The growth of this phenomenon has coincided almost simultaneously with a crisis in newspapers that has been prompted by the digital revolution. This does not mean that the political changes that have taken place over recent years can be explained exclusively by the loss of influence by print publications and the appearance of alternative media. But it does seem to be evident that the two issues are closely linked, and that newspapers are obliged to do our jobs with fewer resources and in a political environment that represents a serious threat to the freedom of expression – and in particular the freedom of the press.
One of the characteristics of this new populism is its hostility toward the press, especially the professional media. Under the pretext of a supposed understanding between the more established media outlets and a perverse establishment, the politicians who position themselves as defenders of the people, of the regular Joe against those who are pulling the strings, start by trying to erode the credibility of newspapers with the aim of getting rid of obstacles in their way and allowing other outlets that they control – gossip sites, social networking accounts, blogs – to access their public, and their voters, without intermediaries.
This strategy has been patently obvious in the United States. At a recent conference in Madrid, the executive editor of The Washington Post, Martin Baron, detailed a list of insults that US President Donald Trump had aimed at the media in recent months – in particular toward his own publication and The New York Times. “Disgusting,” “scum,” “the lowest form of life itself,” “enemies,” “garbage”… There have been more since our colleague made his speech.
These terms have not been that different to those used by the leaders of a party in Spain to refer to the press and to EL PAÍS in particular. Among the dozens of falsehoods and malicious statements – which I will avoid repeating here so as not to aid their diffusion – the repetition of lies until they become the truth is a classic tactic. (The only episode I shall mention was a campaign against this newspaper in November on Twitter using the hashtag “Máquina de Fango” (literally, “sludge machine”) in response to news stories about a controversial episode involving the sale of a public housing unit.)
The intention in all these cases is clear: once I have destroyed the prestige and credibility of the biggest media outlets, none of their criticisms will have an impact on my followers. It has worked for Trump, who managed to survive the scandal of his sexual harassment toward women and has managed to avoid making his tax returns public.
There are many similar cases in other countries that have a different ideological orientation – Kaczynski’s Poland, Kirchner’s Argentina, and Berlusconi’s Italy are just a few of them. But they all share the same ingredients: politicians who are supposedly against the system, traditional media outlets and easily created media outlets on the internet that serve to spread propaganda, fantasies or even in some cases the lies of those who want to offer an alternative to the current, decadent system.
This has partly been possible due to mistakes made by newspapers themselves.Washington Post chief Baron explained that just 32% of US citizens believe that their press has any credibility, which represents a 25-point fall since 1999. The situation in Spain is only slightly better. In its 2015 report on this area, the CIS public research institute found that Spaniards only gave the media a score of 4.28 points out of 10 in terms of credibility. Some 15% of the population never or almost never trusts the media, compared to 2.5% who always or nearly always do so.
It can be said that the discredit that modern populism is trying to cause in newspapers is only contributing to the discredit that newspapers have been bringing about for themselves in recent years. Their excessive proximity to power, their distance from readers, the inbreeding and arrogance have sometimes impeded newspapers from making an adequate interpretation of the facts. Our blindness has even seen us spend many years disregarding the digital avalanche that has engulfed us and that will end up throwing our very existence into doubt.
This challenge, transformation in a digital world, offers us huge possibilities for the future. But also, in the present, it has made us much more vulnerable – not just in the face of the demagogues who are trying to destroy us, but also in terms of the other political or economic players who are trying to control us – precisely at a time when an independent and strong press is more needed than ever.
I have no problem repeating the mistakes that newspapers have made and make every day. Exaggerations, inaccuracies, shallowness, omissions, oversights… they are all the order of the day in a profession that, what’s more, is now forced to move forward in worsening labor conditions. But all of the defects imaginable are not enough to forget the decisive function of vigilance that newspapers fulfill in a democratic society. Without them, we are simply at the mercy of the deceitful and manipulative.
On occasions, there are attempts to ruin the credit of newspapers by scornfully placing them in a corner of history. It’s a way of presenting reality as a battle between the ideas of the past, represented by traditional newspapers, and the new ideas that the new digital media convey. But this is not reality. What is true is that both The Washington Post and EL PAÍS are also the biggest digital newspapers in their respective markets, and that the true battle is not technological but rather professional; it is not between print and the web, but rather between those who obey the rules of genuine journalism and those who systematically violate them.
There is a lot of talk these days of “fake news.” The biggest social networks are now taking measures to deal with this threat, being conscious that the disappearance of the value of the truth means simply the disappearance of all of the values that allow us to coexist.
Newspapers occupy a decisive role in the preservation of these values. Of course, newspapers have an ideological orientation. They defend one set of ideas against others, and they are a reflection of a certain model of society against others. But the interests of newspapers are limited to the supply of truthful information to their readers, and their conduct is clearly subject to an ethical code that must be respected. This should not be read as simple rhetoric in an era in which, put simply, the democratic system that we know today is at stake.
Donald Trump and his imitators in other countries are not a nightmare from which will soon awake, only to find ourselves back where we started. This wave of populism and ultra-nationalism is trying to radically transform the political system under which we live. If it can, it will take with it the freedom of the press. For that reason, the freedom of the press, newspapers that are in rude health, and that are exacting and operate with liberty, are the best line of defense that we can offer.
Antonio Caño is the editor-in-chief of EL PAÍS.
English version by Simon Hunter.