Tag Archives: News

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.

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.

Introducing Ken Detective

Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon. He of broad shoulders, square chin, chaws chaws the glass to tabletop, until a waitress arrives on a circuit that will soon return her bearing another.

Ken Detective eyes the courtyard. Birds fall from the clouds to walk the earth. The birds tell men secrets of sky-gods. The birds whisper to the sky-gods tales of human disappointment: the corn that does not grow, the infertile wife, the idiot President. The gods are bored but also indifferent. They do not listen. They have witnessed the efforts of men, Icarus on his waxy feathers, Neil Armstrong tumbling through space in a bucket. Long ago they decided that mankind is absurd. The birds return to earth, where the impotent men take note of their flight or eviscerate them, spilling the entrails for divination.

Today the birds reveal nothing to Ken Detective. The only thing certain is that the President, Mr Crusher, is a dangerous idiot. Detective takes the last of the bourbon, chaw chaws on the table, awaits his blessed comet of booze. The bar is dark, and if not for him it would be empty also, an ebony nothingness where no comet would bother to go. A good thing that he likes the darkness, likes to hunt it down, to invigilate it for intel. His best work, the real and true art of his occupation, happens in back alleys and taverns. Ken Detective has no use for the bright nonsense of men and their lucent delusions, or for people in general, unless they have information to spill. Then, by all means, find a dark place to slice em open. Shed some light on a shady subject.
*
The President is a shady character, a narcissistic con artist with a lot of low friends in high places. Russian mafia, Chinese crooks., pimps, hustlers, dirty operatives. The kind of people your mother told you to steer clear of when you were a child. You know the type: grubby and snotty-nosed lowlife bastards who pulled to the curb and offered you candy. Hucksters and shysters, perverts, liars, and creeps. All the President’s men. I haven’t nailed him yet, but jesus I will I swear, on whatever you got in those pockets of yours. I’ll get the bugger, if it’s the last act and the curtain is hitting me in the face. Shit on my corpse and never speak of me again if I don’t.

The thing about being a detective is you care about the facts like you care about oxygen and the kind attentions of a pretty woman. It’s in me like the piss and vinegar is in me, like the bourbon is in me, and although it burns and sometimes makes me go mad, I keep coming back for more. If I have to crack a head for my facts, by god I’ll crack a head. It’s only business. I get to the bottom, and sometimes, my friend, the bottom is a long way down. Not many men have the iron for it, I’ll tell you that. Look at the folks who went punch drunk mad building the Brooklyn bridge, diving and surfacing, diving and re-surfacing, until their brains turned to mush. But I ain’t like that, somehow. I keep on going, I push, I go to the bottom. And I come up and do it again, and then again some more, because the drive is in me. If there’s anything I hate it’s an up-to-no-good liar, covering his lying ass with a sack of lies. I want to kick that ass clear all the way to damn hell. So because I have it in me that’s the thing I’m going to do, so help me god.
*
Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon and rises, dropping a bill on the table. He has an appointment in a dark place, with a fellow whose head just might need some cracking.