fleming-like suggestion that Trump was in cahoots with the establishment’s other great bête noire, Putin – a propaganda-perfect marriage of Evil and Pure Evil.
Ironically, Trump may well turn out to be the final nail in the coffin of the manifestly stalled human attempt to become civilised. As leading climate scientist Michael Mann has noted, Trump’s stance on climate stability may mean ‘game over’ for it and us.
But elite media did not oppose Trump because of his climate views – no question was raised on the issue during the presidential debates and, as Noam Chomsky observes (below), the issue was of no interest to journalists. On the other hand, Edward Herman comments, a declared lack of enthusiasm for foreign conflict, notably with Russia, ‘may help explain the intensity of media hostility to Trump’.
Inevitably, our drawing attention to the awesome level of media bias drew accusations that Media Lens was an unlikely ‘apologist’ for Trump’s far-right declarations promoting racism, misogyny and climate denial. When we asked Guardian commentator Hadley Freeman why, in comparing Trump and Clinton, she mentioned Clinton’s email server scandal but not her war crimes, she interpreted this as an endorsement of Trump:
‘You’re right: the racist, war-endorsing misogynist multiply accused of sexual assault was the better option. Thanks for clarity.’
Telegraph columnist Helena Horton dismissed discussion of Clinton’s devastating wars as ‘whataboutery’:
‘your whataboutery is detracting from the fact there is a far-right misogynist racist in the White House.’
‘im shocked idiot men who pushed a fascist into power because HRC not perfect enough haven’t shut up… and gosh they’re foul aren’t they’
Comedian Robert Webb of Peep Show fame agreed, describing us as ‘pricks’.
Again, there is much irony in ostensible anti-fascists insisting that a tiny website should ‘shut up’ and leave Big Media to steamroll their candidate into the White House.
To be fair to our abusers, it is of course true that criticising Clinton risked, to a microscopically tiny degree in our case, supplying ammunition for the Trump cause. But in reality Trump is only part of the problem. Chomsky comments on the Republican Party’s stance on climate change:
‘And notice it’s not Trump; it’s 100 percent of the Republican candidates taking essentially the same position. What they’re saying… “It’s all a joke. It’s a liberal hoax.”‘
Chomsky is talking about the imminent breakdown of climate stability:
‘It is hard to find words to capture the fact that humans are facing the most important question in their history – whether organized human life will survive in anything like the form we know – and are answering it by accelerating the race to disaster…
‘It is no less difficult to find words to capture the utterly astonishing fact that in all of the massive coverage of the electoral extravaganza, none of this receives more than passing mention. At least I am at a loss to find appropriate words.’
As this makes very clear, the problem does not begin and end with Trump. The roots of the Clinton-Trump fiasco lie in decades of ‘liberal’ media refusal to challenge the increasing venality, violence and suicidal climate indifference at the supposedly rational end of the political spectrum. Virtually the entire ‘liberal’ journalistic community saw great hope in Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, while treating genuinely honest and compassionate political commentators like Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger, Howard Zinn, Harold Pinter, Chris Hedges, Jonathan Cook and many others as quixotic freaks who may be mentioned in passing, published once in a supermoon, but otherwise ignored.
As Slavoj Zizek observed: ‘The real catastrophe is the status quo.’ When liberal journalism slams the door on reasoned arguments and authentic compassion, other doors swing wide for the likes of Trump.
The default corporate media excuse for ignoring ‘our’ crimes is that elected politicians have been chosen to serve by the people, and it is the task of journalism to support, not subvert, democracy. But of course democracy is profoundly subverted by a lack of honest media scrutiny. Structural media distortion is so extreme that, despite bombing seven countries, Barack Obama continues to be depicted and perceived as an almost saintly figure.
Which is why it was important to challenge the notion that Hillary Clinton was a benevolent force for democracy, justice and the climate before she attained power. And after all, as Secretary of State, she had held one of the most important positions within the US regime.
The risk of boosting Trump was thus balanced by the need to take advantage of a limited period when mass media are, or ought to be, obliged to honestly compare the words and deeds of the leading candidates. In other words, despite Trump’s awfulness, there was a strong moral case for drawing attention to Clinton’s record of reducing Libya to a ruin – a war crime known in Washington as ‘Hillary’s war’ – of fuelling a hideous war in Syria, supporting the overthrow of the Honduran government, and so on.
As author Thomas Frank noted, pretty much the entire media system depicted Clinton as ‘a peerless leader clad in saintly white, a super-lawyer, a caring benefactor of women and children, a warrior for social justice’.
‘With the same arguments repeated over and over, two or three times a day, with nuance and contrary views all deleted, the act of opening the newspaper started to feel like tuning in to a Cold War propaganda station.’
It was difficult to imagine these words appearing in a national newspaper before the vote, and ironic indeed that they appeared in the Guardian. Happily for Britain’s ‘leading liberal-left newspaper’, the linked examples of media bias embedded in Frank’s piece led to the New York Times rather than to equivalent or better examples on the website hosting his article.
In fact, Frank’s piece mocking media performance is part of a trend indicating that filters suppressing media honesty have been partially lifted now that a clear-cut, black-and-white version of reality is no longer so crucial.
Two further examples should help clarify this intriguing phenomenon.
Nick Bryant And The Lear Jet Liberals
On November 8, the BBC’s New York correspondent, Nick Bryant, published a last comment on the election before voting began. On November 9, in the aftermath of the result, he published a second piece.
In his pre-vote piece, Bryant wrote blandly:
‘The post-industrial wastelands of the rustbelt, with their skeletal remains and carcass-like old steel mills, are hardly a new feature of the topography in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. But to view them again was to look at the seedbeds of Trumpism – rubble-strewn but seedbeds nonetheless.’
After the vote, Bryant’s tone had changed:
‘So many people I spoke to during this campaign – especially in the old steel towns of the Rust Belt – wanted a businessman in the White House rather than a career politician. Their hatred of Washington was palpable.
‘So, too, was their hatred of her. It was visceral. I vividly remember talking to a middle-aged woman in Tennessee, who oozed southern charm, who could not have been more polite. But when the subject of Hillary Clinton came up her whole demeanour changed.’
Visceral hatred of Clinton, no less, with a woman’s opinion offered as an example. Remarkable.
Bryant’s damning summation: ‘few people personify the political establishment more than Hillary Clinton. During this campaign, for millions of angry voters, she became the face of America’s broken politics’.
Before the vote, Bryant commented:
‘the rule of thumb in this election, in non-urban settings especially, was the more impoverished the landscape, the more likely its inhabitants were to support the billionaire.’
After the vote:
‘Hillary Clinton has long had a trust problem, which is why the email scandal loomed so large. She had an authenticity problem. She was seen as the high priestess of an east coast elite that looked down, sneeringly, on working people.
‘The vast riches that the Clintons accumulated since leaving the White House did not help. The former first couple were seen not just as limousine liberals but Lear Jet liberals.’
This was excoriating, unlike anything we’d seen from a BBC journalist during the election.
Before the vote, like virtually every other corporate media reporter, Bryant was casually damning of Trump:
‘I have tried to learn more about narcissistic personality disorder.
‘Many commentators from both sides believe having a basic grasp of the condition was important in making sense of the behaviour of Donald Trump.’
He also focused on the idea that Clinton’s ‘personality is endlessly intriguing. Why, for instance, does she struggle to convey the warmth and spontaneity in public that many of us have witnessed in private?’
Bryant’s post-vote piece dispensed with such pleasantries:
‘Hillary Clinton is not a natural campaigner. Her speeches are often flat and somewhat robotic. Her sound-bites sound like sound-bites – prefabricated and, to some ears, insincere.’
And consider that, as discussed, before the election numerous commentators compared Trump to Hitler, the United States to Germany in the 1930s, and so on. Despite these terrifying claims, we saw little or no discussion of just how much power a triumphant Trump would actually have. Some analysis arrived after the vote on November 15 with Anthony Zurcher’s piece, ‘Can Donald Trump get what he wants?’
Zurcher immediately notes that popular support, in fact, is not enough: Trump will require the backing of ‘the Washington powers that populate Congress and [that] are necessary to successfully implement his agenda’.
What of Trump’s infamous US-Mexico border wall? It would cost $20bn, for which the Mexican government is clearly unwilling to pay, and would in some parts be downgraded to a fence. But actually: ‘Chances of a monumental Great Wall of Trump ever becoming a reality… seem slim.’
What about Trump’s shocking plan to deport 11 million undocumented workers from the US?
‘He’s since walked back such sweeping pronouncements… In the face of reluctance from Congress and financial obstacles… it will be tough for him to make the numbers add up.’
What about dismantling Obamacare?
‘Republicans likely lack the political will to fully pull the plug… in the end “reform” looks considerably more attractive than “repeal”.’
And so on. Accurate or not, serious, high-profile attention is finally being paid to the existence of checks and balances that will likely prevent a Trump tyranny. This kind of rational discussion conflicted with the establishment need to block Trump by presenting him as a Saddam- or Gaddafi-like figure, a Hitlerian threat. The fact that Trump’s stance on climate means he really is a serious threat to humanity may turn out to be an unhappy coincidence.
Hillary Clinton was indisputably the preferred establishment candidate, backed by virtually the entire US-UK corporate press.
‘Mainstream’ media did not merely support Clinton, they declared propaganda war on Trump. As we have seen in this brief sample, even BBC journalists thought nothing of ridiculing Trump’s ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ – unthinkable language from a BBC reporter describing an Obama, a Cameron, or indeed a Clinton.
The intensity of establishment support for Clinton meant that journalistic performance was filtered by host media and self-censorship. As the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told us in an interview:
‘[T]he whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch,” or whoever, “never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write. It’s understood.’
The moment the vote was cast, pressures filtering out criticisms of Clinton and less hysterical coverage of Trump were lifted. The result is a semblance of balance that allows stunningly extreme ‘mainstream’ media to enhance their ill-deserved reputation for ‘fairness’ and ‘impartiality’.