Indirect complicity and the need for an internal overhaul of professionalism within journalism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Des Freedman touches on an interesting point in his commentary on how failures in media policy have contributed to the rise of populism – the indirect complicity of the mass media. However, I think there is more to it than the few lines Freedman devotes to it, particularly in his discourse about looking forward and ‘resolving’ the issues he identifies in the current mass media systems in place in the U.S. and the U.K.

As Freedman notes, giving populists like Trump and Le Pen airtime, even negative or critical airtime, gives them a platform.  And it is imperative to remember that no one is owed a platform. One may say and believe what they like, but no one is owed influence and amplification. Freedman writes about how “elite” news media was shocked by the results of the 2016 election in the US, and the results of the Brexit referendum, and vowed to shift their coverage, but has that coverage shifted in any meaningful way? Freedman argues, and I would agree that the answer is largely no.

We did witness, in the last vestiges of the Trump administration, cable news outlets opt not to air certain speeches or statements due to the sheer quantity of lies present, but those instances were few and far between. For the most part, as Freedman notes, the revised coverage was reduced to aghast disgust; I found this particularly irksome in coverage of the insurrection at the Capital by CNN. As the hosts watched the events unfold in real time, they could do little more than remark on how shocking, unprecedented, and despicable it all was.

Freedman also takes issue with journalistic notions of objectivity – indeed, journalism itself is undergoing an internal reckoning about objectivity and its roots in white supremacy. Yet I would argue that it goes beyond this; that electoral and political systems are just as much to blame, and in fact they are intrinsically linked with the systemic problems present in mass media.

Freedman references Silvio Waisbord, who himself has dedicated much of his study to reinventing notions of professionalism within journalism, and the pitting of professional journalism (the outlets Freedman primarily references – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post – all of whom have their practice rooted in strict notions of professionalism including the procedure and ethics that guide how journalism is done) against militant journalism (employed by what he dubs “neo-populist” governments as a way to combat the elitism of professional journalism) (Waisbord 2013).

It is certainly a massive undertaking to reimagine the journalistic enterprise, particularly because what is so key to the success of the function of the journalist is relative freedom from government regulation. Thus, dictating any particular media policy becomes inherently fraught. I think the conversation must shift to a wide-scale recognition of the indirect complicity of news media, and how that coupled with a dire need for democratic reform has led to the massive success of populist outlets (Brieitbart, Rebel News) and the demagogue candidates they endorse.

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