Recent global developments have proven that the media, polls, and conventional spin doctors have all lost touch with reality. Media speculations and opinionated analysis of doom for a slew of game changing political upheavals including Brexit, Donald Trump’s rise to power, the arrival of Emmanuel Macron at Elysee Palace, the stellar performance of Jeremy Corbyn, and the political movement led by Bernie Sanders, have all proven to be wrong.
By lampooning Donald Trump on morality issues and drooling over his tweets, the American liberal media thought they could shame him into submission and that the American people would be intelligent enough to see the light in the end. What they forgot, however, is that in this age of omnipresent social media and 24-hour news cycle, people can barely retain anything meaningful when they go to bed, and come polling day all they depend on is their internal anger and their tribal affiliation to choose their candidate. And if you think tribal is only African, think again. The whole world has become as tribal today as Africa. And as tribal bonds are ruled by impulse and herd mentality rather than common sense and informed decision making, people vote everywhere as per their tribal affiliation. This is, in my opinion, is where the media failed to read the undertones of the people’s real feelings in the world’s shifting political, environmental and socioeconomic landscape. French and European media brushed off Emmanuel Macron as an inexperienced and visionless dreamer, thus failing to see that Macron was riding on the back of a youth led political centrist reawakening that was alarmed by the growing momentum of the far-right. The UK liberal media focused their search lights on the maverick Brexit leaders thus misleading the general populace to the illusion that Brexit was dead on arrival.
The majority of British media, regardless of their political orientations, also scoffed at Jeremy Corbyn, thrashing him with demeaning banner headlines and accusing him of being an out-of-touch relic from the communist era and a Trojan Horse who was in cahoots with terrorism. Previously, the American media failed to notice the youth-driven political movement inspired by Bernie Sanders’ call to shun market subservient politics that serves only the few and subdues the rest with fear and servitude. Six years ago, the Arab Spring also caught mainstream media by surprise. They neither foresaw it coming nor predicted the dangerous turn it took and the immigrant floodgates that came as a result. It is, therefore, no wonder that people are losing faith with mainstream media and instead flock to social media for news. Not that social media is more reliable but at least people know that social media stories come from ordinary citizens with whom the uninitiated public can easily relate. Besides, as the social media is a cantonised arena, individuals can directly go to their preferred canton and get their unvarnished daily news feed that reinforces their entrenched political positions and amplifies their fears and prejudices. To them, everything else becomes fake news.
The question is therefore, why mainstream media has become such a listless and untrustworthy institution. To answer this question, we need to go back to many years ago when the radio was the only trustworthy news source for people around the world. In our village in Africa, people of all ages used to sit around the transistor radio to listen to the evening news of the BBC in their vernacular. I recall some days when my father’s radio was faulty, he would send me to the nearest teashop to listen to the BBC news and report back to him. To say “the BBC said” was like quoting from a holy book. Local stations also enjoyed similar respect to a lesser degree. The radio was not only a source of news but also a window to informed discussion and education for listeners. Fast forward and it was the 1991 Gulf War that catapulted CNN to international viewership as what looked like constant real time militainment of dramatic footage and narratives kept people glued to their television sets. Other landmarks of TV reporting in the early 90s included the fall of Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa.
But as Francis Fukuyama penned in his The End of History and the Last Man after the end of Cold War, mainstream media turned their attention to domestic news focusing on sensational social issues such as the O.J. Simpson trial and Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Although intrigued and amused by these American sagas, the outside world was beginning to lose interest, with foreign news only to be salvaged by the tragedy of September 11. Soon after world news had become a one-sided narrative focused on a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West as predicted by Samuel Huntington.
Dramatically polarising and fuelling animosity and division rather than building international consensus about the threat of Al Qaida and its latter day offshoots, western media found itself creating a partisan world, while the extremist groups found their long awaited mouthpiece in Al Jazeera TV. However, in the fierce duel between Al Jazeera’s bullheadedness to inflame Muslim sentiment against the West by showing graphic images of the abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and foreign media panting in its race to expose a militant onslaught against western values, responsible and trustworthy journalism was lost forever. Since then world media has become a rudderless wreck that survives more on wiki leaks, political gossip, peeking into bedrooms, and gawking at women’s bodies. What once was considered as conversation behind closed doors is now discussed in public, while civility and decency are trashed, and truth sacrificed at the altar of competition for profit and rating.
Real issues of the society that cried for racial and gender equality, justice, equal opportunities in education, jobs, health care and protecting the rights of minorities and immigrants have been ignored, causing the public to switch in droves to social media in a search for empathy and camaraderie. This is why the social media has become the place where battles on real issues take place, and where politicians who stand for issues such Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Emmanuel Macron who were widely ignored by media that thrives on sleaze and the immorality of politicians find their support.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues.