CNN reports that Donald Trump’s statue has been unveiled at Madame Tussauds. This was not the news point. It was the hair of the statue, whose composition is apparently half-human and half-yak. The news is so much more interesting than the story about Tussauds opening a Delhi branch this year. Because the Amitabh Bachchan or Narendra Modi waxworks won’t be sporting any hair from exotic animals, will they? Of course not. No fooling around with hurt sentiments out here, please. Wax museums are not cool about fireworks and meltdowns.
But the world’s subject is Trump, not yaks. Humanity is struggling with the subject matter, which is a good sign. Last week, Russian reporter Alexey Kolayev put a darkly satirical article on Medium titled “A Message to my Doomed Colleagues in the American Media”, which began thus: “Congratulations, US media! You’ve just covered your first press conference of an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear. We in Russia have been doing it for 12 years now…” Kolayev quickly enumerated the new rules of the game: “Welcome to the era of bullshit… Don’t expect any camaraderie from fellow professionals… Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”…” He emphasises the crushing futility of covering strongmen: “You’re always losing. This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice.”
As in Russia, so in America? Not. On Tuesday this week, the Columbia Journalism Review, possibly the world’s leading trade journal, ran an open letter to Donald Trump from the American Press Corps, which signed off with the tantalisingly ominous line: “Enjoy your inauguration.” While declaring war, the letter sets down the rules of engagement, and insists that it will be the press which chooses the weapons. Trump stands accused of banning news organisations from his events (a practice which could leak into White House protocol), of deploying troll armies to attack individual journalists, of threatening lawsuits — the anatomy of the skunkworks will be familiar to journalists in several nations, and it works with military efficiency.
But for a change, the US press insists that it is in control: “It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence. We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers.” What of the fear of loss of access, which urges news organisations to toe the strongman’s line? “Telling reporters that they won’t get access to something isn’t what we’d prefer, but it’s a challenge we relish.” And what of the truth, in a knowledge economy which is perceived to be post-truth? “Facts are what we do, and we have no obligation to repeat false assertions; the fact that you or someone on your team said them is newsworthy, but so is the fact that they don’t stand up to scrutiny.”
It takes strategic maturity to collaborate in a highly competitive business, so the corps’ commitment to working together to see that important stories get attention is interesting. So is the frank admission that something is wrong with American media, and the resolution to put it right in an old-fashioned way, with the most stringent standards.
Behind this declaration, which sets the tone for the coverage of the Trump presidency, is the certainty that in a trench war, the media have an advantage: “We’re playing the long game. Best case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again.” Having delivered its statement of intent, the press corps must hope that, in a deeply troubled media economy, the numbers hold up for the duration. It is impossible to sustain war without a war chest, and it remains to be seen which way President Trump takes the economy.
What use is a weekend without the funnies, though? Here in India, the executives of a leading payments app company have been found doing a bizarre victory dance at their annual party, and whoever leaked the video could be facing a cashless 2017. Let us silently thank this unknown soldier for the sacrifice, since his or her offering is priceless. It would have been incendiary in a society less patient than ours. With colourful physical gestures and some off-colour language, the executives celebrate a corporate triumph milked from the public distress of demonetisation, where loss of livelihood appears to have been commonplace, and loss of life not entirely uncommon. If the music were not so execrably lousy, that video would have looked a whole lot like gangsta rap.