Why can’t today’s mainstream media deal with anti-establishment politicians?

by Ali Reza Naraghi

20 November 2015

In case you missed it, Britain has a new leader of the opposition, even if the news media doesn’t yet know quite what to make of him. Consider this: when Jeremy Corbyn threw his hat into the ring for the Labour leadership, even the most liberal media outlets initially wrote him off as a fringe anti-establishment candidate, out of touch with the political mainstream.

In the US, another candidate largely dismissed by the media for being too liberal, Bernie Sanders, continues to draw huge crowds to his rallies. It seems leftist anti-corporate movements that have plenty in common with Corbyn and Sanders are bursting onto the scene everywhere, not because of, but despite their treatment by mainstream news media.

‘They just don’t get it.’

It’s not really surprising that the British news media failed to predict Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Even Corbyn himself said he did not expect to become the leader of the opposition.  In the immediate aftermath of his victory, Corbyn said that much of the media were out of touch with most voters’ daily lives. “They simply do not understand what’s going on out there,” he noted. “They just don’t get it.”

The best example of the UK media’s short-sightedness can be found in its blatant manoeuvering around the critical issues facing the average British voter. The attention given to the likes of Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who thrives by injecting little real applicable policy into his divisive narrative of fear, fits perfectly into the template of shallow buzz-inducing headlines.

Today’s media coverage often focuses on negative cosmetics that have no practical effect on the lives of average people, and this effectively circumvents any informative analysis of anyone’s actual platform. The sparse coverage of such issues as the housing crisis, the deep problems in education or the slicing and dicing of the NHS by the Conservative government, confirms mainstream journalism’s lack of appetite when it comes to dealing with meaningful public concerns.

Is the best strategy no strategy?

Corbyn’s success comes about in part because of his slightly antagonistic relationship with the media. He has no observable media strategy at all and appears to be utterly disinterested in talking to the press. By treating them so carelessly, he manages to expose their irrelevance to substantive reporting.

Perhaps this comes down to plain old political ideology. The people who support Corbyn are the same people who are distrustful of both the media agenda and the prevailing political culture in the UK. The fact that he did not try to placate the media right from the start built a certain level of respect for his platform in the eyes of the many people who already distrust these institutions. Let’s not forget that 70% of all newspapers sold in the UK are considered right wing, and their influence goes well beyond newsstands.

This isn’t your father’s newspaper.

Many young voters are saying the media is obsessed with delivering the news in the old way: focusing only on the binary opposition between left and right without any consideration for the issues they really care about. This attitude is rendering the old-fashioned media out of their list of news options. In the larger picture of journalistic ethics, candidates like Corbyn and Sanders with their seemingly disarming approach are stripping the credibility from mainstream news organizations by ridiculing the robotic formalities that serve their shallow analyses of the issues. They are forcing journalists to accept that some of the rules they assumed were an indispensable part of the game are no longer applicable.

American candidates are out-Trumping each other.

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator trying to win the Democrats’ nomination for the White House, has a hill to climb, media-wise. His speeches are laden with socialist policies designed to bridge the expanding gap between the rich and poor in America. From the outset, despite attracting the largest crowds of all the other candidates, Sanders could not attract a proportionate amount of media attention.

He is not just running against Hillary Clinton’s grandiose brand, he is also competing for media coverage against the Donald Trump campaign on the Republican side. Sanders constantly complains of the media obsession with, and addiction to, conflict and entertainment instead of the real policy issues the country faces. How does Sanders compare? Even with healthy polling numbers, he has had a total of about eight minutes of coverage on network news (about 1.5 % of all the candidates’ coverage).

President Trump? Really?

On the other hand, the US media is infatuated with Donald Trump. The always-quotable billionaire is all over American airwaves and he is showing well in the polls, which might not be a coincidence given the disproportionate coverage he has received. Frankly, there is no journalistic justification for the amount of attention the US media is giving ‘The Donald’ other than reality TV entertainment. Trump is the poster boy for the relationship between the mainstream media and the entertainment culture, which rewards intellectual laziness and erodes political awareness.

The one positive aspect about Trump’s candidacy is that with his outrageous language and views (and his accordingly over-proportionate coverage), he has made clear how much today’s journalistic culture has lost its engagement, integrity and ability to meaningfully dissect the monumental issues and policy challenges confronting the US. As Bernie Sanders points out, the media today is sacrificing serious journalism for reporting that is “simple and stupid.”

Reality politicians or real politicians?

Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have much in common. Both are relatively old-school socialists whose policies are being filtered through the lenses of media outlets more accustomed to the bombastic, theatrical brand of politics that a candidate like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage delivers.

We know why news works like this: ratings, viewership and profit margins dictate that priority be given to topics which generate more buzz. Controversial candidates get more attention simply because they are damn good entertainment, if little more. This is why alternative sources of news media and other platforms are becoming much more important to an electorate that urgently needs not just to be entertained, but to be informed.

Photo: James Grundy/Flickr

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