Normalization and Chicken Little
You probably know the folk tale of Chicken Little (Henny Penny if you’re British). If not, in short, the eponymous Chicken Little continuously spouts the apocalyptic message that “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Summoning a posse of fowl, Chicken Little’s hysteria spreads and, in a cruel twist of fate, they are unable to see the real danger because of the hysteria they’ve manufactured and, in most variants of the tale, wind up being eaten by a fox.
If you haven’t been following the development of the term “normalization” as it relates to President-Elect Trump, it goes something like this: the media, etc. have let Trump/Trump’s supporters’ ideas enter into the mainstream American dialogue without sufficient challenge. Further, the media, etc. have discussed potentially radical ideas as if they were average policy proposals. Thus, the general public, because of their reliance on media sources, have a “new normal” and accept that some/many/all of Trump/Trump’s supporters’ ideas are within the mainstream.
Obviously, the normalization argument is subject to the obvious factual fallacies inherent in its assumptions/ Specifically, the notion that the media, etc. (news, pundits, entertainment, and corporate interests) have been friendly in their coverage of Trump. Even the most tuned-out American realizes that coverage of Trump from major, institutional media sources has been consistently negative. (See: Washington Post)
Proponents of the “normalization” theory would contend that the media, etc. treating Trump/Trump’s supporters’ ideas as something worthy of objective coverage is sufficient to confirm a “normalizing” shift. While this seems reasonable, the problem is, again, assumptions. Donald Trump won the Presidency based on numerous and varied factors. Likely the strongest, continuous, factor in play was Trump’s ability to get media coverage. Now, this, again, plays to a “normalization” argument, but it also suggests that, regardless of the media’s continuous critique of Trump, his ubiquity played to his brand and popularity. In fact, constant and consistent media criticism of Trump could very well have made Trump more palatable (people root for underdogs).
So, Donald Trump will be the next President. The apoplexy of the institutional media is off-the-charts. From Trump not holding a press conference to the fact that some of Trump’s less-than-savory supporters are glorying in their theories about what a Trump presidency heralds for America’s future, the drumbeat of “everything Trump does is a scandal” has begun in earnest.
While we can understand the journalistic imperative to speak truth to power and investigate on behalf of the people, the power and belief in the nominal “Fourth Estate” is perilous. As we’ve discussed numerous times before, the most predictive indicator of the likely outcome of the 2016 election was Gallup’s “Trust in Institutions” survey (Here). While this survey didn’t predict “Donald Trump will be President,” it did show a mass-movement away from traditional sources of opinion-shaping authority in favor of, depending on how you characterize November’s result, “self-selected alternative confirmation-bias new media” or “individualized, self-determined investigation.”
Regardless of the reason behind the turn away from traditional sources of opinion-shaping, the reality for the media, etc. is dire, but not, necessarily in the way many journalists may think. The conventional wisdom from institutional media sources is that Trump’s campaign boast to “open up the libel laws” and his constant attack on media sources for negative coverage presents an existential threat to the free press. This has led to a constant criticism-fight between institutional media sources like the New York Times and Washington Post and Mr. Trump.
The real concern for the press, and one that seems to be missing from the coverage, should not merely be that Trump may undermine their rights, it’s that their coverage may undermine their credibility. See, the power of the Fourth Estate is in their ability to be believed by the “Average Joe” who doesn’t have time to watch press conferences and read hundreds of pages of laws and policy proposals. Especially in the era of 140-character tweets, distilled headlines shape public opinion.
Certainly, the argument can be made that Trump’s bombastic tone and criticism of media outlets, especially since his election, undercuts the ability of the press to be believed by the general public. However, as is clear from the Gallup poll, this was a problem for the institutional media long before Trump’s advent on the political stage. Trump’s rise capitalized on the media’s salivation over online clicks and television ad revenue. Symbiotically, Trump provided media producers and executives with huge profits.
The real truth, however, was that both “sides,” Trump and the media were only nominally symbiotic. Both had their sights set on a parasitic relationship. The institutional media showed its hand early, routinely covering Trump negatively and snidely guffawing at his gaffes. But, Trump soldiered on, consistently building on previous coverage and dominating news cycles.
Regardless of concerns about press objectivity, there should be little doubt that the free press is an essential component of accountability in government and popular information. It obviously should be the goal of an open society to have a press that will hold leaders to account and provide analysis of important issues. However, given the direction the corporate media has pursued, and its declining popular trust, can the current iteration of the press perform its function?
And so we come to the crossroads: can the media rehabilitate itself to the extent that it provides the necessary popular check on government overreach, or has it come to the point of merely being a for-profit arm of reality television?
This answer may already be summarized in the criticisms of the President Elect for bringing potential cabinet members to meet him in Trump Tower while, simultaneously, having a television live feed trained on the Trump Tower elevators.
Rather than fearing “normalization” and the falling sky, perhaps it would be better to focus on the reasons behind declining credibility and work to reconcile this gulf between the Acela Corridor and the “rest of America.” As the President Elect proved in his stunning upset of the political establishment, there are millions of Americans who refuse, and repudiate, the direction that institutions have taken the country.