Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

Advertisements

Trump: More a Feeling Than an Ideology

“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

320px-donald_trump_muralI have been thinking about this quote from The Big Lebowski a lot lately as I’ve tried to imagine what the policies of a possible Trump administration would look like. Although he has been consistently labeled a fascist, a subject I have discussed here before, the problem is that Trump is essentially an opportunist, first and foremost. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He endorsed Democrats before he became a Republican. Just on the campaign trail alone, he’s done 180 degrees on a number of issues, from Afghanistan to Planned Parenthood to military spending. When he makes campaign promises, he never supplies much in the way of specifics. How is he going to get Mexico to build a wall across our border? How is he going to hunt down and kill the family members of ISIS fighters? None of that matters; it is all red meat to his followers, who eat it all up happily.

Why? If Americans are so fed up with gridlock in Washington, D.C., why would so many of them throw their support behind a candidate whose entire agenda is a non-starter, whose stances on the issues are so blatantly nothing but smoke and mirrors?

At the risk of sounding cynical, image matters more than substance. Trump exudes an aggressive, enthusiastic energy that conveys the idea he is “winning” at life and that, under his leadership, the United States will be “winning” as well. We live in a culture of personality, where personal magnetism and risk-taking matter more than honor and integrity. He is the quintessential extrovert in a society that caters to extroversion. Whatever his record in business, Trump is a salesman — and a celebrity salesman at that, more than experienced at selling himself as the product.

This is why Trump was so fatal to the Jeb Bush campaign. Bush was the frontrunner before160px-governor_of_florida_jeb_bush2c_announcement_tour_and_town_hall2c_adams_opera_house2c_derry2c_new_hampshire_by_michael_vadon_17 he ever entered the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the establishment choice with the elite political pedigree. Moreover, he was a candidate with a good character — eager to talk about the issues, reticent to engage in dirty political attacks. However, Trump’s entrance into the race meant that personality mattered more than character. Whatever his positives, Bush came across as colorless and mundane, much as the constantly awkward Mitt Romney did in 2012. Whether we like it or not, most people are attracted to dynamic people, not people who are “low-energy” — no matter how intelligent or qualified they might be.

I am not the first person to make this comparison, but to understand the appeal of Trump, it is helpful to look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who became the Italian prime minister several times between 1994 and 2011. Like Trump, Berlusconi enjoyed great political success despite making vulgar and controversial remarks, such as by calling Muslims “inferior” and asserting right-wing female politicians are more attractive than left-wing ones. (This is to say nothing of the sex parties he hosted with underage prostitutes, which — to my knowledge — Trump has not done.) Yet the most interesting overlap is in the circumstances of their respective rises to power.

silvio_berlusconi_29-01-2008Italian society is notoriously corrupt. But in 1992, an exceptionally massive scandal erupted known as tangentopoli” (translated “bribesville”) that brought down the entire political order of Italy that had existed since World War II, effectively destroying the major parties of the left and right. Berlusconi’s political benefactor fled into exile in Tunisia to avoid a prison sentence. Consequently, Berlusconi entered politics as an “outsider,” someone untainted by the corruption permeating government (despite his having participated in it). With his charisma and media savvy, he made his competition appear stale and impersonal as well as venal and untrustworthy. He turned Italian politics into a form of entertainment, drawing in an electorate who wanted this larger-than-life maverick to succeed against the odds of unimaginative bureaucrats.

We haven’t experienced anything on the scale of “bribesville” in the United States, but dissatisfaction with the status quo has never been higher. Economically, Americans are worried about their retirement and their children being less well off, and continue to fear that globalization and free trade carry more risks than rewards (for example, the loss of American jobs to China.). Culturally, many conservative Americans are alarmed by numerous issues: African-American discontent over police brutality, America’s changing demographics, the “war” on Christianity, same-sex marriage, the resurgence of political correctness, to say nothing of Islamic terrorism, the government banning firearms, and so on. For many Americans, the country — and the world — is changing in ways they just do not like. Trump, with his can-do attitude, promises that he will reverse it all — no matter what it takes, however unrealistic it may seem, no matter who he offends. In fact, the more offensive and over-the-top he is, the more appealing he is, because he draws such a distinction between himself and the dispassionate, pragmatic Powers That Be.

In many ways, Trump’s base parallels the people in European countries flocking to far-320px-nvu-ede-dsc_0036right, anti-immigration parties like the Sweden Democrats, Jobbik in Hungary, France’s xenophobic National Front, Britain’s UKIP, and so on. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde points out, Trump is unlike the leaders of these parties, because they tend to downplay their extreme positions and appear more like “acceptable” politicians, whereas Trump eagerly breaks the mold, much like Berlusconi did. But in terms of the voters who support these European parties and Americans who support Trump, there are a lot of similarities. Both sets of voters feel threatened by immigration and the “loss” of a traditional national identity. Both sets feel voiceless, unrepresented by parties that embrace diversity and reject old fashioned nativism and chauvinism. Both sets reject tax-and-spend socialism, but favor economic nationalism that only increases the wealth and prosperity of their own country (through subsidies and tariffs, if necessary). Both sets want to protect benefits and entitlements, but only for hard-working members of the national majority, and not for “welfare frauds” and “shirkers” (and this is almost always a dog-whistle referring to poor ethnic minorities, especially immigrants).

Trump’s main opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, do not fit with these demands. Cruz 320px-marco_rubio_with_supportersis a big-time social conservative, and he does well among some evangelicals, but he’s a right-wing ideologue who a promotes laissez-faire economic vision that conflicts with the anti-free trade, anti-globalization Trump viewpoint, to say nothing of the fact that he’s an abrasive figure known for dirty tricks. (One of the more amusing running jokes to come out of this election so far is that Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.) Rubio is even less appealing, with his history of moderation on immigration and Hillary-esque pandering to young people. Grudgingly, the Republican Party has attempted to move away from its image of “rich white old guys,” and Rubio is the embodiment of that effort to appeal to young, non-white voters who are nevertheless still conservative. In a normal election year, he would probably be doing very well. Unfortunately for Republicans, this year is not a normal one.

I remain optimistic that, if Trump does win the Republican nomination, a moderate Republican will nevertheless triumph in the general election: Hillary Clinton. As much as I dislike her record and her policies, they are still more palatable than the thought of having our own American Berlusconi.