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The media in a bubble

  • Published at 12:02 am November 23rd, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:55 am November 23rd, 2016
The media in a bubble

In 1948, The Chicago Daily Tribune was so sure of Thomas E Dewey’s victory against Harry S Truman that it prematurely published a banner headline titled “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Whoever in the paper took the shot had his own nightmare the next morning, when it became clear that, in reality, it was Truman who had triumphed over Dewey.

As if the humiliation had not been enough for the paper, President Truman held up the front page at a public appearance. “That ain’t the way I heard it!” he retorted aloud, ruthlessly putting the final nail in the coffin.

Newsweek just repeated the embarrassing history, awkwardly. The magazine declared Hillary Clinton president with a cover story on her in an early edition and subsequently has withdrawn 150,000 copies, blurring the lines between a mistake and a misfire.

The New York Times has done a lot less, despite missing it by a mile in a similar fashion.

With a few days remaining before the nation would go to vote, the Times predicted Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning was somewhat around “90%.”

On election night, however, its real-time projection indicator quickly started to edge closer to her opposition.

Following the fall of Florida to the republicans, at one point, it showed that the “90%” actually belonged to the underdog, Donald Trump.

Trump’s likelihood to win the presidency was virtually written off not just by the democrats, his opponent -- but even his own party literally abandoned him. Pollsters simply ruled him out. For its part, the media felt a dire urgency to call directly on the public to not vote for him, aside from running countless op-eds warning against a Trump presidency.

Not just the liberal media. Trump had to take guff from both sides of the aisle. Traditionally local conservative papers -- such as The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News -- with a history of 100 years of not endorsing a Democrat declined to back this year’s Republican nominee.

Trump has just thrown a billion-dollar industry of consultants, pundits, and pollsters under threat with his undisciplined, divisive, and seemingly fragile campaign

Some others like Foreign Policy magazine and the USA Today that had never endorsed any candidate before ended up endorsing Clinton.

Trump, on the other hand, got support from a very few number of newspapers, including ones owned by his son-in-law and Ku Klux Klan, a notorious white supremacist group. Through the media’s eyes, therefore, all the curiosity the rest of the world had was limited to whether Clinton would win with a landslide or without a landslide.

Meanwhile, Trump travelled across America, racking up hundreds of thousands of people in each rally. He somehow managed to reach out to the people -- living in suburban and rural areas -- whom the establishment politicians forgot and left behind.

He tapped into their very real anger and turned it into a referendum on not just a change of party but also a change of regime. And no one saw it coming before it was too late, not even the “dogged” media.

With failing to predict the outcome of some of the most significant events of our time, the pollsters are having their own moments, too. Even Brexit was less embarrassing for them.

Trump has just thrown a billion-dollar industry of “consultants, pundits, and pollsters” under threat with his undisciplined, divisive, and seemingly fragile campaign marked by racism, sexism, and scandals.

So, why did they all get it so terribly and miserably wrong?

Perhaps the media created a bubble and enclosed itself within. From that position, it’s really hard to predict what’s going on in the rest of the world. Across the slick front page of a paper was an angry man, fed up with the existing political and economic system, feeling his voice remained unheard.

“They repudiate the media for being patronising and as out of touch and elitist as the politicians,” rightly observed The Economist. Quite a large number of people distrust the mainstream media. And the vacuum did not take long to be fulfilled.

Buzzfeed reported that in a small town of Macedonia, roughly 6,000 miles away from the US, hundreds of “American-sounding” websites -- aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters -- had been set up prior to the election. The websites are full of fake, false, and misleading stories and baseless conspiracy theories, with equally false but sensationalised headlines.

The owners hoped those stories attracted an unbelievable number of users across the social networking sites being circulated hundreds of thousands of times, eclipsing even the mainstream media.

Fake news stories decisively outperformed real news reports on Facebook, in general. The 20 best-performing false stories defeat, by over a million interactions, those in top 19 major mainstream news outlets such as New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NY Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others. While top fake stories generated 8.7 million interactions on Facebook, top real stories produced 7.3 million such engagements.

The most popular story of one such hoax site, for example, gained an astonishing 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, whereas The New York Times’ exclusive report about Donald Trump’s tax returns generated a little more than 175,000 such interactions in a month.

Those website owners did not care about the US election or about its outcome or any media ethics. All they wanted was money. In the process, millions of people have been badly misinformed.

It is time to recognise that the very fabric of the mass media is under unprecedented threat, with the rise of unconventional platforms where no authenticity is guaranteed and a vacuum has been created by the “living in a bubble” media.

Trump’s victory just proved so.

It is time to acknowledge the media’s bias and move forward to just journalism.

Nazmul Ahasan studies journalism and mass communication.

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