Watchdog or Lapdog?
Why authoritarian leaders like to brand the media as ‘enemy of the people’
Washington: President Donald Trump keeps lashing out at the media as “the enemy of the people”. His surrogates refuse to say whether they agree with that description of the press, notably Sarah Sanders when she is accosted by CNN’s Jim Acosta in the White House.
Journalists, including conservative anti-Trump pundits like Bret Stephens of The New York Times, are being threatened with dire consequences. Alarming? Yes, but there may be method in Trump’s rant.
There are different ways in which an authoritarian, or would-be authoritarian, goes after the media in a democracy that constitutionally mandates a free press. The old-fashioned way is to censor the media, ban criticisms of the leader and the administration, and throw leading journalists in jail. It’s still the preferred method of outright tyrants.
A more effective way in a political system that is democratically structured is to avoid the appearance of suppression of a still independent media on the way to delegitimizing it.
It works like this: Keep a significant part of the media unquestioningly on your side as virtual state megaphones – witness Fox News and the overwhelming majority of US talk radio – while systematically attacking the credibility of the rest of the media.
All the while, keep ranting against “the media” as corrupt and untrustworthy even as a substantial part of it is on your side. The part that is not, call it ‘the enemy of the people’ to stoke popular opinion against the press.
The term has long been used by leaders in power who would brand a subgroup, including an independent media, that might pose a check to unchallengeable authority. Robespierre used it during the French Revolution, so did Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union.
All authoritarians hate an independent press. Trump, not a full-blown authoritarian thus far, realises how it makes tactical sense at this juncture of his drive to make America in his own image to keep berating the press as purveyors of “fake news” and to beat up the media as the enemy of the people. The tactic cleverly devalues truth and erodes the credibility of objective reportage.
The press in a liberal democracy is, of course, necessarily an ‘enemy of some people’ at a given point of time. It performs its defining role as watchdog, the more so when sections of it want to be lapdogs.
In such a role it barks when it spies misconduct. But for any wannabe authoritarian who already controls the three estates of a constitutional democracy, ie the executive, the legislature and the highest rungs of the judiciary, a defiant fourth estate is his natural enemy.
Trump’s base of blind supporters is a substantial minority that, going by opinion polls, trusts him overwhelmingly over the coverage of the mainstream news outlets, unless it’s Fox or one of the numerous hard right websites or his amen corner of conservative talk radio. A tad more support from independents and wavering Republicans, of whom there are few, may be enough for him.
The fabled checks and balances of the American system of governance are malfunctioning. Apart from the hope of a record high turnout for the midterm elections in November that might give Democrats a majority in one or both houses, the press remains the only bulwark left for slowing Trump’s assault on a liberal democratic United States.
Trump and his cohort know this well. That may be why he relentlessly attacks the media.
Take his meeting last week with AG Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times. Trump tweeted that he had discussed “the vast amounts of Fake News being put by the media and how that Fake News has morphed into phrase ‘Enemy of the People’, Sad!” Within two hours, Sulzberger clarified: “I told the president directly that I thought his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.”
The publisher told him that he was far more concerned about his labelling of journalists ‘the enemy of the people’ and warned that “this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Yes. But what if it’s an outcome which doesn’t perturb the president? In fact, he might be happy to have generated an atmosphere of intimidation of the press. Some of his hardline supporters at rallies have become menacing to reporters. And the real fake news that is purveyed by far right conspiratorial websites has already generated violence or the threat of violence.
The media, or the part of it which isn’t yet servile to an authoritarian or near-authoritarian, simply must be as alert a watchdog as ever in these times. It’s the only fighter left in the ring, for now.
Courtesy: The Times of India (General Studies)
- Surrogate (noun): A substitute, especially a person deputizing for another in a specific role or office. (प्रतितियुक्त व्यतक्त)
Synonyms: Substitute, Proxy, Replacement, Deputy
Antonyms: Real, Permanent
Example: Because she had no children of her own, her friend’s son became a kind of surrogate child to her.
- Accost (noun): To go up to or stop and speak to someone in a threatening way. (संबोधि करिा, टोकिा, संभाषण करिा)
Synonyms: Address, Approach, Buttonhole, Confront
Antonyms: Avoid, Dodge, Shun, Evade
Example: Reporters accosted him in the street
Related: Accosted, Accosted
- Dire (adjective): Used to emphasize how serious or terrible a situation or event is. (ख़ौफ़िाक, भीषण)
Synonyms: Terrible, Dreadful, Appalling, Frightful,
Antonyms: Unthreatening, Auspicious, Benign, Propitious
Example: Misuse of drugs can have dire consequences.
- Rant (noun): Long angry speech or scolding. (हल्ला मचाकर दोषारोपण करिा)
Synonyms: Diatribe, Harangue, Tirade, Bombast
Antonyms: Panegyric, Plaudit, Eulogy, Commendation
Example: After complaining about the hotel’s lousy service, the woman went off on another rant about the condition of her room.
- Tyrant (noun): A cruel and oppressive ruler. (िािाशाह, अत्याचारी)
Synonyms: Dictator, Despot, Autocrat, Oppressor
Antonyms: Democrat, Egalitarian
Example: Growing up I considered my stepmother to be a tyrant because she punished me without cause
- Purveyor (noun): A person who sells or deals in particular goods. (भंडारी)
Synonyms: Seller, Vendor, Trader, Retailer, Supplier
Example: He is a purveyor of large luxury vehicles.
- Bulwark (noun): A defensive wall or something that protects you from dangerous or unpleasant situations. (चारदीवारी, बांध, बचाव)
Synonyms: Rampart, Fortification, Bastion, Protection, Embankment, Shield
Example: When the ruler travelled around his territory, his guards accompanied him as a bulwark from enemy attack.
- Cohort (noun): A group of people who support a particular person, usually a leader: (दल, दस्िा)
Synonyms: Associate, Companion, Comrade, Crony, Hobnobber, Mate,
Antonyms: Adversary, Foe
Example: The Mayor and his cohorts have abused their positions of power.
- Perturb (verb): Make (someone) anxious or unsettled. (व्याकुल करिा)
Synonyms: Worry, Upset, Unsettle, Disturb, Concern, Trouble
Antonyms: Soothe, Placate, Tranquilize
Example: They were perturbed by her capricious behaviour
- Morph (verb): To gradually change, or change someone or something, from one thing to another. (रूप बदलिा)
Synonyms: Mutate, Transform, Modify, Transmute
Antonyms: Remain, Persist, Maintain
Example: When someone brings up politics at a party, a casual conversation can quickly morph into an ugly argument.
Related: Morphed, Morphed