Richter Scale, Global Bite

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.

Trump White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (Credit: Don Irvine via Wikimedia)


  • 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.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter, from Berlin, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

Responses to “Media As “Opposition”? If Only Steve Bannon Were Right”

Archived Comments.

  1. On January 31, 2017 at 2:28 am 6Story5 responded with... #

    I agree with the thrust of the argument. Knowing full well the problem of just reporting one event, recorded differently by participants, we nevertheless have been trained to strive for objectivity. Take the advert looking at me as i write: “Trump v. Globalism”. In my book, there is no point being “anti globalisation”: it has already happened. According to the late C.A.Bayliss, its been accelerating since about 1750. And because it is driven by technology, and human genius does not retire, it is going to carry on, whether trade or non tariff barriers rise or fall; Objectively, what Trump has tapped into is a very wide spread view in the US that there has been a lot of free riding: Europeans cynically lowering defence expenditures, while carping at the US military; Jan, China’s massive trade surpluses. An objective assessment of the European media would have to recognise that it is massively “progressive”: you just have to look or listen to the BBC to realise that its interpretation of “objectivity” is subjective. We are here in the realm of post truth, on which Orwell’s Big Brother was an expert.
    The bottom line for me is that those who decry Brexit, Le Pen, the present Polish government, Five Stars, AfD, Trump, have to ask themselves: why? Not a little, but a lot of introspection is required. I see precious little sign that this is happening;
    For instance, Brexit. I am writing an article on Brexit, and the main thieme is that from the very start, the UK in the EU has been a controversial constitutional issue. It is not in Germany. Not because of the war. Not because of written versus unwritten constitution(the last phrase is nonsense in the case of the UK: its constitution is very clearly laid out in key doccuments, as the recent Supreme Court verdict indicates). It is because there is a very widespread belief in the UK that you sanction your lawmakers. That right is declared as sacrosanct by the German Constitutional Court. But in the UK, the 1972 European Communities Act, muted the powers of parliament, and hugely expanded the discretion of senior civil servants. All that is required is for balance to be reintroduced.
    Do I hear anyone calling for that, No. We are all apparently in mud slinging mode;
    If we want to build Europe, starting point numero uno, is that the building blocks of Europe are diverse, and often surprisingly so. To my mind, those who shout loudest about “Europe, Europe, Europe”, should so some introspection. They should be given much less airtime than they get.

  2. On January 31, 2017 at 11:20 am ubott responded with... #

    One major reason for the astounding impact that demagogues
    have on generally centrist, but disenfranchised voters is the 24-hour news
    cycle. The 24-hour news cycle forces news organizations to constantly prepare
    new materials. But there are not enough new materials of importance throughout
    the cycle. So, existing stories are embellished and past videos and
    commentaries are repeated over and over again.

    Moreover, the fierce competition among television channels
    has “forced” these stations to give more and more editorial space to sometimes
    absurd “news stories” in an effort to increase their ratings. Racy stories
    about the personal lives of people in the public domain or the most outlandish
    statements made by a public figure become the programs’ daily staple. They
    create a platform for the intolerant, while journalism has lost out as our
    democracies’ Fourth Estate. Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather referred to this
    phenomenon in 2007 as the “dumbing it down and tarting it up” of news programs.

    This phenomenon is further enhanced by advances in
    technology, primarily on the internet. This development is sometimes also
    referred to as the “democratization of information”, but it has unintended
    consequences that in fact undermine democracy.

    Platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and
    countless others provide conspiracy theorists, racists, and other formerly
    marginalized voices of hatred with a forum. In the old days, people of this ilk
    were confined to standing on soap boxes at a street corner having only a few
    passers-by as a potential audience. Today, 140 characters tweeted around the
    world can tap into the darkest corners of our hearts and “normalize” our worst

    In the end, the “democratization of information” has left us
    without any filters that discard hatred and fact check unsubstantiated
    statements. In this world, “truth” and “facts” are swept aside by a few
    outlandish words quickly disseminated around the globe by the disgruntled. The
    late Senator from New York Patrick Moynihan once said: “Everybody is entitled
    to their own opinion, but nobody is entitled to their own facts.” Sadly, in a
    communication age without filters, facts no longer matter.

  3. On February 1, 2017 at 8:12 am Odd Bjarne Brekke responded with... #

    The fourth estate might not function properly if it is owned by big corporations. Judging from what is happening in the USA, the media has lost it’s objectivity and it’s true purpose namely, to give truthful accounts. I am not saying there are nothing worthy of criticism when it comes to Trump, but media is trying to misunderstand and miss interpret like a pathetic tabloid gossip paper. When it came to the crowds on Trumps inauguration they were collectively cough in a lie when trying to present the crowds as small.

  4. On February 2, 2017 at 1:55 pm David P. Apgar responded with... #

    Stephan’s argument that the media should always be in opposition is importantly right, I think. We could go even further and say that the primary content-selection criterion for every editor ought to be how effectively the report undermines or refutes a widely held assumption of most readers, listeners, or viewers.