Trump must not be media’s measure for normativity

Friday, October 4th, 2019 00:00 |
President Donald Trump. Photo/Courtesy

One of the many functions of the media is to confer legitimacy to an event. However obscure or nondescript an event may be, it assumes legitimacy the moment it begins to feature in mainstream media.

For instance, the Rwanda genocide did not gain traction, legitimacy and seriousness in the beginning, partly due to the manner in which it was being featured in the media.

One could list many events that would have elicited national reaction but did not simply because the media had yet to find them newsworthy. But it is the moment these events get noticed, and begin to be covered that legitimacy is conferred. The events then enter  national discourse.

The same is true with words. Nearly in every society, there are words that are essentially considered politically or culturally inappropriate and, therefore, not to be used in the mainstream. Yet when they begin to be used in public, they lose their pariah status. 

For instance, this week United States President Donald Trump posted a tweet in which he used an expletive which had previously appeared in the mainstream media simply as BS. 

Borrowing from psychology, it may be that Trump is a fairly vulgar man in private. It is from this man that we got that reference to Africa as shithole countries. He has used such dirty words before.

It is in public domain his reference to how he treated women. In a private conversation later released to the media, Trump described the body parts of women that he could otherwise grab based on his standing in society.

In all these, the US president makes reference and uses words deemed inappropriate by society. The media is usually cautious that if they crossed some boundaries, they would offend public morals.

Media, and particularly the lowbrow type generalised as tabloid, are never shy and could afford to be vulgar but even then, do so with a lot of measured restraint in fear of public backlash which might negatively affect circulation numbers.

But even as they exercise restraint, they do so with one eye on what the public is accepting. Thus, when this week the President of what is perceived as the “greatest country in the world, spelt out the word BS in his Twitter post and never  bothered to retract, it signalled to the media that the usage of the word is changing and perhaps no more restraint was needed.

Thus in the next broadcast CNN, a renowned global broadcaster, republished the tweet. Before long the vulgarity was being repeated elsewhere in other media as well and what was once described only as an expletive , is being used loosely.

The disturbing question is whether the media should follow suit in mainstreaming a word and whether there should be standards to which everybody and every word must be held. While the stature of Trump in itself confers legitimacy on many things, how should the presidency be conferring legitimacy to social norms? This is particularly so when the holder of the Oval Office has been very colourfully described. Many have referred to Trump  as unhinged, deranged, dangerous among others. Should such a person be the standard with which we measure normativity?

Given the rigour that goes into the process of producing content of mainstream media, it seems safe to argue that, unless it can be demonstrated that the process of gatekeeping in an office such as the White House is equally thorough and exhaustive, then the president can not be a standard bearer. This is particularly so in the age of social media, a particularly anarchist environment that takes pride in circumventing norms.

—The writer is Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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