“Past the point of no return, the final threshold, the bridge is crossed so stand and watch it burn, we’ve passed the point of no return.” — Phantom Of The Opera
For the past seven years we’ve discussed the fact that the institution of broadcast journalism, as it currently stands, is inadequate to deal with the Trump phenomenon. That inadequacy plays right into the hands of right-wing media, which has metastasized like the tumor that it is in the era of Trump. Right-wing media used to be much smaller, a golf ball to mainstream media’s beach ball, as Michael Tomasky points out. That’s no longer the case. Right-wing media is now as big as, possibly bigger, than mainstream media and that could foreshadow our doom. We cannot continue to survive as a nation with any kind of mental health or stability if we have two versions of reality running side by side.
It’s very important that people understand this: We reside in a media environment that promotes—whether it intends to or not—right-wing authoritarian spectacle. At the same time, as a culture, it’s consistently obsessed with who “won the day,” while placing far less value on the fact that the civic and democratic health of the country is nurtured through practices such as deliberation, compromise, and sober governance. The result is bad for Joe Biden. But it’s potentially tragic for democracy.
Let me begin by discussing these two medias. The first, of course, is what we call the mainstream media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major (non-Fox) news networks, a handful of other newspapers and magazines. This has also been known as the “agenda-setting media,” because historically, that’s what they did: Whatever was the lead story in The New York Times that day filtered down, through the wire services and other delivery systems, to every newspaper and television and radio station in the United States.
Then there’s an avowedly right-wing propaganda network. This got cranked up in the 1970s, when conservatives, irate over what they (not incorrectly) saw as a strong liberal bias in the mainstream media, decided to build their own. Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post. In the 1980s, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon started The Washington Times. In the 1990s, right-wing talk radio exploded (enabled, in part, by a 2–1 decision by a judicial panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals making the Fairness Doctrine discretionary; those judges were Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork). Then the Fox News Channel was launched.
Fox News will be 27 years old on October 7. That’s over a quarter of a century of poisoning the minds of Americans with tabloid nonsense. There is an entire generation of Americans that has never lived in a pre-Fox News world. To them, it’s normal that media outlets are characterized as right-wing or left-wing or chicken wing. They don’t know that there was a time when all there was was responsible journalism and everything was fact checked before it went on the air, and errors were quickly retracted and correct information provided. Those days are long gone.
Journalism has always been a tough game to be in. If you’ve noticed, a lot of newspapers have hyphenated names, like the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, or the Las Vegas Journal-Review or the San Diego Union-Tribune. That’s because the names represent mergers. Two papers once existed, both could not survive and so a merger took place and portions of both papers survived with a new name. This has been going on for some time. Metropolitan areas used to be able to support two or more local dailies. With the advent of radio and then television news, only big cities can support more than one daily. The pie is only so big.
That said, the right-wing media pie has been expanding while mainstream media has contracted — to the detriment of American culture.
Mainstream media audiences and newsrooms have shrunk. Consider: In 1990, newspapers reached 63 million readers; in 2020, that number was 24 million. In 2006, newspapers employed about 75,000 people. In 2020, that figure was 31,000. The right-wing media, meanwhile, has grown and grown: Fox, One America, Newsmax, talk radio, Sinclair and all its local TV and radio news operations, and much more.
So the right-wing media today is, I’d argue, at least equal in size to the mainstream media. But here’s the more important point. The right-wing media has more power to set the news agenda than the mainstream media. It’s vital to understand this fact, and why it’s so.
The success of the right-wing media is by and large due to the way they speak in lockstep, with one voice, and the way they push one very partisan agenda. They promote Republicans and conservatives, and they say nothing good ever about Democrats or liberals (exception: people who go off the reservation and willingly foul the Democratic-liberal nest, like Joe Manchin or some liberal academic or talking head who turns right, like Glenn Greenwald). Their guiding ethos is not journalistic but political: to advance one party and creed and work their readers and viewers into a constant state of agitation about the other party and creed. And in a time when the Republican Party project has little to do with policy and everything to do with fomenting culture war, no matter how trivial, the right-wing Wurlitzer is adept at ginning up a good two-minute hate against something that got tweeted or what Mr. Potato Head is wearing that week—and here, the mainstream media, chasing engagement like a child fields for candy, follows the right down into these rabbit holes.
This is the Catch-22 that Donald Trump exploited in 2016 to win the election. He got “publicity he couldn’t buy for a million dollars, handed to him on a platter,” to paraphrase a line from Network. And he’s in the process of doing it again. Chris Licht was desperate for ratings, so he put together the disastrous CNN Town Hall, normalizing Trump. Kristen Walker was desperate to kick off her new career with a bang. She put together the disastrous Meet The Press interview. The mainstream media just can’t quit Donald Trump because they will chase anything that brings clicks and ratings. They’re programmed to do so. It’s an addiction and like any addiction, good luck breaking it overnight. However, it hasn’t been overnight, it’s been seven long years and we’re going into the eighth and we need to clean ourselves up now, or our way of life may be gone.
The mainstream media, in contrast, do not speak with one very partisan voice; they speak in many voices—critically, including many non-polemical ones. Their guiding ethos is not political but journalistic. Sure, they’re “liberal,” in two senses. First, their editorial pages typically endorse Democrats. And second, they are culturally liberal, because they are mostly based in big cities and their staffs include lots of LGBTQ people, for example, and precious few evangelical Christians.
But even with all that, the mainstream media do not serve a transparent political agenda in the way the right-media do. When The New York Times or CNN or MSNBC gets a scoop about serious corruption in the Biden administration, they pursue the lead and, if verified, report it. If Fox got such a scoop about Donald Trump … well, it’s conceivable that there’s someone left there who wants to do real journalism and who might pursue it. I wish that person luck, though, in getting it on the air. And even if Fox were forced to report it, they’d quickly find ways to rebut it.
The answer to this quandary is actually pretty simple, if the media mavens will simply follow it.
- Fact check Trump — or anybody — in real time;
- Be able to extemporize. Steve Schmidt pointed out that this was a crucial skill, to react in real time and hold an interviewee’s feet to the fire, not just check the boxes on an interview sheet;
- Put things in context. Context is everything;
- Call out RW media lies as they occur. Today, for example, Fox News has a piece up which is total disinformation. It needs to be called out as such. Will it? I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.
Just to be clear, Biden freed these hostages, who Trump left to rot and did nothing for, and part of the deal is that he unfroze some Iranian assets we had seized. No US tax dollars used. Something Fox won’t mention and their audience won’t know. pic.twitter.com/xg26fiHUat
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 18, 2023
I don’t know if Donald Trump could in fact shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue and get away with it. But I know that right-wing media distorts facts and murders truth on a daily basis and they’re thriving.
And as a final point in my checklist, this would be Number Five: The White House needs to be fast coming with responses. Right-wing media puts out a falsehood and frequently the White House does nothing. I guess the logic is that it’s beneath them to respond to such absurdity. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Silence is deemed acceptance. The White House needs to have people devoted to doing nothing but responding to right-wing media nonsense and confronting it. As a matter of fact, that would be a great step one.
The title of the Michael Tomasky piece which is excerpted hereinabove is “We Have Two Medias In This Country and They’re Going To Elect Donald Trump.” If we don’t do something to change mainstream media, and jimmy pronto, I fear that headline will become prophecy.