Is the US Media Electing the Next President? Yes, but not on (Foreign) Policy

A disaster! This is how US republican nominee Donald Trump describes everything his opponent Hillary Clinton has done. From healthcare to trade and immigration, it is all one big ‘disaster’. Foreign policy doesn’t fare any better. He reminded everyone again at the last presidential debate that Clinton has been a disaster on virtually every major US foreign policy decision taken over the last 12 years: Iraq, Libya, Syria — all foreign adventures she supported as New York Senator, or advocated as Secretary of State. And of course, there is her ‘criminal’ mishandling of classified information on email which would get Clinton ‘in jail’ should he become President. Not to mention his latest bizarre challenge to Clinton to submit to a drug test before the next debate.

Watching US television coverage of this election reveals just how much American voters have become far-removed if not immune to real disasters playing out across the world. Consumed by their own immediate problems, the electorate has generally been driven by domestic questions captured by the old electioneering slogan ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ reengineered by Trump’s upbeat mantra ‘make America great again’. But what is most worrisome, is the pernicious role the mainstream US media plays, in focusing largely on the lighter, entertainment, burlesque, or salacious aspects of an unconventional presidential race. Even local disasters like hurricane Mathew were literally blown away by all major US networks for non-stop sensationalist coverage of the infamous leaked Trump lewd audio tape. Fox News, whose audience is less receptive to round-the-clock criticism of Trump, continued some of its coverage on hurricane Mathew. Since then, the media has honed in on accusations and counter accusations I wouldn’t like my six-year-old daughter to hear. This strange electoral campaign was never particularly policy driven; now it is devoid of any policy debate.

What is striking to any foreign observer, unfamiliar with American politics and the role of the media during election season, is how unashamedly partisan media outlets have become. It is customary for newspapers to endorse a candidate, and for TV anchors and commentators to show their political colors. But whether it is covering racial tensions, social unrest or the presidential race, the media may be deepening the political chasm, and heightening emotions in an already bitterly divided United States. And in so doing, it leaves an open field for demagoguery and populism. And, parenthetically, undecided voters stranded.

For now, Trump is trailing Clinton according to pollsters, but despite being at the epicenter of the television networks’ relentless focus on the topic du jour, sexual assault, Trump may still be able to defy political gravity by arousing the electorate, portraying himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, a true political outsider fighting the establishment — democrats, the republican hierarchy, and the media. The maverick billionaire beholden to no one, except the American people he professes to serve, is in a way not wrong: the mainstream American media despises him. And yet he has managed to use it, from day one, with masterful skill. Trump validates Oscar Wilde’s claim that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’.

The world will find out on 8 November 2016 whether the real estate mogul will move to the White House, and if so, how his bombastic statements will translate into foreign policy. For anyone interested in how a President Trump, pathologically ‘unfit to be Commander-in-Chief’ according to Clinton, would tackle nagging foreign policy disasters, don’t count on the corporate media. For now at least, it seems more interested in allegations of sexual assault than political journalism. And that’s a disaster for democracy. Mr. Trump, I suspect, would agree, even though, paradoxically, this plays into his hands as it leaves him off the hook when it comes to fleshing out his foreign policy campaign slogans.

With American networks’ political tug of war and growing penchant for entertainment news, media scrutiny of the policies of the next President of the United States in addressing ISIS and other foreign policy debacles will just have to wait. So will the rest of the world. And that may be yet another disaster.

Originally published 18 October 2016 in The Huffington Post