Prof Sarah Oates
Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She is a former journalist who has studied elections and news in the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
Section 4: News and journalism
- When journalism’s relevance is also on the ballot
- Beyond the horse race: voting process coverage in 2020
- YouTube as a space for news
- 2020 shows the need for institutional news media to make racial justice a core value of journalism
- Newspaper endorsements, presidential fitness and democracy
- Alternative to what? A faltering alternative-as-independent media
- Collaboration, connections, and continuity in media innovation
- Learning from the news in a time of highly polarized media
- Partisan media ecosystems and polarization in the 2020 U.S. election
- What do news audiences think about ‘cutting away’ from news that could contain misinformation?
- When worlds collide: contentious politics in a fragmented media regime
- Forecasting the future of election forecasting
- A new horse race begins: the scramble for a post-election narrative
Broadcast networks made a revolutionary decision during the Trump press conference the day after the polls closed in the 2020 elections. As votes mounted to oust the president from office, Trump appeared for rambling, repetitive accusations of electoral fraud based on the flimsiest of evidence. One by one, many networks decided to stop airing the press conference. Instead, some returned to their studio announcers to criticize the president for lying.
This is the moment when U.S. media norms, under enormous pressure from Trump-led disinformation, switched from full libertarian values to a stronger watchdog role. This was a seismic shift under enormous provocation, but the U.S. media rapidly adapted to a new reality.
The U.S. media are defined by the libertarian system, first described by Siebert et al. in their 1956 book The Four Theories of the Press. The scholars outlined the relationship between states and media systems, noting that the American state fosters a commercialized model of the media in which advertising funds the flow of information. There is little interference in the media sphere from the state and broad protection of freedom of speech. Unlike any other powerful nation, the United States has no dominant state or public broadcasting sector.
While the work by Siebert et al. is certainly dated, the central principles of a libertarian media still hold in the United States. The advent of cable and the subsequent information explosion from the internet have stretched the notion of “let the audience decide” to breaking point. The enormous rise of disinformation under the Trump administration warped the system still further. The president often pushed or even invented conspiracy theories (such as that COVID-19 was not serious or injecting bleach would kill the virus). A rightwing echo chamber, anchored around Fox News, provided a significant amplification to a credulous, right-leaning audience.
Trump’s inauguration in 2017, in which his spokesman refused to admit he was lying about the size of inauguration crowds, ushered in four years of turmoil for the American media still dedicated to libertarian principles. The concept of media libertarianism dictates that journalists are conduits from information sources to the public. The problem was that key information sources such as the White House had become wellsprings of disinformation, setting up a paradox for serious journalism. The libertarian system dictated that they had to present the President’s words – even when they knew them to be inaccurate – to the public.
While there was growing unease among journalists about the rising tide of falsehoods from the White House, responsible media outlets felt they had to cover what the president said. They tried to balance this by contextualizing the information and countering disinformation with reporting. Unfortunately, this had the joint effect of amplifying the disinformation while at the same time allowing the president to complain to his supporters that the media were “fake” and too critical.
By the day after the 2020 election, three things happened to switch off the full libertarian model and usher in an era in which media networks felt comfortable switching off the president.
First, journalists had come to realize that the game was rigged. Trump and his supporters were parasites in the libertarian media system, taking advantage of how they could assert disinformation and still get covered. What changed is that journalists realized that the libertarian model dictates that media must cover the news – but should avoid propaganda. By accepting and embracing that messages from the White House were now propaganda and not news, the networks were liberated to stop the flow of disinformation for the good of democracy. And protecting democracy, after all, is at the heart of the libertarian model of the media.
More pragmatically, there were two other factors that no doubt contributed to shutting the cameras off. By the evening after the election, math made it clear that Trump was a lame duck president (whether he chose to accept this fact or not). The media, targets of a campaign of hate supported by Trump, had much less to fear from him.
In addition, the journalists practice intermedia agenda-setting, meaning that once they saw one network cut off the president, they felt liberated to do the same. Not all media outlets cut away, but enough to make a strong statement that firmly moved the president from an important source of national information to a propagandist working against the interests of democracy.