“Don’t hate the media. Become the media…”
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & veteran who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
I wasn’t naive, at least not completely. When I was in high school and college, one of my heroes was Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere (the gentleman above and to the right of RFK on all our pages). Nyerere was the country’s first post-colonial ruler, with a mission to return the country to what he saw as its pre-colonial ways, a state of ujamaa. Ujamaa is Swahili for “extended family” (in many African languages, there are no words for aunt, uncle, cousin, or in-law), based on the principle that a person becomes a person through his/her community. To explain it to outsiders, he called it “African socialism,” which probably was a bit naive.
This post is part of our Seeing, Believing series in which members of the community share the real personal experiences–as opposed to what they heard/learned from elders, peers, or multimedia–that shaped one or more of the core tenets of their political beliefs. We’d love to hear and publish yours–let us know here if/when you’re interested!
When your hero is a man like Nyerere during an ideological gold rush like the post-colonial Cold War, you learn fairly quickly that there are substantial differences between how our media reports on other countries and real football, especially if your hero’s country has a next-door neighbor–Kenya–behaving exactly the way Western business interests would prefer that Africans comport themselves. Predictably, Western capitalists poured money into Kenya’s coffers while their governments did everything they could to starve Tanzania of resources, and the fourth estate danced, albeit whitely, to the tune. Economic indicators in Kenya’s favor that most Americans now know, from bitter experience, are devoid of meaning, were touted, while Kenyan political violence, crime, illiteracy, poverty, and severe environmental degradation were routinely papered over. Meanwhile every challenge Tanzanians faced, including flooding, drought, and other acts of God, was sorrowfully chalked up by our press to their insistence on an 8:1 ratio of top to bottom income, and even to this date you’d be hard-pressed to find a Western account that argues otherwise–for that you’ll need to turn to the testimony of Africans themselves.
What was the truth? The answer seemed very clear to me, even if you play by Western and, especially, American rules. When conditions in two countries with a common, relatively open border are being compared, any true, honest, and consistent free marketer or American exceptionalist should agree the vote of the feet carries the count, both popular and electoral. After all, whenever someone, foreign or domestic, argues the virtues of another political or economic system, what do we always say (yours truly included)? “If [insert country name here] is so great, then why does everyone in the world want to come here?”
Anyone who has spent time among the people in any developing nation knows that actually the vast majority of its people have no interest at all in coming to the United States, but in those days Kenyans raced in droves to get to the bottom of their country and into Tanzania, while it seemed more than traditional East African reserve was disinclining Tanzanians to flee for the capitalistic promised land above. The immigration arrow clearly pointed south in those days, Kenya to Tanzania, year after year, and it was big and bold. So insert obvious parallel question here; start with “If Kenya…”
By the time I was a senior, I was writing contrarian editorials for the left-wing student rag (e.g. why liberals should support the 2nd amendment–which I still believe, though with at least some of the nuance required of 21st century fatherhood). The last paper of my college career, one I gleefully and cynically considered my best, was a Marxist explanation for investigative journalism. Because, I argued, the resources media organizations can afford to devote to this form of journalism are only sufficient to cover a fraction of ruling class corruption, the investigations that do occur act as a secular opiate, assuring the masses that corruption is being rooted out while effectively concealing the vast majority of it. My professor–a leading theorist in political communication–gave my little polemic a B, dismissing it on grounds that a theoretical construct claiming to explain even contrary phenomena is not a theory, it’s a religion (an issue I wrestle with to this day). Of course, Trump has since shown that revealing corruption in its entirety may be even more powerful, overwhelming some of us with its scope, while fooling or intimidating, even terrifying, others with brazenness.
Becoming The Story
My admiration for Nyerere led me to join the Peace Corps, which placed me in Cameroon where, unbeknownst to me, I experienced the future of media far ahead of its time–a newspaper called The Cameroon Tribune that, like Fox News, The Enquirer, and other right-wing outlets in our country today, exhibited absolute, unquestioning fealty to the ruling regime; a radio station whose primary purpose was to serve as an audio version of what would soon become known as online bulletin boards; and television featuring extremely graphic video and still images, albeit without the advance warnings our announcers intone today like pharmaceutical side effects.
I even went viral there once: I was sitting in a bar in the county seat of the sub-division where I lived, alone with its owner, a good friend, looking at the Tribune, when I had a sudden urge to ostentatiously regurgitate it into a trash receptable. It was a moment’s gesture, the moment passed, and he and I went on drinking and talking together for several more hours before calling it a night. When the communal Land Rover delivered me back to my village that evening, more than an hour’s drive from the bar, I was quickly surrounded by concerned friends who were sure my arrest was imminent. They had heard that I’d jumped up onto a table in a crowded bar, torn up the Tribune as I decried it (and the regime it rode in on), then tossed the pieces into the howling mob.
This incident proved to be prologue, in ways the reliable, steadfast Cold War treatment of leaders like Nyerere had not. Sometime after my return to the States, I joined a company, then known as Quantum Computer Services, that soon became America Online, and for the first time experienced the media in all its humanity. We are the only species that, both individually and collectively, regularly survives its mistakes, and in this regard, the media, I learned, is the apotheosis of humankind. In fairness, once you become the story rather than its consumer, as we were at AOL, you have an unfair advantage over its chroniclers because you know the truth, the whole truth, and time is on your side, not theirs. Still, like a historian watching a biopic, I couldn’t help but be bemused by the number of gratuitous or unforced errors there were in every story I ever saw written about the company, even the most positive.
The humanity of media was also exhibited in its emotions. It could be hurt, and lash out with a surprising degree of vindictiveness. Shortly after The New York Times Online launched on AOL, the Washington Post came calling. Unfortunately we weren’t able to come to terms, and they decided to go with a shiny new competitor (one we ultimately left in the pixel dust). With that parting of ways, our hometown paper’s coverage turned on us, beginning with a company profile that positioned our employees as members of a cult, which, to be fair, if a primary mark of cultdom is unnervingly absolute belief in what you’re building and selling, well then, guilty as charged, just like every other hugely successful startup I’ve known since.
What happened next was darker. At the time, Forrester Research, a bellwether of new media analysis, was a fervent believer in “information wants to be free” (and continued, all the way through the end of the ’90s, to prophesy that no more than 2-3% of all consumers would ever sign up for a premium online service, even though significantly more families were already doing so). AOL was not only a premium service, but like other proprietary online services, we charged by the hour, and like many startups to come, rapid growth was core to our valuation. So when a respected group like Forrester pronounced that we would never exceed x thousand members because our business model was unsustainable, it sent shock waves through the investment community, at least until we blew through their barrier with ease. At which point, long before Trump became the master, the far-sighted–just not in the ways they thought–research firm decided to pioneer the art of doubling down, setting another number we would never exceed, and then another, and another.
Each time they did so, the Post dedicated a prominent article on the front page of the business section to their claims, thereby drumming FR’s core idea into readers’ heads, which would be pioneering, too, except the Germans had already deployed this technique to great effect in the 1930s. Darkness is not only caused by the death of democracy; when AOL’s growth experienced a brief, one might say inevitable, pause, investors had been well-primed to believe it was end times for the company. The stock crashed, the board freaked out, and three hundred people lost their jobs for what turned out to be no reason at all (in fairness, the stock did spike 1/4 of a point after the layoffs) before the visionaries who’d made AOL what it was were able to regain control.
As unfortunate as this was, I’d like to believe the Post had no idea where its machinations were going to lead. What bothered me, and I suspect others, is that at no point anywhere in any of their anti-AOL screeds did the paper ever disclose its obvious conflict of interest, its business relationship with a competing platform that was the hub and home of its online presence, and nobody there ever lost their job for this clear ethical lapse. Nor, in their series of authoritative airings of Forrester’s claims, did they ever mention the string of preceding predictions the company had made on the very subject that had proven mistaken. It was a portent of the incident to come that truly defined my view of the media–and therefore truth–in politics, in ways that have only been reinforced since.
It was January 20, 2001. The preceding months had already been plenty disillusioning and distressing, a series of small rockslides building towards the avalanche of veriphobia and amorality that began with Ronald Reagan in the case of the former, Nixon the latter. The outrageous voter purges and other partisan pre-election machinations to violate the vote, the media’s blown calls that fixed the vote in Bush’s favor in the public eye, “my brother, the governor, assures me it’s a done deal,” the Palm Beach butterfly ballot (Jews for Buchanan), the contrast between the efficacy and availability of voting machines in the inner cities vs. suburbia, thousands of Democratic ballots “spoiled” as a result, the cavalry of military ballots cast after Election Day, and ugly defense of same (which foreshadowed how the incoming administration would choose to use 9/11 for political gain rather than as the last, best opportunity to unify the country), the Brooks Brothers riot, the Supreme Court selection of the winner of the election on a purely partisan basis, made clear by its injunction against using its reasoning as precedent for any other case, and finally, the concession of the candidate who, in a country that proudly called itself the world’s leading democracy, had not only won the most votes nationwide, but was clearly the choice of those in the deciding electoral state of Florida as well, all purges, lepidoptera, and chads considered.
I should pause here, after what could be read as the unspooling screed of the last paragraph (it isn’t; it’s completely factual) to make clear that there’s no partisan ax-grinding at work here. Already disgusted by the Clintons’ morals and ethics before learning about Monica Lewinsky and Hillary’s counterattacks–against “bimbo eruptions,” I voted for Bob Dole in 1996 (and for John Anderson in 1980, even at the risk of electing Reagan). In 2000, I supported John McCain in the primary (I’m pretty sure I gave him money, too) and would have voted for him against Gore, who I found recklessly condescending.
I seriously considered voting for Bush, too–I believe(d) in “compassionate conservatism,” and as an ed tech veteran, I was impressed with the level of thought and radicalism that had gone into his K-12 plans. It was only when I found about his environmental record in TX–by then I considered climate change to be the existential issue of our time–that I decided I couldn’t support him. Ironically, here again, the media failed me–it wasn’t until after Bush took office that I learned he had been responsible for turning Texas into the biggest producer of wind energy in the country. Over the years, I’ve given more money to more Republicans than Democrats–that’s a matter of public record–and in a recent ideological survey I was identified as Republican, too, which makes me wonder what the politicians calling themselves Republicans are. No, for me this was about the core values of our country, about fundamental fairness, about violations that were, to repurpose Rudy Guiliani months later, “more than any of us can bear.”
Which is how I found myself in Washington, DC, on inauguration day, determined to attend my first political protest since desultory pickets with DSOC in college that seemed more heavily attended by men in suits and sunglasses than demonstrators. The day dawned cloudy, chilly, and rainy/misty, just as it did, and remained, on January 20, 2017. I got to the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue fairly early, struck by what I’d seen on my way, people appearing from everywhere all over the city, singing and chanting, at times rising up and out in numbers that, in hindsight, remind me of the appearance of the kodama in Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, or, for any Republicans who might be reading this, the final moments at Hardhome.
The scene at the route itself was out of body; tens of thousands of demonstrators for democracy, and against the court coup, as far as I could see in any direction, the songs and chants only rising in volume throughout. The only possible Bush supporters were the sharpshooters prominently positioned on every corner of every rooftop around us. One of the many cold war media tropes that particularly annoyed me as a youngster was the tendency of reporters to describe virtually any military presence in any country not clearly “tilting to the West” as a “show of force.” I used to needle conservative friends about this by pointing to every squadron of military jets that flew over us, any military aircraft, really, even if it was just the Blue Angels performing, and calling out: “Look! A show of force!” I thought of those days, and how gratuitously the joke had aged, now that formation after formation flew over us, like helicopters over the hood. At one point, a platoon or company of soldiers marched towards us up a side street, performed some manuevers, then pulled back, apparently satisfied that we’d gotten the message.
It was hours before the dignitaries appeared. For many of us, our first impression of an inaugural parade had been Jimmy & Rosalyn Carter’s unprecedented and electrifying walk down the entire parade route. We wondered if anything like it might be in the offing, despite the inclement weather, given the way the selection had been resolved. What we saw instead was a slow procession of limosines. Eagerly we waited to let the incoming “president” know what we thought of the way he’d obtained the office. One limosine pulled to a halt, and less than ten feet from me, Vice President-Select Dick Cheney popped his head partially out of an open window, surveyed us, and gave us his biggest unnerving smile.
Behind him appeared the final limosine. As it rolled by, we peered in expectantly, as we had into every other vehicle, but could see no one in the back seat except a woman on the far side who we assumed was Laura. Apparently the new president was afraid to face his fellow citizens, even from within an armored car with the full force of the greatest fighting force on earth all around us to protect him. Either he had slunk down so low in his seat that we couldn’t see him, or he wasn’t there at all. Either way, we were elated by what we saw as proof that Bush himself knew that he had not been legitimately elected as our leader.
The next morning I, like I suspect many others who were there that day, eagerly bought and opened the paper of record, the liberal bastion known as the New York Times, and was stunned. There on page 1, or its continuation in some editions, was the picture you see below, as it appeared in the Times (1), and below it the original AP photo (2) that the Times reprinted, with the caption “President George W Bush, newly sworn in, and the first lady Laura Bush walk down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Inaugural Parade.”
Ironically, by deploying the same kind of “it depends what the meaning of the word is is” needle-threading weaselry that had revolted millions into voting for Bush in an election that never should have been as close as it was, the Times statement was technically accurate. As I learned from digging more deeply, and as can be seen from an AP photo of the same scene taken from another angle (3), he was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and I suppose one could even call the walk part of the Inaugural Parade, even though, as you can see, it was cordoned off from the rest of the parade route, with a crowd, as it turned out, limited to Bush supporters only. Long-time DC denizens will recognize it from those pre 9/11 days, when it was still a functioning part of PA Ave, as the last few hundred feet before you come to the White House proper. And if you don’t, we’ve grabbed and included a street view from Google Maps (4), with markers (A) (B) and (C) matching today’s view to the photo opp to prove it.
Clearly the intent was to create the impression among the vast majority of Americans who were not there, and who had not watched, that the Bushes had replicated the unifying and healing trek of the Carters a quarter century prior, a ruse the Times and other “liberal” media outlets chose to participate in even though they knew how fundamentally dishonest it was. The most charitable explanation would be that they were trying to do their part to heal the country, by compromising the standards we rely on them for, but even if so, especially given what followed, this would reveal only how poor, dangerous, and unreliable their sense of judgment was–and, as it’s turned out, still is.
Less charitably, it was a rare window revealing the Establishment closing ranks to protect itself against the righteous anger of the people. If there was any doubt what the gray lady’s intentions, at least, were that day, they were resolved when we looked for coverage of the protests, which, as it turned out, hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens had participated in across the country. The Times had decided to whitewash that onto Page 26. Let the healing begin, it seemed to declare, with a bandage over your eyes, ears, and mouth.
The Long Postscript
What followed was, with scales fallen, entirely predictable. The amplification of jingoism and political exploitation of the 9/11 tragedy while the “liberal” media stood mute, at best; the cheerleading, led in particularly egregious fashion by the Times, for the Iraq War (which 40% of us somehow knew–without the “intelligence” or access that the media enjoyed–wouldn’t end with the discovery of WMDs, just as many more of us knew Bill Barr was laying down a steaming pile of spin about the Mueller Report), and the dismissal of serious and legitimate concerns about the accidental president’s re-election, not to mention running interference for the administration’s complicity and incompetence in allowing 9/11 to happen to begin with, all of it squandering journalism’s credibility–the business end of the pen–with every gyration. It’s not surprising that by 2004, Bush’s chief strategist felt emboldened to publicly say, to an ink-stained scribe, a Times reporter, appropriately, that
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Nor is it remarkable that this statement is requoted now much more than it was then.
In fact, it took another photo opp the media couldn’t resist–Bush flying over New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath–that finally turned the turd blossom, and it took the total collapse of the economy on September 15, 2008 (as shown by contemporaneous polling) for the “other,” Barack Hussein Obama, to finally navigate past the media’s soul-groping and sportscasting approach to truth for the win. A fortuitous clandestine recording would be required for him to repeat the trick in 2012.
There’s been a great deal of alarm in recent years about “deep fakes,” technology that will make it possible to make it seamlessly appear as if anyone has said anything the creator wants to claim he/she said, while in any position, engaged in any facial or body movement, dressed in any outfit the maker sees unfit to clothe them. Me, I find it hard to see anything but upside.
When the media can no longer focus on what politicians say or the ephemera of their appearance, because none of it is believable, when there’s no longer any advantage to be gained by prostituting themselves for access, perhaps they will be forced to focus on what politicians have actually done, its impact on their constituents, what they say they will do (because the boring truth–vs. sensational exceptions–is that elected officials actually keep–or at least try to keep–most of their promises), and what the likely impact will be. As Ro Khanna, D-CA, has observed, politicians rarely have original thoughts–none of their policy ideas appear in a vacuum, especially not if/when we wrest state policymaking away from the likes of ALEC to turn them back into the federalist “laboratories of democracy” that once gave us a significant market-based competitive advantage in policymaking over the rest of the world. Our reportorial protectors and pundits don’t really have to know how a candidate behaved in 10th grade to make a well-educated guess as to what will happen if their health care ideas are implemented.
And So What?
All this said, at some level, we all “know” the media is corrupt, “lazy” (by which we mean woefully understaffed, compromised and strangled by its corporate overlords), and not really liberal (unless you’re a take no prisoners conservative idiologue)–it’s socially liberal at most. Economically–what counts in America–it’s always been conservative, liberal only if neoclassical economics is considered liberal, and conservative by any definition when you get to the level of the individuals who write the checks, determine the headlines/sublines and what gets covered. Individual articles with a truly liberal flair are only feints like dogs on a leash–they’re local weather; corporate is climate change. I myself clearly knew this from years of experience long before the January day at the heart of this piece.
So what was it about that day that was different? I suppose it was that I never imagined even “liberal” outlets like the New York Times would go far to support, suborn, appease–choose your own out of hundreds of negative adjectives that apply–such a fundamental attack on what’s most sacred in the one indispensible nation, the only country in the world ever founded on an idea. And make no mistake, in so many ways, that’s what the 2000 “election” was, no matter who you supported, an attack actually far more profound than 9/11, as I hope my liberty-loving conservative friends won’t have to see for themselves someday, made more egregious since, day by day, because the so-called Fourth Estate that was supposed to protect our ideals didn’t stand up, choosing instead to do everything it could to stifle we, the people, in our tracks.
And I suppose that seeing first-hand the chasmic impact one photo, one caption, one editorial decision could have just made me far more aware of how pervasive the power of the media is, no matter how much we deride, satirize, and dismiss it. Here’s just a small example of what I mean. For decades during election season, you could always tell the Democrats from the Republicans by their yard signs, bumper stickers, and other campaign paraphernalia. Democrats’ were nearly always red, Republicans’ blue. Which makes sense–red is the color of passion and revolution; blue is the color of reserved business suits–conservative. Candidates that wanted to appear independent or bipartisan used green–like Jimmy Carter, who pioneered the use of this color in the 1976 election, or Amy Klobuchar today.
But in 1980, ABC started coloring Democratic states blue and Republican states red on its election night map. In 1984, CBS followed suit, joined by NBC in 1996, and by the time of the divisive election of 2000, all the major networks had adopted this scheme, which was thoroughly imprinted in the many days of trauma and uncertainty that followed. Am I making too much of something trivial? Perhaps. But I think it’s more reasonable to presume that there was a reason why Democrats typically used red and Republicans blue up to that point, that they both saw this color use as sending a very clear and powerful message to voters.
Moreover, consider what it would be reasonable to see happen if colors really have power and colors were switched. Initially you’d expect confusion and a dampening of passions, because color and message would be working at cross-purpose; you’d expect to start hearing voters complain that there’s no difference between the two parties. Then, over time, you’d expect the party associated with blue to become increasingly incremental, increasingly preoccupied with holding on to whatever gains it had made; meanwhile, you’d expect the red party to become increasingly radicalized in its beliefs. Do these statements not describe exactly what has happened in politics since the major networks made this change? Is this just a coincidence? Correlation without cause? Somebody get us a grant (or start buying from our store(s) ), and let’s find out 😉
Or consider something a lot bigger: the 2016 election. It’s become fashionable in the traditional media to pillory social/new media for the election of Donald Trump. But is this really true, or is it just legacy media trying to settle old scores like the Post did with AOL, or more sinisterly, attempting once again to stifle the voice of the people? If you’ve been reading the Post as long as I have, you may remember the cartoon figure that used to accompany their Letters section, which, trying to get online community hip, they titled Sound Off! It was, in my view at least, quite revealing about what the paper thought of its hoi polloi readers, represented in the graphic by a little man with a huge nose, huge mouth, tiny brain, closed eyes, pot belly, and huge feet, screaming at the top of his lungs.
There’s no doubt in my mind–as a new media veteran of 30+ years–that using Facebook for persuasion (not just to raise money, as a typical condultant would do) was a much more efficient use of campaign dollars by the Trump campaign than Hillary’s television ad buys (which became so ubiquitous they ticked people off). But did it really have a greater impact on the election, and in particular, Trump’s ability to gain traction with so much less money, than the hundreds of hours of unfiltered, unmoderated coverage of Trump campaign rallies that CNN and other outlets provided–truly unearned media, no matter what the networks call it–apparently unaware that for Trump, loyalty is a one-way back alley?
Can Trump’s tweets, amplified by his Russian bot networks, claim more responsibility for his success than a corporate media that spilled more ink on Hillary’s emails than it did on all of Trump’s scandals combined? Scandals that themselves turned out to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg because the media did such a poor job of digging in on them–how is it, for example, that we only found this out nearly two years after Election Day, about a candidate who refused to show his tax returns?
Then there was the decision to engage in wall-to-wall coverage of Comey’s fake October surprise–which no less than Nate Silver identifies as the final twist in the campaign–while burying both the Steele dossier (which, even at 70% accuracy, contained far more that was factual and relevant than Comey’s investigation) and the existence of the Trump-Russia investigation. Here is a typical defense by the media of its actions and their impact; see if it works for you any better than–as opposed to merely echoing–House Republicans’ defense of Trump during the impeachment hearings.
It’s telling that not even the Columbia Journalism Review is buying it. More generally, journalists’ “both sides” approach, while adorably honorable to a centrist like myself, fits too conveniently with the business need for access (which is cheaper than real investigation), dramatic tension, and the widest possible audience, while providing a petrie dish for evil far beyond the enthusiastically cynical dreams of my undergraduate days, a flat container lined, I can only hope reporters (and above) realize, with Lenin’s noose.
There–that last sentence. That’s what that day meant to me, an elemental force difficult to understand and really appreciate if you haven’t had a similar experience yourself. You may be down on the media, but my guess is that day made me fiercer, fiercer than you, because I really saw behind the curtain. You may call them on some of their BS; I’ve felt driven ever since to find and call them on every instance I can find. Far right conservatives like to talk about “taking the red pill,” a Matrix movie reference to a capsule that, when you take it, allows you to see through the world as it appears to the way it really is. It takes a shock to the system–whether chemical or physical–to do that, and there are red pills for every ideology. This was mine.
So what, you could reasonably ask? One of old media’s tropes about social is that it causes mental illnesses like depression (it doesn’t). What they typically fail to mention is that active posters actually feel better and are more mentally healthy. If you want to feel the power, the determination, that even a shy, retiring, tired fellow like myself feels about all things political, rather than helpless cynicism, start witnessing, being in or at the story, if not actually the story yourself. In the words of Jello Biafra, really, the lead singer of the seminal punk group The Dead Kennedys, “Don’t hate the media. Be the media.” While in general we’re strongly opposed to the use of sports metaphors in politics, there’s one way the two endeavors really do both “put their pants on one leg at a time.” In politics, the team, the side that wants it more generally wins in the end.
That grey lady day made me want it more every minute since; you can want it more too.
Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!