July 12, 2017
ity the president’s defenders. In the Animal House that is our nation’s capital, he’s Bluto Blutarsky, an antihero, a strong man with a child’s mind, set loose in a Press Briefing Room. Hilariously outraged commentators, such as CNN’s furious media reporter, Brian Stelter, start every morning seeing themselves as the smartest kids on the school paper, but by the end of the day they’re just Trump’s chumps, wearing pie and singing folk songs.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway’s brisk little Encounter “broadside,” Trump vs. the Media, is a micro-gem, a 64-page lunchtime read containing a spirited exposition of the obvious fact that the media hate Trump. Hemingway, an excellent polemicist, has written as much book as anyone needs on this topic. That won’t stop others from trying, but after Hemingway, new volumes about the death-match between press and president will find there is really nothing more to say. Her take is sharp and focused, and her ability to contain her argument is why it succeeds so well.
Only the title distracts, because it seems backward: the press is a huge global industry and its animosity is directed almost entirely at one rambunctious fellow cornered in a big, white house. Really, Media vs Trump seems more accurate. Besides, defending Donald Trump and criticizing an institution as vast as the media are separate tasks, albeit equally thankless. One can, however, look at the way he animates the press and see a gigantic misidentification of purpose and function.
Brooke Gladstone’s elegant little essay, The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, is premised on such a misidentification. Gladstone covers the press for WNYC’s On the Media. Like most people who write for newspapers and broadcast, she assumes her and her colleagues’ job is to reveal the Truth, a delicate, gauzy thing usually wrapped around a German word. She quotes Walter Lippmann to describe the fragility of readers’ stereotypes and assumptions: “[A]ny disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”
You, then, God of your own cosmos, know what’s in it and how it works. You assume it’s a lot like your friends’ cosmoi and those of all the people you admire. It’s not just how we see the world. To anyone who reads the paper or watches cable, it is the world. The enduring myth is that journalists bring us the news about the events that matter. It’s a nutty myth, now more than ever, since we already know about everything instantly. The explosion in Karachi at midnight, that meteor that hit Siberia while you were sipping a latte in San Francisco, those terrorists in Paris—these things float in the air like pollen. You inhale them in tweets and emails and casual chat and then try to accommodate the effects by assigning them a context, a meaning.
When something happens, what we don’t always know is how we should think about it. We try—if you’re on the Left, for example, most unhappy events can be traced to Trump or Hitler—but we need to know that our side has it right. That’s when you need the New York Times or Fox News to validate its followers’ best instincts, to tell them what they fervently wish to hear. That, not speaking truth to the power of volcanoes and floods, is the media’s business.
Media companies know that the old model for publishing success—give the people a product that appeals to an interest shared by as many of them as possible—has been eclipsed by a newer paradigm: create a product that appeals to shared assumptions. Make a publication that validates its readers’ best assumptions, so that every page contains a forehead-slapping, yeah-just-what-I-was-thinking moment. “Who would choose violation over validation?” Gladstone asks. “The very wiring of your mind and body rebels against that choice.” Betray your readers’ assumptions, challenge them, attack the foundations of your audience’s universe and you’re out of business.
The problem is that validation requires the authority and credibility that comes with professional standards, making it hard to protect. Dean Baquet, the New York Times’s executive editor, was interviewed by the BBC just before the 2016 election. He boasted that for honesty’s sake, for the Republic’s good, to protect women, the environment, children’s safety, etc., the Times was now referring to Trump as a “liar” in its headlines. The liar then proceeded to defeat a rival whose principal problem, according to most polls, was doubts about her honesty. The Times’s fragile claims to authority subsequently led the paper to rid itself of its meddlesome “public editor” desk and opt instead for moderated “reader comments.” Along the same lines, The Times and especially the Washington Post now routinely employ the personal, ranting tone of blogs and webzines, which is also where they are finding many of their new hires.
Recently, novelist Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) explained to a BBC Reith Lecture audience that in telling a story effectively, “selection, elision, artful arrangement” are what you need to give the tale “shape and meaning.” These are also the things that a newspaper must employ to deliver validation to its primary market. In the age of Fox and the internet, however, shaping a narrative is harder than ever. Hillary Clinton discovered that there are always holes in the story.
And, as former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, author of Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, wonderfully notes, “fake news” began with the Clinton presidency. Her fascinating book, a catalogue of media mayhem and detailed review of virtually every fake news story out there, is a brilliant exposé of how bias flourishes. Its “shady political operatives” include Sid Blumenthal, Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman, and many others. But an examination of David Brock—Media Matters’s founder and perpetrator, a one-man disinformation powerhouse—would be enough to fill a depressing account of professional corruption. “Brock’s single most important achievement,” Attkisson writes, is “his uncanny ability to integrate Media Matters into the mainstream news culture as a news source. No other partisan group has been as successful at influencing the media and passing off its partisan work as news, or a newsworthy product.”
Attkisson’s takedown of Brock is thorough, solid, chilling, and utterly convincing. His influence and respectability says all that needs to be said about the profound corruption of an institution that is “failing,” to use a term employed by one of its critics, and one that matters less and less with every new edition or broadcast.