Monday Reads: All Quiet in the West Wing FrontPosted: January 25, 2021
Good Morning Sky Dancers!
What a difference a week makes! The headlines today actually contain more news and analysis than melodrama and craziness. Perhaps it’s time to turn some focus to the news outlets and the way their approach to the last four years actually created a good deal of the havoc. A good first place to start is Fox News which basically turned into a propaganda arm of a deranged and out of control President by repeating and reinforcing every deranged lie and conspiracy theory out of his pouty little potty mouth.
This is from Mother Jones and Kevin Drum: “What Can We Do About Fox News?”.
However, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say again that all the attention being given to social media is basically a distraction. Sure, the insurrectionists used social media to help organize things, but people have organized protests in Washington DC before with little trouble. Nor was social media necessary to inflame to mob. The 2009 tea party movement did just fine without much in the way of social media.
The source of all this was, as usual, Fox News and the mainstream right-wing media empire. It wasn’t social media that convinced 70 percent of Republicans that the election was stolen. It was Fox News. It wasn’t social media that relentlessly took seriously all the moronic lawsuits filed by Donald Trump’s team of idiot lawyers. It was Fox News. It’s not social media that has any serious appeal outside the folks who are already conspiracy theorists. It’s Fox News.
But of course there’s nothing we can do about Fox News, is there? And they all dress so nicely, too. They can’t really want to overturn the peaceful transfer of power after an election, can they?
I have no idea what they really want to do. Maybe it’s all a game, maybe it’s just a way to make money, or maybe they really do want to overturn an election. But it doesn’t matter. Regardless of their intentions, they’re the ones responsible for this insurrection. And we aren’t completely helpless to stop them, either.
The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes this Op-Ed : “Fox News is a hazard to our democracy. It’s time to take the fight to the Murdochs. Here’s how.”
Last week, two key members of Fox News’s decision desk abruptly departed the network. One was laid off, the other has retired, and some insiders are calling it a “purge.”
Apparently, at a network that specializes in spreading lies, there was a price to pay for getting it right. (“Fox News isn’t a newsgathering organization,” surmised press critic Eric Boehlert, arguing in response to the purge that its White House credentials should be revoked.)
In recent days, Fox has taken a sharp turn toward a more extreme approach as it confronts a post-Trump ratings dip — the result of some of its furthest-right viewers moving to outlets such as Newsmax and One America News and some middle-of-the-roaders apparently finding CNN or MSNBC more to their liking.
With profit as the one true religion at Fox, something had to change. Eighty-nine-year-old Rupert Murdoch, according to a number of reports, has stepped in to call the shots directly. Most notably, the network has decided to add an hour of opinion programming to its prime-time offerings. The 7 p.m. hour will no longer be nominally news but straight-up outrage production.
Why? Because that’s where the ratings are.
And in a move that should be shocking but isn’t, one of those who will rotate through the tryouts for that coveted spot will be Maria Bartiromo, whose Trump sycophancy during the campaign may well have been unparalleled. She was among those (including Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro) recently forced under threat of a lawsuit to air a video that debunked repeated false claims on her show that corrupt voting software had given millions of Trump votes to Biden.
At the same time, Sean Hannity, who likes to blast Biden as “cognitively struggling,” and Tucker Carlson, who tries to sow doubt about the prevalence of white supremacy, have become even more outlandish as they try to gin up anti-Biden rage within their audiences.
Even James Murdoch, while not naming names, blasted the harm that his family’s media empire has done. “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very much so,” he told the Financial Times. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”
There’s plenty of blame to spread around when it comes Trump’s media coverage and the minute by minute blasting of lies, conspiracy theories, and displays of id. Here’s one from New York Daily News and Pete Vernon: “Giving up the ‘Golden Goose’ how the Trump presidency shaped the media and what’s to come.”
The Trump era, marked by vitriolic attacks on the media and the failure to stand up for press freedoms abroad, did, however, harbor a cynical silver lining when it came to news organizations’ bottom lines. In 2016, then CBS executive chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” By admitting the quiet part out loud, the since-disgraced media mogul hit on a truth about the 45th president: whether Americans loved him or loathed him, they couldn’t turn away.
With Trump now ensconced at Mar-a-Lago, stripped of the Twitter account which served as his method for instigating so much madness, the political press is left to confront a as-yet-unanswerable question: What happens when the shiny objects of politics are no longer gilded in Trumpian ratings gold?
Journalists acknowledge Trump’s frequent claims that he was great for their business, unlike so many of his other boasts, were not lies. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post saw subscriptions surge, while cable news ratings skyrocketed. The Times and Post reportedly tripled their digital subscriber base over the past four years. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all notched record audiences in 2020.
Trump was “a controversy factory” in office, says Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. “Controversy sells and attracts readers, no question about it. We would get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to tune into a story just because he said or did something outrageous.”
Under Joe Biden, the news, of course, is no less important. Biden has taken office in the midst of a raging pandemic, an economic crisis, a period of racial reckoning, and an impending impeachment trial of his predecessor. While it is unclear if the American public will continue to follow developments from Washington with the same intensity they did over the past four years, journalists are hoping that the audience remains tuned in.
Yes, folks in the media, you certainly do need to do better.
Since the Capitol siege of Jan. 6, federal and local officials have been scrambling to fortify Washington and its institutions against the threat of white supremacy and violence, but one national institution remains painfully vulnerable: the mainstream media.
The breaches to our Fourth Estate came long before Jan. 6, of course. From the moment Trump entered the 2016 race, endless oxygen was given to his racism and lies. White supremacists were deemed worthy of profiles noting their haircuts and wardrobes or allowed NPR airtime to rank the intelligence of the races. The breaches continued as ex-Trump officials were allowed to profit from distorting the truth to the American people, through TV analyst spots, book deals and Harvard fellowships.
Our media ushered all this through the door, under the aegis of “balance” and “presenting both sides” — as if racism and white supremacy were theoretical ideas to be debated, not life-threatening forces to be defeated. Never would I have imagined that I would say Biden’s stance on white supremacy is more progressive than the media’s. But here we are.
From the start, many non-White journalists grasped the threat that recognizing and calling out white supremacy was a life-or-death matter. And many paid a price for it. Black on-air commentators were literally laughed at by White counterparts for sounding the alarm. Journalist Jemele Hill was reprimanded by ESPN after calling Trump a white supremacist.
It took White blood being spilled, and elite lawmakers being threatened, for other sectors to confront the need to forcefully guard against extremism. In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, which left five dead, corporations pulled support from GOP politicians who supported the assault. Several Capitol officials resigned. Twitter kicked Trump off its platform, and Apple and Google removed Parler, which has increasingly become a haven for extremism, from their app stores.
But the media still seems unwilling or unable to reform itself. There have been no major efforts as an industry to systematically examine the role we played in America’s journey to the brink.
Then there is the entire debate around the role of social media as platform or publisher?
The Trump problem hardly caught Twitter by surprise. In 2019, Jack Dorsey did a round of podcast interviews and press appearances, hoping to boost “conversational health”—and, surely, Twitter’s stock price—with yet more public conversation. The podcast host Joe Rogan asked Dorsey whether he’d considered getting rid of Donald Trump, one of the most influential and least healthy conversationalists on the platform. Dorsey demurred, arguing that the words of a President are inherently newsworthy. “We should see how our leaders think and how they act,” he said. “That informs voting, that informs the conversation.” In the end, Twitter banned Trump, ostensibly, for two tweets posted on January 8th. The first, in which he referred to the seventy-five million Americans who had voted for him as “patriots,” was hardly one of the most incendiary things he’d ever posted. (It wouldn’t even make the top fifty.) The next tweet read, in its entirety, “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” This was, ironically, one of the tiny minority of Trump’s tweets that really was unambiguously newsworthy. Twitter argued that “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate”; to my eyes, on the contrary, it looked like the closest Trump will ever come to a concession. If you take Twitter’s reasoning at face value, then the most generous way to interpret the ban is that the company made the right decision for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the real reasons for the ban were simpler—that Trump is now a lame duck who can no longer punish Twitter with the levers of the federal government; that the siege of the Capitol was simply one bad press cycle too many; that the company is worried about violence in the near future, and is trying to avoid ending up with even more blood on its hands. If Twitter is being coy about its real motivations, or if the thinking leading to this monumental decision was really as muddled as the official explanation suggests, then there is little cause to think that its future decisions will be much more coherent.
“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Donald Trump said in 2017. He may have been wrong; after all, he uttered those words on Fox Business, a TV network that will surely continue to have him on as a guest long after he leaves the White House, and even if he loses every one of his social-media accounts. Perhaps Trump could have become President without social media. There were plenty of other factors militating in his favor—a racist backlash to the first Black president, the abandonment of the working class by both parties, and on and on. Still: Trump wanted to be President in 1988, and in 2000, and he couldn’t get close. In 2012, just as social media was starting to eclipse traditional media, Trump was a big enough factor in the Republican race that Mitt Romney went to the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas to publicly accept his endorsement. Only in 2016, when the ascent of social media was all but complete, did Trump’s dream become a reality. Maybe this was just a coincidence. There is, tragically, no way to run the experiment in reverse.
We’ve been seeing normal pressers the last few days with Biden’s White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki that are a breath of fresh air compared to days of trying to watch Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Kayleigh McEnany McEnany out there on TV giving whining interviews about every one hating on Trump. Huckabee Sanders is trying to run for Governor of Arkansas. We’ll see how that goes. We’ll also see how this new coverage goes. I bet they bothersider Psaki by the end of the month.
I’m going to leave you with this from The Atlantic: “TV Captured Trump by Looking Away”. This is by Sophie Gilbert. She argues with the eye of some one who looks at culture.
Television during the Trump era faced a paradox: The 45th president was obsessed with TV, was saved by TV (The Apprentice resurrected him as a public figure in one of the lowest periods of his career), was influenced by TV, and seemed made to be analyzed by it. But early on, creators appeared befuddled by the project of portraying someone whose self-satirical physicality and distorted psyche defied pastiche. It didn’t help that so many viewers were, like me, exhausted by the antics of the real-life Trump and emotionally numbed by cortisol spikes of outrage.
And yet, Trump exerted a centripetal force on pop culture. Broad swaths of works that weren’t about him at all seemed newly crucial in understanding his ascent, even as the stakes for shows that tried to deal with him directly as a subject grew impossibly high. What became clear while taking stock of TV over the past four years is that the shows and artists that most clearly and urgently responded to him did so by looking past his theatrics as an individual, and focusing instead on the elements—recurrent throughout American history—that led to his rise.
There are some disturbing things that still needs some focus. Trump basically represented elements that have been recurrent through American History as Gilbert states. The blatant racism, xenophobia, and misogyny were obvious to nearly all of us. However, the media coverage did not originally and still may not fully study the mistakes made when we called your basic White Christian Nationalists present throughout the KKK movement and the American Nazi Party just sympathetic old white dudes misplaced by the economy.
It’s the same way that the Capitol Hill Insurrectionists got so far into the Building. No one thought all theses white police, ex-military, and Karens were truly capable of anything. Trump was the catalyst and the symbol but the underlying currents must be reported in a different way. Also, while holding Biden to account, the media should not go out of its way to prove it’s unbiased by unnecessarily going after any one in the Biden Administration. I’m seeing that now and not only in Fox News. Of course, the New York Times appears to be going right down that road. The Trump administration deserved the microscope. A lot of what Biden will do is likely yawn worthy in its return to normalcy.
I have to say that it’s nice to read more news that just something about the daily Trump crazies, meltdowns, and weirdness.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?