The Death Dance of the Mainstream Media

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Soledad O’Brien had to come back to CNN recently to verbally bitch-slap her former employer over their “shoddy” coverage of Donald Trump. Sadly, this seems to be a microcosm of mainstream news media’s woeful coverage of the 2016 election. (Image Credit: CNN)

A few days ago, NBC News aired a Commander-in-Chief Forum with presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prominently featured, and to say it was not well received would be a bit of an understatement. To be fair, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack—not to be confused with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck—singularly praised moderator Matt Lauer’s performance during this television special, and the presentation did garner some 15 million viewers. To be less fair, however, Lack’s lauding of Lauer’s handling of the forum may be singular in that he seems to be the only person who thought the whole shebang was capably handled. Members of the press, officials from past presidential administrations, pundits, and social media critics alike blasted Matt Lauer’s handling of the admittedly-limited thirty minutes devoted to interviewing both Clinton and Trump. Among the points of contention from the dissatisfied peanut gallery:

  • Lauer spent about a third of his time with Hillary Clinton talking about her ongoing E-mail scandal, while glossing over a number of arguably more important topics, such as national security.
  • Lauer did not fact-check Donald Trump when he made the claim that he never supported the Iraq War, even when most of the audience seemed to be aware he totally f**king did.
  • Lauer appeared to let Trump be, you know, himself and talk over the person asking him the questions, while frequently interrupting Clinton, inspiring allegations of sexism.
  • Lauer did not press Trump more strongly on stupid shit he said or has said in the past, such as the Republican Party nominee’s Tweet which evidently suggested it’s women’s fault by enlisting in the first place for getting sexually assaulted in the U.S. military, or his assertion that he knows more about ISIS than the actual American generals in charge of combat operations in the Middle East, or even his continued support for Vladimir Putin, a man who was instrumental in the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and who may or may not be behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee.
  • In other words, Lauer more critically interviewed Olympic swimmer and professional moron Ryan Lochte than he did a man who might actually become President of the United f**king States.

Perhaps it is no great wonder with public relations disasters such as the Commander-in-Chief Forum in mind to hear news such as this report back from June from Gallup that Americans’ confidence in newspapers has gone down 10% in the past decade from 30% to 20%, and that their faith in television news has likewise declined by 10% from 31% to 21%. It should be noted that other institutions asked about in this same survey have their own confidence problems, including churches/organized religion (down 11% to 41%), banks (down 22% to 27%), and Congress (down 10% to a mere 9%). Still, Americans’ distaste for and mistrust of the news media is real, something that neither bodes well for the success and continued survival of various news outlets, nor augurs particularly auspiciously for an informed public, at that. Seeing these statistics in a vacuum, it’s hard to tell, in chicken-egg fashion, whether flagging confidence in the mainstream media has fueled the downturn of newspapers and cable TV, whether public interest has waned in response to an inferior product already on the decline, or, like the ouroboros—the snake eating its own tail—these two trends exist not within a linear cause-effect relationship, but rather as part of a circular duality that feeds on itself. If the last case is indeed true to reality, this is doubly bad, for not only does this set of circumstances likely accelerate the process of disintegration, but if we are still thinking of serpents after the last metaphor, we are likely profoundly scared in an Indiana Jones-like way. DAMMIT! I HATE SNAKES, AND I HATE MSNBC!

On the subject of the decline of newspapers as a source of information, undoubtedly, the rise of television and later the Internet meant there was only so much consumer attention to go around, and online content and news providers have an added leg up on newspapers in being able to tailor advertising to individual users, which hurts print media’s ability to generate valuable ad revenue. From a cost perspective, too, newspapers fight a losing battle in trying to limit expenses in light of the burden of overhead, with clear disadvantages in the price of physical circulation, printing each edition, or even rewarding writers and other employees for their services. There are additional challenges faced by newspapers and all media for that matter, such as the fragmentation of the market to reflect niche interests, the social media requirement faced by businesses irrespective of industry, and the lingering economic effects of the Great Recession, to consider. All in all, it’s a potent brew of negative influences on newspapers’ ability to thrive today, and a number of publications serving major metropolitan areas have been forced to limit print circulation or fold altogether over the years.

Meanwhile, on the matter of television news networks, while recently the networks have enjoyed ratings coups owing to people tuning in to witness the shit-show that is the 2016 presidential election, on the long-term whole, as of May 2015, cable news has seen its overall median daily audience shrink 11% since 2008, according to Pew Research. Potentially outmoded statistics aside, many reason what happened to newspapers vis-à-vis cable news will repeat itself with the likes of CNN, FOX News and MSNBC relative to blogs and other online media. As Paul Farhi, writing for The Washington Post, outlines, prime-time cable news shows are heavily reliant on an aging audience, and face obvious competition from online news sources better served to meet the needs and desires of younger generations. Meaning that while the network that professes to offer “news” but really just utilizes fear-mongering, prejudices and unsubstantiated claims to gin up its viewers is enjoying a long-standing run atop the charts, even it might have trouble sooner than later. And not just because the GOP is a shell of its former self and has been co-opted by idiots and white supremacists.

Indeed, going forward, the traditional news media has its work cut out for it if it wants to stay afloat in a sea of competing interests. To this end, various media outlets need to generate clicks, ratings and subscriptions, and to do this, they have to find some hook with the consumer-user. How these news services achieve this end, and whether or not this will only guarantee them a worse fate in light of the public’s fragile confidence in them, is the multi-billion dollar question. Right now, as noted, the corporate media is riding high. After all, almost 15 million viewers tuned into NBC News’s Commander-in-Chief debacle—and that wasn’t even a debate! Whether or not the American people will actually turn out to vote in November is another story, but in the lead-up to the election, there certainly seems to be a great deal of interest in who stands to become our next President and what sort of damage he or she might inflict on the country should he or she win. At the end of the campaign season, though, and following the election and even inauguration, it almost seems inevitable there will be a drop-off in interest, and in the post-election hangover in which America will find itself after months of a tiresome primary/debate schedule, the traditional media may discover it has less clout and more competition than it might otherwise have considered.

From the swivel chair on which I’m sitting, news media has not done a good job of covering the 2016 presidential election cycle. Nor has it done a fair job, or even a “Needs Work” kind of job, as a child might see on his or her grade-school assignment. No, the mainstream media has done a piss-poor job of serving the public interest when it comes to the campaign season. (I perhaps would’ve referred to it as a “deplorable” job, but Hillary has ruined that word for the foreseeable future—and may have even done damage to her election bid with her “basket of deplorables” turn of phrase.) The powers-that-be behind today’s remaining major newspapers and big-name news networks would be apt to protest this characterization, and furthermore, would insist they are providing fair and balanced coverage that considers all viewpoints. While under most circumstances, objectivity in reporting is highly advisable, when the situation warrants a firmer hand in steering the discussion, particularly when representing all angles means to give a voice to elements whose arguments are little more than bigotry and deliberate misrepresentation of reality, the refusal of the news to intervene is a failure, and a seemingly cowardly one at that, or else it values ad revenue over integrity.

Former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien recently took her old employer to task over its lack of discretion in reporting on the U.S. presidential election. O’Brien’s takedown of CNN’s coverage, particularly in the network’s kowtowing to the more reprehensible voices on Donald Trump’s side of the fence, is to be commended for its directness as well as its consideration of the implications not only for the outcome election, but for the fate of CNN and television journalism itself. What most agree are the critical points of Soledad’s impassioned remarks:

On giving white supremacists a platform because they are Trump supporters/delegates…

“I’ve seen on-air, white supremacists being interviewed because they are Trump delegates. And they do a five minute segment, the first minute or so talking about what they believe as white supremacists. So you have normalized that. And then Donald Trump will say, ‘Hillary Clinton, she’s a bigot.’ And it’s covered, the journalist part comes in, ‘They trade barbs. He said she’s a bigot and she points out that he might be appealing to racists.’ It only becomes ‘he said, she said.’ When in actuality, the fact that Donald Trump said she’s a bigot without the long laundry list of evidence, which if you looked at Hillary Clinton’s speech, she actually did have a lot of really good factual evidence that we would all agree that are things that have happened and do exist. They are treated as if they are equal. That’s where journalists are failing: the contortions to try to make it seem fair.”

And on CNN and others building up Donald Trump for ratings…

“Hateful speech brings a really interested, angry audience. ‘This is genius! We should do this more often. What shall we do when this election is over? We’re going to have to think about ways to really rile people up, make them angry and divide them.’ Because that is something that cable news, frankly, and everybody can cover really well. So, I find it very frustrating. I believe he was over-covered at the beginning. Now, it is ‘he said, she said’ all the time. We have lost context. We actually don’t even cover the details of something. We just cover the back and forth of it. It’s funny to watch if it weren’t our own country and our own government actually operating.”

What supposed “bigot” Hillary Clinton believes at heart about the key voting demographics to which she panders, one can’t be sure, but Soledad O’Brien is right: at least she has not made attacks on minorities the cornerstone of her campaign the way Donald Trump has his. Furthermore, I’d argue she’s deadly accurate on what the media has done, by and large, to frame the ultimate showdown between Clinton and Trump. Make no mistake—a winner-take-all electoral competition between Hill and Don is exactly what print media and the major news networks wanted. The aggregate favorability rating of the Democratic Party and Republican Party nominee is an almost-historically low one, if not the lowest altogether, such that viewers and even the supporting casts related to each campaign themselves have strong feelings one way or another. Throw in the apparent belief of media outlets that their audiences are stupid, don’t care about “the issues,” and would rather see these party heads squabble than speak substantively on important subjects, and you’ve hit on, to a large extent, the news media’s approach to covering this election.

Indeed, the mainstream media is trying to dance precariously between two functions, and the discussion of whether or not their routine is a winning one is accordingly worthwhile. On the one hand, America’s major news outlets, like many concerned citizens, don’t have a death wish. Donald Trump, who hasn’t been good at very much in his 70 years—let’s be honest—would make an even worse President of the United States than the shady businessman the more informed among us know him to be. Hillary Clinton, by proxy, is made to look through headlines and clickable, shareable content that much stronger as a candidate on matters of policy, aside from her obviously superior experience after years in politics. On the other hand, however, said outlets really, really like the ratings and traffic the mere mention of Trump’s name generates, including that which derives from the man’s more, shall we say, outspoken supporters, and so, despite their better judgment, they all but waive their editorial discretion in the name of “fairness.” The result is that both candidates have not been pressed by the press as strongly as they could or perhaps should be questioned, and as a result, the detractors of both Clinton and Trump can claim the media is letting them off the hook. To a certain extent, they’re all right.


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Mr. Trump, where in the holy hell are your tax returns? (Photo Credit: Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

If I were in Matt Lauer’s shoes, granted, I would be likely be a bit apprehensive about confronting the two biggest figures in American politics right now, and I would also have to balance the probing nature of journalistic intent with the direction of the NBC brass—you know, provided I wanted to remain employed. All this aside, if I were to have the opportunity to interview  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I would want to pose these types of questions:

HILLARY CLINTON

1) OK, we get ityou regret voting for the Iraq War. Now that you’ve adequately expressed your remorse for political purposes, what do we do about our continued entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere abroad? What is our timetable for a meaningful reduction in military spending, or for that matter, a reduction in the number of American troops deployed in combat areas, if at all?

Dating back to the party primary season and even during the Democratic National Convention, Hillary caught a lot of flak from Bernie Sanders supporters and surrogates from her stances on the Iraq War and her perceived hawkishness. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton seems to be a bit right of center on the subject of the use of the military and spending to accomplish its goals, so these are worthwhile questions, especially for those who got behind the Sanders campaign and support more progressive aims of the Democratic Party. With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 just behind us and talk of “we will never forget,” it seems ironic to employ such verbiage when the U.S. still is invested heavily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and thus can’t forget a War on Terror still ongoing. More like “we will never get out,” if you ask me.

2) Unless you’re hard up for donations—and judging by your big-ticket fundraisers and speaking fees, you have plenty of cash at your disposal—why should the Clinton Foundation wait until after winning the election to stop accepting monies from corporations and foreign interests?

Hillary Clinton already has a bit of an optics problem regarding trustworthiness in light of her ongoing E-mail imbroglio, concerns about where monies are going after they reach the Hillary Victory Fund, and other scandals which may be somewhat trumped up by Republicans but otherwise do reflect legitimate character concerns. The Clinton Foundation, which has come under fire recently for insinuations it is emblematic of a pay-to-play paradigm which coincided with her affairs as head of the State Department and thus may have crossed ethical lines, and has been characterized by some vocal dissenters as more or less a money laundering operation, by these tokens, is not helping matters.

Among others, Robert Reich, who avidly supported Bernie Sanders until Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination, and now has put his influence behind Hillary because of his recognition of the danger of a Donald Trump presidency, recommends the Clinton Family divest itself of operational ties to its namesake charitable organization, in the interest of propriety and transparency. If Hillary Clinton and her campaign were smart, they wouldn’t wait to effect these changes, and certainly wouldn’t make them contingent on an election victory, but this a major-party presidential campaign we’re talking about here—sound judgment often falls by the wayside.

 3) Don’t you think it a bit douche-y to wear a $12,000 Giorgio Armani jacket and talk about income inequality?

I’ve brought this up before, but I would have to ask HRC directly just to gauge her reaction. Follow-up question: why did you or anyone pay so much for something that looks so hideous?

4) Why exactly were aides of yours smashing devices with hammers? What reasonable explanation is there for this that does not involve wanting to hide or obscure information?

Like Tom Brady smashing his phone in the midst of the Deflategate controversy, this is pretty much a rhetorical question, but I’d like to see and hear her explain why so many Blackberries and iPads had to be obliterated. Though I will admit it was probably oddly pleasurable for the person or persons tasked with doing the destroying. But still.

5) At this point, what does it matter whether the DNC and your campaign were hacked by Russia, or by Guccifer 2.0 acting independently, or by aliens, as Susan Sarandon jokingly suggested? What does it matter, Mrs. Clinton?

OK, so getting hacked is obviously a concern for any organization, and thus society as a whole, as is the theoretical publication of private information of individuals pursuant to matters of privacy in various data leaks. Still, the Democrats seem a little eager to point to Russia and shout, “Look what they did!” when the content itself of the leaked messages is objectionable. Whether it’s intentional bias against the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign or the influence of money on leadership within the party or even in government as a whole, these connections give the public a clearer picture of the kinds of people and institutions with whom/which they are dealing, and how democracy continues to be constrained by party politics and corporate/individual wealth. To this end, the DNC Leaks et al. are a public service, even if the manner in which they were obtained is suspect. Confessedly, though, as much as I feel I’m making a valid point, I kind of just wanted to take a swipe at Hillary Clinton’s semi-infamous “What does it matter?” moment from the hearings of Benghazi. When Americans die, in a potentially avoidable way, and the public is misinformed as to whether or not the attack was terroristic in nature, it does matter. Perhaps not as much as to warrant the extent of the costly investigation into the events surrounding Benghazi to date, but it does.

DONALD TRUMP

1) Why won’t you release your tax returns?

I’ve also discussed this before, musing as to why Donald Trump so obstinately has refused to acquiesce on this count. Some suspect it is because of his supposed ties to Russian businesses (though the Clintons have profited in their own right from Russia, including through the sale of uranium), but I suspect, perhaps more benignly, that Trump wants either to conceal the likely situation that he pays little to no taxes through loopholes, or—even worse in his eyes—that he doesn’t have nearly as much money as he says he does. This may not sound terrible to you or I, but when your entire brand is built on the image of you as a successful entrepreneur able to afford a lavish lifestyle, losing this appearance of obscene wealth could be devastating to this myth. It would be like the storied emperor with no clothes—and I’m immediately sorry for any mental images you now own because of this comparison.

2) How do you explain the immense rent increase for the Trump campaign headquarters in Trump Tower in July after you started receiving considerable funding from donors and weren’t just “financing your own campaign?”

The Trump campaign has explained the nearly four-times spike in its rent expense at Trump Tower resulting from adding “two more levels to its existing space,” whatever that means. While there’s no proof of anything shady, that purchases leading to greater expenses are synchronous with the addition of benefactors, and that Trump stands to indirectly benefit from this arrangement, is enough to raise one or more eyebrows. The deflection that the Clinton camp pays more on rent doesn’t assuage potential culpability either. Saying you spent less than Hillary Clinton on rent is like saying you smoke less weed than Tommy Chong. It’s not exactly something to hang your hat on.

3) Do you care to comment on reports that a number of key staffers in your campaign left after not getting paid, or that you have a history of doing to this people in your personal and professional lives?

One thing the press has not discussed nearly enough regarding Donald Trump’s business dealings is that he has repeatedly screwed people out of money, and then has shielded himself behind the cloak of litigation or has relied upon the auspices of bankruptcy law to avoid having to pay all his bills. If Trump can’t pay his staffers as he should, why should we expect him to do what’s right for America’s finances, or for that matter, give him the keys to the country?

4) Would you like to personally apologize to Jersey City, and in particular, its Muslim population, for making claims about thousands of people cheering in the streets when the Towers fell, even though this has been thoroughly debunked?

OK, I gotta say this one’s for me. When even Crazy Rudy Giuliani disagreed with Trump’s steadfast assertion that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City were celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center, you knew the man was full of shit, and anyone else who sides with Trump on this issue is either full of shit too, or has spent too much time watching Fox News and has had the parts of their brain devoted to higher-order thinking and encoding of memory eaten away by the stupidity. I don’t care if you’re talking about Muslims, undocumented Mexican immigrants, or members of the Borg collective—if they’re from New Jersey, step the f**k off.

5) Seriously, though, release your f**king tax returns.

Not really a question anymore, but then again, it shouldn’t be. If you have nothing to hide, you should have no problem complying. Shit, even Crooked Hillary obliged on this front. You don’t want to be worse than Hillary at something, do you, Donald?


Returning to the theme of journalistic accountability in the mainstream media and perceptions of bias, even before the events of this election cycle and the rise of online content/social media, a core group of outspoken Americans took to distrusting the “liberal media” and its leftist agenda. How dare they believe in concepts like gender and race equality? How come their “facts” don’t match what I know deep down in my gut? Why do they insist on telling me I’m wrong for hating gays and transgender people and telling them they can’t buy wedding cakes in our shops or pee in our bathrooms? TOO MUCH POLITICAL CORRECTNESS! TOO MANY BIG WORDS! AAAAAHHHH! This kind of mentality, I believe, has helped fuel the rise of the alt-right and eschewing of more reputable news sources for airheads such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and even conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Alex Jones. Which, though it may chagrin network executives and digital content managers, might not be a huge loss for the rest of the viewing population. Not for nothing, but the fewer trolls we have on Comments sections of major news providers’ sites criticizing “libtards” and demeaning them as a bunch of whiny, sissy babies, I feel, is a good thing.

However, in news media’s indiscriminate push for ratings and revenue, that liberals and conservatives alike can be alienated by CNN, or The New York Times, or even Huffington Post, suggests that corporate-owned media outlets, buoyed by short-term successes, may only be riding a road to ruin in the long term. For libertarians, progressives, skinny people, fat people, people who try to ford the river or caulk it and float it, there are umpteen options, and while not all of them are winners (many, indeed, are not), by appealing to a more provincial audience, they stand to draw away attention from the big players in the mass media market. Again, when survival is anything but assured, prominent networks and newspapers are justifiably desperate for the public’s consumption. Catering to a lower common denominator, however, or failing to curb those who pander to a more deleterious element, seriously risks undermining the public’s trust and guaranteeing that they won’t come back. After all, when trust is gone, what else is left worth keeping?

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