‘Fake news’ versus ‘bogus president’ in ‘true democracy’

opinion January 31, 2018 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

2,685 Viewed

Trump has governed in a way that poses a unique threat to American democracy” – article in the Washington Post.

“With all its phony unnamed sources & highly slanted & even fraudulent reporting, fake news is DISTORTING DEMOCRACY in our country” – Donald Trump (Twitter).

Strong democracy needs both leaders who are not afraid of the media and journalists who can defy the powers-that-be. This is probably why a CNN commentator, one of many long-faced participants in a live-broadcast analysis on the biggest day of Donald Trump’s life, declared through gritted teeth that the United States’ political system was still the best despite having propelled the eccentric billionaire to the world’s most powerful office.

The commentator obviously did not realise what his country was in for. He certainly did not expect the two pillars of American democracy to go as far as calling each other fake and treasonous. Of course, democratic systems permit character attacks, which are not in any way comparable to grabbing power by force or through bloodshed. But the line must be drawn somewhere, which is not happening in America, where Trump and the media have in effect accused each other of treachery against the national interest.

Something is seriously wrong with what that commentator described as a “model democracy”, which by all definitions is supposed to protect and serve the public interest. There are what we call “white lies”, but what Trump and the media are accusing each other of are either poisonous lies or truth spun according to a dishonest agenda.

If one side is right, the other must be wrong. It’s as simple as that. Yet there is a possibility of both sides being “nobly wrong” – the media, wrongly but honestly, believing Trump is a Russian puppet and targeting him to protect the national interest, while the president, wrongly but honestly, believing the media are part of a conspiracy against him and standing against them to protect the public interest. This “both sides can be wrong” scenario may vindicate the CNN commentator somewhat.

This, however, brings us to another major aspect of the notion that Trump is a “Russian puppet”. The charge is extremely serious, but the procedures in dealing with the accusation are extremely political. Thanks to that latter, the worst Trump can suffer is having his image tainted, because chances of him facing criminal action are next to zero. If he is innocent, his opponents have abused democracy to undermine “the people’s choice”. If he is guilty, one of the biggest “traitors” in American history has exploited loopholes in the country’s democracy and will eventually come out on top.

The scenario of both sides telling “noble lies” is as disturbing as it is comforting for proponents of the American system. Naïve media may endanger democracy while a president who is totally wrong about the media is no less detrimental. Well, if “endanger” and “detrimental” are too strong, “embarrassing on a grand scale” may suffice here.  

Russia has denied that it meddled with American politics. During the Cold War, this kind of charge would have made Kremlin proud, as American spies would be trying to do the exact same thing. The international diplomatic scene has changed somewhat these days, but the bottom line is that America and Russia remain the biggest superpowers. So, if you were Russia, would you a) be embarrassed by the charge or b) laugh at your rival’s political system, which is either vulnerable to your hacking ability or falsely promoting your hacking capabilities beyond your wildest dreams?

And that America is screaming about its politics being meddled with may be poetic justice in the eyes of many. The United States, over the years, has been accused of engineering regime change in foreign countries to place its favourites in power, of instigating unrest, of actively backing certain leadership candidates in other nations, of arm-twisting politicians overseas on crucial state policies. 

Affected countries never have the benefit of US congressional inquiries regarding, say, high-profile American diplomats meeting foreign political activists of certain ideologies.

Last week’s resignation of a top US diplomat from Myanmar’s advisory panel on Rakhine state might not be related to the Trump-Russia affair, but it is a case in point. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, called the committee a “whitewash” and branded Aung San Suu Kyi as lacking in “moral leadership” on the Rohingya crisis. In other words, he is not satisfied with a foreign politician handling a highly sensitive local issue who could be accused of treason if she is not careful.

A straight-talking Suu Kyi would have asked Richardson to mind his own business. After all, a foreign politician’s faltering response to crisis over a minority in her own country should worry him less than his own president being accused of acting as a puppet of a rival superpower.

Trump and the US media may yet agree on the Rohingya. That’s the beauty of American democracy. A “bogus” president and “fake-news” media outlets can be at each other’s throats over local affairs but then join hands to attack North Korea and Myanmar. It’s the people like us who are left absolutely baffled.

Who should we trust then? Genuine democracy should be about truth prevailing, about handling truth properly and not allowing truth to get dragged through the political mud. Does the American system remain “the best” when we can’t even know which one of its pillars is lying or, worse still, if they both are?