Sean Hannity likes to claim he is not a “journalist” when confronted about potential conflicts of interest surrounding the content he provides as a commentator on his show on FOX News. Yet he also likes to argue that his program breaks “real news” and conducts interviews the way a legitimate journalist would. In a manner of speaking, Hannity is trying to have his cake and eat it too, and as far as many of his viewers are concerned, they probably don’t care. They should care, however, as should FOX News and anyone concerned with journalistic integrity.
Hannity has been thrust into the spotlight recently because of the revelation that he is a client of Michael Cohen, the same Michael Cohen who is an attorney and spokesperson for one Donald Trump, who had his home and office raided by federal investigators in relation to payments made to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels, and whose own legal team only last week revealed their connection during a court hearing. Hannity’s entanglements with Cohen are particularly salient considering he has used his platform as a means of decrying any investigations into the affairs of Cohen and Trump, but never disclosed this relationship to his viewers, and reportedly, even FOX News executives were blindsided by the disclosure.
Despite Sean Hannity’s downplaying of the situation, it’s not as if the reason for soliciting Cohen’s legal counsel is immaterial. According to a report by Jon Swaine and referencing public documents obtained by The Guardian, Hannity is linked to some 20 “shell” companies formed in Georgia devoted to the purchase of real estate including foreclosed properties and, in some cases, properties from below-median income/above-average poverty areas. The mere existence of these companies is not an indication of illegality, but it does make his railing against the Obama administration for the high rate of foreclosures when he has benefited from it disingenuous, if not patently ironic.
Similar failures to disclose key relationships seem of more than just passing interest. Two of Hannity’s most lucrative properties (apartment complexes) are financed by loans through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current head of which, Ben Carson, has appeared on Hannity to the host’s praise. Along these lines, Hannity has featured Bill Lako, a principal at the firm Henssler Financial, as an expert. This same firm just happens to have registered Hannity’s various shell companies. Once again, that Hannity is a client isn’t something about which to be so cavalier, particularly when his relationship with this featured personality may impact the viewer’s opinions and judgment on financial matters.
This is where the issue of whether or not Sean Hannity is a “journalist” becomes most relevant, and why, to many, his self-serving faux surprise at being of supposed persecutory interest to the mainstream media rings hollow. Hannity and his defenders would aver that he is a commentator who renders his opinions, and as such, is not bound by the same journalistic standards as, say, a reporter. Conversely, some observers would insist that if Hannity walks, swims, and quacks like a reporter, he may well be considered one, despite how he identifies himself.
Such explains why there is tension not only between conservatives like Sean Hannity and the rest of the news media community, but even among FOX News’s talking heads. There are those on-air personalities like Shepard Smith who fashion themselves as journalists and see what Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson do as entertainment more so than news. Which, predictably, prompted Hannity and Ingraham to fire back on Twitter that they do “real reporting” and aren’t just purveyors of theater.
This creates a kind of conundrum alluded to in the opening, particularly for Hannity. On one hand, he wants to be treated seriously as a leading voice in conservative thought and a dominant presence in cable news. Even through the controversy over Hannity’s persistence in covering the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich as some sort of hit job related to his supposed identity as a source for WikiLeaks that saw his show lose sponsors, the FOX News veteran has remained a priority of the network’s as a ratings draw, especially with Bill O’Reilly no longer in the mix, and thus, he at least has the second half of the proverbial equation satisfied.
On the other hand, however, Sean Hannity doesn’t want the same standards of accountability to apply to his delivery of what he calls “REAL NEWS.” (His emphasis, not mine. Evidently, when you put things in all caps, THEY MAGICALLY BECOME MORE BELIEVABLE.) So, like his boy Donald Trump, his answers—in his case, as to whether he is a journalist—are malleable, changing to fit his purpose or perhaps his mood. As Paul Farhi, media reporter for The Washington Postdetails, Hannity has “flipped” repeatedly on his ownership of the term journalist, or has otherwise striven to qualify the use of the word, labeling himself an advocacy journalist or opinion journalist.
As experts on the American press and television journalism quoted for Farhi’s column insist, meanwhile, this may be all but semantics. Either way, the lack of transparency risks a loss of trust from Hannity’s viewers, an idea which would lead other news personalities to disclose any potential conflicts of interest out of a sense of duty to their profession. But Hannity claims (when it suits him) that he is not a journalist. Thus, he lacks any such consideration of ethical quandaries, and surprisingly enough, a significant portion of his viewership and of the broader news community doesn’t seem to be too bothered by his lack of disclosure.
That FOX News is apparently giving Sean Hannity a free pass on these matters is telling for a number of reasons. For one, it underscores how important Hannity is in the bid to best CNN and MSNBC in the primetime cable news wars. More than this, though, it signifies how the network’s own journalistic standards have eroded over the years—and it’s not like they were all that highly regarded before the era of Trump. Only a few years ago, FOX News brass were preventing Hannity from appearing at a Tea Party rally in Ohio.
Now, he’s not only advising President Trump and sharing legal representation with him, but he’s serving as a major mouthpiece of FOX’s pro-Trump propaganda machine, a reality that helps further put him at odds with Shep Smith and other anchors at the network. For a media outlet that billed itself as “fair and balanced” during the George W. Bush years—a slogan which strained the bounds of credulity even then—its present stance seems to be to drop all pretense of objectivity. FOX News now touts what it offers as “real news, real honest opinion.” Pardon me if all this talk about what’s “real” and “honest” doesn’t quite have me convinced.
Callum Borchers, writing for The Washington Post, penned an analysis in response to the revelations about Sean Hannity, opining that his fans will still support him in spite of the notion he is a hypocritical “welfare queen” because he provides his audience with a highly entertaining escapist defense of a president in Trump that frames “attacks” on #45 as unfair, unpatriotic, and vicious. The “welfare queen” line, in it of itself a reference to Reagan-era use of the term, was recently invoked by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens during a discussion about Hannity’s property holdings on MSNBC:
I think it’s funny Sean Hannity turns out to be a welfare queen for HUD, having taken advantage of guarantees that were put forward by none other than the Obama administration. Look, you know, Hannity, he’s said over and over again—that he is not a journalist. He proves it every single day. The question for Fox News is whether they want to consider themselves a journalistic institution and continue to employ as an anchor a guy who clearly is better at real estate than he is at reporting.
For Stephens and other independent observers, the issue with Hannity is not that he has made use of federal monies to accomplish his real estate investment goals; from my understanding, this is fairly commonplace, and he shouldn’t be faulted for it any more than we would fault Trump for his use of bankruptcy in his business dealings. Rather, it is with his unspoken reliance on the HUD program while decrying other people’s taking advantage of government “handouts” that eats at his professed credibility. As Stephens goes on to say, it’s not even as if Hannity, while a particularly bad example given his high profile, is the lone bad actor in this regard:
The currency of our political moment is hypocrisy. It is the most valuable currency of our political moment, right? So I can trade on—I can say anything. I can do anything. I can be in conflict, right, as long as I’m pursuing my own self-interest and being narcissistic and whatever. As long as I’m doing that, I don’t have to worry about the consequences. So norms are being cast aside from the top all the way down to the bottom and people who claim to be the moral arbiters of our politics turn out to be the biggest violators.
There is no shortage of figures to which to ascribe these comments on both sides of the aisle, but for Stephens, a conservative who has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, the implicit reference to him and Hannity as unprincipled sorts who weaken the conservative brand is clear. Even if Stephens’ derision is more narrowly focused, though, his point is well taken given the American people’s eroding confidence in the nation’s political institutions, most notably with respect to Congress and the Democratic and Republican Parties but with the media and the office of POTUS not dramatically better either. Do as I say, not as I do. It is no wonder so much of the electorate has reacted like children rebelling against their parents—act inconsistently as a public servant, and that’s the risk you run.
As Borchers explains, though, Sean Hannity’s viewers are willing to look past his “transgressions” because he gives credence to their feelings and beliefs, much in the way evangelicals and other Christians will look past Trump’s infidelity and his attacks on minority groups because he reinforces expression of anti-abortion views and “religious liberty” at the expense of others’ civil rights. At the heart of their appeal is acceptance of their supporters’ worldview in the face of a rapidly-changing world that increasingly rejects this worldview’s long-held assumptions and prejudices. As much as we might chide Hannity and Trump as blockheads and gasbags, we can acknowledge they do possess a talent for communicating a sense of shared experience to a large audience.
In rendering my opinions across the blogosphere, I am part of the ever-growing global community designed to facilitate a discussion through political commentary. My opinions, of course, are my own, and you, the reader, are certainly free to agree or disagree, or even summarily dismiss them as incomplete. At the very least, however, I strive to do my homework by consulting other viewpoints on a given topic and citing appropriate information when relevant. Not to be grandiose about these things, but I do this because I think it’s right to do.
This is exactly why FOX News’s lack of journalistic standards and refusal to admonish Sean Hannity is disturbing, even for an amateur commentator and non-FOX-viewer like myself. Until there is an apparent rejection of the network’s methods which eschew facts and fuel the right-wing Trump propaganda machine, there is every worry that upward trends with respect to hasty, inaccurate reporting as well as the promulgation of fake news will continue. It was striking to see a little over a year ago, during an exchange between Hannity and CBS News special commentator Ted Koppel, the latter coolly answer in the affirmative when asked point blank by the former whether he is “bad for America.” Hannity insisted Koppel was selling the American people short, but a year after the fact, perhaps Koppel’s “cynicism” was justified.
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For better or worse, I seldom give updates to specific stories I reference in my posts. Usually, I’m more concerned with the overarching theme as opposed to the nuts and bolts of these events; if you want the news, Lord knows there are any number of services that can give you up-to-the-minute headlines and analysis. Besides this, I tend to be more forward-oriented in my thinking. Again, this may be for better or for worse; while this gives me direction, I may lack for a more historical perspective, a notion aided by my relative inexperience in these matters. In this instance, however, I’ll make an exception, because it’s relevant. Remember when last we left Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte, who managed to defeat upstart Democratic challenger Ron Quist despite, you know, body-slamming a reporter on the eve of the special election? Gianforte was arrested and charged based on his conduct—alas, insincere apologies don’t suffice in the court of law—but after pleading guilty to the assault, Gianforte was sentenced only to 40 hours of community service, a $385 fine, and some anger management classes. A figurative slap on the wrist after grabbing Ben Jacobs, reporter for the Guardian, by the neck with both hands, slamming him to the ground, and proceeding to punch him. Oh, and after a civil settlement with Jacobs and an admission of fabricating his account that the reporter was the aggressor. That Greg Gianforte—what a standup guy after assaulting someone and blaming him for it first. I’m sure he’ll make a great representative for the people of Montana.
Ben Jacobs, to his credit, says he hopes to one day interview Gianforte and also expects him to be a “strong advocate for a free press and for the First Amendment.” Not sure if he’s trolling Greg Gianforte by saying as much, but dude just got assaulted, so let him have his moment, OK? Still, it’s not all puppy dogs and sunshine in the aftermath. For one, Jacobs correctly pointed to the idea that Gianforte initially lied about the affair in a “defamatory public statement.” In some respects, this may even be considered worse than the physical abuse, and certainly, a case of adding insult to injury. But Jacobs also saw his incident as one in a series of disturbing encounters between political candidates and the press, and used a platform he never sought to address this unnerving trend. From Jacobs’ statement to the court:
If this incident were simply between myself and the Congressman-elect, that would be one thing. But it’s had national ramifications on our politics and our culture. While I have no doubt that actions like these were an aberration for Congressman-elect Gianforte personally, I worry that, in the context of our political debate, they have become increasingly common. In recent years, our discourse has grown increasingly rancorous and increasingly vile. This needs to stop.
There will always be fundamental political disagreements in our society. However, these need not become personal and certainly should never become violent. I just hope this court’s decision can send a strong message about the necessity of civil discourse in our country, the important role of the free press and the need to help heal our political system.
“This needs to stop.” Hmm, quite a different tone conveyed by the likes of Ben Jacobs as opposed to, say, the putative leader of the free world. If people like Jacobs are aiming to be the angel on the shoulder of political discourse in the United States of America and abroad, then Donald Trump is the unrepentant orange-faced devil on the other shoulder, stoking the fires of discontentment among his supporters and his detractors alike, and setting his crosshairs on the mere concept of the free press. In just a short time as President, Trump has exhibited a pathological willingness to not only throw people close to him under the metaphorical bus, but to get behind the wheel and grind them into the pavement for good measure. The media, derisively referred to by the catch-all “fake news,” is a special project for Pres. Trump, particularly because an unbiased and inquisitive press is his worst nightmare. His dealings with Russia, his defrauding of investors, his umpteen ethical conflicts, his unwillingness to release his tax returns, his past degrading comments about women, his lies upon lies upon lies—I could devote an entire post to the topic of Trump and his administration’s malfeasances, but that strikes me as not only relentlessly aggravating, but boring as shit, too—these are details that eat away at his credibility, his vague air of mystique as the consummate deal-maker, his cult of personality. So, what does Donald Trump do because he must? Undermine the institution that possesses the greatest threat to this identity, an identity built on exaggeration, fabrication, falsehood, and misdirection. Thus, the mainstream media becomes “fake news.” The “enemy of the American people.” Hell, Greg Gianforte wasn’t committing a crime and lying about it to try to save face—he was doing us a valuable service! That man is a goddamn hero!
To my knowledge, Donald Trump hasn’t physically battered a member of the press. (For those Trump resisters among us, no, even this probably wouldn’t get him impeached at the rate we’re going.) Then again, he has all but undressed a representative of the news media during a press conference—recall his shouting at CNN’s Jim Acosta, referring to his employer as “fake news,” and refusing to answer his question. Even if we’re relegating the discussion to instances of bodily injury, though, while Trump may not be the one pulling the trigger, as many would assert, he has repeatedly loaded the gun, cocked the hammer, put it in the hands of someone with the intent to do harm, and pointed him or her in the direction of the target.
See, Ben Jacobs isn’t the only one who sees a danger in the making in the tone set by #45 vis-à-vis the press. As Paul Farhi, writing for The Washington Post, details, press advocates view Donald Trump’s rhetoric and incidents like the Gianforte-Jacobs encounter as interrelated, and as you might expect, there are plenty of instances of aggression against journalists to go around. Farhi recounts four of these recent examples of confrontations between politicians and reporters: 1) Nathaniel Herz, reporter for the Alaska Dispatch News, was slapped by state Sen. David Wilson as he was trying to question him in the state capitol; 2) CQ Roll Call‘s John Donnelly was pinned against a wall by security guards when trying to question FCC chair Ajit Pai and commissioner Michael O’Rielly; 3) Dan Heyman of Public News Service was handcuffed and arrested trying to get a response from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Kellyanne Conway; and 4) the Greg Gianforte episode.
These all occurred within the span of a month, no less, and this quartet doesn’t even include events like Corey Lewandowski, then-campaign-manager for Donald Trump, grabbing and bruising the arm of former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields when she tried to ask the Republican presidential nominee a question, or Michael Grimm, state representative from New York, threatening to throw NY1 reporter Michael Scotto off a balcony and break him in half “like a boy.” These are the sorts of happenings that were rarer once upon a time and should be rarer across the American political landscape—and yet they are shockingly and unsettlingly common in our present recollection. This is what happens when you say that members of the news media are among the most dishonest people on Earth and publicly call on them to be jailed. Lock her up! Lock them up! Never mind that our jails are overcrowded! Nothing says “democracy” and “freedom” like putting folks behind bars!
Arguing and providing “alternative facts” against the clear visual evidence the size of his inauguration crowd paled in comparison to Barack Obama’s. Barring journalists from events at his various resorts. Discussing effectively evicting the press corps from the White House. Insulting various news outlets on Twitter and to their face. Suggesting The New York Times and other purveyors of the news have been inciting protests against him. Traveling without reporters on trips outside the White House in violation of protocol. This is the state of journalism under President Donald J. Trump, and that there is neither a greater sense of solidarity among members of the press to stand up for their beaten and berated comrades, nor that much of a sense of disgust or outrage from the American public when these scenarios do play out, is—ahem—some scary shit. Granted, media outlets are jockeying for ratings and subscriptions and clicks, and overall, there has been an erosion of confidence within the public concerning various institutions. Even so, the war on the media and on exercise of free speech without fear of rebuke or threat of violence perpetrated by #45 is particularly frightening because it is not what we would consider a hallmark of an ideal democracy, let alone America’s brand of democracy.
With this in mind, while not merely to overstate the case of Trump and Co. murdering the First Amendment, and while, relatively speaking, the state of reporting in the United States of America is still superior to that of any number of countries, it still may be instructive to take a gander at the situations in some of those more restrictive nations and begin to comprehend what Trump’s actions and rhetoric, if left unchecked, could do the freedom of the press in the U.S. At the very least, this should help convey the sense of importance of upholding the journalistic latitude members of the news media are currently afforded. Back in January, Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, analyzed Pres. Trump’s leadership style both in terms of historical analogs and other present-day paradigms marked by a restrictiveness, if not a downright hostility, toward members of the press. On the historical front, Khazan referenced a study conducted by political science professor Kirk Hawkins at BYU of over 100 current and former world leaders across more than 70 countries. Within the study, which looked at leaders defined as “populists”—”charismatic leaders who portrayed the world as a clash between a downtrodden ‘people’ and a conspiring elite”—and spanned the period from 2000 to the present, Hawkins found that the longer these types of figures are in power, the more freedom of the press tends to decline. Thus, for the moment, someone like Trump calling the news the enemy of the American people/the “opposition” and specific media outlets “garbage” is still uncommon, and for some, even patently laughable. Over the long haul, however? Trump’s fixation on the media’s desire to engage in a “witch hunt” against him (a bit of the, ahem, pot calling the kettle black, but you know—that’s our Donald), to his most ardent supporters, may be a rallying cry to defend his honor. Hey, he’s already got Republican figures such as Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich in his corner. Who’s to say others won’t join in the fray, incensed by how the President is being treated so “unfairly?”
As for current challenges faced by journalists in countries known for suppression of the free flow of information, Olga Khazan relies on anecdotes from reporters who have met with adversity in such foreign lands, and who perhaps were not afforded the same courtesy and protections traditionally enjoyed by members of the news media in America. Ways in which members of the press have been intimidated and outright threatened include being arrested and jailed, held at gunpoint by gangs sympathetic to the populist government, or simply fired, in the case of state-controlled media. When the specter of violence is not the modus operandi, stall tactics may suffice; in China and Russia, for instance, reporters often only have access to officials via a fax—and that is liable to go unanswered, to boot. Through their struggles to access information, Khazan notes, these reporters have, through necessity, come up with some pretty ingenuous ways of gaining access to begin with. I’ll spare you the details, but the point is this: American journalists might learn a thing or two about trying to do their jobs in the age of President Trump. As is abundantly clear, the availability and candor of politicians at every level of government is far from a guarantee. For that matter, the same applies for these reporters’ safety.
The notion of a press under attack by politicians both here and abroad takes on added significance in light of recent events, specifically that of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, while practicing for a congressional baseball game. At this writing, Scalise was yet in critical condition, but improving. A lot of commentary has been made on talk shows, on social media, and otherwise concerning the idea that Rep. Scalise and others were assaulted by James Hodgkinson, a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer. A lot of it, unfortunately, has not been good. Outlets like The New York Times and CNN wasted little time making the connection between Sanders and this act of violence. You saw those leftists threaten to burn the building down at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention in the primary season! They’re a bunch of loose cannons! If they all had guns, who knows what havoc they might try to wreak in the name of socialism! Just as all Muslims are not terrorists, not all Sanders supporters have a latent bloodlust lurking deep down in their psyches. Also, as usual, you had the familiar talking points about gun control. He was deranged and should’ve never had a gun. Maybe if everyone had a gun there at the field, this could have been avoided. Really, we need to address the issue of mental health before we talk about gun control. Stop. This is not a forum for the merits and demerits of gun law reform, though this is an important subject, nor is it a discussion of mental health, though this is also an important subject. Hodgkinson supported Bernie and had a gun. He could’ve been a Hillary supporter. He could have been wielding a knife or throwing rocks.
The who and how, I would argue, don’t matter nearly as much as the why or even the what. “What,” as in, “What the hell is going on here?” This violence levied against elected officials is to be condemned regardless of political affiliation, but I see the attacks on the media and the attack on Steve Scalise as two sides of the same bloody coin. When anger, hate, and mistrust pervade our political discourse, fueling the fire of discord, it is only natural that this blaze continues to consume everything in its path. Anger begets anger. Hate begets hate. Mistrust begets mistrust. And yes, violence begets violence—I firmly believe that. Sure, it would be irrational to say an event like the assault on Ben Jacobs caused the shooting of Scalise. These are isolated events. And yet, they seem to come from the same place, spiritually speaking. In the Trump era, unless you believe what the President is selling—and this requires more and more ideological/moral gymnastics as we go along—I feel as if there is no true happiness. There is anger, there is despair, there is embarrassment, there is fear, there is sadness—and only temporary relief when something like the travel ban is struck down. As one of my friends from a separate chapter of Our Revolution put the feeling, it’s like being in a nightmare every bleeping day without being able to wake up from it. Donald Trump is President of the United States of America. There is nothing we can do about it. May God have mercy on all our souls.
On this sobering note, if nothing we do matters concerning Donald Trump’s impeachment—and if you ask me, that’s not even all that great a prize considering Mike Pence would succeed him—does this mean we should abandon all hope and do nothing? Of course not. There are any number of causes in which to invest oneself as part of the Resistance, replete with lawmakers to petition and marches to attend. Fighting for the sanctity of the First Amendment, and materially supporting journalists and the publications they represent, too, are such an issue around which to rally. Support your local newspaper, especially if you’re like me and take issue with the accountability of the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post (and they are probably the best of the bunch!). Champion the value of good investigative journalism, and share informative pieces with people you know. Especially, um, that aunt or uncle who’s a registered Republican and feels the need to argue with you on whether or not climate change exists. You know the one.
Simply put, information is power, and to fail support a free press, a key cog in a truly democratic society, is an abdication of your responsibility to participate as an American. Moreover, it’s exactly what the knuckleheads in government want, in particular, Trump: for you to become disengaged from what is going on so that they can less visibly advance their agenda which favors donors and other special interests before authentically representing you. The Post has more recently adopted the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” It may seem melodramatic to some, but I, for one, agree wholeheartedly. There is a dark cloud hanging over the state of journalism and political coverage today, one that has led to hostility and violence. If we do not stand with the news media as they continue to come under attack, that cloud stands to blot out the sun completely.
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.
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:
1) OK, we get it—you 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.
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.
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?