By Pablo J. Boczkowski & Eugenia Mitchelstein
On January 25, just five days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while (…) The media here is the opposition party.” Three days later, President Trump tweeted “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!”
These two episodes are consistent with the campaign communication strategy at the top of the Republican ticket and signal that neither President Donald Trump nor his staffers and loyalists plan to change course, at least during the early stages of his presidency. They thus raise the question: how might a confrontational stance between the government and the mainstream media affect the public’s perspective on their trust in politicians and the news? This post examines the practices, interpretations, and experiences of audiences to ascertain what could happen in a given certain set of circumstances—rather than laying out what should happen according to different ideals of public behavior. In this sense, our focus is different from, and complementary to, a normative approach.
Since there is no precedent of this level of confrontation in recent U.S. history, we will answer this question by drawing on our research in Argentina over the past decade to imagine possible scenarios based on some key findings. Although Argentina and the United States are different countries with diverging institutional histories, there are arguably some emerging similarities between the administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his spouse Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) in Argentina and the initial stages of Donald Trump’s presidency. In fact, Guillermo Moreno, Secretary of Commerce to both Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, and one of the most powerful figures in both administrations, said in an interview that Donald Trump “is a Peronist (…) and is doing everything we did.”
During the presidencies of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández an antagonistic relationship between the government and the leading mainstream media emerged—a dynamic that also took place in several other countries of the region during this period. The Kirchner administration initially had a relationship based on mutual convenience with the main media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín. However, things changed in 2008 after a conflict between the government and agricultural producers, in which the coverage carried out by Grupo Clarín’s outlets strongly favored the producers’ claims. Shortly thereafter the government began to directly confront this conglomerate, in addition to La Nación, a broadsheet that has long been considered the leading voice of conservative viewpoints in Argentina. The government and its allies launched repeated public relations, economic, and regulatory attacks against these media. They targeted Diario Clarín most strongly, which has been Argentina’s highest circulation daily and has historically held a centrist ideological position. The most pronounced public relations attack, which has a striking resemblance with current events in the United States, was a campaign centered around the slogan “Clarín lies.” This slogan was not only repeatedly communicated by government officials, most notably former Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno, but also printed in various souvenirs distributed in political rallies and public demonstrations. In turn, the so-called “opposition media” intensified their critical coverage towards the government—a stance which continued throughout the second Fernández administration.
While engaging in a confrontational dynamic may have short-term bottom line benefits, if the Argentine experience is relevant beyond its own borders, media companies might want to be cautious about long-term prospects
What were the main consequences of this antagonism between the government and the mainstream media? Our research, conducted around the time of the 2011 presidential elections in Argentina, indicates that while the government grouped all non-favorable media into a single oppositional bucket, the publics of Clarín and La Nación diverged significantly in their reactions. On the one hand, many readers of Clarín—a portion of whom had voted for Cristina Fernández and were not committed to an ideological position or political party—experienced an erosion in the trust of the information they consumed. As one of our interviewees put it, “for many years I read Clarín and watched Todo Noticias [a cable news network owned by the same conglomerate] with a lot of naiveté”—something that changed following the confrontation with the government. On the other hand, La Nación’s audience—usually more consistent in their conservative viewpoints and their support for politicians that upheld them—found their faith in the value of journalism reinforced, as a result of the news they read. “La Nación is a little bit in the middle, between Página/12 (a pro-government newspaper) and Clarín (…). I believe that the articles are a little less opinions and a little more news,” mentioned another interviewee. The differing levels of trust among both publics might have contributed to the divergent evolution of readership in both newspapers during this period: while daily circulation at Clarín dropped from 380,000 in 2008 to 232,000 in 2014, it only descended from 158,000 to 155,000 at La Nación during the same time period.
A second, ongoing study supplements the focus on ideology with an understanding of key news reception practices. Interviews with news consumers have shown an increase in the incidental acquisition of information about current events, in particular among younger segments of the population. A significant portion of our interviewees report that they consume the news as a by-product of navigating social media platforms on their smartphones. For instance, in a face-to-face survey we conducted in September 2016 with 700 people living in the greater Buenos Aires area, three quarters of the 18-29 year-old respondents said that they “encounter news online while I am on social media,” but only twenty percent of them “visit sites on the Internet to learn about news.”
Learning about the news incidentally on social media is related to issues of trust. In the first place, there is a high level of distrust towards the media, which are, in part, a legacy of the confrontational dynamics described above. “Today it is very difficult to believe in someone. Everybody speaks from a particular vantage point, with particular interests, and it is impossible for them to be 100% objective,” commented one of our interviewees. Furthermore, consumers are increasingly aware of a certain news sensationalism often present in social media, usually due to the click-bait strategies of media companies. As another interviewee put it, “There are a lot of things that happen on social media that are exaggerated.” Finally, people are attentive not just to media bias but also to the personal biases of the contacts who post news on social media. As one of our interviewees said, “on Facebook you’re aware of who is sharing a news story, how that person thinks and what political affiliation they have, so you’re aware that the story comes with all that behind it.”
Accessing the news on social media might make that job harder than before by undermining the ability to discern the origin of a particular story, as headlines and ledes get extracted from their respective sources and shared in a multiplicity of networks
Taken together, what do these findings tell us about potential consequences for the public of confrontational government-media relationships? We want to propose three possible scenarios.
First of all, ever since the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, some leading news outlets have increased their critical tone, often highlighting connections to bottom line matters. Slate has displayed an advertisement saying: “President Trump has declared war on the press. Help us fight back.” This sentiment was echoed by Academy-award winning actress Meryl Streep in her speech at the Golden Globes ceremony held on January 8. She criticized the President-Elect and invited “all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists”— which led to a major surge in donations to this nonprofit. The New York Times, which has published a high volume of negative stories about the President-Elect, added 132,000 new digital subscribers in the first three weeks following the election.
While engaging in a confrontational dynamic may have short-term bottom line benefits, if the Argentine experience is relevant beyond its own borders, media companies might want to be cautious about long-term prospects. Whereas a confrontation might solidify and even expand a core base of ideologically committed supporters, this might come at the cost of alienating a much broader segment of the population that is not so committed or might turn to the news primarily to acquire information for everyday conversations—most of which avoid controversial political topics. Although from a normative standpoint the press should aspire to hold those in power accountable, even if it hurts the bottom line, preaching only to the choir, so to speak, might not only be bad for business but also for the ability to set an agenda with a broad appeal.
Second, a continued confrontational press-government relationship might lead, as in the Argentine case, to an overall growth of public awareness about the intentionality of both government communication strategies and media coverage. This might, in turn, increase the public’s capacity to identify and make sense of that intentionality. Trust would then shift from something that could be assumed by virtue of belonging to the institutions of government and the press, to something to be earned by members of both institutions as part of their regular interactions with the public. If this happened, it might be a positive by-product for the public’s ability to interpret government and media actions, particularly in this day and age.
Third, what we could call a “paradox of trust” might emerge from the link between an increase in the awareness of intentionality and the dominance of incidental modes of information acquisition. On the one hand, as a by-product of the government-media confrontation, the public might become more alert about issues of bias and intention, and get better at identifying them. But on the other hand, accessing the news on social media might make that job harder than before by undermining the ability to discern the origin of a particular story, as headlines and ledes get extracted from their respective sources and shared in a multiplicity of networks. This scenario could generate feelings of disorientation due to the decreased certainty about who said what, or perhaps a redoubling of interpretative efforts to figure out where information comes from, and what might and might not be true.
Far from certain, these scenarios are but three among many possible outcomes, which could also include an intensification of partisanship, a rising tension in public discourse, and an increased alienation among the ideologically uncommitted members of the public. What seems more certain is that the next four years will likely see a shift in the nexus linking government, media, and the public in the United States which, judging by the Argentine case, is poised to have lasting consequences not only for politicians and journalists, but also for society at large.
Pablo J. Boczkowski is professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, USA, and Eugenia Mitchelstein is assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina. They thank Chris Anderson, Claudio Benzecry, Amy Ross, and Zizi Papacharissi for most helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
A Spanish version of this post appeared on Revista Anfibia.