Tag Archives: America

Fake News, Real Money

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.

When the Centre No Longer Holds: Trump and the Media

The day will arrive when the world is rid of this menace of a President, but just as the rot did not begin with him, neither will it end with him. The rot itself is that the centre cannot hold and that, as a result, America is today two warring nations. With each passing day it feels more and not less that mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world, or at least upon American streets. If recent trends continue, the President who succeeds Mr Trump will likely be despised by a large minority of the country, if not by a majority, and the disgruntled will immediately set to the business of conspiracy theory and dark-corner whispering and agitation-propaganda. In other words, business as usual. Optimistic invocations of healing and unity fall upon the ear like a sour quip. Who among us believes that sweetness and light await, and not blood and struggle?

Above I have perverted Yeats’ phrase “the centre cannot hold” to suit my own interest and ends. I subscribe neither to Yeats’ peculiar views of history nor his evident admiration of fascism. The centre that no longer holds is simply the proposition that America can be fashioned into a community of shared interests, a notion that has never been true but which has held enormous sway, much like the fiction that America has no classes or (what amounts to the same thing) one universal class, the middle-class. Still, even a lie can have its utility. As long as Americans believed in the universal middle class, the fiction obtained in a uniquely American form of positive thinking. Then, throughout the Reagan years and beyond, the progressive left took to chipping at the myth of a classless society, and by the 2000s the anti-globalist right had joined them in denouncing the elite. The Internet made it possible to cultivate and spread tribal grievances and provided adherents to the most outlandish views the comfort of knowing that they were not alone. With the election of Mr Trump, the conspiracy theorists and white supremacists could fancy themselves respectable and not the rejects of polite company they had long known themselves to be. The emotional charge that attended this must have been intoxicating.

The word I am reaching for is frisson—the vertiginous thrill at the thought that something extraordinary is occurring. Upon hearing of their election victory, the devotees of Trump doubtless felt what supporters of Mr. Obama felt in 2008. In the case of the Obama victory, intoxication led partisans to say plainly ridiculous things, for instance that America was now a post-racial society, healed of its past. Intoxication however is a passing state, as the alt-rightists discovered soon after concluding that it was now de rigueur to wave the Hitler flag in the Charlottesville daylight. Much has been written and said of the rally aftermath, but the pedigree of the present moment merits reflection also. For only a year ago, the generic Klansman knew to keep hooded and the fellow travellers of National-Socialism understood the public relations downside of chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the open air of a small American city. Only a long, occult incubation punctured by a sudden mainstreaming of fringe sentiment and style—and the resulting discharge of excitement—can account for the far-right’s present boldness. Once its nose is up against the unyielding glass of reality, however, Trumpism will probably fare no better than Obamaism.

Before we learned to decry the tribalism of social media, and to heap the blame for present ills upon it, the material world provided its own opportunities for tribal self-segregation. It is no mystery for example that a certain kind of person is attracted to the nation’s largest cities, whereas a different kind of person adverts to the rural heartland. Much is said of the liberal media, a category of person you will find clustered in New York and Los Angeles and not in Boise, Idaho or rural Arizona or the ranches of Montana. What makes the media liberal? Above all, an outlook formed by social class. Rarely will you find a big-city journalist who takes the Bible literally or who thinks that the biggest threats to America are abortion and gay marriage. Whatever his political views, the “liberal” journalist will look down upon evangelical Christianity not because it is conservative but because it is déclassé, hence a threat to respectability and advancement. And since the whole point of choosing where one lives is to ensure you are around others of roughly the same tastes, prejudices, habits, and outlook, the liberal journalist will feel himself no more liberal than the fundamentalist Christian will feel odd for believing the earth is only a matter of tens of thousands of years old. Most of the folks he rubs against will believe the same. Until Twitter arrived, it was unlikely that you would stumble upon your political antipodes in the course of daily commerce, and that’s how we liked it. The result of self-segregation generally speaking was that water found its level. Everyone felt that they lived in Their America, because the Other America was far away, in a city or town or heartland they would never, ever visit.

There is of course a way to connect two distant points, and that is to put something in the middle. The thing that is put in the middle is a medium, and more than one medium are media. The media bring us unpleasant word of the faraway, and we despise them for it, because they undo the subliminal mental and physical effort to which much of our interior life is dedicated, that is, insulating ourselves from unpleasant facts and people. Nor is this hatred of the media a recent turn. I can recall political phone-in shows of the early Reagan years where diatribes against the liberal media were a commonplace. The subtext of most liberal-media complaints, if not all, is that They (liberal journalists) are not Our kind of people. As a writer for the newspapers I encountered this sentiment as a matter of course. How dare I express the unpopular views of an outside caste! This attitude was evident also in the people who held me in high esteem merely because I happened to share with them a pet prejudice.

It is no longer possible to keep the old ways going, but it is also difficult to get beyond them using the tools of conventional electoral politics. The centre, where debate and nuance and consensus building used to live, no longer holds. In theory the media might be able to do something about this, but in theory television and the Internet were also poised to deliver us into the new enlightenment. There appears to be no way forward but toward the precipice. This, in a thimble, is the American problem today, just as it is a problem everywhere tribalism has taken root. Mr. Trump will soon be a memory, and the sooner the better. If we are lucky he will not do irreparable damage. The most we can reasonably hope for is that narcissism will keep him tethered to his obvious, chief concern—how he is spoken of on television. Incompetence and laziness might limit his reach, as may his utter lack of interest in anything that does not, or will not, bear his name. In the meanwhile the media have acquired a central place in the drama of this administration. It is worth considering to what extent journalists comprehend the position they are now in, the nature of the opportunities and dangers, and the probable consequences should the media themselves no longer hold.

Sonny Daze Meets the Orange Menace

The two August Leaders, one the President of America and the other the President of that country somewhere in the vicinity of America, clashed in a fierce battle of handshake. The Orange Menace grimaced, jerking the arm of his rival. Sonny Daze stood his ground, dreamily smiling, his core muscles taut with alacrity. The Orange Menace worked the resolute limb, twisting and yanking as if extirpating a root. Yet the mighty tree could not be felled. The Orange Menace has met his match: he who spends an hour each morning at his hair now contends with he who also spends an hour each morning at his hair. One lives for the camera, the other for the camera lives. Each adoration craves. The Orange Menace applies brutal force in service of dominance, while Sonny Daze has charmed his way to this mountaintop.

– I am King of this Mountain, says the Orange Menace.

Sonny Daze does not speak. He adopts a Yoga pose and gazes dreamily into the cameras.

– I have done more in 100 days of being President than any President in the history of the world of Presidents.

Sonny Daze says nothing. He puts on a fringed buckskin jacket and portages to the river, dropping his canoe into the water. He paddles his vessel toward the cameras.

– Look upon my tremendous works! says the Orange Menace.

Sonny removes his buckskin jacket and rends his shirt. Bare-chested, he dashes four miles westward to a couple busied at their nuptials. Henceforth and forevermore shall he be immortalized on the mantelpiece photo where this day will be eternally commemorated.

A jealous and enraged Orange Menace takes to Twitter in an effort to regain the world’s attention. Sonny Daze puts on a faux Indian headdress. It is the War of The Manchildren, a force of personality against the force of personality, a clash of surfaces, a contest of brands, a struggle of perception against perception. They are different and yet the same. They are what you want them to be. They are yours and you must love them, if for no reason other than they are created for you and in your image.

Who will emerge victorious in this battle of the vanities?

– Look upon my mighty works, says the Orange Menace.
– Strong Together We Middle Class Better We Good We, says Sonny Daze.
– I will smite America’s enemies! says the Orange Menace.
– Love We Middle Class Together Good Together Canada Strong, says Sonny Daze.

They take their places. The battle proper has begun. Now we will see and judge them by their works.

The sky darkens as the Orange Menace lifts his adamantium scimitar heavenward. The mighty instrument draws an electric stream from the firmament. Energy ripples from the Orange Menace like an angry stone thrown into water. He shouts a primal scream

– Yyyyaaaaaaawwwwwwwwaaaaaaoooooooorrrrrrrraaaaaaaaggggggggaaaaa!

The Orange Menace points his scimitar to the West. He issues a tremendous bolt of energy with a roar that splits the Earth. The bolt in an instant strikes the ground at 719 Church Street, in Nashville, Tennessee, 666 miles distant. When the smoke dissipates, the Orange Menace gestures with pride toward the awe-inspiring deed.

– Look upon this hole, which by my own hand I now designate the future Fred D. Thompson Federal Building and United States Courthouse!

With a nice and supple hand, Sonny Daze takes up the Unicorn-feathered holly wand, gifted to his father by a once-Potentate of the Levant. He raises the wand to a swell of birdsong. Of a sudden, the air is redolent of neroli and mandarin. Across the world the humble pause momentarily their toil to hold the hand of a neighbor. The cameras chatter. Sonny Daze points his wand north to the Langevin Building of Ottawa, Canada, 565 miles away. A stream of glowing pixie dust issues from his magical tool, crossing Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and the US-Canada border into Ontario at the eastern edge of the Great Lake. Up goes the pixie dust, along Highways 401 and 416, turning east at Highway 417 where it exits at Bronson Avenue to travel north toward Wellington via Queen.

When the pixie dust arrives to its destination of Parliament Hill, Sonny Daze tucks the Instrument of Dreamy Wonder in an inner pocket of his suit jacket, designed specially for this purpose. He pauses dramatically, before saying

– I hereby re-name the Langevin Building “The Building Where Governmenty People Do Governmenties Stuff.”

The people cheer. Look at his eyes, he is so dreamy, they say.

Not to be outdone, the Orange Menace next names the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.

Not to be outdone outdone, Sonny Daze renames National Aboriginal Day “National Indigenous Day.”

Not to be outdone outdone outdone, the Orange Menace renames the Department of Veterans Affairs health care center, in Center Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, the “Abie Abraham VA Clinic.”

Sonny Daze renames the ten dollar bill the “Indigenous People Are Wonderful Bill.”

The Orange Menace re-renames French Fries “Freedom Fries.”

This goes on for hours and then days, with no clear victor emerging. Incapable, or perhaps unwilling, of anything of substance, they lock themselves into a shambolic war of pandering gesture. Their tribes applaud them, as the cameras record every word and facial expression. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, life goes on.