During the Republican National Convention in mid-July, a heavy-set man in a Stetson stood behind the desk of a group of immaculately turned out bobble heads on CNN, holding a handwritten sign that said: Dont believe the liberal media.
The interloper clearly intended to cause no trouble, but he didnt intend to move either. His persistence, entirely placid and entirely obdurate, sent the live broadcast into a tailspin. CNN went to absurd levels to crop the man out of shot with extreme camera angles, an activity which clearly discombobulated the panellists. Eventually, the control room gave up and cut to a different panel.
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Our man in the Stetson would be well pleased with the comeuppance of the past week. The election of Donald Trump has pitched the liberal media in the US into a state of introspection. There is a predictable rush to apportion blame. Ive read hot takes about how the media did a terrible job. There have been mass mea culpas from various columnists apologising for various deficiencies, including a failure to understand the undercurrents of Trumps success.
There are two problems with this rush to hate and self-hate.
The first problem is much of the analysis is vapid.
Setting aside the post-truth partisan hackery of Fox News, which isnt journalism, and the breathlessness of live cable coverage, which delivers journalism at its best and lobotomising wallpaper at its worst, the outlets we used to call print did exceptional work. The journalism I consumed was gutsy, intelligent, richly reported, insightful, sceptical and self-aware.
We have not, at least in my lifetime, seen a more manifestly unqualified and potentially dangerous person run to be president and the job of the media in a functioning democracy is to subject that agenda to close scrutiny. Faced with a candidate such as Donald Trump, the demagogue of division, the US media doubled down and did its job.
The second objection I have to the water-cooler revisionism is much of it misses our real problem. Contemporary journalism has a much bigger problem than Wolf Blitzer not getting out to the rust belt enough.
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So please people, lets tell the truth.
The failure we have to confront, the reality we cant avoid, is that we are doing the work, journalism is pulling out all the stops, we are doing everything in our power to rise to the occasion in times when our collective commercial reality makes it hard to rise to the occasion but our work isnt cutting through.
It is making little or no difference.
Worse than making no difference, its entirely probable that the forensic interrogation of Trump by the cream of the American media, which was the prelude to the strong editorial lines warning American voters they were taking a singular risk by putting him anywhere near the White House, perversely helped Trumps campaign, fuelling his grievance narrative, and making him stronger.
Thats our real existential challenge. Our efforts to make things better could be making things worse. It is like experiencing the inevitability of your own demise, in real time.
The foundations beneath our feet have shifted.
Weve been drifting, in increments, in the direction of post-truth, but the election of Trump is a head-first pitch over the cliff. A person with manifest disdain for facts and evidence now occupies the White House because half the country didnt care. He got them in the gut, by throwing away the meaningless obfuscations of politics and validating their grievances.
There is a massive appetite for gut validation. Increasingly, audiences want to choose their own facts, and read opinion they agree with. The trend is reinforced by social media algorithms which push agreeable content in the direction of the consumer, and screens out irritations such as alternative points of view.
Culturally, we are on a slide down a slippery slope. If no one wants to read anything other than material that confirms their pre-existing biases, then public interest journalism is in danger of becoming a historical artefact.
We need to start talking about this clearly, because I for one dont intend to submit to death by a thousand cuts.
We also need to do a couple of things right off the bat.
We need to recognise there are valid reasons why audiences dont trust us. We need to recognise that we are fully capable of abusing our power, and sometimes, our work is little better than oxygen theft.
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While owning our own deficiencies, we also need to be clear that this is a bigger problem than us that post-truth politics, made manifest by Trumpism, is fully intent on our destruction. The so-called failure of the liberal media elite is yet another long con being perpetrated by powerful people now posing in high office as faux everymen and women railing against the establishment.
Its a con with every prospect of working.
This is not just an American phenomenon.
We saw Trump-like tactics deployed against the Australian media during the first run of Hansonism in this country. Journalist Margo Kingston documents the campaign modus operandi deployed by One Nation in the late 1990s, where officials would deliberately whip up supporters to express outrage against the legitimate role of the press.
Its all in Kingstons searingly honest campaign memoir, Off the Rails. Read it if you havent. Its essential reading in the contemporary political context.
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We saw it in miniature again just this week. A Hanson backroom adviser intervened in a press conference in Canberra to declare what questions could and could not be asked a bit of baiting, and conflict seeding. Presumably this is about creating impressions, about brand reinforcement: nasty biased media, picking on the plucky politicians wanting to shake up the rotten Canberra establishment.
We also see it in the hostile disposition some in the government display towards the ABC, and towards Guardian Australia and its reporting about conditions in offshore detention, the obvious attempt to reframe whistleblowing and public interest reporting as some kind of conspiracy-laden wrecking.
These are really tough times and I have no pat solutions, apart from pressing on, plying an honest trade, not taking a backward step.
And just as the US election forced journalism to confront once again the limits of our collective insight, community mandate and authority, the momentous news from Washington seemed to portend even more encirclement of our prime minister, at least the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull might have once dreamed of being.
An ugly election in America, which had turned viciously for 18 months on race and gender and identity politics, had pushed low thunder in our direction: the dogged push about hate speech protections which has forced another parliamentary inquiry, Craig Kelly and George Christensen archly declaring the Paris climate agreement cactus as Turnbull set his jaw in his courtyard and insisted on ratifying it because it was right and because it is what we have to do.
In a tough week the Paris ratification was a small gesture of defiance against trend.
It wasnt the only one. For the first time inside the government, one moderate stood up and called out the dog whistle.
Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent said the government could lurch full-tilt into Trumpism and Hansonism, there could be cuddling up or diatribes delivered against Islam, or alternatively, centre-right politics could do something else entirely. It could find its better angels, and, God forbid, lead.
Broadbents denunciation of reactionary populism was delivered in the spirit of a man needing to remove a heavy burden from his chest. He made it clear hed thought long and hard about what to say.
In Broadbents mind, there were two choices in politics, the low road or the high road, and it was time to remind some colleagues that the high road remained a viable option.
Centre-right politicians, he said, could scapegoat or they could empathise; they could marginalise or they could look for pathways towards inclusion.
Right here, right now, we can turn to the high road. Let this nation be the circuit breaker,and travel the road of the wise, leaving the foolish to perish in division, Broadbent said, his words vaulting up into the chamber into the early evening a defiant incantation of moral clarity and hope.