It’s time to wade into the swamp — or alternate universe — of right-wing media to really understand the twisted “truths” they report.
Courtesy of Todd Gitlin
I spent most of 2016 doing my duty as citizen, writer and educator aghast at the favors done for the unprincipled, incoherent, vicious, dangerous ignoramus Donald Trump by the business known as “the media,” formerly known as “the press” — an enterprise accorded privileges by the US Constitution on the quaint 18th-century belief that if the people are informed, they will make better judgments than if they are less so. Detailing the incomprehensions, incapacities, failures, inadequacies and airbrushings over the course of many months was not, for me, a feel-good exercise, but I judged it preferable to sitting at home griping, ranting and snarling to my family and friends while my mind exploded in the knowledge that the rudder was coming off the ship of state even if some last-minute reprieve might be granted.
The media licensed the mountebank for his latest star turn, upgraded him, credited His Fraudulence with a talent for lying when they were not marveling at his blunt originality. They presidentialized him, accorded him their most fulsome praise (interesting!), oo-ed and ah-ed at the spectacle of his shiny performances, surely (you have to admit!) a little bit different from the boring same-old-same-old policy proposals (and wasn’t that refreshing!). There were the favors of commission, like granting him a wad of unpaid broadcast time greater than that received by all the other candidates put together; the puffball “interviews” which he deigned to phone in to slavering “news” personnel; their fascination with his appearances even as their cameras showed — Breaking News! — crowds staring at empty platforms.
But I will not here review the manifold ways in which these dog-and-pony shows called “news” helped him hold a (for him) fortunately distributed 46 percent of American voters in thrall; the rapt attention they paid to his birther lie and many succeeding lies, fabrications and brazen flights from truth; their deference when he lied and repeated his lies; the false equivalencies, as if the many thousands of mainstream uproars about “Benghazi” and “emails” and “Clinton Foundation” were, in and of themselves, worthy of notice as magic hate triggers that did not have to be attached to true-or-false propositions to ring out as self-evidently newsworthy accusations.
There were also, of course, the favors of omission, especially TV’s shunting aside the seamier side of Trump’s background, his dreadful reputation in New York’s real estate world, his mafia ties, his thuggish ways with investors and contractors, his government subsidies and so on. So-called fake news wasn’t even the tip of the sewage rained down upon the nation day after day. The eyeball-catching sheer fabrications about Hillary Clinton passed on by money-grubbing hucksters in Macedonia and elsewhere abroad, amplified by Facebook and shielded by their “how-can-we-be-responsible?-do-we-look-like-a-media-company” self-protective rationalizations—the outright fakery was only, in truth, afootnote to the big story, which was the sheer breakdown of the truth-telling imperative that underwrites the democratic theory of media.
There were of course exceptional reporters and editors. They deserve celebration — I’ve done some of it myself — and, God willing, there will be more to celebrate in time. But the big story is that it’s the regulars who failed bigger-time — the professionals, the so-called “press corps,” the preening paragons of the First Amendment — who, in the face of the Nov. 8 disaster deposited upon the United States of America, stroked their beards and wondered what went wrong with their polls and how they had missed white rage (which they mistakenly assumed to be, centrally, operatively, white working-class rage), not how they had let this trickster and fraudster climb to the head of the pack before they realized he had run rings around them and the truth, by which time it was too late to vote him off the island. In the face of so-called “conservative media” eroding their audience, they caved.
To borrow words from the late, great truth-teller Leonard Cohen (Sept. 21, 1934—Nov. 7, 2016), who died one day short of seeing his adoptive country decide it was sick to death of democracy and would chart a new course, sailing straight onto the rocks of some unknown political system, I want it darker. Because the mainstream media are only part — a significant part, but only a part — of an interlocking ecology of falsification that has driven the country around the bend.
It cannot be said too many times that the mainstream media rolled out the blood-red carpet on which Trump strutted to center stage to assume his throne amid the ruins of American democracy. But isn’t it obvious that the mainstream media did not by themselves manufacture the garbage that, for months, they fed to ravenous American suckers eager to clamor that they too were mad as hell and weren’t going to take “it” anymore — whether by “it” they meant uppity dark-skinned people, “crooked Hillary,” Barack Hussein Obama or the swampy flats where Washington’s pointy-headed bureaucrats (as George Wallace used to call the civil service) had the temerity to defy the good sense of El Caudillo de Mar-a-Lago.
I want to go back where the swamp starts. (Not that I have anything against swamps, which are, after all, good ecosystems. But I’m working with the metaphor du jour.) So I’ve decided to devote myself this coming year to an effort to take seriously the far-flung warp-world, the force-field of distortion and derangement that generates and circulates propaganda, fabrications, sloppy thinking and straight-out nihilism which dominates the beliefs, if we can use that word, of the Republican Party, and which large numbers of Americans have come to accept as a baseline for what they call reality. What bent world do the purveyors live in? What’s the method to their legacy? Can we say anything to clarify what they’re on about? For as the man said, “there’s something going on.”
Over recent decades, a poison cloud of right-wing propaganda has been pumped into living rooms. The poisoners have been called an “echo chamber,” a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Fox and Friends, “barking heads” or, most anodyne, “conservative media” — as if these amplifiers of bombast, distortion and venom actually invite anyone to conserve anything but corporate impunity, tax breaks for the wealthy, the privileges that their pink skin often (not always) buy them, and occasional fits of piety that they have the gall to trumpet as “Christian,” though their “values” corresponded to nothing Jesus of Nazareth had in mind. This propaganda enterprise owns a major political party which has floated crazy, fruitless, indictmentless investigations and insinuations with apparently permanent standing in the Congress of the United States and all over the airwaves for a quarter century now. Whitewater! Vince Foster! Benghazi! Emails! Emails! And by the way, America — so shrieked Fox News as recently as this week — have you heard about the latest batch of emails?
For one reason and another, none of the present labels for this warp-world where truth goes to die quite suits me. They’ve become stale from overuse, or they have too many syllables. The perpetrators do not necessarily meet. (The word “conspiracy” comes from the Latin that means “breathing together,” and the word evokes actual face-to-face encounters in seedy conference rooms in airport hotels or, say, atop golden towers or on Palm Beach golf courses.) But the interlocking perpetrators of our propaganda mills do not necessarily meet to shake hands.
So I am going to call the totality of this enterprise The Vortex, which stands for: VOices of RT-wing EXtremism. “Vortex” conveys linkage and “Voices” conveys multiplicity. The Vortex has both, but it is not a cabal of fixed membership. It is a cloud — and like clouds, has no fixed boundary. There’s never a moment when you can be certain, flying through it, whether you’re inside or outside. But the fact that it cannot be demarcated precisely — or walled in, you might say — does not mean that clouds do not exist.
The right-wing TV, radio and internet figures who can be summarized as The Vortex are not a closed club but a fluid universe. By the time this article is posted, there may very well be new entrants. [Editor’s Note: Fox News just announced that Megyn Kelly, who has opposed sexism throughout her career, will be succeeded in prime time by Tucker Carlson, who fits quite easily into the misogynist lineup of Fox’s favorite bullies with the choice soapboxes from which to harangue in behalf of white male supremacy.] One way to visualize this domain is to consult a revelatory diagram posted by Buzzfeed on Dec. 3, mapping the main hyperlinks tweeted by Trump’s personal Twitter account between June 1, 2015 (the month he announced his candidacy) and Nov. 17, 2016. These are the sources which Trump, or whoever he entrusts with this mission, considers important enough to beam outward to the 18.7 million (and counting) “followers” privileged to receive the digital effusions of @realDonaldTrump.
Of the 10 biggest sources in Trump’s universe, overwhelmingly the powerhouse, the center of gravity of Trump’s intellectual world, is Breitbart.com, whose proprietor, Stephen K. Bannon, last August took over his faltering campaign from the Republican hack Paul Manafort, who was in ill repute over his pro-Russian financial operations in Ukraine. Bannon will now (unless he proves too acrid a pill for normal collaborating Republicans to swallow) be installed in the West Wing of the White House as senior counselor.
Of the remaining nine top sites that Trump (or his minions) took seriously enough to retweet, according to Buzzfeed’s research, six are flamingly right-wing propaganda sites. Two belong to Rupert Murdoch, through Fox News and the New York Post; the other four are newsmax.com, dailycaller.com, washingtonexaminer.com, and dailymail.co.uk. (Rounding out the top 10 are The Hill, The Washington Post and Politico.) Even the inner Trump circle needs some sprinkling of actual reports gathered and edited by news organizations — even some normally considered part of the “lying media.”
Breitbart “News” and its fellow travelers do not belong to news organizations. There are no professional journalists there. They do not report. They do not sift and winnow. They rarely ask questions to which they do not already know the answers. They cherry-pick among news organizations’ reports, rumors or out-and-out fabrications, but that is for gloss. Their business is to circulate propaganda. And in this benighted age of low-cost internet access, they have a business model that works. By keeping their base in a state of simple frenzy, they win back, and back, and back their core of customers.
So, to take just one example this week, we are hearing the stories — but stories are all they are, since no one, not even Trump, knows what if anything he has in mind — that “Trump is now planning to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, as he believes that the national intelligence office has become ‘politicized.’ The idea originated in a right-wing conspiracy theory explained on Fox News by a Breitbart author.”
The Vortex has lined up with alacrity in recent days. Sean Hannity, who in 2008 claimed on national TV that Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (an assertion that could only have been made by someone unfamiliar with books written for grown-ups), spoke of the intelligence agencies’ belief that the Russian government of Vladimir Putin hacked American and transmitted disinformation “another liberal media fake news story that they’re all falling for.” Now that the line has changed, Breitbart goes big with the claim that “the Russian hacking story is ‘left-wing fake news’….Here are just 10 of the reasons the “Russian hacking” story is a sham — a left-wing twist on the red-baiting McCarthyism of the 1950s.” And Trump’s go-to rabbi of mayhem, Alex Jones, purveyor of 9/11 “truther” garbage (you know, the “inside job”), is sure that the CIA is lying now to cover up for the arch-demon Barack Obama.
The Joneses, the Bannons, the Hannitys are not lovers of freedom, democracy, justice or truth. Their cynicism is breathtaking. They believe in nothing but raw power, above all the power of their own braying. They believe in nothing else. Nothing. They are hatred incarnate in suits on the payrolls of billionaires.
So I will be exploring the Vortex this year, taking this as my resolution: We may not be interested in right-wing lunacy, but it’s interested in us, our republic and our capacity to know the truth. So we must know it to someday, somehow, set ourselves free.
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Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.