The “failure” of objective journalism: Prof. Dr. Bieger, media expert, discusses the role of the media in the 2020 US elections
By Adriana Dancu
For the first time in decades, the US elections took place in extraordinary circumstances. The Coronavirus pandemic affected the elections of a new president, and the many protests for racial justice over the past months made the elections all the more important. But, how did the media report on the elections? In a polarized country, were the media even more polarized? Prof. Dr. Bieger, a media theory scholar at the University of Groningen, spoke to The Northern Times to provide insight into how the media presented the elections, and to what extent they achieved their role as neutral sources of information.
Polarized US media
Ever since 2016, when Donal Trump won the US election and became the 45th President of the United States, TV news channels, most notably Fox News, unapologetically supported Trump and his policies regardless of how controversial they were. Needless to say, the support Trump enjoyed from the part of Fox News eventually came to resemble his own propaganda platform, and the channel disregarded any criticism of Trump by officials, or ordinary US citizens.
Nevertheless, after the election result this year that made Donald Trump the first president in twenty-eight years to lose re-election, Fox News started to stop supporting the president. “One could watch live how Fox News turned away from Trump, prepared itself for the post-Trump era during the election,” says Prof. Dr. Bieger, who notes that the most striking things during the elections happened on television, rather than in the written press.
When asked about her opinion of US media outlets cutting away from Trump’s statements that are proven to be false, Prof. Dr. Bieger states that “this new trend is long overdue, but I am glad it is finally happening.”
The fact that US media outlets have been tending towards political polarization since Trump’s victory in 2016, is having an impact on people, and how they see media. “Polarization is the logic that drives the political system,” states Prof. Dr. Bieger. She argues that this has been happening for decades, starting in the late 1960s to 1970s, with “the convervative backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the neo-liberal revolution.” Prof. Dr. Bieger argues that the effect of this tendency is that “all politics have become identity politics,” making the US a constant political battle, in which “Democrats vs. Republicans serve as hyper identity schemes.”
US media as polarization agents
Indeed, Prof. Dr. Bieger suggests that media outlets in the US are more polarized than the people in the last few months: “the present division is to a substantial degree made by the media, people live in different realities depending on the media bubble they live in. And in political terms this translates into antagonistic public spheres.” However, there are also counter-reactions to this division, as it can be seen in the case of Fox News.
According to Prof. Dr. Bieger, US media contributed to the state of division currently existent in the US, and the debate between leading newspapers, such as The New York Times, and The Washington Post about the “failure of an objective journalism is a strong indication of this development.”
Besides the role of further dividing the people that US media outlets seem to have tended towards, people are also threatened by misinformation, and ever-present conspiracy theories, especially on social media. As a result, people often accept what they read as a fact, without questioning the accuracy of the information. Prof. Dr. Bieger states that the cause for this is the fact that “media platforms are driven by narcissism, which is always inherently a form of propaganda.” She further argues that people are reluctant to question what they read, because they “comfortably settled into a system of believes that they don’t want to question,” and the “divided media landscape is very conducive to this.”
Both the US elections, and their aftermath left different impressions on many people, considering the image that the US tries to convey, and its role as a superpower. Prof. Dr. Bieger says that she was most impressed by the “ironclad of hyperpolarisation” during and after the elections. Her hope was that the US elections will be the proof that “Trump had been a mistake.” However, the elections’ result proved that “for half of the country the election had to confirm that Trump was indeed no mistake.”
Prof. Dr. Bieger hoped for an election “that is also purification of a soiled system,” however, if the elections themselves were not the solution to unite the country, hopefully a Biden administration will be.
Prof. Dr. Bieger is an expert in critical theory, reception aesthetics, and visual and media studies. She is the Chair of American Studies at the University of Groningen, Faculty of Arts. Among Prof. Dr. Bieger’s impressive work, noticeable is her book Belonging and Narrative, which addresses the human need “to belong as a driving force of literary production and the American novel as a primary place and home-making agent.”