The Year That Was: Dawn of the “Post-Truth” Era
by David Schonauer
The media did not make Donald Trump president.
People who were angry and desired change made Donald Trump president. Donald Trump, who shouted over the media and at the media, made Donald Trump president. But the media, including many in the photography community, have been busy soul-searching since the election on November 9th.
Recently, VII agency photojournalist Ed Kashi and San Diego-based photographer Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft penned a post-election lament about “the state of photography in America” at the Time LightBox blog. It was part of the broader media self-flagellation for not doing a better job of understanding the forces in rural and suburban America that drove Trump’s victory. The two photographers noted that photographs “have had, in past elections, a tremendous impact on people’s perception of presidential candidates.” This year, they said, images were less important.
“Tweets mattered, not pictures,” they wrote.
There were plenty of memorable photographs of the campaign, as Kashi and Ellison-Scowcroft noted. That included what they called photographer Mark Peterson’s “brutal and beautiful” breakout coverage. In the end, however, the picture that America saw day after day was only that of an angry Trump attacking his enemies, and in the end that was the picture that mattered. It’s what people wanted to see.
Kashi and Ellison-Scowcroft, like much of the media, find more bewilderment than answers when they look at the coverage of the 2016 election. And they find fault. “We, as journalists, have also failed to get the stories that matter to the people that need to hear them,” they write. “Instead of looking at these folks in a pejorative way, we need to look at their lives and try to tell their stories in a way that demonstrates the historical significance of what they and their ancestors have done, and the desperate need for investment and retraining that they need and deserve.”
Since the election there has been a great deal of talk about forgotten Americans who helped build the country but have seen their jobs drift away through decades of globalization. Has the media ignored them? It’s a generalization: Alecia Swasy, the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at Washington & Lee University, argued at Poynter recently that journalists have not failed rural America.
“Part of the election autopsy has been a predictable ‘blame the media’ refrain that naturally follows when the polls and front pages missed what was really happening in the heartland,” writes Swasy, who has been tracking media coverage of rural issues. “In reality, the ebb and flow of coverage of ‘the haves and have-nots’ has been the same for 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the ‘War on Poverty,’ a pledge to create better schools, jobs and highways to connect Appalachia with the prosperity enjoyed in the rest of post-World War II America.”
In recent years PPD has spotlighted many powerful,respectful, empathetic photo stories about farmers, steel mill workers, truckers, miners and other working-class people over the years. One photographer who has probed deeply and carefully in forgotten America is Matt Eich.
Eich has spent a decade working on an extended project called “The Invisible Yoke,” a layered and nuanced look at regions haunted by legacies of the past. The first chapter of the long-form visual essay, a book called Carry Me Ohio, is a portrait of southeast Ohio and the decline of the coal industry.
“A lot of people there voted for Trump because he put on a hard hat and said he would make coal great again,” Eich says. “But that won’t happen, because it’s just too expensive to get the coal out of there.”
Coming chapters in the project will look at the legacy of racism in Mississippi and the legacy of the military-industrial complex in Virginia.
Eich told us that over the years, a number of photography venues have declined to show his pictures of southeastern Ohio. “They turned it down because it was too depressing,” he said. For a long time, Eich said, he felt as if he were “shouting into the void with what I was seeing and feeling and hearing in my travels.” Since the election, he has come to feel what he called “a greater sense of purpose” in the work.
Now, he is not just photographing forgotten America. He’s photographing Trump’s America.
So where is photography now?
In the post-truth era, along with the rest of the media.
Five days after the election, Oxford Dictionaries announced that it had chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year for 2016. “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States,” noted the organization.
Along with the idea of post-truth was the rise of fake news on social media. And coming up is a new president who roused supporters by calling journalists “scum” and “lowlifes.” Michael Shaw noted at his Reading the Pictures blog how the media has been attempting to “normalize” Trump after the election. At the New Yorker, David Remnick called the idea of normalizing Trump a “fantasy.”
“The President-elect does not care who knows how unforgiving or vain or distracted he is,” Remnick wrote. Example: Trump singled out NBC News for running a photo of him that showed him with a double chin. PDN went in search of the offending image and came up with a number of possibilities.
Less funny was Fox News figure (and Trump advisor) Sean Hannity’s call for the next president to create a media blacklist against news organizations that are “biased and corrupt.” In response, a coalition of news associations, including the National Press Photographers Association, called on Trump to uphold traditions of White House coverage.
Recently, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was honored at an event by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and during her speech she said, “I never in a million years thought I would be up here on stage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home.” It’s must reading.
What should photographers do in this acidic environment? “It is time to start thinking more critically about how we characterize our subjects, especially if we want to reach a wider audience and have real impact,” write Kashi and Ellison-Scowcroft. They urge photographers to “go out and use your voices” to tell the stories of forgotten American communities.
“The research shows reason for optimism,” writes Alecia Swasy at Poynter. “Reporters and photographers given the chance to travel to remote areas have done a terrific job of putting a face on the plight of the poor.”
On the other hand, writer Neal Gabler recently contributed a post to Bill Moyers’s website called “Whose Really to Blame for Fake News.” Spoiler alert: Gabler says it’s not only the craven people who spread fake news. “What is truly horrifying is that fake new is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public. It is willful belief by the public.”
What to do? Everything. Maybe someone should start a Humans of Idaho blog.
Here’s more must-read reading for the post-truth era: Recently, Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, received the second-annual Hitchens Prize, honoring the memory and legacy of the late Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. In accepting the award, Baron, who oversaw the Boston’s Globe’s coverage of the Catholic Church sex scandal — he was played by Liev Schreiber in the film Spotlight — imparted advice for journalists about to cover the Trump administration.
“The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work,” he said. “Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four — perhaps eight — years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn? If so, what do we do? The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.”