One of the most frequently heard sayings of the last six months is that Donald Trump has been good for journalism. And on the face of it, that much is true. Audience figures for news websites have gone through the roof; the 10 o’clock news hour has become must watch TV again; even the odd newspaper has seen its readership rise.
I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while last week and we exchanged the staggered exclamations of disbelief which pass for pleasantries these days. But what, he wondered, happened in the world before the 45th President of the USA entered the stage? How did the media function before it was presented with the gift that keeps on giving?
Since his inauguration a month ago, President Trump has become ubiquitous to the point of parody. His Twitter feed alone is enough to power the world’s headline writers and it is with a sense of inevitability that his latest achievement, executive order, rant or gaffe makes the lead item on the news at ten.
It was somewhat startling, therefore, to turn on the TV at the weekend to see that the top story was about the renewed Iraqi offensive in Mosul, in which The Donald was seemingly playing no direct part. Yet of course the battle against Isis has been going on all this time – not perhaps with the same ferocity we saw on our screens in October when Iraqi forces, alongside Kurdish and Iranian militias, supported by the US and others, first set out to recapture the city. Nonetheless, through November, December and January the fighting has continued.
Districts once held by Isis have been taken by coalition forces; airstrikes have targeted the extremists’ strongholds; bridges have been destroyed by both sides; car bombs have been deployed against the Iraqis. And through it all, around one and a half million people have tried to stay out of the firing line, find food, keep their families close – in short, to live. And what have the rest of us been doing? Laughing at Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impressions when we haven’t been watching, aghast, the President himself.
This is not to say that Trump doesn’t deserve our attention. He is, without question, the most powerful man in the world, seemingly set to run America in a way nobody has previously attempted or seen. It is essential that his Presidency is examined, explored and, inexplicable though it may seem, explained. And since the President has made it plain that he regards himself as being in a battle with the mainstream media, it is desperately important that journalists do not back off. The head of state who buttresses his own alternative reality by trashing the fact-based narrative of his critics, is not a man to whom the media should turn a blind eye.
Yet it is just as important that we do not become so obsessed by the admittedly addictive power of Trump’s bizarre reality that we lose sight of the great many other things which are worthy of journalistic, and of public, attention. True, the US President tends to loom large over a great many global events, from the conflict against the so called Islamic State and relations between Russia and the West to climate change policy and international trade. But it would be wrong to see these issues only through the orange tinged prism of the Trump presidency. After all, what does a megalomaniac like better than believing the world really does revolve around him?
The controversial orders Donald Trump has already issued
Furthermore, however extraordinary the election of Donald Trump may seem to half of America’s population, or to a great many people in this country and elsewhere, it did not happen without reason. Among the key factors was a real or perceived failure by both politicians and the media to focus on the issues that really matter to ordinary people: concerns about immigration, about jobs, about inequality, anxiety over healthcare, bullying, crime, a desire to make their nation ‘great’ again.
We shouldn’t, indeed cannot, ignore Trump. But it would be far worse if, by ignoring the day to day problems faced by ordinary voters, the media proved he was right when he claimed the established voices of western liberal democracy were out of touch.