Donald Trump continues to test the press, the norms of decency and the limits of the art of the possible. Sometimes, he sets a delay fuse: a xenophobic remark that he had made in July caused the BBC, in late September, to contemplate the middle distance and its navel at the same time. While the long tail of that incident, involving an anchor partly of Indian origin, is still twitching, Trump has overturned policy at the edge of Nato and the Middle East. He has withdrawn troops from Syria and allowed a Turkish attack on the Kurdish militia in the north of the country, who are long-time US allies in the war against IS. And then on Friday, after the ironically-named Operation Peace Spring had begun, he offered to play honest broker between them.
The US media were initially in a confusional state like everyone else. There were even US soldiers returning from Syria freely admitting that they were “ashamed” — an action which would have normally invited a court martial, but at a time when the political moral compass is swinging wildly like in an electrical storm, it seems kosher. Perhaps the most cogent opinion was given to Christiane Amanpour, chief international anchor of CNN, by retired general John R Allen, former US envoy to the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS: “This is just chaos. We don’t do strategy, we shouldn’t be doing foreign policy by tweet, and this is what you get when you have single phone calls between world leaders, and when they put the phone down, there is no further coordination within the US government.” He said that the US intelligence apparatus was taken by surprise, as much as the Turks were, by Trump’s threat to destroy their economy.
Trump’s latest remark was in the course of a rambling press conference about history, geography and “bad people” on the loose across space and time. Of course, he struck a chord with his constituency — and others across the world — with his commitment to withdraw troops from everywhere, and insisting that Europe and Russia, along with affected countries like Iraq, must shoulder the burden of keeping the peace in their neighbourhoods. Indeed, America was never supposed to play the solitary globocop that it became under the Bushes and Clintons, and this has been resented locally for decades. Permit me to wax anecdotal for a moment: not far from Istanbul, where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea, local villagers spit ritually on the ground after they take the name of America, as if to rid their mouths of something unpleasant. It takes years to develop such a visceral response, and Trump’s instinct to withdraw troops is long-headed. But the manner in which he went about it was so wrong-headed that even Fox News reported that, in his call to Erdogan, which preceded the withdrawal, he “went off-script”. Which is a gentle way of saying that he went off the rails.
But let us return to the incident at the BBC, which shows how much the rapid pace of change in the media has destabilised newsrooms. In the past, the BBC was the pre-eminent broadcaster in a thinly populated playing field, and had the room to think through ethical norms and protocols for applying them. The first challenge came from Ted Turner’s CNN in 1991, when Peter Arnett brought round-the-clock coverage of the Gulf War to screens everywhere. Now, convergence on the phone and the collapse of media ethics across the industry due to revenue crises seems to have knocked its breath out. That’s visible in its handling of a complaint against its anchor Naga Munchetty, occasioned by a remark on a chat show that is rather unexceptionable. In July, Trump had tweeted that his opponents Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley should “go back to the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
In September, Munchetty said that, from personal experience, she recognised the racism inherent in the statement, but added that she was not there to pass judgement on anybody. That’s about as careful as you can get in reacting to an enormity, but the BBC took serious note of a complaint to the effect that while her view on racism was all right, she should not have imputed a motive to the US president. The fact that Munchetty was reprimanded for speaking her mind, while issuing a caveat, was extremely odd. Racism should be called out wherever it is seen, even if it briefly violates principles of journalistic neutrality. BBC chief Tony Hall had to step in to overturn the reprimand, but there are still demands for an apology to Munchetty. Wonder what would happen if such stringent norms were applied to Indian studios. Almost all the familiar faces we see working their mouths every night would be struck mute.