screed: noun \ˈskrēd\ – a long and often angry piece of writing that usually accuses someone of something or complains about something.
Life has shoved a considerable monkey wrench into the operating beliefs of contemporary journalism with the election of Donald Trump. The press has gone into a necessary season of introspection. “How could we have been so wrong?” is the question being asked. I’ve been saying for many years that the press is out of touch and that bottom-to-bottom communication made possible by the disruptive web (The Great Horizontal) would have its impact on culture. I’m shocked by how quickly it happened but not at all surprised.
How this happened is being discussed at various levels of journalism’s infrastructure, and that’s a good thing, for a little humility would go a very long way. Journalists assume the public trust, but that has long since gone. We are, in a manner, quite insane, for we keep repeating the same behavior while expecting different results. Nope, we’re now considered worse than car salesmen, and that’s really saying something.
So permit me present a few seemingly disjointed thoughts for your consideration on some specific matters that the press gets wrong and will continue to do so, absent a corporate epiphany.
The press has no clue about religion and its role in the culture. Knowledge in this area is less than zero, for everyone either ignores it or views it as irrelevant, ignorant, or deviant. Its only use in the press is to explain away behavior that is outside what journalists consider mainstream American thinking. A huge number of good people think abortion is murder and are tired of that belief being trampled in the name of progress, and what celebrity-driven reporter doesn’t want to be considered progressive? For the anti-abortion crowed, however, it’s the trampling that is so infuriating, the sense that their religious beliefs are simply irrelevant. The ignorance, moreover, that I have witnessed about the religion of Islam is simply without excuse, just as the role of evangelical Christianity in electing Donald Trump. This has to change, There’s a sense that we’re simply above such foolishness. Therefore, we cannot help but miss a big part of American life for the vast majority. The disrespect demonstrated here casts doubt about everything else the press might stand for and places the practice of journalism into the category of the smug elites.
The press must stop underestimating people and taking them for granted. Perhaps the most important essay I ever wrote was The Evolving User Paradigm, because the truth represented there continues to escape most professional observers, a.k.a. the press. Madison Avenue represents the profitable era of manipulation, where skills were honed in the realm of one-to-many media, what we lovingly call “mass marketing.” If you controlled access to passive “consumers,” you could “drive” their behavior in a variety of ways. That was the real superpower of modernity. The net changed all of it, the most remarkable result being people are increasingly free to resist the manipulation. Not only that, but because they can now talk to each other, they can figure out what marketers are trying to do and share that with each other. They do, and “the public” is getting smarter every day. Mass marketing, after all, isn’t rocket science, and its tricks have been revealed a thousand different ways. The disruptive capabilities of this are staggering, yet it remains one of the most unreported themes in modern media. People are not stupid, and we’ve underestimated them for far too long. Blaming the “stupid” public for voting for Mr. Trump is just another form of denial.
Watergate began the downfall of the American press. We need to strike this event from Holy Canon status in the history of our trade. The simple, unavoidable truth of this is that journalism was transformed almost overnight into a symbol of celebrity status when a disgruntled FBI executive decided he could get even by anonymously revealing the dirty tricks of the Nixon White House to the Washington Post. You can track the decline in trust of the press directly back to 1973, and today, so few people trust the press that it is now generally of no consequence to the public it purportedly serves.
Moreover, smart people on the political right were able to tap into that distrust and use it to elect Donald Trump. Point out to a Trump supporter that fake news sites contributed to their perspective, and the overwhelming response you’ll get is that “the media are the REAL fake news sites.” I’m not surprised by this, for it’s simply more fruit from the Watergate tree that moved journalism into the role of celebrity and “gotcha” to its top priority. The press now has so little trust – according to the latest data from Gallup – that it is truthfully irrelevant today, and yet nothing appears to be changing. This is a testament to just how far off-the-mark the press has drifted.
The entire message of Watergate – that the press will hold accountable those who use power to engage in illegal activities, such as burglarizing the headquarters of a political enemy, in this case the Democratic National Committee (DNC) – was completely lost this year anyway. How else do you explain the use of electronically stolen property from that same DNC to accomplish political ends over 40 years later? Receiving stolen property – especially benefitting from it – is still a crime in our society, is it not?
Propaganda isn’t news, and the news media is different than the political media. The press is biased. Period. Deal with it. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the press cannot perform its Fourth Estate function without demonstrating bias. I’ve long said that one only needs to examine an old adage to conclude that the press is inherently progressive. “Dog bites man, it’s not news. Man bites dog, it is news.” This means that the “new” in “news” is an unrelenting taskmaster, especially in an era of media fragmentation. This naturally and quite innocently leads to a real progressive bias. Having said that, however, ask yourself this: Is the bias of the press coincidence or conspiratorial? It matters, because your answer will determine if you’ve been honestly observing or whether you’ve been educated by smart propagandists.
One who proclaims a press conspiracy to weaken conservatives does so to make an argument on behalf of conservatives, and this is the function of political opinion, not the press. It is very dangerous to side with the press conspiracy meme for two reasons. One, it undercuts the Fourth Estate freedom we require for a government of the people, and, two, it clears the way for a form of totalitarianism in which the governing ruler(s) demand absolute authority in the defining of truth. This is known as controlling the narrative, something every ruler wants but cannot have in the United States of America.
As producer of The 700 Club during the season when Pat Robertson ran for president, I helped shape the narrative of the “liberal press,” and it was so easy, too easy in fact. Bias, after all, doesn’t require allegiance to some set of philosophical or political systems; it’s really just built into human nature. If you look for instances of inherent bias, you will find them, because journalists, it turns out, are human beings after all. But it is sloppy thinking to link these together to produce the label “liberal media,” for you can also find examples of bias in the other direction (especially in those communities where parochial journalism is practiced). Then there are those who train themselves to see bias for nefarious purposes, as we witnessed in a much publicized pre-election on-air exchange between Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich on the subject of Donald Trump.
Megyn asked a question she wasn’t allowed to finish, “If Donald Trump is a sexual predator, that is…”
Gingrich interrupted, “He’s NOT a sexual predator! You can’t say that! You could not defend that statement! Now I’m sick and tired of people like you (pointing at her) using language that’s inflammatory that’s not true.”
When she responded that we don’t know if it’s true or not and that she was not taking a position on it, Gingrich got to his real point:
“Oh yes you are. When you use the words (sexual predator), you are taking a position, and I think it’s very unfair of you to do that, Megyn. I think that is exactly the bias people are upset by.”
She then reminded Mr. Gingrich that she had said “if” but it didn’t matter. Gingrich had gotten what he wanted, which was to “prove” that Ms. Kelly was biased in her language, even though she wasn’t. The exchange went viral, and the rest is history.
This is what I mean by the difference between the news media and the political media. Political media is propaganda wherein the pursuit of truth is always subordinate to the message. Gingrich had no allegiance to truth, only to make a political point. This means gossip and innuendo are also fair game. The news industry – that is to say journalism – was born with the mission of gathering information to pass along to the people. Political media, however, was created strictly to advance a political agenda, and there is inherent conflict beyond what may appear on the surface. The primary difference is that the press is advocating a search for truth, whereas political media is entirely focused on propaganda, a response to what it views as an inherent bias in that search for truth. The two could not be farther apart in terms of mission, and that makes what’s currently underway in the public square so disconcerting to any lifelong journalist.
Here’s an example of the most popular right-wing propagandist, Rush Limbaugh, calling out the press as “the liberal media.” It’s brilliant, but it’s also complete hooey.
RUSH: I meant to talk about all this fascination with all the fake news out there, the fake news on Facebook and the left now trying to blame their defeat on the fact there was so much fake news out there. You guys have it all wrong. I don’t know what was going on. I started calling Facebook “Fakebook” many moons ago.
The fake news is the New York Times.
The fake news is NBC.
The fake news is CBS. The fake news is CNN.
The fake news is the Washington Post.
The fake news is the LA Times.
The fake news is USA Today. The fake news is in the WSJ.
That’s the fake news. The fake news is the Drive-By Media. And now everybody’s whining and moaning about parody news sites that make fun of liberalism. This is all it is. It’s people making fun of the left. It’s people parodying and satirizing leftist news and leftist culture, and they can’t laugh at it. They don’t see the humor in it, and now they’re blaming the loss on so many people being bamboozled and fooled by fake news — when the real fake news is them. I got a quick note here from my old buddy Seton Motley, not to be confused with Marion Motley or Bob Motley or Muttley, the wonder dog. He said, “You want to hear fake news? Fake news is every story you read reporting Obama said you keep your doctor if you like your doctor. You get to keep your plan if you like your insurance plan. Your premiums are coming down $2,500 average, every year, under Obamacare.” That was fake news, and that’s exactly right.
Limbaugh is brilliant at mixing cute little slogans in with his propaganda, because those are what people remember. Like “Fakebook.” His example from his old buddy Seton Motely is most absurd, for news reports featuring quotes from a sitting president during an announcement of the scale of Obamacare don’t come “from” the New York Times, the Washington Post, or other mainstream sites. They’re part of normal coverage. It’s not fake news in the same way that a “story” about Hillary being indicted is fake news. The problem is that people hear only the message intended by the propagandist, which is the whole point of it anyway.
Again, the conspiratorial message of liberal press bias is a fallacy born of the need to justify a political agenda. I’ve been in the business for 45 years; you will never convince me otherwise.
The original practitioners of political media were conservatives who felt left out of the public discussion on the editorial pages. William F. Buckley’s National Review comes to mind. At CBN, we drew a line to the right of all other media and placed ourselves there with the assumption that we were just as qualified to be defined as “news” as anyone else. This was not true, for our mission was to counteract what we felt was liberal bias, so pursuit of the truth was always secondary. Our goal was to provide what we described as a counterweight to “the liberal press.” When Fox News appeared, it validated our practice by placing itself to the right of the mainstream, too. In so doing, Fox continued the claim that the mainstream was biased. Left-wingers then created their own political media. A fence was drawn to the left of the mainstream, as a balancing mechanism for the left, which gave a form of legitimacy to the false narrative of right wing political media. In this light, the press – the status quo – was in the middle. For the most part (exceptions noted), however, liberal efforts have failed, perhaps because they never really resonated with enough people to matter. The status quo again became “the liberal media,” and because the mainstream occupied that position for so long, the GOP became the party of change.
To conclude this point, let me add that a President-elect who bullies the press using labels such as “disrespectful” and “liars,” while refusing on-the-record questions, is actually attempting to shield himself from the people who put him into office in the first place. Despite assurances that Donald Trump won “fair and square,” he’s rejecting the rules that govern his position by asserting that his methods are the better way, as demonstrated by his election in the first place. This is very, very dangerous ground we are now treading.
Social media is not the enemy of the press; it is, in fact, fueled by the same demand for real-time information about events that exists in every newsroom in America. The difference is that what used to be the news-gathering process – reserved only for deadline-driven systems – is now public, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Real time news cannot be compared with deadline-driven journalism, and this is one of the problems mainstream professionals have with it. News is ready when it is ready, not when some editor’s deadline says it is. The press must align itself with this completely.
In the months leading up to the election – and continuing to certain extent after – social media became the playground of fake news sites with two interests: One, cater to the closed minds of a large group of the electorate, and, two, in so doing, garner large sums of advertising money from all the inbound traffic provided by those people passing along completely baseless reports. I’m sure we will find ways to prevent or block this downstream, but it played a pretty big role in the election of 2016. However, we must not blame social media or connectivity for this, because to do so would once again underestimate the people who use such technology for largely good purposes. We will all learn, and the election of 2020 will be different than what we’ve just experienced.
Finally, I wish to point out to those journalists genuinely interested in change that they badly need to examine their own ethics regarding the Middle East narrative that they maintain without question. The Zionist State of Israel operates perhaps the greatest propaganda machine ever created, one designed to insure that a single false narrative will forever be the public guide for its existence. This constitutes, in my view, the American media’s greatest failing in history, for it simply refuses to chase truth in the Holy Land. The region is home to some of the bravest journalists alive, and yet their voices are drowned out by the rhythmic and relentless march of the voice of the Zionist government. It is the greatest shame that the press bears, and my hope is that this self-cleansing underway will include its refusal to pursue truth in the Middle East. That our government sends $10,000,000 a day to Israel with no accountability or questions asked either in Washington or in the halls of the press is a truly remarkable accomplishment for a country guilty of barbaric crimes against humanity in the pursuit of illegal Zionist expansionism. The two-state solution is gone forever, but Americans aren’t aware of that, much less why it’s important. Again, controlling the narrative is the primary mission of the State of Israel. Its place on the world stage is contingent upon adherence to that narrative, and the press functions as a willing puppet in the process. May we all burn in hell for this malfeasance.
Moreover, the countless – almost daily – reports of our wars against powerful Arab rulers in the region never include efforts by Israel to help us. It’s their neighborhood but our troops, advisers, and weapons in enabling so-called “rebel” groups to do the dirty work, all the while Israel maintains a distance and cheers from the sidelines. Ask yourself this, why has there been no ISIS terrorism within the State of Israel when Israel represents the very essence of the West in the region? Why go to Europe? Why claim responsibility for events here in the U.S.? Israel – according to Zionist propaganda – is the real enemy of ISIS, so why no attacks on Israel itself? Isn’t that a question worth asking by journalists covering the war against ISIS? I’m not suggesting that Israel is associated with ISIS. God forbid. But the existential threat from its neighbors that forms the foundation of its narrative falls apart with death and destruction everywhere except Israel, Palestinian suffering notwithstanding. The Middle East is a living, breathing laboratory of misinformation, all aided by the refusal of the press to do even the most basic of reporting in the area. When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at the camera and says in English, “We must work together to fight terrorism,” he is implying we are partners in this war, but we are not. Are we not even in the least bit curious about that?
The press has a LOT of work to do if it expects to win back the trust it has lost during this election season and going back several decades. If access is the prize in the game of celebrity oneupmanship, then we have failed in our core mission, which is to hold the powerful accountable. It’s hard to do that when the powerful offer access in the name of controlling the narrative. In that way, we become the playthings of the elite, whether right or left, and lose sight of the fact that we’ve become WHAT we do instead of WHO we are.
There’s no fool like one who is self-deceived, because the pedestals on which we sit exist only in the mists of our own imagination.