Media As “Opposition”? If Only Steve Bannon Were Right
U.S. journalists may balk at the Trump White House calling them the opposition, but that’s their proper role.
- In calling US media “the opposition,” Trump’s strategist Bannon is right for the wrong reasons.
- In European debate, media is the “fourth estate” and serves a role apart from the political parties.
- Fearful of being labeled “the liberal media,” US journalists recoil at the role of “opposition.”
In a confrontational interview on January 26, 2017, with the New York Times, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist, made the following accusation:
You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
Unsurprisingly, many journalists in the United States balked in reaction to the Times interview and took issue in particular with that remark.
One wonders why they do. Apparently, many U.S. mainstream journalists want to be part of the governing establishment – which is indeed the case and a big problem.
In their defense, these establishmentarians will say that they don’t want to be tagged as “opposition” because that “politicizes” their role – and makes them appear as losing their objectivity.
But even this line of defense is not just shallow. It also betrays a profound misunderstanding of the role of the media.
Right for the wrong reasons
To state it pointedly, in my view Steve Bannon is right on this, albeit inadvertently and for the wrong reasons. The media actually ought to be in opposition, but not to a Republican (implicitly tagging them as Democrats) — or vice versa. Rather, a good journalist doing his or her job ought to be in opposition to … whoever is in power.
That’s the logical consequence the media serving as — what in the German and European debate is referred to — the “fourth estate.”
U.S. journalists used to feel the same way, portraying themselves as immensely proud of their job and even boastful about their influence and power, as a vital form of checks and balances inside the United States.
(Incidentally, Bannon is also correct when speaking of the Democrats. At least until now, they have not really considered themselves as an opposition in the parliamentary sense when out of power. They rather like to present themselves as a party that is always very eager to go along and get along, not least in order to get its share of the spoils.)
In the United States, journalists aren’t the only people who seem puzzled by my perspective on the media as a kind of permanent opposition.
I remember curious questions from college students I received during Q&A event broadcast on C-SPAN. They, too, had a hard time grasping that the proper understanding of the media is to be the political opposition to whoever is in power.
Not just parties
As I elaborated then, and still believe now, providing “opposition”, particularly in the sense of providing vocal constructive criticism, is not an exclusive function of political parties or party politics.
Indeed, the hardest situation for a journalist is when one of your own friends, folks that you studied with or that you know closely on a personal basis, serves in a high political office. If they are doing a bad job or making poor policy choices, one has to call them out.
Why Republicans tag the media
Of course, past Republican attempts to brand anyone not falling into line with their policies as being part of the “liberal media” has had an effect on journalists. They are hyper-sensitive on being so tagged.
That constant tagging, designed to intimidate journalists and “inviting” them to fall into line with Republican power policies, is yielding clear benefits to the Republican operatives who have engaged in the practice.
As the U.S. media’s response to the – now famous – Steve Bannon quote showed, their thinking about their own profession – and its role and relevance in wider society – is still extremely muddled.