We have all heard the President say that the news is fake, and we have seen this assertion take root and spread like a kind of conceptual weed. The phrase “fake news” contains within it the connotation of counterfeit and thus the insinuation of an act of wilful deception. Or, to use a more plain word, lying. If I were to spread around the claim that the Prime Minister of Canada is addicted to Xintopan, the way that Hunter S. Thompson did of Ed Muskie and Ibogaine, it could be correctly said that I was spreading fake news. The presumption that something like this is widely taking place in the dominant commercial media, each and every day, could only be maintained by the most credulous and lazy. A news outfit that deliberately fabricated would soon find itself discredited and driven out of business. And yet there is no denying that news is a manufactured good, like bicycle tires or washing machines or laxatives. The news does not drop from heaven, it is made. What is it then that the media are doing, as makers of a mass-consumer product called news?
When I was a boy the news was something trotted out by three news stations each weeknight between 6 and 7. This was before the cable networks invented the 24-hour news cycle. Where once it had been accepted that a one-hour dose of news per day was sufficient, the cable universe substituted the proposition that news is something requiring round-the-clock attention and comment. Whatever else this substitution may entail, it is beyond doubt a scaling-up of manufacture. To go from one hour of news a day to twenty-four is more than a quantitative change: it is an admission that something arbitrary is at work, untethered from any underlying principle or logic. News is only another product that can be made in batches small or large. Here I do not mean to equate the manufacture of a product with fabrication in the sense of lying. I mean only that the news is made up in the way that a book or song or photograph is made up. It is a matter of perspective and of discrimination. An outbreak of war or the assassination of a public figure will be obvious instances of news to most people, but many daily events will necessarily occupy a grey area which only subjective considerations will resolve. It is someone’s job every day to scan the landscape and to package up a selection of found objects for this thing we call the news.
I have been claiming that the news is a product, but in a sense this is misleading. While news is packaged, the media do not deal in the business of selling news. The actual product of the news media are the eyeballs of their audience, which the industry sells to advertisers. And just as every audience constitutes a market, with exhaustively studied desires and beliefs and tastes, so too the media audience is a market. Everything produced by a news corporation will defer to the interests of advertisers by taking pains to court the market they are selling, because that market is the fruit of their efforts, hence their chief product. The specific character of a news outlet is a reflection of this ongoing and often imperfect effort to attract and to hold viewers. It is possible to parse the various news outlets into the grammar of their respective markets, taking into account matters such as aesthetics and social class and political assumptions. Here are some rough examples off the top of my mind, of the respective markets targeted by media outlets, to demonstrate how this might look:
PBS Newshour: “I believe there are two sides to every story and so it is important that we seek out balancing points-of-view in a rational and civilized manner. I’m a pretty informed and intelligent person and I think of myself as open-minded and highly educated. I think the great malaise of our time is partisanship. The parties must work together to find compromises that serve the broader public interest.”
New York Times: “To me America is an imperfect country whose history is marred by hubris and miscalculation, yet it remains a beacon to the world. I care about the arts and humanities and I don’t apologize for wanting sophistication, and I like my news to be informed and thoughtful. Our system is unique in history and to protect it politicians must be held to account, in particular by media.”
FOX News: “I’m sick of the establishment. It’s corrupt and must be brought down. The GOP is Republican In Name Only. Liberalism is ruining America. I am angry as hell and it’s time to fight back to reclaim the real America our forefathers fought to protect. I love this country and I love God and I am not ashamed to call myself a Patriot.”
National Post: “There’s nothing worse than Social Justice Warriors and the Culture of Entitlement. Taxes are too high and free enterprise plus individual responsibility will solve most of our problems, if anything can. Most politicians are clowns, and we would be better off without them, but Canada remains the greatest country in the world and our system is fundamentally sound and just.”
The Rebel: “I love this country and I care about what happens to it. We’re at war with Cultural Marxism and Islamic terrorism, whether you want to admit it or not. Political correctness be damned. Radical feminism and the fascist left are huge dangers today, and the mainstream media is either too weak or too biased to see it. If we don’t act now, our civilization will be lost.”
These sketches are of course caricatures, but even a caricature projects the recognizable outline of a face. What the media share among them is an unspoken but firm assumption that “our way of life” is fundamentally sound. This is why no allowance is made for outside-the-system cranks and revolutionaries, even on a more extreme network such as Fox. The media target and trade in, above all else, aesthetic differences, from the calm establishment tit-and-tat of PBS to the fringe-establishment agitation of Fox. The New York Times marketing department knows exactly what ads to put in front of the people who read it, and in the main they are ads for “luxury” watches and automobiles and not for obesity medication or adult diapers. Even the PBS fiction of a publicly-funded broadcaster has a marketing/aesthetics impetus, aimed as it is at upper-middles whose tastes lead them to abjure anything they regard as vulgar capitalism. Because the PBS NewsHour ads come at the end of the program, disguised as public-service announcements, the viewer may enjoy the wholesome illusion of an organic, free-range, untainted media.
To appreciate how thoroughly the news is market tested and market formulated, one only has to spend some time watching a program that makes no accommodation for one’s tastes and outlook. To begin with, the aesthetics and the social-class markers will be all wrong. You will either find the program too loud and uncouth, or you will find it boring and pinheaded and elitist. The villains will be wrong, as will the heroes. A Marxist-Leninist will be unable to consume any of the widely-available news except critically and oppositionally, as imperialist-capitalist propaganda, because in capitalist societies Marxism per se does not exist as a market. The same is doubtless true for white-power fascists, who until the arrival of Mr Trump saw little in the media tailored to their obsessive hatred of the elites, and especially of establishment race traitors. In recent years however outlets such as Breitbart and The Rebel have courted what might be termed under-served markets. As the media markets further segment and diverge, we approach the point at which the news can refer to a widening range of subjects, for example Tucker Carlson dedicating weeks of programming to a Hillary Clinton scandal from the past. Presumably there is a sizeable chunk of America that wakes every day enraged at and obsessed with a woman who is not a politician and who is no longer pursuing public office. It follows that such a person will be deeply unsatisfied by news that doesn’t take up as its operating premise the notion that Ms Clinton remains America’s foremost menace.
It is easy to conclude that the news is so much fabricated, or fake, nonsense if one’s assumptions and tastes and prejudices go unserved. The final ineluctable truth of every human life is that it is brief and pointless and of no enduring consequence, but only a person of mental instability would seek out a messenger and a message emphasizing this point day upon day. For reasons having to do with our animal survival, most of us prefer to believe reassuring if also distorted propositions about our own intelligence, beauty, rightness, and significance. In the same way the news is forever serving up a workable and reassuring version of the world, even when it is delivering word of the latest political scandal or humanitarian disaster. Mr Trump objects to the “fake news” for the simple reason that much of the press is neither workable nor reassuring from his perspective, both practically and psychologically. He is a pedlar of emotions and not of arguments, and if the facts do not serve his emotional needs then they are in a sense inauthentic. It goes without comment that Mr Trump runs what amounts to a media platform, via Twitter, that has all of the New York Times‘ reach but none of the fact checkers or editors. Much of what he claims in public would not pass the hastiest edit, because the standards of even a small-town paper exceed those of the Commander-In-Chief. But facts are not what the Trumpists have in mind when they complain of fake news. What they have in mind is a different test: “Do I like what I am hearing?”
Beyond this is another consideration, the fact that the President is so far outside the norms of American politics that it is impossible to say whether political norms will move him, or vice versa. What is clear is that the liberal-centrist-consensus media markets, which have long been the dominant markets, are under an organized attack that shows no sign of relenting. As a celebrity media personality, from roughy 1980 to 2015, Trump got what he needed and wanted from the media by providing them outrageous and therefore attention-getting tidbits to distribute, which they faithfully did and continue to do. Only, Mr Trump is no longer in the celebrity business, or perhaps is in it but in another business also—a business where his provocations and broadcasts can lead to international scandal, impeachment, violence, and war. Under the former dispensation, both sides got what they wanted, that is to say celebrity-and-profit-promoting click-bait. Now the President wants something more. He wants media that are supplicants of his reign. And there is no reason to assume he won’t get it if, in exchange, the media get eyeballs and clicks and dollars.