The worst thing about Year One of Trump: Fascistization of Cable News

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

American mass media journalism is broken. There are some simple elements of US journalistic practice that have proved easy for special interests to hack, and the editors at least have allowed themselves to be used by sinister forces. (I am speaking primarily of television news here, and primarily of the 24 hour channels).

Despite the impression that Trump hates the press and forms a danger to it, the mass media actually has fallen for him, hard.

One key problem is the inverted pyramid model for American news, which is often not followed by European journalism. What I mean by that is that American journalists are trained to write a story by putting the most important thing in the first paragraph, then the second most important thing in the second paragraph, and so forth. History, if it is included, comes at the very end.

And, what the president says is considered the most important thing. So Trump gets the lede, every day, all day long.

It would be better and more informative to begin a story about racial prejudice toward immigrants (Trump’s “shithole” comment, which paralleled how German Nazis felt about most countries coming to their 1936 Olympics) with the history of racial prejudice toward immigrants– maybe focusing on a famous such immigrant who faced bigotry and overcame it. Then Trump could come at the end.

The search for ratings and advertising dollars above all is very dangerous. CNN’s Jeff Zucker put Trump on every night in summer of 2016, letting him speak directly to the public for an hour or more with no journalistic adult in the room. Trump attracted an audience, which allowed CNN to charge advertisers more. Zucker has to decide if he really wanted to promote Nazism for the sake of a buck.

The “on the one hand, on the other hand” model for cable news (also used by respectable outfits such as PBS NewsHour) is a big part of the problem. Since news gathering is expensive, the 24-hour cable outfits have moved to mainly putting on discussion panels. That move is a very bad idea. Most of the “discussion” is talking points by partisan hacks. Walter Cronkite would not have thought that was news.

What you actually should be doing is having a reporter interview people about a story and then present reportage. A Trumpie point of view or talking points may or may not be part of every story. The facts of the matter should be foregrounded, not how wacky people feel about the facts.

Since Trumpism is an American form of fascism, and since the cable news editors believe that they have to balance the discussion panels with regard to view point (on the one hand, on the other hand), they recruit Trump surrogates to speak for him. In some instances, they just hire people from his sleazy campaign.

The result is that Trump not only addresses millions with his tweets and bizarre harangues that pass for speeches, but he is ventriloquized by dozens of surrogates paid by corporate media to reach more millions with his often Nazi-like ideas.

The “two opposing sides” fixation of corporate news, the search for a spark of debate coming out of the clash of two different opinions (which is driven by the quest for eyeballs and the advertising revenue they bring) is easily manipulated by political forces for their own purposes. Thus, Twitter has discovered that hundreds of thousands of their accounts were Russian moles, and it now seems clear that Russian moles promoted both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter online in order to polarize the American public over race and help elect Trump. (Russian social media moles also promoted hatred of American Muslims as well as anti-Islamophobic groups, and in one instance a demonstration by right wing Americans outside a mosque in Texas, as well as a counter-demonstration, were both promoted by Russian sites masquerading as American ones). American journalism is focuses on glib surface divisions, giving an opportunity to those who deliberately want to polarize the public so as to mobilize people for some sleazy goal.

ISIL and other terrorist groups take similar advantage of this ability to use media to sharpen contradictions and promote both hatred and solidarity among their own followers.

This news model also allowed climate denialists and before them cigarette cancer denialists to manipulate the system. If every story has two points of view and they are equal, then you have to present both. But where one side in this debate is factually incorrect, it means you are doing the opposite of journalism. You are diluting the truth with false, paid-for propaganda.

There aren’t two factually correct sides of every issue. Racism is not a legitimate explanation for anything. Immigrants are mostly law-abiding and do not take jobs from native-born people because they compete in different labor markets. There isn’t a fixed amount of labor (a “lump of labor”) in an economy– economies can expand precisely because there are more workers available than before.

Cable news is now pumping out Trump talking points hourly to millions of people around the globe, because of their broken business model. It is degrading our society and our human values. The editors and the CEOs need to look at themselves in the mirror and decide if they really want brown shirts beating up their children in the streets, because that is where this thing is going.

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Related video:

Newseum: “Journalism in the Trump Era: Assessing Press Freedom in the United States”

25 Responses

  1. There is a similar problem here in the UK, but with our newspapers dominated by the right (indeed, the extreme right) wing. Our TV and radio news outlets are still governed by a doctrine of fairness (of the sort Reagan did away with in the US). That is why there has been such fierce opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s attempts to buy the 61% of Sky TV that he does not yet own. Even our right-wing government has baulked at this and ordered an inquiry into it. The right-wing press here has already done huge damage to the nation by promoting the insane campaign to leave the European Union; damage that may never be undone.

    • Hang on a minute, John, whilst the right wing press as you put it, obviously played a part in Brexit, it was former prime minister David Cameron who started the ball rolling and did so for his own selfish ends. I thought the broadcast media was if anything biased in favour of the remain point of view and seeing as far more people take their news from TV and radio, surely the result should have been to remain in the EU. The same thing could be said for the Trump debacle although for different reasons. Far be it for me to defend the right wing press and I’m not doing so here, but I think there was far more going on than just blaming the newspapers.

      • You’re right. It was by no means the only factor, and the chief responsibility lies with Cameron, a weak and ineffective leader. But the atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was poisonous, with the gutter press printing lurid stories about migrants on their front pages almost every day. They haven’t stopped since, calling anyone who opposes Brexit, or who even tries to make the government obey the law of the land, enemies of the people, traitors and saboteurs.

        • I believe a significant number were not passionate about the issue one way or another. They didn’t understand the implications. Who did? One would just have to deal with the outcome whatever it was. The division was very tight. So tight that it think it reasonable to consider the role played by Obama’s threat to put the UK at the end of a trade agreement queue. That was like a cup of cold water in the face of many, particularly as he was a guest at the time, and might well have provoked a negative reaction sufficient to influence the result. It didn’t affect me as I have been opposed to anything more than trade agreements from the start, but I felt it.

    • As well as rabidly backing Brexit, the Express and the Daily Mail in particular have also since the 1980s promoted a property-speculator culture that is in part responsible for the deindustrialization of Britain.

      Many British firms comparable to those of Germany’s vaunted Mittelstand were starved of investment, or worse destroyed by asset strippers who made windfall profits by converting their sites to residential use (commercial and industrial property are taxed quite heavily with business rates, while residential property is much more lightly taxed — leaving more of the rental income to be capitalized into the selling price).

      One reason why Germany is now the industrial powerhouse of Europe is that it retains nationwide rent control, meaning that investment money was used productively instead of squandered on bidding up land prices. Of course, this has been less of the case since the Euro was introduced — German money poured into peripheral Eurozone property, with ultimately calamitous consequences for those peripheral countries.

  2. Q: Why did its creators choose the name ‘Fox News’?
    A: They knew that the vast majority of their viewers would not be able to spell ‘Völkischer Beobachter”!

  3. You’ve identified a key dynamic that has allowed the news organizations to be essentially co-opted by more and more extreme versions of the right. What I don’t see is a counter-dynamic that works in the opposite direction. This suggests a rather dismal prognosis.

  4. I know we should respect our president, but I’m beginning to think that Trump is a tall and somewhat portly version of a mynah bird. He says what he’s heard most recently and/or most loudly.

    I feel for the poor Trump defender who has to swing back and forth on the issues as Trump does his 180’s. Like he was right to ask for a bipartisan solution that saved the Dreamers (whom he personally pushed of the cliff), and he was right to angrily reject the bipartisan solution, and toss in the “shitholes”. Balance that.

    What the big mynah says is the least important aspect of his presidency. If the media concentrated on what he does, they would have a much better story, exposing the cruelty and indifference with which he regards, the working class, people of color, immigrants. and anyone living in North Korea.

  5. To my knowledge all MSM “journalists” are corrupted typists: I never heard a MSM “journalist” in an open discussion with a politician or anyone else on the alleged atomic power of the State of Israel, a central issue in the ME and in the survival of the Human and other species.

  6. This is why I no longer listen to NPR, and why I will never donate to them again. Throughout the campaign, they gave equal time to Hillary voters and to trump voters, as if the views of both were equally valid, morally and ethically. Then, no followup analysis or critique. — I am disgusted beyond the point of return now. The US is now a corporate entity, putting the profits of its overlords over people and the planet.

    • Not only that, but they went to calling Pres. Obama, just Obama. And now it’s Trump in office, they call him President Trump.
      I complained at the disrespect to Mr. Obama and was told they use the President at the top of a story and leave it out afterwards. I wouldn’t be so disgusted if i had not heard on more than one broadcast that it is more often President Trump than not. Still debating wether to keep donating monthly or send my money to someplace like Informed Comment.

  7. For many, many years, management of perspectives (most effectively done by the management of context) for good or evil has been the crux of the matter.

    A fine case can be made that The People are by their nature too uninvolved (and whatever), and are also too prone to manipulation to be responsibly enfranchised. Responsible journalism with a fresh approach to its responsibilities would go a long ways to help ameliorate things.

    Propaganda, and the success of fake news, depends on the manipulation of context, and that’s precisely what the traditional model engenders. OTOH, practically speaking you MUST have a strong lede, otherwise your audience can neither identify the topic or be engaged by it. And, if its a subject they aren’t already interested in, that burden is even more onerous.

    Properly identifying a problem is the essential first step to addressing any important issue, and this one is key, given how many TV sets are on purely for background noise in various waiting rooms, subliminally biasing audiences who are only half-listening to begin with. Thinking more deeply about this problem, and experimenting with ways to get around it, is where good effort could be very usefully spent.

    • Humans were never meant to live in societies this complex. They were never meant to live surrounded by strangers who could only be trusted via mass conformity. However, we were handling it into the 20th Century. William Greider claimed that his prairie-populist forebears were quite sophisticated about the conflicts between farmers and monopolists because they saw the problems first-hand. What Marx called the alienation of labor was also the complication of the economy so that no worker could really see his role in the end products, only management, which reduced his confidence in challenging the latter over how society must be run in order to maintain productivity. Everything has been made too complicated on purpose, so that only a corporation with compartmentalized morality united only by profit can act effectively. The rest of us are reduced to bystanders in our own work and consumption. That can’t possibly be good for our political consciousness.

      • Agree. Alienation, has increasingly been the leitmotif of my time on the planet. The solution is involvement locally, to the level of sophistication our pea brains can get around what’s in front of us. Our brains wiring is really quite limited, as you say.

        Less complicated becomes a Federalist argument, and one which would be met with agreement from many on the right. The question becomes, as usual, a matter of finding the right balance.

        Whatever else might be done, throwing away our TVs wouldn’t be a bad first step.

    • Oftentimes, there is no *one* truth. Those that control the narrative control the perceptions of truth. It falls to all of us to investigate and share our own perceptions of what’s true.

  8. I think it’s less the inverted pyramid or the fascistization model: it’s the celebrity model. For decades, US news has been shifted, shifting, and now dominated by news about celebrities: whether in sports, media, or just plain wealth. And so Trump leads, and everything else can pile up in the back room.

    • I think you’ve nailed it. The Presidency has become the ultimate reality show. Trump had 100% name recognition at the start of the campaign, unheard of for a challenger. Oprah makes an impassioned speech at an awards show and there is a boomlet for her to run. Previous research has shown that much of voting is on the basis of likeability. When people don’t know the candidates well, then name recognition becomes crucial. Policy hardly matters anymore. It’s enough to make a policy wonk, such as myself, be driven to despair.

  9. The House Republicans control the funding of NPR and PBS. In the 90’s they started the tactic of threatening to cut funding. Trump threatened their funding in 2016. The threat is enough to keep them timid.
    Many in the US are looking at the “both sides” false equivalency reporting that has distorted issues, including the NYT. They have also identified the endless times the White House occupant puts out outrageous comments to distract the press from the vile deeds the administration is commiting to tear down our institutions.
    Its recommended to ignore tweets and look at deeds and issues. I think this is critical to keeping focus where it belongs.

  10. A good article … MUST reading!
    When every editor and journalist commit to these practices we will have a much better informed citizenry!

  11. “The search for ratings and advertising dollars above all is very dangerous. CNN’s Jeff Zucker put Trump on every night in summer of 2016, letting him speak directly to the public for an hour or more with no journalistic adult in the room. Trump attracted an audience, which allowed CNN to charge advertisers more.” -J. Cole

    It seems therefore, that the problem is a capitalist, corporate media that prioritizes profit above providing the information so that people can make informed decisions about important issues affecting their lives. In short, the problem is capitalism.

    And, my old saying is that unfettered capitalism leads inevitably to fascism.

    • If you want, or need, ever more customers, viewers, whatever, you will only find them by going down market until the coffee shop becomes a strip joint and you can go no lower.

  12. You say the cable news editors hire the panelists. Is this true. What’s the pay scale?

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