7. NO SWITCHING TEAMS
That symbolic moment when Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson were unable to find something nice to say about each other has since spilled into all news coverage. The concept of “balance,” which used to be considered a virtue, has been twisted all the way around to mean a taboo trade practice, a form of dishonesty.
Roger Ailes at Fox started this. He made the whole concept of “balance” an inside joke on right-wing media. It’s the reason the preposterous slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” was so effective, both for recruiting conservative viewers and infuriating liberals.
Ailes used to say: “The news is like a ship. If you take hands off the wheel, it pulls hard to the left.” Translation: you needed to pull hard the other way to achieve “balance” overall.
“Fair and balanced,” in other words, was a rip on the idea that standard dull third-person New York Times-style media already was balanced. Twenty years before it would become a popular rallying cry on the other side, Roger Ailes was essentially using an argument about “false balance” to market Fox.
In recent years, but especially during the 2016 election, an array of Soviet-sounding terms started appearing to describe a new brand of thoughtcrime. Reporters had always taken lots of criticism from right-wing audiences for showing bias. In the last election, those same criticisms started to come from college-educated, liberal-leaning audiences.
In late 2016, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd started to get lots of angry mail about “false balance.” Mainly, they were accusations that the Times over-covered Hillary Clinton’s emails and legitimized Clinton Foundation stories. There was enough of this that she felt a need to respond to charges in the paper.
“The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking,“ she said, adding: “What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates.”
She added a hypothetical:
Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
While Spayd was pushing back on the “false balance” controversy, the Times was embracing a significant change internally. The Jim Rutenberg editorial calling for reporters in the Trump age to rethink old “norms of objectivity” was a significant step. He wrote his piece in August, right as Spayd was beginning to engage readers on the balance issue.
Rutenberg argued we should re-imagine “objectivity” in a way that would “stand up to history’s judgment.” This was basically code for accepting the argument about making political judgments about impact before running stories, even newsworthy ones. Was it a major step for the Times? I know I thought so, and a few other reporters did. So did Spayd. “I thought it was,” she says. “And didn’t they put it on the front?”
They did: the Rutenberg clarion call about “norms of objectivity” ran on their page A1, the choicest real estate in American media. This said a lot about what the paper was thinking.
DEMOCRATS, STUDENTS, AND FOREIGN ALLIES FACE THE REALITY OF A TRUMP PRESIDENCY
The Times of course is not obligated to celebrate a Trump presidency, but this headline was a major stylistic departure. It was less reporting than audience signaling, a blunt list of demographics: “THE SANE AMONG US BRACE FOR TRUMP PRESIDENCY.”
Spayd pushed back when Carlson called this “advocacy,” and said it was something more subtle and maybe worse: an “unrecognized point of view that comes from… being in New York in a certain circle, and seeing the world in a certain way.”
In a classic example of the always-attacking style of TV conservatives, Carlson didn’t accept the olive branch Spayd was trying to offer. Instead, he just kept pounding away.
He quizzed her on reporters’ political bias. Spayd had protested that the paper’s reporters tried hard to be fair and professional, but Carlson scoffed. “I would believe you,” he said, “except that I know for a fact it isn’t true.”
He then read off a series of horrified anti-Trump tweets written by Times line reporters. Liam Stack’s “The electoral college was meant to stop men like Trump from taking office” was an example. “Are you kidding me?” Carlson snapped.
Spayd nodded and said, “Yeah, I think it’s outrageous.” This was a line that would be much howled over, because it gave pro-Trump types and people like Carlson a talking point, another unforgivable offense.
But Spayd’s point was not that having political views is bad, or that too many reporters are liberals. Rather, she was saying a reporter airing personal political views in public was unseemly, at least according to that’s paper’s venerable standards.
She noted we all have personal political beliefs, but “they ought to be personal,” and “when you sign up to be a journalist, that’s what you ought to be.”
I watched the Carlson interview of Spayd after colleagues insisted I click to “see how awful” she was. I did and was shocked. I thought reporters misunderstood. Spayd was taking a view that ten years ago would have been completely uncontroversial. It was very old-school Times, and in a way, very pro-reporter.
In the age before social media, most reporters didn’t have to expose their political opinions to the world. Today everyone is effectively an op-ed writer. Spayd’s take was, this isn’t necessarily a good idea, and exposes both reporters and papers like the Times to accusations of bias in ways we never had to worry about before.
Spayd today recalls that summer with dismay. She was no fan of candidate Donald Trump, but felt she couldn’t say so in her position. She also knew that opening a discussion about “false balance” was dangerous.
“I knew I was poking the bear,” she says now. “I figured the bear would probably poke back.”
But she did it because she felt it was important to argue a general principle, “trying to hold on to that value.” By “that value,” she meant the very old Times principle of reporters at least pretending to stay separate from the topics they covered. In the new environment, however, arguing this was only understood as doing something for the other side.
“It’s just a way of disguising the argument, to say, ‘Oh, she’s a Republican,” she says.
Not only did the Times end up firing Spayd, they eliminated her position. Even journalists of long experience cheered her dismissal, in terms that were remarkably harsh. Gizmodo called her “incompetent,” the Daily Beast said she was “failed,” while Slate went with “failing.” Spayd, wroteVox, was “so bad at her job that the elimination of her role might be seen as an improvement.”
This is another feature of the new media environment: conventional wisdom is now capable of doing full U-turns virtually overnight. Spayd was taking heat essentially for defending an approach that less than a year before had been industry standard: “objectivity.”
The neutral-sounding third-person tone we used to understand as “objectivity” was itself primarily a commercial strategy.
In the early days of mass media, the big press enterprises operated in artificially scarce markets. Limited numbers of FCC licenses for broadcasters and the gigantic expense of maintaining and building distribution networks for newspapers meant most media outlets were only taking on a competitor or two. Big daily newspapers had gravy trains of captive local advertisers. TV and radio shows could charge fortunes for scarce ad time.
What this meant for journalism was a stress on inoffensiveness. Radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas, who at one point was the source of news for over 10% of the country, once said that his first radio sponsor, the Literary Digest, insisted that he report everything “down the middle.”
Thomas became famous for his opening line: “Good morning, everybody.” The appeal to an “everybody” audience became the template for commercial success. (Contrast this with Roger Ailes once bragging about making a network for people “55 to dead,” or even the Times headline after Trump’s victory that was aimed at Democrats, students, and foreigners). The normal voice was even, unemotional, and “above the fray,” in a way that was often easy to lampoon.
But the fact that “objectivity” was less about principle than money, and stylistically silly, and moreover easily manipulated into helping hide all sorts of awful political realities (historically, from racism to American military atrocities abroad), didn’t mean it was worthless.
“Objectivity” above all was great protection for reporters. Having no obvious political bent was a prerequisite for taking on politicians. If you announced yourself as an ally of one party or another, you lost your credibility with audiences.
“Balance” didn’t mean having to quote science-deniers. It was mainly a way for journalists to stay out of unspoken political alliances. Once you jump in that pit, it’s not so easy to get out.
Two years ago, unnerved by a lot of the same comments about “false balance,” I wrote: “The model going forward will likely involve Republican media covering Democratic corruption and Democratic media covering Republican corruption.”
This is more or less where we are now, and nobody seems to think this is bad or dysfunctional. This is despite the fact that in this format (especially given the individuated distribution mechanisms on the Internet, like the Facebook news feed) the average person will no longer even see – ever – derogatory reporting about his or her own “side.”
Being out of touch with what the other side is thinking is now no longer seen as a fault. It’s a requirement, because:
8. THE OTHER SIDE IS LITERALLY HITLER
Shortly after 9/11, Fox began a long streak atop the cable ratings. Beginning in the first quarter of 2002, the company would stay #1 for over fifteen years straight.
A crucial part of its success was its reaction to 9/11. Post-attack America was afraid and needed someone to blame. Fox and its minions were more than happy to comply. They began using language about liberals that was extreme even by their standards,
Their fellow Americans, leading conservative thinkfluencers told them, were not just lily-livered suckups who pretended to be enlightened. They were actively in league with al-Qaeda. Murderers. Traitors. Not wrong, but evil.
Fox promoted Sean Hannity as their perfect vision of conservative manhood. The rectum-faced blowhard was celebrated for his daily fake victories over the intellectual Washington Generals act that was Alan Colmes.
Unlike Rush Limbaugh, who in his early days was a serviceably witty top-40 disc jockey in Pittsburgh, Hannity was charmless. He was not literate like William Safire or Bill Buckley, nor was he an entertainingly unstable wreck like Glenn Beck, nor could he talk volubly about Marx and other thinkers like Michael Savage, a person who clearly has read more than three or four books.
Hannity wouldn’t know the difference between Marcuse and a cucumber, the Frankfurt school and a frankfurter. He won fake arguments, preened, and spewed constant aggression. After 9/11, one of his signature attack lines was that liberals were in league with terrorists.
He wrote a book called Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism that came out in 2004. It was a paint-by-numbers hate-your-neighbor manual whose blunt cover was just Hannity’s coiffed head floating under the Statue of Liberty’s armpit.
The main argument was that liberals, by refusing to accept the existence of terrorist evil, were themselves part of the nexus of wrongdoing. They were insufficiently stoked about the capture and hanging of Saddam Hussein and, let’s face it, wimps. He held off for two whole pages before bringing up Neville Chamberlain.
Many others chimed in. Ann Coulter’s redundant classic was Treason: Liberal Treachery From The Cold War to the War on Terrorism. Savage’s windy effort, The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military, contributed the key word “enemy.” He would later go with Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.
If you’re keeping score at home, Americans were being told they were surrounded by millions of people who were in league with homicidal terrorists, plotting to overthrow free enterprise and install a dictatorship of political correctness. They were also insane.
Glenn Beck would take Hannity’s Neville Chamberlain thread and run lap after lap with it, pioneering the “Your neighbor is literally Hitler” movement. Beck was awesome at this. Al Gore was Hitler. Obama was constantly Hitler.
The National Endowment of the Arts was Hitler! (“It’s propaganda… you should look up the name ‘Goebbels.’”). ACORN was Hitler. The bailouts were Hitler (well, they actually were a little bit Hitler). Comedian Lewis Black had a hilarious Daily Show freakout when Beck even compared the Peace Corps to the SS!
As Black put it, it was “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, except there’s just one degree, and Kevin Bacon is Hitler!”
Beck was a mixed-metaphor enthusiast who was capable of calling a target both fascist and communist, Hitler and Stalin, in the same telecast. But his money gimmick was Hitler. It won him a huge audience, until it sort of also ruined him.
His Fox show was canceled in 2011 after he said Barack Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Within two years he was apologizing for being divisive – but still carrying around a napkin that supposedly contained Hitler’s bloodstains.
There’s nowhere to go from Hitler. It’s a rhetorical dead end. Argument is over at that point. If you go there, you’re now absolving your audiences of all moral restraint, because who wouldn’t kill Hitler?
You can draw a straight line from these rhetorical escalations in right-wing media to the lunacies of the Trump era. If you can believe the Peace Corps is the SS, then why doubt Muslims in Jersey City were cheering 9/11, or question the logic of an anti-rape wall across the Rio Grande? Stupid is stupid.
When Donald Trump ran, he posed serious problems for anyone conscious of Godwin’s Law. As Chomsky points out, Trump’s campaign was a familiar authoritarian pitch: “Go after the elites, even while you’re supported by the major elites.”
His stump speeches hit a lot of notes to which history professors quickly perked. He preached that modern life was a decadent failure (this from a man whose personal life was a monument to tacky consumption). He told of a once-proud society in ruin, surrounded by mongrel assassins. “They kill us,” he said in his opening speech. “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity… They’re killing us.”
A strong hand was needed to help our return to national values. He attacked left and right ideologies. Democracy was undemocratic, an aristocratic trick, rigged. In a debate with Hillary Clinton, he threatened to jail his opponent, a stunt that would have impressed Mobutu.
Anyone with an education saw the parallels. But Trump was legally winning elections, and he was aided by the fact that his riffs on corrupt elites rang true with audiences.
The financial bailouts had been an extraordinary betrayal of the population by the political class, which is why Trump scored when he painted Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton as creatures of Goldman, Sachs. Citizens United meant bribery on a grand scale was legal, and this theme helped Trump knock out Jeb Bush and Cruz and Marco Rubio.
He ripped the Koch Brothers, and denounced his primary opponents as sockpuppet fronts for corporate PACs. Then he did the same to Hillary Clinton. These clowns are just fronts for someone else’s money, Trump told voters. With me, I am the money.
Trump, like all great con artists, depended upon true details to sell lies.
The major challenge for reporters in covering Trump was to explain him. There were a million reasons, beginning with the billions in free coverage he received. He certainly played on racial panic and feelings of loss of status – this was a dominant theme of his announcement speech, how low we’d sunk, how we never win anymore, etc.
The failures of decades of policy, with little real wage growth since the Nixon era, were surely also a factor.
It was complicated. You couldn’t say it wasn’t. There were 4Chan crazies and elderly church ladies alike in the Trump coalition. Trump was a vote for anyone with a grudge, and in America, there is spectacularly wide spectrum of grudges. I met one voter in Wisconsin who said the following: “I usually don’t vote, but I’m going Trump because fuck everything.”
Sometime in the spring in summer of 2016 I started to notice blowback every time I mentioned the economy in connection with Trump voters. Very quickly (it’s amazing how fast these trends coalesce in the social media age) the use of the term “economic insecurity” became a meme-worthy offense on social media.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post posted quotes of Trump voters saying “Build a wall, kill them all,” “Trump that bitch!” and “Kill her!” above the punch line:
Can’t you just feel the economic insecurity and desire for disruption?
All of this roughly coincided with Clinton saying in September that “half of Trump’s supporters” were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it,” what she deemed a “basket of deplorables.”
Most outsiders recognized this as a political mistake on par with Romney’s 47% gaffe. According to the book Shattered, it was her “first unforced error of the fall,” as her staffers were said to have thought.
But the “unforced error” soon became gospel in the press. Saturday Night Live’s “Racists For Trump” skit from earlier in the year, which showed Trumpers in swastika armbands and Klan hoods and so on, became the go-to, exclusive explanation for Trump’s rise.
The conventional wisdom was that Trump was Hitler, effectively, even before he got elected. “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” was the Times book review headline shortly before the vote (several authors said yes).
After the fiasco of Charlottesville, when Trump couldn’t bring himself to denounce open racists and said “both sides” were at fault, the term “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” became common to describe Trump’s tenure.
It was one thing to apply the terms to Trump, who deserves all of these epithets and then some. But his voters? Did it really make sense to caricaturize sixty million people as racist white nationalist traitor-Nazis?
The supposed sequel marches to Charlottesville (one in Boston, another one a year later in Washington) were jokes: a handful of mental health cases surrounded by thousands of protesters and reporters.
But scary photos of these loons became fodder for the new party line, which is that we could turn off the thinking mechanism and move to pure combat. Charles Taylor of the Boston Globe, in a column under a scary photo of a man waving a swastika, summed it up when he scoffed:
Those bent on understanding Trump supporters — as if there is something deep to understand — wonder how his working-class acolytes can vote against their own economic interests. What they refuse to see is that all Trump supporters, from the working class to the upper class, have voted their chief interest: maintaining American identity as white, Christian, and heterosexual.
Before you can argue the justice of this point, realize what it means. If we’re now saying all Trump supporters are mainly bent on upholding the supremacy of white, Christian, heterosexuals, that’s miles beyond even Hillary Clinton’s take of just half of Trump supporters being unredeemable scum.
It’s a sweeping, debate-ending dictum. There is us and them, and they are Hitler.
When I first started to hear this talk among reporters during the 2016, I thought it was just clickbait. Of course race was a dominant factor in Trump’s rise. Virtually all Republican politicians from the Goldwater days on (and all Southern Democrats before) made race a central part of their pitches.
The appeals were usually coded, but whether it was Goldwater blasting urban “marauders” or Reagan’s “welfare queens” or Willie Horton, or Jesse Helms and his “white hands,” the messages weren’t exactly subtle.
Trump blew past those parameters, of course, and his lunatic inability to renounce the KKK or Nazis surely dragged us all to new depths.
But racism as the sole explanation for Trump’s rise was suspicious for a few reasons. It completely absolved either political party (both the Republican and Democratic party establishments were rejected in 2016, in some cases for overlapping reasons) of having helped create the preconditions for Trump.
Trump doesn’t happen in a country where things are going well. People give in to their baser instincts when they lose faith in the future. The pessimism and anger necessary for this situation has been building for a generation, and not all on one side.
A significant number of Trump voters voted for Obama eight years ago. A lot of those were in rust belt states that proved critical. What happened there? Trump also polled 2-1 among veterans, despite a horrific record of deferments and insults of every vet from John McCain to Humayun Khan.
Was it possible that his rhetoric about ending “our current policy of regime change” resonated with recently returned vets? The data said yes. It may not have been decisive, but it likely was one of many factors. It was also common sense, because this was one of his main themes on the campaign trail — Trump clearly smelled those veteran votes.
The Trump phenomenon was also about a political and media taboo: class. When the liberal arts grads who mostly populate the press think about class, we tend to think in terms of the heroic worker, or whatever Marx-inspired cliché they taught us in college.
Because of this, most pundits scoff at class, because when they look at Trump crowds, they don’t see Norma Rae or Matewan. Instead, they see Married With Children, a bunch of tacky mall-goers who gobble up crap movies and, incidentally, hate the noble political press. Our take on Trump voters soon was closer to Orwell than Marx: “In reality very little was known about the proles. It was not necessary to know much.”
Beyond the utility “it’s all racism” had for both party establishments, it was good for that other sector, the news media.
If all Trump supporters are Hitler, and all liberals are also Hitler, this brings Crossfire to its natural conclusion. The America vs. America show is now Hitler vs. Hitler. Think of the ratings! (The ratings are incredible). The new show leaves out 100 million people who didn’t vote at all (a group that by itself is nearly larger than both the Clinton and Trump voters) but this is part of the propaganda.
Non-voters are the single biggest factor in American political life, and their swelling numbers are, just like the Trump phenomenon, a profound indictment on our system. But they don’t exist on TV, because they suspend our disbelief in the Hitler vs. Hitler show.
We don’t want you thinking about anything complicated: not non-voters, not war fatigue, not the collapse of the manufacturing sector, not Fed policy, none of that. None of what happened in 2016 is your fault: it’s all the pure evil of white nationalism. For conservatives, it’s the opposite: don’t believe anything in the New York Times, don’t think about the impact of upper-class tax cuts and deregulation, just stay in your lane. Remember, you are surrounded by determined enemies, out to destroy the traditional family, redistribute your income, take your job, remove your president by any means, legal or illegal.
It’s a fight for all the marbles. Politics is about one side against another side, and only one take is allowed now, pure aggression:
9. IN THE FIGHT AGAINST HITLER, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED
Cohen’s take on Crossfire was right. The early staged TV battles depended for their success on a propaganda trick. The networks clearly didn’t want to encourage constructive political activism, so the “fight” always involved a ferocious, deregulation-mad, race-baiting winger pounding the crap out of a spineless, backpedaling centrist masquerading as a “leftist.”
Cohen’s Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did a “field guide to TV’s lukewarm liberals” that explained how this works. Michael Kinsley, probably the most famous “from the left” voice, once described himself as a “wishy-washy moderate” and added, “There is no way… that I’m as far left as Pat Buchanan is right.”
Cokie Roberts played the “liberal” on The Week, but her main liberal credentials were that she was a woman who’d been on NPR. Her advice to Bill Clinton after the midterm losses of 1994: “Move to the right, which is the advice that somebody should have given him a long time ago.”
Crossfire even once hired corporate lobbyist Bob Beckel, who called Gulf War protesters “punks,” to play the “from the left” role.
If your only experience of life was watching these shows, you might conclude that the chief problem of American politics is one of tactics. Why does Paul Begala let Tucker Carlson just pound away at him like that? Why is he such a pussy?
When you watched these shows, you were always looking at an aggressor and a conciliator. “From the right” always looked more confident because it was representing a real political agenda.
When Tucker Carlson denounced unions, he meant it. When Paul Begala blathered that unions were “All-American, essential for democracy,” he looked like he was spouting pat gibberish because he was: he had worked for the administration that passed NAFTA and pioneered the Democrats’ move toward big-business cash to support campaigns, and away from union money and union infrastructure.
After years of this phony debate, along came Trump, who could easily have been a Crossfire actor (although the nineties version of “very pro-choice” Trump probably would have played “on the left”).
The modern Trump is basically exactly Buchanan, right down to the race views and the appropriation of trade issues, only he’s better at playing the heel. For most of liberal America, the election played out like an old Crossfire episode.
Trump pounded away at Clinton, and refused to take back even the most shameless behaviors. Meanwhile Clinton tried to observe decorum, apologized for her “unforced errors” like the “deplorables” comment, and was unrewarded for her efforts.
Years ago, when John Stewart went on Crossfire, he did what most liberal TV watchers had been waiting for someone to do for ages: he called Carlson a dick. Hugely satisfying! Great TV!
But that’s all it was: great TV. The solution wasn’t to create more satisfying entertainment. The solution was to have better politics. Or, better to say, real politics. Something that was not a staged fight.
Begala’s problem wasn’t that he was a weenie and insufficiently aggressive: it was that he didn’t stand for anything. This was Stewart’s larger point about how the phony combat was “hurting America.” It wasn’t educational, it wasn’t political in any meaningful way.
After Trump won, though, another consensus formed. Liberal America had to be less polite. Samantha Bee was a pioneer, calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” Creaky old Robert De Niro (He was tough! He once played a boxer!) won the Internet when he said “Fuck Trump!” at an awards show.
When a restaurant owner in DC refused to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the wake of the Trump-immigration mess, and cadaverous Trump aide Stephen Miller was called a “fascist” by a protester at a Mexican restaurant, this quickly triggered a farcical media debate about “civility.”
Politicians were asked to chime in. Maxine Waters was one of the first to endorse the “yes, you may bother assholes at restaurants” idea. Hillary Clinton, who once insisted, “when they go low, we go high,” had had enough and co-signed.
Clinton said, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you care about.” She added, “civility can start again” when Democrats re-take the White House.
Before long it was a media trope that civility was actually a regressive thing, a balm to fascism. Incivility was a requirement, a show of solidarity. “Fuck civility” was the Guardian’s take. “Trump officials don’t get to eat dinner in peace – not while kids are in cages.”
Before long, it was typical for once-staid media figures and elected officials alike to swear like sea captains in public. Harper’s Bazaar didn’t just call Trump’s claims about Obama’s border policies wrong: they were “bullshit.” Even the headline read “bullshit”! In Harper’s Bazaar!
By the time the Kavanaugh debate rolled around, the floor of the U.S. Senate sounded like the set of Goodfellas. Senator Mazie Hirono, on Senator Chuck Grassley: “That is such bullshit I can hardly stand it.”
Watching all of this had me weirded out, among other things because I was infamous for my own bad language and had been trying for years to weed it out of my work. I thought: now this is okay?
The trend toward nastier language was based on a faulty syllogism:
Civility got us nowhere.
The uncivil Donald Trump won.
Therefore, we must be uncivil to win.
Actually, none of those three things have anything to do with one another. Democratic voters were nowhere after 2016 for a lot of reasons, and very few of them had anything to do with being insufficiently rude.
Trump was uncivil, and did win, but about the last thing in the world any sane person would advise is following his example.
During the race, I kept trying to imagine how someone like Martin Luther King would have responded to Trump. I don’t think the answer would have been, “We need to start saying fuck more.”
Does Stephen Miller have the right to enjoy an enchilada in peace? I have no idea. Probably not. Is this a question of earth-shattering importance? Also probably not.
The incivility movement is not about politics. It’s about money and audience. In a hyper-competitive media environment where a billion pieces of content per day are created on platforms like Facebook, one has to work overdrive to win eyeballs.
Which headline is the Hawaiian Democrat going to click on first: “Ballast Discharge Measure Won’t Protect Hawaii’s Coastal Waters” or “11 Times Marie Hirono Had Zero Fucks To Give”?
Scatological blather scores shares and retweets, and now that there’s no ideological or commercial requirement to avoid pissing off the whole audience – no more “Good morning, everybody” – there’s no disincentive to using the strongest language.
That’s why this stuff is coming out in factory-level amounts on both sides now. It’s why Samantha Bee at this very moment is searching the Internet for a word worse than “cunt,” and why ostensibly devout Christians will love it in 2020 when Donald Trump calls his Democratic opponent a cocksucker or a whore, just as I watched them cheer in New Hampshire when he called Ted Cruz a pussy.
Meanness and vulgarity build political solidarity, but also audience solidarity. In the Trump age, political and media objectives align.
The problem is, there’s no natural floor to this behavior. Just as cable TV will eventually become 700 separate 24-hour porn channels, news and commentary will eventually escalate to boxing-style expletive-laden pre-fight tirades, and open incitement of violence.
If the other side is literally Hitler, this eventually has to happen. It would be illogical to argue anything else. What began as America vs. America will eventually move to Traitor vs. Traitor, and the show does not work if those contestants are not offended to the point of wanting to kill one another.
10. FEEL SUPERIOR
Hunter Pauli is a young writer based in Montana. He started as an intern at the Montana Standard, which at the time was doing hardcore local investigative work, often on environmental issues. Pauli got into this line of work because “punching up seems like the only worthwhile thing to do in journalism.”
When the Standard’s crime beat opened, Pauli took the job and soon found that he was being asked to pump out an endless stream of stories about poor people doing stupid things.
Pauli soon found himself feeling uneasy. He was in one of the worst gigs in journalism: a local crime beat. His job mostly consisted of getting details from a public official like a police spokesperson, who would give him the state’s version of low-rent arrests.
Few think about this, but the press routinely puts the names and personal information of people arrested in newspapers, on TV, and, worst of all, online, where the stories live forever. Yet these people have not been convicted of crimes, merely arrested or charged.
“I was getting third-hand info from someone like a public information officer, and we were routinely publishing stories without getting the point of view of the person it affected most,” Pauli recalls. “In this kind of crime reporting we typically don’t even take the most basic steps. Even the idea of seeking confirmation from a secondary source.”
It’s a poorly-kept secret that crime in America has been dropping precipitously for decades. If you asked the average American if he or she believed that, most would say no, largely because we make sure to keep the news filled with crime stories. We need you freaked out and scared, but also need to constantly produce protagonists for you to look down upon.
“I wasn’t out there covering murders every single day,” Pauli recalls. “There just wasn’t a lot of crime. Maybe someone goes running down the street naked because they can’t afford their meds, or shoplifts from a Wal-Mart because they’re broke...”
Sometimes, there would be nights when nothing at all would happen.
“So I’d tell my editor, ‘Hey, nothing happened.’ And he’d say, ‘Just find something.’ Because he can’t afford for there to be nothing.”
Pauli began to be conflicted, particularly about putting information about people’s arrests online, which would prevent them in the future from getting jobs and affect them in all sorts of ways. He tried to pitch his paper on more important subjects, like abnormally high rates of lead in the blood of children born in Butte. But it was no go.
“I had three sure-fire investigations in a row spiked,” says Pauli.
Things came to a head after he ran a story about a guy who escaped from custody after a mental-health evaluation. Police called the man “Dickface” because of an unfortunately-shaped tattoo.
The “Dickface” story went viral, and Pauli began to think about leaving the job. He began self-editing, leaving out stories about people shoplifting from Walmart “despite how frequently it happened and how much readers loved laughing about it.”
Looking back, he explains: “There are people in the world worth laughing at. They’re called politicians. But these people?”
Pauli ended up quitting journalism, writing about his decision in The Guardian.
What’s remarkable about Pauli’s story is how rare it is. Pauli happened to be in one of the worst corners of the game, covering crime, which is a genre significantly wrapped up in needlessly stoking class/racial fears on the one hand, while making people feel superior on the other.
But the core dynamic of his job was not much different from what most of us do. We’re mainly in the business of stroking audiences. We want them coming back. Anger is part of the rhetorical promise, but so are feelings righteousness and superiority.
It’s why we love terrible people like Casey Anthony or O.J. as news subjects a lot more than we’d like someone who spends his or her days working in a pediatric oncology ward. Showing genuinely heroic or selfless people on TV would make most audiences feel inferior. Therefore, we don’t.
It’s the same premise as reality shows. The most popular programs aren’t about geniuses and paragons of virtue, but instead about terrible parents, morons, people too fat to notice they’re pregnant, people willing to be filmed getting ass tucks, spoiled rich people, and other freaks.
Why use the most advanced communications technology in history to teach people basic geography, or how World Bank structural adjustment lending works, when you can instead watch idiots drink donkey semen for money?
Your media experience is designed to nurture and protect your ego. So we show you the biggest losers we can find. It’s the underlying principle of almost every successful entertainment product we’ve had, from COPS to Freakshow to, literally, The Biggest Loser. We’re probably just a few years way from a show called, What Would You Suck For a Dollar?
This dynamic was confined to the entertainment arena for a while, but it became part of political coverage long ago.
People forget that as far back as 1984, the Republican Party was urging people to vote Reagan because Walter Mondale was a “born loser.” On the flip side, the name of George McGovern became so synonymous with “loser” that it birthed an entirely new brand of “Third Way” politics, invented by the Democratic Leadership Council and people like Chuck Robb, Al From, Sam Nunn, and Bill Clinton. The chief principle of the new politics was that it had a chance of winning.
The media started following along. We invented the “Wimp Factor” for George H.W. Bush and saddled Dan Quayle with the “bimbo” tag. This was propaganda, of course, as the idea was that politicians could only not be losers by bombing someone. But we were also telling audiences that a loser was someone who didn’t attack.
In the early nineties, the Weekly Standard wrote that Republicans wanted Quayle to “dispel his bimbo image” by “showing some teeth, Spiro Agnew style.”
Agnew is one of the biggest disgraces in the history of American politics, a blowhard with no discernible ideas beyond the promiscuous use of every conceivable form of political corruption – yet in the American consciousness, he’s not a loser. He’s an aggressor.
Presidential campaign coverage as far back as the early 2000s was basically Heathers on an airplane. We developed lots of words for “loser,” and spent countless hours developing new methods to tell audiences which candidates were in that category.
Dennis Kucinich, who was constantly ridiculed in the press plane for both his shortness and his earnestness, was dubbed the “lovable loser of the left.” The contravening kind of story was usually about the abject dumbness of Republicans. I actually won an award for such an effort, an article about Mike Huckabee called, “My Favorite Nut Job.”
Pauli is right: politicians should be fair game. But the obsession with winners and losers runs so deep in the press that it has become the central value of the business.
It’s not an accident that Trump won the presidency on “winning” and spent much of his political career calling people “losers” – from Cher to Richard Belzer to Graydon Carter to Rosie O’Donnell to George Will to Michelle Malkin.
Trump sells the vicarious experience of being a “winner” compared to other schlubs. His lack of empathy is often cited as evidence of narcissistic sociopathy, and maybe it is, but it’s a chicken-and-egg question: was he always like this, or did he become more this way because among his other weaknesses, he’s clearly addicted to the worst kind of political media?
When you look back at the generation of Heathers-style coverage, the evolution toward Trump starts to make sense. We can excuse almost anything in America except losing. And we love a freak show.
Trump was the best of both worlds, as far as the press was concerned: an Agnew-style attacker on the one hand, and a lurid and disgusting monster-freak for audiences to look down on on the other. There is no better commercial situation for the American media than a president about whom a porn star can write, “I had sex with that, I’d say to myself. Eech.”
Leo Tolstoy, in a story called the Kreutzer Sonata, once described a character who visited a PT Barnum circus in Paris. The character went into a tent promising a rare “water-dog,” and paid a franc to see an ordinary canine wrapped in sealskin.
When he came out, Barnum used the man to sell more tickets, shouting to the crowd:
'Ask the gentleman if it is not worth seeing! Come in, come in! It only costs a franc!'
And in my confusion I did not dare to answer that there was nothing curious to be seen, and it was upon my false shame that the Barnum must have counted.
We count on your shame in the same way. We know you know the news we show you is demeaning, disgusting, pointless, and not really intended to inform. But we assume you’ll be too embarrassed to admit you spend hours every day poring through content specifically designed to stroke your point of view. In fact, you’ll consume twice as much rather than admit you don’t like to be challenged. Like Tolstoy’s weak hero, you’ll pay to hide your shame.
It took a while for the news reporters to deliver the same superiority vibe that you get from reading local crime blotters or watching bearded-lady acts like Fear Factor, Who’s Your Daddy? and The Swan. The idea behind most political coverage is to get you to turn on the TV and within minutes have you tsk-tsking and saying, “What idiots!”
We can’t get you there unless you follow all the rules. Accept a binary world and pick a side. Embrace the reality of being surrounded by evil stupidity, and do not commune with it. Feel indignant, righteous, and smart. Hate losers, love winners. And during the commercials, do some shopping.
Congratulations, you’re the perfect news consumer.
Image of Glenn Beck by Luke X. Martin