Short documentary originally made in 2014
A short documentary originally produced in 2014
Originally published 13 December 2016
Fighting for democracy in the age of Trump
So this is how liberty dies.
“I want to be a President for all Americans.”
If not for the emotional exhaustion of the past year, it might have been funny.
For Donald J. Trump – bully; racist; grabber of pussies of pussies; mocker of the disabled; a man who thinks building casinos is comparable to losing one’s son in war – to speak of unity is so ironic that one expects Alanis Morisette to blare from the nearest set of speakers.
But perhaps that was the trouble – we laughed too much. It is now clear that liberals world-over vastly underestimated American malcontent.
The question of why Trump won will be puzzled over for decades to come. In a talk on “Global Trumpism”, Martin Blythe argues that the same economic conditions which birthed Golden Dawn in Greece have loosed Trump upon America. The state-driven decimation of the working classes throughout the developed world bears much blame for today’s populist backlash.
The great irony is that no matter what Trump promises, those jobs cannot be brought back. It will always be cheaper to manufacture overseas than in America, and tariffs cannot halt mechanisation. Instead, Trump, whose Republican congress wishes a moratorium on regulation and fiscal spending, will usher in an age where the government does even less to help its poorest citizens, while scapegoating minorities to maintain “unity”.
Trumpism, then, is not the answer. It is the rose-spectacled yearning for an economic era now functionally beyond reach. It is also the return of open and ghastly racism. But, above all, it is the shattering of traditional democratic norms.
All you have to do is follow the worms
Trump’s election has upturned our understanding of how democracy works. During his campaign he cheerfully violated every electoral convention – courting the Klan; mocking the disabled; open racism – these “gaffs” alone should have rendered him unelectable; to say nothing of his overwhelming opposition from the nation’s newspapers. Trump’s economic policies, they rightly pointed out, were incoherent on an unprecedented level. He literally lied more than he told the truth; considered trade as a boxing match; and promised horrors the presidency is (thankfully) incapable of (for instance, “opening up” libel laws – no such laws exist on a federal front).
But none of this mattered to the people who voted for him. Why? Well, in desperate economic circumstances it makes sense that they’d happily ignore his flaws if they thought a candidate would at last listen to them, but the real answer runs deeper.
The OED has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The term is an apt description of today’s world. While people have voted on intuition rather than facts for decades now, what makes the post-truth world unique is that politicians now campaign on this basis – relying not on facts, but on what feels true – that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim who founded IS; or that Hillary Clinton has murdered dozens of subordinates. These claims are reinforced by a media climate which panders to echo chambers and falsehoods – Facebook is the largest source of news for most Americans, but as it produces no media, it claims no fourth estate responsibility.
There is a culture of “news” pages on the left and the right which routinely and unashamedly publish falsehoods. These stories pander to people’s suspicions about the world and, thus (as it’s a biological fact – confirmed by dopamine levels – that the human brain prefers “facts” which reaffirm its convictions to those which challenge it) they are inimitably shareable.
Couple that with a climate where the traditional media is considered perennially dishonest (a claim repeated by Trump himself) and the stage was set for an election where his tax returns or allegations of sexual assault simply did not matter, as his supporters sooner believed his Tweets than the Washington Post.
Where, then, does that leave those of us who believe that facts should matter in democracy?
Shall We Overcome?
The path to victory against Trumpism is steep and multifaceted. The first and most critical step is galvanising political involvement. If the 41% of eligible Americans who stayed home on election day had instead turned out to vote, Hillary Clinton would likely have won. If Democratic voters were as routinely motivated as Republican ones, not only would the senate be blue-er, but local policies which have allowed Republicans to maintain unrepresentative support (voter ID laws; gerrymandering) would not have passed. This principle applies across the post-truth world: Only by opposing regressive policies at every turn can we kill them in the crib.
The next step is to rebuild an empathetic political culture. The victories of globalisation (which are, let’s be clear, huge – over a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty in the last twenty years is not to be sniffed at) have allowed us to forget those who are left behind. Rural America feels, accurately, that its urban neighbours have forgotten it; while manufacturing workers see themselves as the last of a dying breed. The cures for these maladies are not to be found in Trumpism, but in a greater emphasis on retraining programmes (on which America spends a pittance) and, most of all, in a political culture which values such perspectives.
Equally valuable are the perspectives of minority groups. To Kill a Mockingbird remains among the most important books in American history because it unmasked racism to people who had chosen to ignore it. Similar jolts to middle America are required now. Make no mistake, artists from minority backgrounds have been telling extraordinary stories of their experiences for many years now – from Do the Right Thing to Transgender Dysphoria Blues – but the burden lies with “liberal allies” in power to share such testimony. A staggeringly high number of Trump supporters have simply never met a Muslim. When shown human experiences, empathy will, in most cases, overwhelm exclusion.
Finally, fake news must be fought. Facebook employees have set up a taskforce to monitor and dismantle false stories on the site. This is an important but minor step – it would be wise to lobby the company to take an official stand thereon. Facebook can no longer pretend it has no fourth estate obligations. 2016 has proven that it does.
These steps seem daunting, if not impossible. It is easy to assume that in our bifurcated political sphere, all attempts at outreach are futile. This is not true. Grassroots political work can mitigate Trumpism’s damage. If Facebook tackles fake news, its largest platform will be removed. Respecting blue collar voices will keep them from resorting to racism. And while we might not reach sexteganarian Trump supporters who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, their grandchildren are statistically likely to be on our side. And even if they’re not, minds can be changed – just look at the modern consensus on marriage equality.
Donald Trump does not respect democracy. He considered a fair loss impossible; played fast and loose with the obligations of the US Constitution; and peddled conspiracy theories designed to undermine the rationality of voters. His underhanded tactics have won him an election. But he has not yet won the war.
If those who stand against his demagoguery and falsehoods do so openly and consistently, the fight for liberal democracy may yet be won. But the battle must be hard fought. We have far too much to lose.
The Changing Media Landscape
There’s no doubt that my ideas about journalism and my career goals have shifted over the course of my degree. But the shift hasn’t been about deciding to work in a different style of journalism – rather, it’s been a slow and steady process of deciding that this is actually the career I want, and adjusting my skills and expectations to best meet the requirements of the modern media landscape.
It goes without saying that the internet’s effect on journalism has been seismic. The disruption is comparable only to the printing press – if we lived before in Mcluhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy; we now inhabit the Berners-Lee Black hole. Past technological advances (radio; television) added new platforms from which to tell the news, but the web has absorbed all previous channels, and is threatening the sustainability of each.
Print, in particular, is hard hit by this transformation. American newspaper circulation has almost halved since its heyday in 1990 – from 63 million to 35 million weekly copies sold.
This has tremendous bearing on the nature of reporting jobs – in all media. Two years ago, Alex T Williams wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that “the number of journalists at digital-only publishers [has] plateaued… reporters are becoming increasingly concentrated in coastal cities [and] investigative journalism and local statehouse reporting is declining”. Reporter and blogger Brianna Hand writes that news outlets want “jack-of-all-trades journalists who can write, take photographs, tweet, blog, publish stories online, take video, and record audio”. In short, there’s less stability, less money, and more for every reporter to do.
The effects hereof on my career plan are twofold:
First, I had to address the fundamental question of what kind of journalism I wanted to create. And the answer was… well, a bit of everything. I have a passion for narratives, for making sense of social, political, and cultural moments. I’m attracted more to a style or an idea than a field. I have a long-standing passion for political journalism, equalled by my love of good arts coverage. I adore longform’s literary aspirations, and am fascinated by the determination and quasi-religious service of investigative journalism. I’m equally at home before a camera and behind a laptop, discussing the Tate, the Commons, or the housing crisis. It was said of Christopher Hitchens that he wrote about everything except sport. For me, that sounds just about right.
Of course, thanks both to this goal and the very nature of modern journalism, I’m pushed to constantly expand my skill-set. I’m a naturally talented communicator – both in person and on paper – but that’s not enough. The course taught me how to work in multiple media, and I’ve tried to make the most thereof – qualifying myself as a video and radio editor, a writer, a presenter, a graphics designer, a copy editor – whatever I need to be.
Given that I can’t point to one particular field of journalism, the question then becomes one of medium or style. And that leads to my second point.
Media transformation made me radically reassess where and how I would likely be employed. I’m a longtime reader of magazines like Slate, The Atlantic, and The Economist, and find myself drawn to their approach of “journalism as analysis” rather than emphasising breaking news. That process of analytical understanding is what I think I’m best at – unpacking the stories behind an event, rather than conventional reporting.
That said, as my first point proves, I have to be prepared to work in a variety of ways – particularly when considering how media will change. As such, I think it’s likely I’ll hold jobs at multiple media outlets simultaneously for a while – writing for online publications while working in the newsroom of a broadcaster or newspaper. This is line with most projections about where journalism is heading – online readership si growing, but it’s harder to make it pay without firewalls. As a result, some of the safest bets about what publications will stick around include places like Slate, The Atlantic, or The Economist – because they offer a unique brand of analysis and editorial voice that you cannot get elsewhere. Consequently, they cultivate a lowal cabal of paying readers. Conversely, newspapers find themselves in trouble – partly, in my opinion, because readers consider them more fungible. But the stability of these institutions means neither that I’ll have job security, nor that the types of journalism I aspire towards (arts; political; longform; investigative) will carry on unchanged.
Arts journalism is in trouble. Some years ago, Variety fired Todd McCarthy, who had worked as their chief film critic for 31 years. Editorial reasoning was that a full time critic was a cost not worth paying. Film and music criticism have migrated online and away from institutions – with youtube channels and blogs dominating the field. I love discussing art, and I intend to do so – but on a blog. There’s too little security in being a permanent in-house critic. If I get employed herefor, it’ll probably be on a freelance basis.
Political journalism remains healthier. There is no shortage of demand – to the extent that this is itself something of a problem. Political reporting is so constant, so eternal, that it can envelop you – particularly in an age of up to the minute digital news updates, where being first is more important than ever.
Longform journalism exists in an odd space. Never the most profitable format, it found a niche audience through magazines and books, and largely exists in the same format online. It’s probably rarer than in the heyday of “new journalism”, but not much rarer than in the 80s or 90s. It remains a labour of love for its practitioners, dependent on a particularly committed audience. The internet has also changed the presentation of longform journalism, with multimedia integration (a la Snowfall) becoming far more constant. Thus, I am reminded yet again of the importance of a wide skill set. It has also provided websites like Longreads.com – dedicated homes for longform journalism which might find itself unwanted elsewhere.
Finally, investigative journalism is either growing strong or shrinking fast, depending on the publication responsible. Established outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian and Australia’s Four Corners continue strong in their investigative reporting on Trump, Windrush, and juvenile detention respectively. But these are national outlets dealing with national crises. Smaller outlets are struggling to remain afloat – particularly in the US, where groups like Alden Global Capital have bought and decimated local papers nationwide. The internet has also changed the way investigative journalism is conducted, with a new focus on online records and data mining. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to attend the Uni’s course on this, but I do intend to educate myself on these practices as best I can over the next year.
With all these forms being changed or threatened by the internet’s advent, I return to my first point – a multitude of skills will be necessary. If I’m to become invaluable to any publication, I’ll have to stick around long enough for my writing and/or presenting (my greatest assets) to be made clear. During that time, it’s more than likely I’ll take on any number of necessary jobs to keep my foot in the door.
As to any new jobs that might develop, the constant rise of social media and AI are fascinating portents for journalism. The Economist now has a Snapchat editor, and the possibility of AI copy-writers might warrant a whole new kind of editorial oversight. There are smaller changes too. With multimedia formatting continuing to rise, it’s very conceivable that my background in writing and video editing could position me as some kind of multimedia editor, in charge of integrating video, audio, and text. This training could also position me to create packages designed for social media consumption – short videos or image sets that communicate the essentials of a story in a facebook or instagram friendly format.
The fundamental world of journalism is changing. The nature of marketing, audience appeal and interaction, reporting jobs, and even what a journalist is – these are all in unprecedented flux. I cannot pretend to know how they’ll continue to change. I also know that my attitude and skill set come, in a way, from an earlier age. I like to write and I like to talk. I like having clear beats and remits, and a simple clear way of reaching an audience. But that’s not what journalism is anymore, and I have to accept that. All I can do is to equip myself as broadly as possible, maintain my flexibility, and never lose sight of my goal.
What Have I Learnt?
This degree taught me the practical realities of journalism. It taught me what was newsworthy, how to write for print, for online, for radio, and for television, how to edit a TV or radio show, how to format a magazine, how to integrate multimedia into my reporting, how to monitor and address legal and ethical worries – how to work as a journalist.
The modules which most affected me would probably be Magazines and Broadcast Journalism. In both of them I assumed positions of real importance in putting a project together – sub editor; editor; and presenter. I felt, for the first time, like I was working as a journalist, and this simple fact – that I had a product I had to deliver at the end of the day, one which I had to supervise, and eventually be proud of – taught me more about coordinating people and making serious journalistic decisions than any lecture ever could.
As to how the degree affected my career aims – well, I came to the conclusion that I was good at and enjoyed reporting. I excelled as an editor and presenter of broadcast journalism, found ample opportunity to express my passion for writing, and grew intrigued with the sheer range of things to cover. I felt like I belonged in this world, and thus committed to it.
More specifically, the degree fostered in me a passion for broadcast and longform journalism which was entirely new. A long-time political animal and lover of the arts, I’d been a follower of these journalistic forms for some time, but the experience of manically creating broadcast journalism, and discovering the beautiful, storied tradition of longform writing – I fell in love.
Of course, the degree only provides so much. Experience is often the greatest teacher, and two London based journalism internships offer proof thereof.
Interning for the BBC’s daily news programmes (on the World Service and Radio 4) involves much of the same work as I was entrusted with in the Broadcast journalism module. You have to contribute ideas, locate interviewees, and brief presenters – in short, all the de rigeur business of putting a news broadcast together. The internship covers a number of programmes – from Newshour, Newsday and OS on the BBC World Service, to World at One and PM on Radio 4. The target market behind the two outlets is similar, but maintains slight differences – with Radio 4 being UK-centric, while the World Service is a far reaching international broadcaster. Each particular programme has a slightly different focus, but in general, those on Radio 4 strive after in-depth coverage of British news, together with revealing interviews on subjects of importance to the British public. The World Service’s broadcasts, by contrast, employ a similar combination of reporting and interviews to tackle a decidedly international purview – Newsday in particular features an explicit focus on Africa. Each programme transmits daily, for anywhere between 45 minutes (World at One) to two and a half hours (Newsday).
Each experience thrusts interns into the midst of broadcast journalism, and more or less asks you to work as a researcher on one of these programmes – offering contacts, story ideas, or research assistance in any way it might be needed. That experience is invaluable, and provides interns with the energy, know-how, and initiative you need as a journalist – all in very immediate way. It can be accessed at https://careerssearch.bbc.co.uk/jobs/job/workexperience/26602.
The Financial Times, by contrast, offers newsroom internships which focus on being immersed in a print newsroom. It offers experience in four different categories – special reports; comment and analysis; career internships; and UK news. Each internship operates within a slightly different purview of print journalism. Nevertheless, all revolve around the need to interact with, inform, and assist journalists in putting the best possible work together. Rather than actively participating in putting a broadcast together, this internship focuses on the learning that can occur through one working on more specific projects with particular reporters or editors. There is a degree of interpersonal learning promised through the internship, as well as the opportunity to immerse oneself in the world of financial journalism. The Financial Times is a targeted newspaper, dedicated to a specific kind of coverage. It has 130 years of experience writing on business and economics news, and is an international publication which targets 2.2 million businesspeople and economists worldover. It is split into two sections – the first operating much like an ordinary newspaper, with news, opinion, and analysis, while the second summarises market data and provides business-specific insight. Its newsroom internships would provide particular insight into business journalism, and can be accessed by emailing email@example.com.
Over the past two years, I’ve fallen in love with journalism. As described above, I realised my skills as a communicator were suited to this profession – one which gave me the opportunity to communicate in a number of ways about even more subjects. My natural passions could be covered through mediums I was passionate about. On top of that, the exhilaration of the newsroom, the joy of storytelling, and the rapture of great writing – I experienced all these at Westminster, and they sent me on my way.
But my education is nowhere near complete. I find networking and job-seeking awkward, which I absolutely need to overcome to forge a career in this competitive, uncertain field. And the feedback for my extended individual project highlighted another trait I need to polish – humility.
Two of my favourite journalists exist on opposing ends of the spectrum of arrogance: Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant analyst and poetic essayist, and he knew it. And he made sure you knew he knew it. Meanwhile, John Dickerson, a man who has quietly emerged as one of America’s most effective political reporters and interviewers, is consumed by humility and fair-mindedness. Hitch was never short of an opinion, and often flaunted contrarian ones, just to see how they fit. He loved to debate, and loved being right. Dickerson, by contrast, is religiously fair minded. Stephen Colbert describes him as Elven, invoking Tolkien’s warning to “Ask not the elves for advice, because they will tell you both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” Dickerson prizes humility as a journalistic trait, sublimating himself before the enormity of his subjects, and asking quiet, surprisingly penetrating questions – like a journalistic Columbo.
My temperament is more Hitchensian than Dickersonian, and while that has its advantages (I can spit pointed prose with the best of them), it has the unfortunate requirement that anyone who tries it needs to be absolutely on top of their intellectual game – or else they risk a very high and humiliating fall. Hitchens was a genius with intimate knowledge of history and politics the world over. I am, as of this writing, not. Sublimating myself and my tone in a Dickersonian fashion – favoring subtle penetration over bold declarations – this is something I think I’d do well to learn, and will strive towards.
Where Do I Go From Here?
My long term career goals are something in the fashion of Anderson Cooper, or John Dickerson. I’d love to work as an anchor and television/radio presenter one day down the line, but such a career would be prefaced and complemented by a great deal of writing. That writing would take place in many forms – I’d be happy working as a political correspondent; a cultural critic; or an investigative reporter. But the crucial, constant commonality is this: narratives. I consider the world in narrative terms – I always have – and my strength as a journalist would be placing individual stories in the context of a grander narrative. In other words – what happened; why did it happen; and what’s going to happen next?
As such, I think knowledge about our world’s grander narratives is a fundamental prerequisite. I’m very aware of artistic and cultural trends in the West; and of most big political concerns. I have, too, some basis of historical knowledge. Where I can definitely improve is in my understanding of the minutiae of laws and governance. So many of today’s great crises – British housing; American opioids; global finance – stem from small, seemingly innocuous policy decisions made years ago. Understanding these decisions in greater detail would be crucial in shaping the type of journalism I aspire towards.
As such, my immediate career goal is to enroll in International Social and Public Policy at the LSE. The degree takes an international approach (useful as I intend to work in at least two different countries – Australia and the UK), and teaches how government policy shapes ordinary lives, and how to identify key policy changes before they become felt.
At the same time, I intend to pursue a number of internships – a few potential options are listed below:
- The BBC’s journalism trainee scheme
- The Economist’s digital internships
- CNN News Internships
- The Financial Times Newsroom Internship
- The Guardian’s annual internship programme
These represent my ideal options, but obviously that’s aspirational. I intend to pursue as many opportunities as possible, and write for as many outlets as I can. I’ve uploaded my CV onto Indeed, CV Library, Monster, updated my LinkedIn, and have recently secured a work experience position at a startup app – Drank – writing copy about London nightlife. These efforts accumulate, and I intend to use them to get work in a serious newsroom one of these days.
From there, I have two paths. The first is to return to Australia, and try to secure two jobs – with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Association), and in a newspaper. These jobs will no doubt be entry level, but will provide me with a foot in the door to work my way up.
The second is aspirational and wishful, but worth mentioning. I would love the opportunity to cover the 2020 American Presidential race. My love of American politics is lifelong, and the opportunity to report on it would be something of a dream come true for me. How I would do so I’m unsure – I could offer myself as an assistant to a correspondent for a British or Australian outlet – but I intend to pursue it as vigorously as possible.
Furthermore, I want to use the website we’re developing for this module as an offshoot from which to pursue blogging. I only recently discovered Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, and was rather taken by his insightful commentary and essays on politics and culture. Blogging would let me write on my passions while still working entry level jobs (as I’ll have to for a time) and provide me with a significant back-catalogue, in addition to my published reporting.
In five years time, depending on the results of next year, I hope to a published reporter either in America, Australia – or perhaps even still in the UK, working towards my long term journalistic goals bit by bit by bit. I’ll see where the road takes me.