The unaccountable president: Why investigative journalism has not stopped Donald Trump

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By Christopher White
Investigative journalism has proven itself to be a powerful tool for democracy and social justice in recent decades. Practitioners have exposed the sexual abuse committed by senior members of the Catholic Church, aided in the recovery of over $100 billion AUD of unpaid tax through the publishing of the Panama Papers and, perhaps most famously, played a crucial role in the toppling of Richard Nixon’s presidency after the Watergate scandal.

But investigative journalism has, seemingly, met its match in the 45th President of the United States of America Donald J. Trump. Trump’s longstanding shamelessness and imperviousness to scandal earned him the unflattering moniker ‘Teflon Don’ long before he entered the White House. Journalists and citizens alike have been continually frustrated by Trump’s ability to engage in near-felonious activities which dwarf those perpetrated by Richard Nixon.

The question is why?

Investigative journalism and its limits

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, truth is ‘society’s best weapon against corruption, injustice and inequality’. However, Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and Youtube, which allow internet users to create and publish their own content without any of the checks and balances imposed upon traditional media sources, have shifted society towards a ‘post truth’ world where previous hierarchies of knowledge are dissolving, resulting in scientifically-sound conclusions and conspiracy theories receiving equal weight in the minds of the public. According to Flatscher and Seitz writing in Le Foucaldien, this has resulted in a wide-spread erosion of critical thinking abilities amongst citizens of western democracies, an erosion which has blunted the impacts of investigative journalism.

This point was illustrated shortly after Trump’s inauguration, when senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, went on television and presented the ‘alternative facts’ that Trump’s inaugural crowd had been the biggest in history, despite photographic evidence to the contrary.

Linda M. G. Zerilli, who is the Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, notes that despite cries of protest from the media who described Conway’s lie as ‘Orwellian’, Conway was able to introduce to Trump and his supporters a pedagogical term which has been successfully weaponised against his detractors.

Zerilli, drawing upon the work of Hannah Arendt, argues that the danger of this current situation is not that lies are becoming more common than truth, but that Trump and his administration are succeeding in using lies to undermine the shared factual reality of American citizens. They are supported in these efforts by the Russian government, which has been described as waging a ‘Fake News war’ on the west through the spreading of misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media.

According to Patryk Babiracki at the University of Texas-Arlington, these efforts are designed to generate a schizophrenic mindset amongst western citizens, and to further divorce them from the concept of a shared reality.

These efforts have borne fruit. For many people, facts are now little better than opinions, knowledge is increasingly politicised, and ‘truth’ is whatever the individual wishes it to be. Recent polling suggests that 30 per cent of the American public believe in one or more coronavirus conspiracy theories, whilst 29 per cent believe there is a ‘deep state’ working against Donald Trump, and 19 per cent believe that the US government is using chemicals to ‘control the population’. Investigative journalists, therefore, are not only struggling to ascertain the inner workings of an administration which has been compared to a mafia family, but they are attempting to provide a narrative of events to citizens for whom the very notion of ‘truth’ has become an issue of political partisanship.

While investigative journalism may be able to shine a light on Trump and how he has helped to shape such a divisive social climate, such revelations will fall upon largely deaf ears until other social institutions start to counter the influx of ‘alternative facts’ from the internet, and a shared sense of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ is rebuilt in western democracies.

A monster of the media’s own making

Aside from shifting concepts of truth within society, investigative journalists reporting on Trump must also reckon with the fact that Trump is essentially a monster of the media’s own making.

Mary L. Trump, niece of the current president, writes in her book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, that the persona of Donald Trump as a successful businessman with the Midas Touch was created and promoted by the current president and his father, Fred Trump. However, Mary Trump notes that the media were willing to take Trump’s self-promotion at face value, realising that his inability to distinguish ‘mockery and flattery’ combined with his remarkable shamelessness provided them with an opportunity to increase newspaper sales.

Consequently, Trump was provided with a platform to promote his brand for decades before entering the presidential political arena. This favourable coverage, combined with the worldwide attention garnered by The Apprentice, meant that Trump entered the presidential race with significant, and undeserved, reputational capital.

Research demonstrates that media frames, once internalised, are difficult to shake for many people, and that any further controversies which occur will be viewed through the lens of that dominant frame. It is understandable, therefore, that despite Trump’s many controversies and apparent failures of leadership on the world stage, many among his base still view him as a business genius with a preternatural gift for negotiation and deal-making. After all, this is the image that much of the media has continuously reinforced since the 1980s, and the one that many people have internalised.

Adding to the complications

When one takes into consideration the reverence with which the Office of the Presidency is often treated in America, it becomes clear that investigative journalists looking to hold Trump to account for his actions are labouring against two powerful myths. The first is that Donald Trump is a self-made ‘winner’ who succeeds at everything he attempts. The second is that the Office of the Presidency itself bestows some mystical dignity upon all who inhabit the Oval Office, an idea which is keenly connected to the enduring myth of American Exceptionalism.

Trump’s opportunity to intertwine his own brand with the brand of the presidency was afforded by journalists and the media’s adoption of the ‘infotainment’ model, leaving current investigative journalists with the unenviable task of deconstructing and challenging hegemonic media frames in their attempts to expose Trump’s corruption.

Countering the base

A further issue facing investigative journalists is the increasingly complicated relationship which Trump enjoys with his most ardent supporters. Many Trump supporters seem to understand exactly who Donald Trump is, and still support him anyway.

Natasha Zaretsky, who teaches contemporary US political culture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, argues that Trump has come to serve as an idol for white American men who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the feminist and civil rights movements began to change the face of the American workplace and, with it, America’s understanding of white masculinity. Trump’s arrested emotional development, combined with his professional ruthlessness, makes him the ideal poster-child for generations of men who grew up in a time when traditional concepts of patriarchy were collapsing and being rapidly replaced by ‘market fundamentalism and economic inequality’. Trump’s persona resonates with a large number of these men, as his racist and sexist views reflect a masculinity which pre-dates the social revolutions of the late 20th Century, a masculinity which seems more authoritative and less susceptible to challenge, whilst his professional ruthlessness and mythic business acumen demonstrate the ability to survive an economy which has left many workers disenfranchised.  

Writing in the journal Society, Stephen Whitfield concurs with this argument, noting that Trump is heavily favoured by working-class men who resent the civil rights movement, and religious groups who oppose the feminist movement, suggesting that Trump is something of a spiritual successor to the late Joseph McCarthy. It is perhaps Trump’s greatest achievement that he has successfully marketed himself to a large minority of voters as being not only the perfect example of the benefits of rampant capitalism, but also the only individual who can lead a successful revolt against its detriments.

It should also be noted that Trump’s shameless self-promotion and outright lying are not completely out of step with a society which has become engrossed in the alternate reality of social media. Indeed, thanks to websites such as Facebook and Instagram, regular citizens now engage in self-promotion and the management of personal brands far more than they have in previous years, meaning that Trump has become the embodiment of behaviour which many people practise on a daily basis. The acceptance and normalization of personal branding has afforded Trump the ability to market a false self, and one that is contradictory to his personal history. Trump the draft-dodger, the bankrupt businessman and the child of privilege has for many people become Trump the strongman, the business genius, the self-made prodigy. In this sense Trump is the zenith of the online marketing practices undertaken by millions worldwide, as in his case the marketing has become the man and fantasy has become reality. Indeed, one of the confronting aspects of the Trump presidency is not that Americans elected a social aberration but that Trump, despite remaining unchanging over recent decades, has now come to represent values which are shared by a large number of people.

Investigative journalists seeking to promote critical thinking into the actions of Trump and his administration are therefore challenging American citizens to examine their own behaviours, belief systems and increasingly mediated existence. It is unlikely that journalism on its own will prove sufficient to force to provoke such a massive and profound level of social change and introspection.

The war against journalism and journalists

In the same way that Trump’s values, or lack thereof, are reflective of his voter base, his ascendency to the presidency is also reflective of the state of US politics. A large source of US power in the second half of the 20th Century was not derived from military or economic might, but from the soft power of the ‘American Dream’, perhaps most famously expressed by Ronald Reagan through the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ narrative.

Writing in Issues in Science and Technology, Braden R Allenby notes that the corruption of the American body politic can be measured through the collapse of esteem with which its citizens and public servants hold journalists and the dominant media narratives. Where once news anchor Walter Cronkite was the ‘most trusted man in America’, now journalists are purveyors of ‘fake news’ and labelled ‘enemies of the people’.

While Trump himself has done much to promote such hateful rhetoric, it should be noted he is not a lone voice.  The Republican Party and US government have done little to censure or refute this narrative. Indeed, governmental harassment of journalists is not a new occurrence under the Trump administration, as the prosecution of journalists and ‘leakers’ was drastically increased under the Obama administration, providing Trump with a launching pad to increase attacks upon journalists and the media.

This increasingly hostile attitude towards journalists goes some way to explaining why Trump has not suffered the same fate as Richard Nixon. As US constitutional law expert Mary-Rose Papandrea writes, the success of journalists in leaking the Pentagon Papers and later tackling the Watergate scandal was largely based upon the circumstances of the time. Not only is the current Supreme Court less sympathetic to issues of journalistic protection than they were in the 1960’s and 70’s, but the increasingly anti-journalistic rhetoric of successive administrations has meant that even favourable court rulings have done little to stem the growing tide of public mistrust towards the media.

Similarly, journalistic practices have been co-opted by government officials across the western world. Figures such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump utilising Potemkin journalism tactics to ‘seed the internet with culture-war talking points’ such as the unfounded allegation that media commentator and Trump critic, Joe Scarborough, murdered a staffer in 2001. Journalists are facing an increasingly hostile environment where true investigative reporting is met with hostility, litigation and even the threat of jail time. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians attempt to weaponize journalistic practices to undermine public faith in the media.

A major difficulty facing investigative journalists is that Trump is not a vagabond who has conned his way into controlling the proverbial ‘Shining City on the Hill’, but that this ideal of American society has largely been abandoned in recent years. The truth of this sentiment was clearly visible when Trump displayed a chilling indifference to the murder of journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi, making no attempt to hold the Saudi government to account despite overwhelming evidence of their involvement.

Far from fulfilling his campaign promise of draining the proverbial swamp, Trump has enabled and encouraged the worst of American political practices, meaning that investigative journalists seeking to expose wrongdoing are operating in an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment, with their power to hold public figures to account being undermined on a daily basis.

The task before us

Investigative journalists have a Herculean task in seeking to expose the wrongdoings of Donald Trump. They are faced on the one hand with an executive branch that holds little regard for standards of journalistic excellence and free speech, and on the other with a public that is increasingly polarised and for whom the concept of ‘truth’ has become a matter of opinion.

While investigative journalism fulfills a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the Fourth Estate, which is itself crucial for the functioning of a healthy democracy, it is important to recognise that the Fourth Estate is merely one institution among many, and cannot operate in a vacuum. Social polarisation, the existential crisis presented by a loss in shared sense of ‘truth’, and the desperation with which many people are seeking a leader to deliver them from the negative impacts of capitalism and globalisation are not issues that can be solved by the Fourth Estate alone.

Investigative journalism holds no power if institutions and the people who run them have no interest in operating a functional democracy. Donald Trump is not, contrary to the opinions of some commentators, a disease inflicted upon the American political system. Rather, his brand of politics is the symptom of a disease which has afflicted the United States for decades. No amount of truth-telling from journalists will be able to conquer the myths which Trump propagates about himself and American society unless social institutions and governing parties are able to provide Americans with viable alternatives. Investigative journalism has an important role to play in undoing the damage which has been done to democracies by public figures such as Donald Trump, but it cannot do that work alone.

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