Where the real fake news lies

Comment from Peter Saxon

It is impossible to write an article about “fake news” without crediting the man who has done so much to popularise the term in recent years.

For those who are sensitive to criticism of Donald Trump (I tried it once and I don’t think I got away with it), I’m not here to bury the U.S. President but to praise our own Prime Minister.

Two leaders of first world countries are handed the same problem to solve: How to protect their citizens from a deadly pandemic?

Australia’s PM succeeds by limiting deaths to 4.16 per million of population. America’s President fails miserably with a death rate of 388.93 per million – 97 times that of Australia’s toll. Source: Statista.com

One would be forgiven for thinking that Scott Morrison is doing a lot right while Donald Trump is doing an awful lot wrong.

And given the latest approval rating for each leader, that’s pretty much what most ‘ones’ think.

Scott Morrison:     68% (Newspoll [subscription] June 29, 2020)

Donald Trump:      40.6% (FiveThirtyEight July 7, 2020)

Back in January, after he failed to immediately cut short his Hawaiian holiday and return to Australia when the bushfire crisis hit, Scott Morrison’s approval ratings had plummeted to a low of just 37, compared to Trump’s 41 at the time.

But by late February the coronavirus began its inexorable spread across the planet and presented Morrison with a shot at redemption. And he took it with both hands.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em – William Shakespeare.

As much as the coronavirus or COVID-19 had thrust the opportunity to be great in a time of crisis upon Morrison, along with other world leaders, it also uncovered those who were lacking in true leadership qualities, unprepared to lead their nation through a pandemic.

Compare Trump to Morrison

Both men are heads of the main conservative party in their country – so this isn’t a left v right thing. Neither man can be accused of being soft on issues such as crime, drugs and border control. Happily, guns and abortion are not touchstone issues in Australia as they are in America – although some would argue that they should be.

Where the two differ, is in style, like two CHR stations playing much the same music. Yet the difference in how they deliver that content is stark.

Morrison has long experience in politics.
Trump is a novice, which is not necessarily a bad thing. To his supporters it’s a virtue.

Morrison is a committed Christian who largely keeps his religous beliefs out of politics.
Trump is committed to harvesting the Christian vote. He believes in no higher authority than himself. He can hold up a bible and swear on it but has rarely opened one, let alone read it.

Morrison learns from his mistakes and humbly apologises when he makes one, as he did with the bushfires.
Trump lives by a code: never apologise, never back down, never admit you’re wrong.

Morrison has been a unifying force. Since the COVID-19 outbreak he has done his best to leave politics out of the equation.
Trump has gone out of his way to divide his nation, happy to politicise any event that presents an opportunity to do so – even the death of a genuine war hero, John McCain, who had crossed him was fair game for Trump.

People don’t expect (your singing to be) perfect, they’re more interested in the heart (you put into it)’ – Guy Sebastian, a judge on Nine’s The Voice

Morrison listens to expert advice and acts on it. He speaks to us as honestly as he can about what is a complex issue in uncharted waters that are in constant flux. Have all his decisions been perfect? Far from it. But even as he struggles to find a balance between saving lives and livelihoods, we get the sense that he’s doing the best job he can with compassion and much soul searching.
Trump, who is notoriously poorly read, shuns experts and prefers to rely on his own instincts than specialist medical advice.

All this adds up to one thing: Morrison is seen by an overwhelming majority of Australians as a genuine leader while Americans increasingly see Trump as a fake.

The amazing thing is that despite the pain and suffering his actions are causing, even among Trump’s own supporters, just over 40% of voters still approve of the job he’s doing. It defies logic, no?

Well, no. When Trump says I will Make America Great Again, his supporters hear, ‘I will make it great for you again by putting you, your religion, your guns and your race back where it belongs at the centre of U.S. politics.’

That’s the grand covenant he has made with his base. That’s the reason that so many will overlook all the bad traits that would be unacceptable in any other president and vote against their own interests, even risk their own lives by following the president’s example of refusing to wear a face mask in public and all the other precautions that Trump has politicised as something that “they” do, not us.

While pandering to his base who are inclined to distrust government, elites, experts and anything mainstream, particularly media, Trump addresses their grievances by blaming “others” for their predicament. Sound familiar?

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time – Abraham Lincoln

After the Republicans lost the 2012 election to give Barack Obama a second term as president they were advised by their researchers that as demographics were changing they’d need to appeal to a broader base, more inclusive of women, younger voters and minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics.

But Trump and his, it must be said, incredibly savvy political strategists, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon had different ideas. They felt that there were still enough of the Grand Old Party’s (GOP’s) traditional voters to win an election if they could just get them fired up enough to get out and vote. To do that, they’d address the pent up grievances held by the conservative target group that had been losing the cultural war to the progressives since Ronald Reagan was president, 1981- 89.

This kind of strategy is not unknown in Australian radio. When 2WS was launched in the pre-FM days of 1978, it targeted 25-39 year olds but perhaps more importantly it championed the causes of the oft maligned western suburbs of Sydney that it was licensed to serve.

Although its signal began to weaken as you travelled east past Parramatta and became unlistenable on approach to Sydney City and the beach districts, 2WS dominated audience share of the west by a big enough margin to a achieve a 10% share of the Sydney market as a whole in the first survey it contested.  At one point, it even reached #1 despite its limited signal – a feat that was replicated during that period by 3MP in Melbourne.

But Trump’s campaign strategy goes much further. It’s not enough to just to win by being better than your opponent, you must crush them too. No insult is too great for anyone who dares criticise him.Testify aginst him and he’ll happily trash your hard earned reputation and ruin your career.

Veteran reporter for U.S. 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl described an interview with Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. According to her, when the cameras were off, he explained why he accuses most mainstream media of being “fake news.” He reportedly said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’ Genius!

Only now, with over 130,000 dead at time of writing and with around 50,000 new cases discovered per day and rising, fewer people are prepared to accept Trump’s advice on how to deal with this pandemic that he was sure would be over by now. ‘It’s like the flu, he said, ‘When the warmer weather comes, it will go away.’

Well, Mr President, summer in the northern hemisphere is halfway through and the coronavirus is so out of control that the European Union which is opening up to travel, has banned U.S. residents from entering. Imagine that! The greatest, most powerful country in the world, with arguably the best medical resources available is now among the worst infected.

After the Democrats had lost their impeachment of Trump in the Senate, as most pundits predicted they would, there was a general a feeling that Trump was a good bet to win another term.

But there’s more at play here than last time. Last time the Democrats and their candidate Hilary Clinton were woefully unprepared for Trump’s battle plan as they wrongly assumed that victory would be theirs.

Another big factor was that a large bloc of younger Democrat voters were deeply disappointed that their favourite candidate, the progressive Bernie Sanders, had been beaten out of the presidential contest by Hilary Clinton who many loathed. So, come polling day, as is their right in the U.S., they simply didn’t bother to vote – helping hand the presidency to Trump.

This time, though, without any great enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate Joe Biden but a profound animosity towards Trump, it will be on for young and old. This time, with the United States more divided than at any time since the Civil War, both sides will be out in droves, pitchforks in hand (figuratively speaking, I hope) keen to ensure their side wins.

However, I’m not here to try to predict the outcome of an election in the U.S.

I simply want to highlight how dangerous it can be for a leader of a nation, aided and abetted by a significant section of the media, eschew scientifically based evidence and instead spread misinformation and fake news in order to achieve a political end. How many 10’s of 1,000’s of lives might have been saved had Trump acted more like Morrison?

My question is this: Confronted by six months worth of data and the results of how different countries handled the pandemic to date, at what point do the media organisations that support Trump  come to the moral conclusion that the misinformation they allow their presenters to disseminate is costing lives for no other reason than to maintain a political posture?

On the other hand, I’m not sure that silencing Pauline Hanson for her intemperate remarks about residents of public housing in Melbourne who are locked down due to Covid-19 as “drug addicts” who “cannot speak English” is the best way to go. I believe it would be more effective to let her speak and let the other hosts on the Today Show debate it out with her. After all, we live in a democracy

Perhaps the tide of misinformation is turning. The other day, Vice President, Mike Pence made a speech that urged Americans to wear masks and adhere to social distancing. This came when just a week ago he was still selling the Trump line that everything’s under control and getting back to normal.

Meanwhile, one of Trump’s most prominent cheerleaders on Fox News, Sean Hannity said, “I went to my grocery store every week, guess what? They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus. I think they work.”

Sanity may yet prevail.

Peter Saxon 

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