Hannah Ryggen, Trump, and the role of media


If just one image epitomizes Trump’s recently concluded tour of Asia, it will be this one: a photo that captures a blockish Yank unceremoniously dumping food into a Japanese goldfish pond, the hosts hiding their horror behind gritted smiles. This was cheap fodder for the liberal media, who quickly lambasted Trump for everything from his lack of respect for Japanese custom, to his mistreatment of koi fish by overfeeding. “No diet for these carp as Trump goes all-in on fish food”, tutted the New York Times. Newsweek dubbed it “Koi-Gate”. The image went viral on social media.

In the end, it turned out to be a storm in a teacup — and a perfect demonstration of our new media reality. With the benefit of context, it was soon noted — at both ends of the media-political spectrum — that Trump was merely following the lead of President Abe, who himself “dumped” food into the pond moments before this frame. A run of the full video clip – the original source of this image – makes it difficult to credibly fault Trump.

Cue the counter-fake news cycle. Alex Jones felt vindicated: “Busted! CNN caught lying about Trump feeding Koi fish”, he laughed. “Anti-Trump media makes up fake news about Trump overfeeding fish at Japanese koi pond”, said Fox News, categorically.

Hannah Ryggen’s Woven Histories

As Trump returned home from his Asian tour, I stumbled upon a powerful, and masterful tapestry by textile artist Hannah Ryggen entitled “Blood in the Grass” (Blod i Gresset, 1966). It is part of a retrospective of the Swedish-born, Norwegian artist’s work at Modern Art Oxford.

In this piece, Ryggen references a photo taken at the height of the Vietnam War in which Lyndon B. Johnson, then President of the United States, is seen lifting his beagles by their ears. The image was widely circulated in the media at the time, and provoked outrage over the President’s cruel treatment of his pet dogs. All the while, US involvement in the Vietnam war was escalating.

It is imperative, now more than ever, for the media to take seriously its duty of ethical and unbiased reporting.

Ryggen, who was a staunch pacifist, criticised the “disingenuous focus of the world’s media — not concentrating on the escalation of the war but instead amplifying a distracting side issue of personal foibles” (exhibition notes). She expresses her critique by deftly weaving a cowboy hat-wearing Texan, standing nonchalantly with his beagle-like dog, into a sea of green rice paddies, drenched in the red of human blood. The embellished green threads of “grass” on the man’s extended hand make a poignant finishing touch: Ryggen spares no expense in portraying a President with blood on his hands.

Ryggen on Koi-Gate

Ryggen’s critique of the media certainly resonates in today’s world. Switch from that moment on the White House lawns in 1964, to the scene at the koi ponds of Tokyo’s Akasaka Palace. From the war in Vietnam to the abuses of human rights in North Korea and the Philippines, or the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar — real issues of real importance that were not broached by Trump during his Asian tour.

The media plays an essential role in shaping public opinion and holding the government to account. To exercise this role responsibly it must report on matters of serious import, accurately and without bias. By prioritizing a matter as false and inconsequential as Trump’s fish-feeding etiquette, the media failed in these duties. Worst of all, reckless journalism of this sort only fuels Trump’s own efforts to dismiss the mainstream media as “fake news”, thereby undermining the credibility of the very organizations that we rely on to hold him to account.

It is imperative, now more than ever, for the media to take seriously its duty of ethical and unbiased reporting.



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