How Trump won the media war & lessons for Ethiopia | By Teshome M. Borago

16 mins read


On the historic November 8 ,2016 morning, those of us Ethiopian-Americans living in New York City were waking up to a city in a festive mood, ready to celebrate the first woman president in American history. Many NYC newspapers already prepared the next day’s front pages to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory. In the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan (NYC), the famous Ethiopian-American celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson’s restaurant was preparing a special menu titled “Hillary’s Election Celebration.” Marcus even reportedly prepared ceramic gifts with the writing, “To Commemorate the Presidential Election 2016 of Hillary Rodham Clinton.” 

Then “disaster” happened with a shocking election result!

The most racist man, (according to his opponents) Donald Trump, became the next United States President. Half of America was in shock and mourning. But the other half of America began celebrating. How can a great country like USA be so divided? 


Professor Seid Hassan and I were recently interviewed by VOA Amharic program about this shocking 2016 US presidential election. VOA Amharic: Trump vs Clinton/ Prof…. – Ethio-American Congress- EAC | Facebook  During my discussion with our VOA host Tizita Belachew, we agreed to disagree on many issues, though we did not have enough time to debate more topics. So below, i want to discuss what lessons we can learn for Ethiopian politics. 

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There are too many unique dimensions to the US election, which are beyond the scope of this article. But one of the most interesting issues during the 2016 US election campaigns was how every presidential candidate (and his/her supporters) had their own version of facts. America was so divided by the media and politicians, that millions of pro-Hillary people expected Trump to lose in a historic landslide. Some people cried and many wanted to leave the country when he won. And they wondered, since Trump was so anti-immigration, why did over 4 million hispanics voted for him? If Trump was so sexist, how come almost 29 million women voted for him? If uneducated white people were his support base, why did more college-educated white people voted for Trump than for Hillary? And why did so many people who voted for Obama in 2008, now switched, to vote for Trump in 2016?  If Trump was so racist, why did more than a million black people still vote for him? 

The main answer to these tough questions lie with the sensationalism, profit-driven and politically bias culture of CORPORATE MEDIA in America today, which has become one of the most polarizing institutions in US history. Case in point, half of America was absorbing a completely different portrayal of Trump & Hillary than the other half of America. With all media taking partisan sides, an independent and balanced press became nonexistent. 

For example, the Republican Party enjoys massive support from some right-wing big media companies (like Fox News, Breitbart, NYPost and numerous talk radio stations.) These right-wing media sources portrayed Hillary Clinton as incompetent, lier and corrupt person. These right-wing media outlets blamed Hillary when it comes to race-baiting, identity politics and her Democratic Party’s past support for the KKK. And Republican media outlets always accused the Democratic Party as a socialist with welfare policies that keep minorities in poverty. They also blamed the Democratic Party for failures in Libya & Syria as well as illegal immigration and loss of jobs. 

But Then, of course, there is ANOTHER version of the “facts.”

For the leftist mass media outlets (like CNN, MSNBC, Politico, Washington Post, Huff-post, NY Times etc), Donald Trump was the corrupt and racist one. They vilified Trump to help Hillary. They humiliated Trump as a clown and selfish billionaire. Some of these leftist journalists even secretly gave Hillary info about future interviews & debate questions. Leftist journalists dined and joked with Hillary on her private plane, and even asked her to edit their articles before publication …effectively acting as a propaganda arm for her party. The leftist news media outlets insulted every Republican candidate by labeling Republicans as racists, bigots, sexists etc. They depicted the Republican candidate as the villain, and the Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton as an angel. 

Therefore, these two contradicting media coverages virtually created TWO AMERICAS to benefit the two political parties. So when the election results were announced on November 9, one part of America that was exposed to the left-wing version was in total shock. They couldn’t believe the result so they went out to the streets to protest. All the information they were bombarded with by the liberal left media led them to believe that Hillary will win very easily. But she lost. One reason was because the other half of America has their own version of facts and information.  

As an Ethiopian-American observing the US election, I was astonished how journalism in the United States has lost the faith and respect of its general audience. When most Ethiopians see America, we thought that the vibrant media presence contributes to its democracy, stability and unity. But that is not always true. Instead of helping US democracy, the mass media has become a source of division, misinformation and intolerance. The quality of mainstream Media in America has gradually eroded and there is no independence, professionalism or impartiality. Almost every print, online and television media in the US has picked one side among the two major political parties, which has brought out the worst in both parties and polarized the nation.

For us Ethiopians observing the US election, we can learn the shortcomings of democracy as well as how it can go wrong badly. Ofcourse, Ethiopia is in a much worse position than America. Unfortunately, we Ethiopians have nothing to fall back on;  unlike the Americans who have their independent election commission, independent security apparatus and independent judiciary, to makeup for the ongoing collapse of their independent media sector. This means it is even more important that our media & information resources (ex. Ethiopian websites, Ethiopian journalists, newspapers,ESAT, OMN, VOA, DW, social media, Ethiopian politicians, analysts, activists, higher education and influential scholars) do not take their jobs lightly. It is our duty to educate the new Ethiopian generation with an impartial, fair and balanced view of Ethiopia’s past history and present socio-political facts. If we continue to advance our narrow partisan politics, the future of a peaceful and democratic Horn of Africa will be bleak. 

The lesson we Ethiopians can learn from this US case study is that even an educated country like America can be easily manipulated by “political tribalism,” distortion and media partisanship. If a great country like America can be easily divided and destabilized; what hope does the weak Ethiopian state has? 

This American media crisis reminds us of the importance of “civic nationalism” to the stability of a nation-state. When independent media flourishes in one country, civil discussions are possible because most citizens have a common information source and they are starting from basic facts & common data. But today, partisan news sources have hindered healthy discourse and political groups feel entitled to their own facts. This crisis facing journalism in America (and the world) will not be solved anytime soon. Mainstream US media, which struggled to stay afloat during the 1990s storm of the internet/digital age, has degraded itself and fallen down to the lowest denominator of an activist blogger and tabloid gossiper. The rise of Social Media could translate to more polarization of future elections and more bad news for the quality of independent journalism. Almost every US media outlet is now serving its own narrow corporate and political agenda instead of serving the people.
Recently, a prominent MSNBC host Mr. Chuck Todd complained about Trump’s victory, saying “one part of America has one set of facts and another part of America has another set of facts.” He was brutally correct but his media has been part of the problem, not the solution. 

The last few days since Donald Trump won the election; media and information wars have increased. Even President Obama was caught attacking the pro-Republican media Fox News. Meanwhile, the mainstream American media is also attacking Social Media, labeling it as a source of sensational and “fake news.” 
Ironically, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was ridiculed in September this year for his speech at the United Nations (UN) when he blamed social media for empowering “extremists” worldwide. Surprisingly, the leftist US media and pro-Hillary analysts did the same thing and blamed Social Media when she lost the election to Trump. Indeed, Social Media and anonymous “news” sources may escalate the distortion of information and polarization of global societies. So Hailemariam was right, but his TPLF regime is also part of the problem because he virtually outlawed independent media in Ethiopia. (Now he even jailed the only independent Oromo politician & voice Dr. Merera Gudina)

Inside Ethiopia, many politically active youth are turning to the internet and social media as a source of information. This is because there are no professional, private and independent sources of news & information in Ethiopia. So the one-sided propaganda of the TPLF regime’s bias media is forcing many Ethiopians to go online. In this era of info-wars and misinformation, this might actually be bad news for the future of our country. Not only the prospect of democracy, but peace and stability will be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, our Ethiopian Diaspora media is equally and maybe more polarized than American media.  Every Ethiopia diaspora media has its own version of history, events and facts. And it gets worse. Unfortunately, Ethiopian politics has 2 additional burdens and dimensions that Americans don’t have: ethnic politics and the lack of national consensus. So Ethiopia will be more negatively impacted by the ongoing global trend of misinformation and partisan media environment. I say this, not only because most of our people are illiterate and thus more easily manipulated, but also because Ethiopia’s statehood has often been contested and it lacks strong institutions & the political legitimacy as a geopolitical entity. 
So far, at least three aspects of Ethiopian society have been victims of Social Media misinformation, hate speech, partisanship and political propaganda. These three victims include: Ethiopian history (1), our religious tolerance (2) and ethnic coexistence (3). So our struggle to democratize Ethiopia and change our nation has many complex obstacles ahead.
What happened in American politics is happening large scale in Ethiopian politics. For example; there are many “fake” stories in Ethiopian Social Media that lie and defame religious groups and spread false propaganda & hatred between ethnic groups. Ethiopians worldwide should be careful and never trust poisonous rumors online. Unfortunately, the media and politicians have already divided our nation. For example, if half of Ethiopians think overthrowing the ruling party brings democracy; but another half think overthrowing the ruling party will fragment Ethiopia into pieces…or, if half of Ethiopians say Emperor Haileselassie was an Amhara who colonized Oromos; but another half of Ethiopians say the Emperor was a mixed-Oromo trying to unite our country…or if half of Ethiopians think Oromos were colonized by Menelik but another half think Oromos were united by Ras Gobena & Menelik…or if half of Ethiopians think ethnic-federalism is an undemocratic apartheid system but the other half of Ethiopians think ethnic federalism is the best system…or if Oromos focus on Ethiopian history only after 1896 but other Ethiopians focus on Ethiopian history the last thousand years….or if Tigrayans think they can’t survive without TPLF but other Ethiopians think the whole country can’t survive with TPLF in power…how can we reconcile so many deeply contrasting views (“facts”) on our past & present? How can we be united as a nation? These are critical questions facing our country today and the role of Ethiopian media and information sources is important. If we remain partisan and one-sided, there will never be consensus or democracy, unity or lasting peace in the Horn of Africa. 

 I urge all responsible, democratic and peace loving Ethiopians to be aware of the destructive role of partisan media, and its multifaceted impact on Ethiopia.
TeshomeBorago@yahoo.com

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