Towards the close of the 19th century, William Randolph Hearst, who owned the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, who ran the New York World, engaged in a spitting contest of sensationalism often mixed with falsehoods to improve the sagging sales of their newspapers.
Then, almost like a gift from heaven, a crisis in Cuba provided them a spotlight. Playing on Spanish officials’ human rights abuses, their untoward acts toward women, their insults aimed at the US and its citizens, and any incident at the time, the two media moguls, joined by other newspapers, enflamed public opinion in America against Spain.
By most accounts, the Spanish-American War of 1898 would not have occurred had it not been for the media, or at least a good portion of it, especially Hearst and Pulitzer, wanting it and promoting it.
Fast forward to the present…
The Western media currently loathe Donald Trump to a degree almost as intense as Hearst and Pulitzer’s aversion towards the Spanish colonial government in Cuba and are on a tear to do Trump in.
Hollywood and academe in the US have joined the media crusade. They too despise Trump with an extreme passion.
During the campaign, the three cited Trump for almost every transgression or bad trait they could imagine: his treatment of women, his business practices (including not paying taxes), his espousing protectionism and isolationism, his populism and nationalism, his authoritarian mindset, his racism, and more. Trump was almost pro forma accused of lying.
After the election, the media kept up its shrill and slanted attacks on Trump. In fact, it got much worse. Newspapers and TV reported widely on anti-Trump protest demonstrations giving the impression the majority of Americans detested Trump. Celebrities castigated Trump in public and won media attention and praise for doing so.
The news establishment reported that Trump suffered from sleep deprivation, which, they said, impaired his diplomacy. They wrote about Trump’s mental instability. Opinion leaders proffered the view that Trump would start a trade war, that his protectionism and isolationism would evoke a global recession, and that he longed to use nuclear weapons. His populism and his authoritarian personality, they reported, would spell the end of democracy in the US and, if Trumpism spread, the rest of the world.
Newspaper and television reporting exaggerated the import of Trump’s friendship with Russia and supported illegal intelligence leaks about Trump’s meetings with foreign leaders. The media even reported the US intelligence community withheld information from Trump.
In any event, what the media said and wrote hinted of discord and even a state of revolt inside the US government. This seriously undermined Trump’s ability to manage foreign policy inasmuch as foreign leaders believed much of what the US media said and thus questioned America’s commitments and its ability to act in the event of a crisis.
There was another factor: the US media and their partners had a second enemy. That was China…
They had long espoused deep animus toward China. In some ways, it was more serious than their ill feelings toward Trump. It had been around for longer.
The US media, Hollywood, and America’s academic community vexed about the rise of China and the consequences of China becoming a great power and eventually the world’s dominant power.
That China had risen was obvious. China had become the world’s builder. It was the leading dispenser of foreign aid and foreign investments. It was encroaching on America’s role in managing the world economy. The “Beijing consensus” had already to a large extent supplanted the “Washington consensus.”
Western media pundits hyped Chinese “aggression” in the South China Sea and Trump’s threatening China over its presence there.
Now China is poised to become the world’s foremost military power. Its political system is increasingly a model for developing nations and even some developed ones.
These trends indicated the US would lose its importance and its influence worldwide. With it, liberal values would fade. Asian cum Chinese values and culture, would replace Western culture.
That would spell the end of the Western dominance of world affairs. It would mean the termination of the Western liberal world order. This was serious and mightily troubling.
So, the Western media and its partners in the entertainment industry and academe decided to “deal” with the “China threat.” They had a method: disparage and demonize China.
The US media and academe attacked China’s economic system, which they called “market Leninism” (though it was in reality simply a more pure form of capitalism than was being practiced in the West). They assailed China for vast human rights abuses (even though China’s rights record had improved markedly since the Mao era and the human condition in China had improved faster than any country in the world due to its highly successful economic growth).
The US media, Hollywood and academe hit China hard for its authoritarian system of governance. China allegedly made little or no progress toward becoming a democracy though Chinese scholars and some American pundits saw China has having an “evaluation democracy” or meritocracy as opposed to America’s “election democracy.”
Their depiction of China got worse. That China is corrupt was part of the media account of China (though observers had to wonder, since corruption was said to be a drag on economic development, how China could be doing so well and the West was not). China was the champion of launching cyber attacks on the US (though there was no clear proof offered to substantiate China’s guilt or at least to say China was worse than others).
China’s governance of Tibet, they charged, was oppressive and vile (even though Tibet had experienced unprecedented economic growth, Beijing mostly obliterated what was a kind of slave social system, and conflict in Tibet was largely Tibetans against Tibetans owing to jealousy resulting from some succeeding under capitalism and others not). The air in Chinese cities was the worst in the world, they said, though a number of cities in India and the Middle East were worse.
The US media also propagated the belief that China’s political/economic system, and the country itself, were facing imminent collapse. According to the media’s narrative, China’s leaders faced intractable problems, such as debt (though this was mainly internal), while the ruling party depended for its credibility on fast economic growth, and more. They, it was said, could not cope.
But the negative news and the predictions of China’s collapse were “old hat.” As time passed, these accounts were discredited. So, the Western media had to reset.
One tack was to push China and Trump’s America into conflict. This seemed a good idea since it would amount to killing two (enemy) birds with one stone.
So, Western media pundits hyped Chinese “aggression” in the South China Sea and Trump’s threatening China over its presence there. They predicted a naval conflict, one that might well escalate into a broader war.
When China launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the Western media depicted this as a game changer. The US, they reckoned, would have to respond in kind.
They expounded the idea that Trump’s protectionism and isolationism would mean abandoning the leadership of the world to China. Trump was expected to act to block China’s continued rise. His rehabilitating the US military was evidence of this. A conflict would naturally result.
Did the Western media relish a serious escalation of US-China tensions? It appeared so…
Clearly it would help newspaper circulation. It might also improve the media’s image, which was at a historic low.
Would a media-promoted war result as it did a hundred and twenty years ago?
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain once said, “but it does rhyme.” The US mainstream media’s attacks on Trump and on China, now frequently in tandem, seem to rhyme enough to be worrisome and even dangerous.