The Role of Media in Dangerous Times

What is the role of media when the president of the United States promulgates falsehoods, sows division among the populace, demonizes duly-elected officials who disagree with him, gives a wink and a nod to armed White supremacists by telling them to “stand back and stand by,” but orders heavily-armed police to use tear-gas on non-violent Black Lives Matter demonstrators, marching to put an end to police brutality?  How do media outlets cover a president who denigrates and dehumanizes whole sectors of the American public every time he speaks?  That is, Muslims, Mexicans, women, immigrants, Democrats, “blue” states, Obama, Hillary, Kamala, and Biden….  We must not negate the psychological consequences.

In 1994, there was a terrible slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda.  Hutus were given machetes and encouraged to rise up and murder their Tutsi neighbors because it was rumored that a member of the Tutsi tribe had caused the death of the country’s leader.  This false allegation was purposely spread by a Hutu-favoring radio station.  The massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus went on for three months with lasting physical and emotional trauma to the entire population.

That can’t happen here, we say, and we hope we’re right. But the elements that were present in Rwanda prior to the massacre exist here, right now:

  • A division in the population based on race, culture, or ideology that someone’s need for power has amplified and exploited;
  • A culture of machismo that encourages violence and intimidation as legitimate behavior;
  • The purposeful accumulation of weapons by one group; and
  • A biased communications outlet open to polarizing the country and broadcasting false accusations.

All that are needed now are the denigration and dehumanization of the “other” group, which has begun, and a precipitating event or rumor that is to be used as a rationale for attack.

It can already be argued that U.S. media played a role in the election of Donald Trump.  In the run-up to the election on November 8, 2016, the major television networks afforded the candidate more than 2 billion dollars’ worth of free airtime.  The CEO of CBS at the time, Les Moonves, said of Donald Trump’s candidacy: “It may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS….  The money’s rolling in.”

Four years later, we have a president who has told his followers: “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”  When asked about the peaceful transition of power should his opponent win the election he stated: “There won’t be a transfer, frankly.  There will be a continuation.”

Donald Trump lives in a mental world where getting what he wants is all that matters, all that should and will matter, according to him.  He cannot tolerate anything other than a world where he “wins”, and hence he will make that happen if it does not exist.  He indirectly communicates this to his followers, the implication being that they must mobilize if the official decision conflicts with his world view.  He binds, tests, and conditions them to an absolute loyalty, so that they would not accept any other result, even if that means giving their lives to it.  This is what is happening when they pack into his rallies without masks or social distancing and accept that the election will be rigged, the news is fake, and they should be “tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots” but “not be afraid of Covid.”

So far, Donald Trump has been careful not to give direct orders to his followers, but from his position of power he does not have to.  Henry II did not have to lift a finger to have his followers assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury.  All he said was: “What miserable … traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”  The interrupted plots to kidnap and kill the governors of Michigan and Virginia, as well as the mayor of Wichita, are the exact effects we would expect he would have when he tweets, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” or shouts, “Get your governor to open up your state….  And get your schools open…  Lock ’em all up.”  He has also given his tacit approval of vigilante violence.

So what is the role of media in a society where the chief executive is sowing division and inciting violence by denigrating and dehumanizing whole swaths of American citizens, labeling them “enemies,” and protecting Second-Amendment rights to bear arms but not protecting Constitutional rights of peaceful assembly to redress grievances?  How can the public remain safe, when peaceful protestors are called “terrorists” by a media outlet that has been set up to promote the values of the White, mostly male corporate ruling class?  What can the public do to counter the rising violence and chaos?

The time between November 3, 2020 and January 20, 2021, may be the most dangerous for America.  At what point should Twitter disable Trump’s account?  When do more responsible media organizations refuse to air his comments or alert their audiences in real time that what they are hearing is false?  When do the owners of large venues refuse to give the president access because his rallies spawn violence?

When should the radio station have been shut down in Rwanda, and who should have shut it down?

In America, the people own the airwaves.  They are part of “the commons” as stipulated by Congressional legislation in the last century.  With the Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” may not fall under the protection of free speech.  We now have much better research on how rhetoric from an influential position directly leads to widespread epidemics of violence.  This is why the World Mental Health Coalition issued its “Prescription for Survival” earlier this year.  We do not have to give our airwaves to someone who means us harm.  We can shut him down.

Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div.

Madeline Taylor, Ph.D.