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May 30, 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival: Our changing media after Trump

One topic seemed to dominate events featuring international authors at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last weekend: the extent to which the media landscape has changed since the election of Donald Trump.

There’s no escaping that we’re living in a world where the political stakes are incredibly high, but it also seems to be getting harder and harder to have productive discussions about contested issues.

Early last year, when Elaine Welteroth was appointed as editor of Teen Vogue (at 29, she was the youngest ever to run a Conde Nast magazine), she saw the challenging political climate as an opportunity for the magazine to mean more for young readers struggling to understand political issues that directly influence them.

Welteroth encouraged the magazine’s writers to aim to be “strident truthtellers,” increasing coverage of issues relating to wellness, reproductive health, and politics.

The viral success of Lauren Duca’s article Donald Trump is Gaslighting America drew attention to how effective this new approach could be in communicating with the magazine’s audience, but some were surprised to see this kind of sophisticated political coverage from a publication associated in any way with non-teen-Vogue, Anna Wintor’s fussy bible of expensive stuff.

In conversation with Julia Turner, the editor-in-chief of Slate on Friday, Welteroth suggested that the fact that people were surprised that a teen publication was engaging so whole-heartedly in political journalism was indicative of the way young people are frequently underestimated by mainstream media outlets and also entirely overlooked the long history of political activism in women’s media.

Welteroth also took pains not shy away from describing Teen Vogue as a fashion magazine, noting that beauty and style can be a “doorway for connection, conversation and dialogue” particularly when communicating with young women still finding their place in the world.

She gave this example of a video from the magazine’s newly established YouTube channel where members of minority groups speak about why people should avoid wearing culturally significant items as fashion accessories:

She also stressed that the magazine’s political coverage was not about pushing a left-wing agenda, but rather about keeping readers educated and engaged and giving young people resources to help define themselves, noting that “sometimes just being who you are can be a form of activism.”

Later at “American Carnage” in conversation with authors George Saunders and Colson Whitehead, and data journalist for the Guardian, Mona Chalabi, Turner posed a related question about politics and audience: When the US President is so hostile towards the mainstream media, and his supporters don’t trust the news, how is it possible for journalism to achieve anything but reaffirm the existing beliefs of readers?

All three writers spoke about experiencing an overwhelming sense of futility in engaging journalistically with the Trump presidency from slightly different perspectives.

As a recent immigrant to the United States, Chalabi spoke about her own experiences of fear following the administration’s travel ban, but also lamented the media’s inability to slow the incredible “pace of normalisation” of the President’s bizarre and unconstitutional behaviour.

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George Saunders attended a number of Trump rallies during the election campaign reporting for the New Yorker , and marvelled at how much he had in common with people he met and consistently failed to communicate with.

Describing the President as a “skilful usurper of existing energies,” he attributed the success of the Trump campaign to a degradation of rhetoric directly linked to falling national investment in cultural development and education.

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, provided the most blistering analysis of the political climate, describing America as a “racist dump since it was conceived.”

While he recognised Trump’s “absurd malevolence,” he didn’t view the result of the election as an unprecedented horror, and disagreed with Saunders’ suggestion that Trump purely took advantage of the economic dissatisfaction of working class people, arguing that the “energies he’s harnessed are a central part of the American character,” and noting Trump’s political base is not the working-class, but specifically the white working-class.

So what’s the point of journalism in a time of political crisis? Who is our audience: do we use the media to talk to our political allies or do we try to change the opinions of those we disagree with?

“We speak to us,” Saunders argued. “We win. And then we can be benevolent in victory.”

Carolyn Burns
has a PhD in English awarded by the University of Sydney