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Home | 2017 | February

The media: Nixon's revenge

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2017-02-01 07:32.

After his defeat by John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon pulled out of politics. The televisual age had arrived in American politics and it was not kind to him. But despite performing badly on television against the Kennedy glamour and facing an almost universally hostile press, we note that Nixon had only lost by a narrow margin: he was not an unpopular person with the common people, just with the media.

Two years later he ran in the election for the Governor of California, this time losing badly. That defeat was assumed to be the end of the line for him in US politics. In his concession speech Nixon's bitterness at his treatment by the US media famously spilled over: 'You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore' he told the media pack. He assumed that his political career was at an end and that he did not have to be nice to his tormentors anymore.

Shortly after the election, the ABC network produced a piece about his political demise that was so gloating and biased that the network was forced by public opinion to fire the editor responsible. Nixon's hatred of the media was not just paranoia – most of them really were out to get him.

What could he do? Nothing. He simply had to suck it up, as they say in the US. The media were the fourth estate and the sole mediator of the messages that reached the public. It was at that time an essential skill for the politician: keeping the media happy. Even in 1907 Hilaire Belloc tells us that for Lord Lundy's anticipated political career 'the press was squared'.

Events took their course. The glamorous Kennedy and his courtiers at Camelot entangled the country in the disaster that was the Vietnam War and then passed on the problem on to the hapless Lyndon Johnson, who made it even worse.

Nixon was elected President in 1968 by a substantial margin. He was eventually able to clear up his predecessors' mess and end the war, but still in the face of relentless media hostility. His paranoia got the better of him and led him down the path to his final destruction. When the inevitability of this Greek tragedy had eventually run its course, once again there was much gloating and back-patting in the media at having brought down a detested politician. The Washington Post and particularly its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were installed on pedestals, books were written and films were made and the language was enriched with '-gate' words.

In contrast, the moral sewer that was the Kennedy clan and Camelot – all of them – is only now being widely discussed. Sooner or later the moral awfulness of the Clintons must also be widely addressed, but for the moment the media beams benevolently upon them. This period of grace for the Clintons will not last as long as that of the Kennedys because the mainstream media as we now know it no longer has the monopoly on the distribution of information to the public. Sooner or later even Obama's reign will be given the examination it needs. The internet has arrived.

In the space of about 20 years the internet has gone from a collection of passive display websites to many different channels of news, opinion and feedback, many of them offering real-time immediacy in text, image and video. It's easy and free to write and publish texts, easy and free to create podcasts and videos and distribute them across the world. The opinions of experts, academics and specialists of all kinds are available to everyone for the price of a mouseclick: what are journalists for?

In the old days one read the newspaper of choice and watched the news channel of choice. Now all are panoptically available and the differences between them only serve to reduce their individual authority: they can't all be right.

The media themselves have been reduced to harvesting social media opinion – much more fun than their traditional offering. Their print, radio and televisual products are in rapid decline. The business models for their web presences are unsustainable without huge amounts of recycled cute-puppy clickbait. They have to give the public what it wants or die.

The media may today hate Donald Trump as much as or probably even more than they hated Richard Nixon sixty years ago, but this time they are the ones who have to accept the fact that they are no longer the single, all powerful messenger who can kick around presidents.

The image of the politician as the soapy media fixer, sucking up to whatever media outlets are needed to stay in power has served us well for centuries. Trump and his staff, radical thinkers, have stepped outside this old model. They use all the instruments of social media to their ends. There is instant statement and instant reaction and the flow down the memory hole is continuous.

Trump and his team batter back relentlessly and instantaneously, because they have perceived that that is the nature of the new communications. The media are the enemies, they tell us, and the battle is being taken to them. The old British joke that today's news is tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapper has been cranked up more than one notch: today's print edition is out of date before it has been printed, rendered obsolete by a single presidential tweet. By the time the journo has caught up, half a dozen more tweets have popped onto social media feeds across the world. Rolling TV news can just about keep up, but has no breath left for in-depth analysis – its opinions are no profounder than the average political blogger.

There is, of course, much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the newly disenfranchised scribblers. For them the world is now 'post-fact', 'post-truth' and full of 'fake-news' simply because it has not gone through their filter. The filter that was so effective against Nixon, the filter that put the Clintons into soft-focus and which cast a halo over Obama for eight years.

In this sense Trump and his team are the true revolutionaries here. There will be no going back. The media who cannot come to terms with this are just angry, dying animals heading towards well-deserved extinction. They attempt to make a huge fuss over this or that issue, as they did in the good old days, but they don't matter anymore.

How Richard Nixon, the 37th president, must be laughing now, watching the 45th president kicking the media around as they once kicked him around!