Today, in a politically cleaved media landscape, reporters know there is less danger than ever that their target audiences will be exposed to dispositive information. Rival publications do not reach rival audiences. MSNBC viewers do not read the Daily Caller and vice versa.
Moral panics therefore rage on, essentially unchallenged, in every corner of the political universe.
The 2018 “caravan” of Central American immigrants was a classic moral panic. Immigrant stories frequently are. The caravan had all the hallmarks, with simplistic symbolic language describing the “invaders” (“criminals,” “gang members,” etc), along with the classic over-prescribed authoritarian solution – troops, literally told by the president they could consider a rock in the hands of an immigrant to be a firearm, i.e. shoot them if so engaged.
President Trump later walked back the idea, but this was all a typical panic tale.
Not having interviewed the people arriving, I couldn’t tell you which group of reporters is correct on one of the other central questions. Were the migrants attempting simple immigration, i.e. were they just looking for better living conditions, in which case their journey was technically illegal? Or were they seeking asylum from violence or political oppression, which is legal under international law and requires the host country to grant hearings?
Who knows? It was probably a mix of both. One thing, however, seems certain. Seven thousand migrants was not an “invasion.”
This would have been a minor, if depressing, story, were it not in the eye of a furious maelstrom surrounding the politics of Donald Trump. It might not have been reported at all in the Bush or Obama years.
Similar to the crime story, the immigration furor has mostly rested upon the pumping up of anecdotal information about border crossings. Placed in proper context, we’re talking about a problem (if it’s even that) that’s declined significantly since 9/11. It’s the Mods and the Rockers clashing at the border, only on a much bigger scale, with much more prominent political players mixed up in the cultural argument.
The same kinds of reporting techniques increasingly dominate anti-Trump media, however.
The constant drumbeat of “It’s the beginning of the end” stories about “bombshells” causing the “walls” to “close in” on Trump – so comic that a mash-up of such comments dating to Trump’s first week in office has gone viral – is a case of straight-up emotional grifting.
Editors know Democratic audiences are devastated by the fact of the Trump presidency, so they constantly hint at hope that he’ll be dragged away in handcuffs at any moment. This is despite the fact that reporters know the legal avenues for removal are extraordinarily unlikely.
Such puffing of false hopes is the most emotionally predatory behavior that exists in journalism.
If you do a TRUMP’S FINAL DAYS story in Politico in September 2018, there’s no penalty when he’s still in office weeks later. These stories get a lot of hits.
Meanwhile, the rare articles in the liberal press warning audiences not to expect a Nixon-like exit tomorrow – like the Guardian piece from July, 2018, WHAT LIBERALS (STILL) GET WRONG ABOUT TRUMP’S SUPPORT – tend to disappear quickly.
Even worse has been the Russiagate business. The topic probably deserves more of a book than a paragraph, but no matter what your position on the underlying narrative, it’s been a clear case of moral-panic journalism on top of whatever the actual issue turns out to be.
The press for instance has stopped making distinctions between individual Russians and “Russia,” assuming somehow one Russian must be in communication with the other 150 million.
When special prosecutor Robert Mueller submitted in a filing that an Olympic weightlifter promised “political synergy” to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (an overture Cohen “did not follow up on,” according to Mueller himself), the press jumped. Here is Franklin Foer of Slate, who wrote some of the first Russiagate pieces:
Cohen was talking “political synergy” with the Russians in November, 2015. November, 2015! That's further dates back than most timelines of collusion usually begin.
So “a weightlifter” becomes “the Russians” instantaneously, and the minor fact of the communication never going anywhere is left out. Imagine if a “Putin lawyer” contacted Hulk Hogan and the Russian press reported “CONTACT WITH AMERICANS!!!”
We would think this was crazy. But it’s typical of what happens in these tales.
The reporting surrounding the infamous “Internet Research Agency” ads was also a virtual copy of Cohen’s findings about how statistics can be bent to fit narratives.
In the fall of 2017, the New York Times worked hand in hand with a collection of unnamed sources, congressional authorities, and self-interested think-tankers (who’ve been gobbling up grant money to study the new red threat) to create a devastating portrait of Russian subversion via the Facebook ads. This is from a monster 10,000-word piece by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti called THE PLOT TO SUBVERT AN ELECTION. The money quote:
Even by the vertiginous standards of social media, the reach of their effort was impressive: 2,700 fake Facebook accounts, 80,000 posts, many of them elaborate images with catchy slogans, and an eventual audience of 126 million Americans on Facebook alone. That was not far short of the 137 million people who would vote in the 2016 presidential election.
The “126 million” stat has been quoted and re-quoted over and over, despite it actually representing a remote hypothetical. In Senate testimony, Facebook executives said the statistic represented the number of people who “may have been served” by one of the 80,000 posts over the course of a 194-week period – nearly three full years – between 2015 and 2017.
Facebook executive Colin Stretch testified before the Senate that during the same period, “Americans using Facebook were exposed to, or ‘served,’ a total of over 33 trillion stories in their News Feeds.”
This means the IRA content represented a whopping .0000000024 of all impressions seen during this time. The BBC, conspicuously not an American outlet, was one of the few agencies to put the IRA numbers in context, calling the ads a “drop in the bucket.”
Does that mean the IRA ads are a non-story? No. They are certainly concerning and worth investigating. But this is one of many instances of the scale of an issue clearly being exaggerated.
Moreover, it’s been hard not to notice the usual moral-panic symbiosis in full effect: the prolonged scare has translated into heightened profits for media companies, and aggressive calls for increased powers of censorship and enforcement for government, ironically to control the spread of “fake news.”
What Stanley Cohen described over fifty years ago was a pale preview of what was to come. Cohen saw a primitive effort by cash-hungry tabloids to slap simplistic, symbolic labels on “deviant” groups.
The tabloids were highly effective in creating an “ick” factor around their Mod and Rocker villains, even stripping them of sympathetic characteristics they had in real life, like working-class backgrounds. Without public defenders, media audiences were free to despise them without restraint, and embellish their anti-portraits in their heads.
In America in the eighties and nineties there were usually people to counter such public panics. For every Tipper Gore, there was a Frank Zappa or Dee Snider appearing for the defense.
In our new cleaved and atomized landscape, those brakes are gone. Every demographic has its own folk devils, who go undefended.
Conservative media long ago fixated on libs, commies, terrorists, Islamicists, tax-and-spenders, feminazis, and countless others. No one shows up on Fox to plead for context.
#Resistance media now has devils of its own: deplorables, white supremacists, Trumpites, Bernie Bros, neo-Naderites, false equivalencers, dirtbag-lefters, and countless others.
Even the hated subgroups have developed their own demons, from normies to Hillbots to never-Trumpers and the “deep state.”
Without any way to put a brake on such passions, the new normal will be coexisting, dueling panics: the caravan versus Russiagate, “the beginning of the end” versus “How the Left lost its mind,” Breitbart versus The Palmer Report. Few audiences of any of these outlets will realize they’re engaged in similar behaviors to those of hated antagonists.
The only constant will be more and more authoritarian solutions. In the social media age, we can scare you as never before. Which means politicians will have an easier time obtaining permission for censorship, surveillance, immigration bans, and other expanded powers.
This is the major departure from the Manufacturing Consent age. In 1985, the popular demons were objects of universal terror, usually an external threat – Soviets, Sandinistas, the AIDS virus.
Today pockets of media consumers demonize one another, calling for dueling crackdowns. We have become our own worst enemies, and the longer the cycles play out, the more authoritarian will be our world.
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This is an excerpt from the latest installment of Hate Inc.: How, and Why, The Press Makes Us Hate One Another. To receive every chapter as it’s published, as well as full access to the already-published The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing, subscribe for $5 a month or $40 a year.