U.S. elections: Media credibility and impartiality are the biggest losers

Cartoon depicting journalists silencing Donald Trump while interviewing Joe Biden
The election coverage of most established media was obviously biased in favor of Democratic candidate Joe Biden (source: GIS)

Joe Biden is now considered the victor of the elections and the future 46th president of the United States. It is somewhat early to comment on potential realignments in Washington and on the outcome of eventual lawsuits. However, it is already hard to digest the arrogant and self-satisfied European gloating directed at Donald Trump.

During the campaign, there was already a fair amount of schadenfreude in Europe – hypocritically disguised as concern – about the decline and inefficiency of U.S. democracy. One buzzword was polarization. In fact, heated debates are proof of a functioning democracy. Some cheating during elections is probably unavoidable in larger countries, but it does not jeopardize democracy and institutions overall. 

The high electoral participation is yet another indicator of a lively democracy with dissenting opinions. Consensus is nice, but too much consensus, as we see now between the major parties in Europe, can be even more dangerous. It leads to mediocrity, complacency and limitations on free speech, often resulting in coalitions based on the lowest common denominator. Polarization per se is not always negative. 

America has had political dynasties before. The Trumps might continue to play a role, possibly in the next generation
It goes without saying that mud fights are regrettable and unproductive. The whole campaign was muddy, but not purely due to President Trump’s unfortunate style. Mr. Trump got elected in 2016, against all odds, because many people were unsatisfied with the political elite of both parties. He was the antiestablishment icon. He was not the cause of the split in U.S. society, but a result and symptom. He was immediately targeted with allegations and accusations, most of which remain unproven.  

After the 2016 election, the congratulations Donald Trump received from European leaders were full of arrogance and condescension. In fact, some of them could even be considered offensive. 

Trump era

It is not necessary to describe the shortcomings of President Trump. There is an overabundance of such descriptions already.  

His wording was very direct and much of what he said was not accurate. He is not the only politician having this vice. However, his frank language made it easier to detect erroneous statements. He lashed out at the media because of how he was treated by journalists. This became a cycle of attack and counterattacks, but generally, the wide and aggressive reporting around Mr. Trump played to his advantage.  

The Trump era had positive sides. Deregulation and streamlining of the tax system helped the economy, which performed well. It was also necessary to adopt a strong stance on trade with China. The primary duty of a head of state is the long-term well-being of the people and the nation. “America first” is therefore a valid slogan, although it might sometimes lead to hubris.  

Mr. Trump’s blunt ways made European governments realize – at long last – the necessity to take responsibility for the continent’s defense and geopolitical standing. For this, Europe should be grateful. European governments are now expressing their relief and expectations that relations will improve. It may be that the tone will be less confrontational, but the essence will not necessarily change. 

I once heard the quote: “You should take Donald Trump seriously, but not literally.” His frequently rude and inconsistent speech hid coherent strategies. This became very apparent during the discussion between Vice President Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, where Mr. Pence plainly and convincingly outlined these policies. 

Many have commented that “America is the loser” because of the campaign. This is clearly wrong. Whether one agrees or disagrees with President Trump, whether one likes him or deeply rejects him, the U.S. remains a strong country and a functioning democracy. Europe does not need to imitate the U.S., but should at least try to understand it. Has democracy suffered because of a political mudslinging in a country that has promoted and spread this value around the world? Not necessarily. People voted in large numbers and showed considerable interest in the election. The biggest threat to freedom and democracy is indifference and apathy. These were certainly not prevalent in the latest elections.

One low point  of the campaign was that the main Democratic policy point could be summed up as: “Trump must go.”

The media deprived the American public of a speech given by a democratically-elected head of state
This election is a personal success for Donald Trump, even if he loses the presidency. He received nearly 50 percent of the vote. The Democrats expected a landslide victory  – as did many forecasts – and a majority in the Senate. Neither materialized. Joe Biden won by a small margin and Republicans will probably keep their Senate majority. Nearly all established media were against Mr. Trump, and Twitter and Facebook hid his posts.  

President Trump’s focus on the economy, the preservation of the American way of life and security understandably matter to a large part of society, especially those who feel abandoned by Washington. America has had political dynasties before. The Trumps might continue to play a role, possibly in the next generation.   

Journalistic standards

The greatest losers of the elections are the media, which were more interested in promoting their views and self-defined “ethos” than in professional reporting and editing. This betrayal of journalistic standards will not cease after the elections, and it will backfire. 

As the fourth pillar of democracy, the media have to remain impartial while providing facts and opinions. However, all sides have the right to express their views. This should be the case as well on social media, but it is dominated by a few players on the global market. These companies created ethical juries, a very dangerous instrument that could lead to censorship. 

Most established media were obviously biased. Social media limited the visibility of President Trump’s posts.  The major U.S. broadcasters ABC, CBS, CNBC and  MSNBC had a shocking reaction to Mr. Trump’s speech on November 5.  The president, who had secured nearly half of the votes, was interrupted and the broadcast was replaced with disclaimers declaring his statements to be lies. The CNBC moderator said, assuming an authority higher than that of the president: “We are interrupting this, because what the President of the United States is saying is largely untrue.” 

By doing so, the media deprived the American public of a speech given by a democratically-elected head of state. Whether or not one agrees with Mr. Trump, U.S. citizens are entitled to hear what their president has to say. Looking at the current state of the media, Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

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