The gatekeeping function of the media has come under threat as populists continue to gain prominence, if not power, across the West. By characterizing the interests of the “elite” as inherently opposed to the needs of the “people,” populists contend that only their leadership can truly serve ordinary citizens. The media thus undermines populists’ legitimacy when it deploys facts and expertise that discredit populist positions as the only ones aligned with voters’ interests. Donald Trump found himself at home with like-minded leaders across the Atlantic when he called the media the “enemy of the American people.”
Rather than refute the particular elements or content of a story, populists attack journalists as out of touch. Zoltan Kovacs, Viktor Orban’s spin doctor, discredited the New York Times’s coverage of refugees in Hungary, stating: “It’s easy to be charmed by the human rights nonsense when you’re penning editorials from an office in Midtown Manhattan. But we’re running a government responsible for the safety and security of our citizens.”
In an illiberal democracy, appeals to safety from terrorism or security from economic uncertainty become mutually exclusive with a free press.
At a time when trust in media has declined throughout the West, populist attacks on journalism have proven effective enough to warrant serious concern. In too many democracies, rhetorical attacks have translated into real restrictions on the press. Just this week, Polish President Andrzej Duda celebrated limitations placed on Polish media covering parliament. Duda’s comments followed remarks from Donald Trump defending his attacks on CNN as fake news.
The need for journalism as a check on political power must be asserted once more. Democratic citizens must acknowledge that facts are indispensable and must fight for their dissemination. At the same time, mainstream media must work to better understand voters who support populists, many of whom have been excluded from the reach of mainstream reporting.
Nigel Farage, who successfully campaigned for Brexit, recently argued that “traditional media needs to move outside of its metropolitan comfort zone.” This sentiment enjoys strong empirical support – at least in the US, internet publishers have added jobs while newspapers have hemorrhaged employees. The media has subsequently become severely disconnected from America’s heartland. Three-quarters of internet publishing employees work in a county Hillary Clinton won by more than 30 percentage points.
Finally, politicians who hope to wrest power and influence from populists should welcome tenacious reporting. In his final press conference as president, Barack Obama told members of the media: “You are not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.”
In a democracy, all leaders derive their power from the consent of the governed. Most leaders gain this consent by persuading others of the merits of their policy positions. But populists believe their agenda enumerates the only reasonable course of action. In a populist politics, the battle is waged not between different political choices but between claimants of the mantle of the true voice of the people. Insofar as the media helps citizens make sense of competing political paths, populist ideology cannot accommodate the function of journalism in a democracy.
* Clara Hendrickson is a research assistant and William A. Galston is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think-tank.