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Rethinking Communication in Populist Times

A conversation on Trump and the Media

In the following interview, Yuval Katz speaks to Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi, editors of the recently published volume Trump and the Media, about Trump’s engagement with the media and the question of whether it has to be considered as exceptional or not.

Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi’s introduction to Trump and the Media can be found here.

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Yuval Katz (YK): Many people believe that Trump’s engagement with the media is unprecedented. Yet some of the contributors to this volume ( Trump and the Media) argue the exact opposite, laying out long historical trajectories reaching back to Cold War propaganda, or by reflecting on changes in the mediation of politicians. How do you understand this tension between old and new when thinking about the relationship between Trump and the media? To what extent do you think that President Trump represents something unique or is he merely an extension of deeper and longer processes?

Zizi Papacharissi (ZP): I believe it’s a mistake to view Trump as an isolated phenomenon. Within the US, the entire foundation of his appeal is premised on unresolved tensions around gender, class, and race. His rhetoric clearly exploits these tensions. His policy agenda is vague and reactive mostly, and certainly marked by a lack of stability in his cabinet and advisors. Beyond the US, the Trump phenomenon is connected to similar outbursts of populism in other countries. Again, this populism is articulated upon the three arcs of gender, class and race, and long standing tensions that form around these. At the bottom of all this lies insecurity. Populist rhetoric is on the rise whenever people feel insecure in their finances, their future, their civic options for leaders. It is typically around those times that populist messiahs emerge, offering to soothe that insecurity by laying the blame where it does not rest.

Pablo J. Boczkowski (PJB): Zizi’s comments lead us to a most important issue: while extraordinary in its own right, that the ascendancy to power of Donald Trump is also part of larger trends. In addition to the contemporary connections she highlights, several chapters in the volume bring into sharp relief a tension between historical continuities and discontinuities. Some of the most notable areas of continuity include notions of enemy formation that date back to the Cold War, as you mention, and the deterioration of the journalistic institution driven by strong profit orientations. But there are also significant areas of discontinuity, such as the subversion of democratic ideals guiding some design decisions of social media platforms into vehicles for populist messaging. The value of the historical accounts that are present in the book is precisely to help us shed light on both what’s new and what’s an extension of preexisting trends.

YK: “Fake News” has become a buzzword in the current public discourse and it is discussed at length in this volume. Some authors in the book contend that it should galvanize journalists to find out the truth and communicate it to the public; others argue that truth as a baseline for the scrutiny of politicians is outdated; instead, we should think about the affective aspects of politics, embedded in myths and identities. How do you perceive this relationship between truth and fiction when thinking about Trump and the media? Do they necessarily contradict each other?

ZP: I think that it is unfortunate that at a time when there’s great reporting to be done, we, both public and journalists, are caught in a game of truth chasing over facts that are not easily disputable. I would like to read more in depth reporting on the racial, gender and class tensions that were exploited in the most recent elections. I would also like to read more in depth analysis of the political structure backing Trump, the North and South Korea reconciliation, and many other issues that are just reported in the form of headlines. In our book, I write about what the tendency to make everything a headline has done to news culture. I would like to see more of what Pablo and Seth C. Lewis, also in the book, describe as relational journalism; journalism focused on digging deeper and forging lost connections between communities.

PJB: Zizi’s answer foregrounds two critical dimensions for understanding the issue of “fake news,” namely the dynamics of media production and the character of the resulting information products. A third component that is also relevant has to do with the conditions of reception. I think it is important to place our discussion of fake news into a broader context of crisis of cultural authority in the institutions of knowledge making, including journalism but also medicine, science, and the law. This crisis long predates contemporary discussions of fake news, and has shaped, at least in part, disparate yet interrelated phenomena such as the low levels of credibility of the press in America, the spreading of skepticism about evolutionary theory and the rise in support for creationism, the turning of global warming from a scientific into a political matter, and so on and so forth. Putting contemporary conversations about fake news into these contextual and historical patterns might help making sense of the performative power that accusations of fake news might have among certain portions of society.

YK: Many chapters in the book are devoted to an identity crisis taking place in journalism, following its failures to predict the outcomes of the elections or build its own agenda, independent of Trump. Considering these problems, do you think that the press still functions as the site where democracy, as the free exchange of ideas, is being maintained? If not, what might be the alternative sites for democracy? The last segment of the book discusses some desired transformations in journalism that are necessary if it wishes to sustain its important role. Do you detect a substantial shift in how news organizations imagine their job?

ZP: I firmly believe that democracies in mass societies cannot function without journalists who safeguard and enhance the free exchange of ideas. Journalism never really was about being the first or only one to get the story. Social media make this even more obvious. Journalism has always been about telling the stories that support connection and the free exchange of ideas. Perhaps it is not about reimagining how journalists understand their role but always remembering what that role is.

PJB: I agree with Zizi that liberal democracies benefit from a strong and independent journalistic institution. They can also benefit from robust and vibrant dialogues and activist practices that emerge from social media practices. Those dialogues and activist practices have at times both challenged the jurisdictional terrain of media organizations and also made visible the fault lines of traditional reporting. A key for the future of journalism is how to stay true to tradition and be open to change in issues having to do with topics, sources, and provenance of information.

 

Pablo J. Boczkowski is Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers, coauthor of The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge, and coeditor of Remaking the News: Essays on the Future of Journalism Scholarship in the Digital Age (all published by the MIT Press).

Zizi Papacharissi is Professor and Head of the Communication Department and Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author and editor of nine books, including A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics, and the Networked Self series.

Yuval Katz is a PhD student at University of Michigan’s Department of Communication Studies. He is also a member of the Global Media Studies Initiative (GMSI) whose mission is to study the role of media and communication in contemporary globalization. Yuval’s current research inspects the popular conceptualization of peace among Israelis and Palestinians and the role of media in shaping the meaning of this concept.

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