Just as dirty money can be laundered to appear legitimate, so too can dishonest propaganda messages be laundered to become news. It is the job of the media not to do that. We’re having some issues these days, though.
A fair definition of news is: real things that really matter to a lot of people. In politics—a field that is all about gaining and wielding power—the real news is how that power will affect most people’s lives. Practically speaking that means: What will elected officials and the government do about climate change? About poverty? About taxes? About inequality? About housing? About racism? About education? About war and peace? News coverage of politics has public value to the extent that it can focus on these questions and avoid sinking into the quicksand of horse race journalism or—even worse—being used as a tool to lend respectability to disrespectable PR.
Remember when the Bush administration carefully planted a story about Iraq’s scary aluminum tubes in the New York Times, and then used the Times report itself as independent justification for the march to war? That is news laundering at its finest. That is an example of what can happen when news organizations allow themselves to be sucked into narratives planted for cynical and dishonest political purposes. It is an omnipresent risk. There are many well paid people in the political world employed for the express purpose of bending media coverage to fit handpicked narratives to benefit some specific interest, so that they can then point to the coverage and say, “See? This validates what we were saying all along.” Everyone who covers politics has to constantly scrutinize themselves for evidence that they are being sucked into this tendency, which can creep up slowly and quietly when political reporters live and work and socialize in an environment full of political operatives.
Fox News is a media organization that exists largely to carry out large-scale news laundering on behalf of the Republican Party. It has been remarkably successful at this task. The success of Fox News makes it all the more important that other national media outlets, which actually try (to varying degrees) to do “news,” police themselves against the possibility of being manipulated. Unfortunately, modern American journalism, enamored of the fiction of objective coverage, is extremely susceptible to savvy political PR operations that use the press’s tendency towards “one side says, the other side says” coverage in order to make absurd partisan trickery seem to be on par with rational objections to absurd partisan trickery. Each side says a thing! You decide.
It is not at all clear that the nonpartisan sides of the biggest media outlets in our country, as currently constituted, are capable of dealing with the sort of brazen lies and propaganda that have become normal in the Trump era. Allow me to cite one example from this past Sunday, on Jake Tapper’s CNN Sunday show. I do not pick Jake Tapper because he is some preening, dishonest partisan hack with shiny hair—I pick him because he is a fair example of a “mainstream” cable news journalist who seems to genuinely try to do a good job, with shiny hair.
Jake’s panel, live from Florida—a Republican Congressman, a Democratic Congressman, right wing Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, and Symone Sanders—starts off okay. A couple of minutes in, Bondi awkwardly tacks this on to an answer about preexisting conditions: “It’s nice to have such a panel, by the way, where we can conduct ourselves with civility. And we actually all like each other.”
Civility! Democratic mobs! Out of control, just like the migrant caravan coming with ISIS! “Civility,” in October of 2018, from the mouth of a Republican politician, is a well-vetted talking point designed for the express purpose of distracting American voters from issues like health care and taxes and inequality and climate change—all of the issues that are real and important and that Republicans do not want to discuss, because they passed a trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich and are trying to make everyone’s health care worse and deny the existence of climate change, and honestly none of those things go over that well with the majority of Florida voters, when they are presented in clear and factual ways. “Civility” is a buzzword that exists to distract from real things. It is the job of journalists not to allow that okey doke to succeed.
But seven minutes into the panel, Jake Tapper turns to the topic of: civility. “Nancy Pelosi in Miami facing a mob, and Mitch McConnell in Kentucky facing a mob,” he intones, as video clips play of powerful elected officials being yelled at in public by angry constituents. There was no violence in those videos; there were, in fact, no “mobs”; there were citizens, and voters, yelling at elected officials that they almost certainly had never had access to in person before.
“There is an argument that public officials—I’m not making this argument, I’m just saying, there is an argument out there—that public officials, that this is the free speech rights of the American people and they get to do that,” Jake Tapper said to Pam Bondi. He is not making the argument that direct free speech to elected officials is good, you see—that would be ridiculous. He is merely noting to the attorney general of the third largest state in America the existence of the foolish, unsophisticated argument that in an age in which true democratic representation is being purposefully eroded by the Republican party in a naked, anti-democratic power grab, citizens might be allowed to nonviolently confront their elected representatives directly.
“It’s tough. It’s awful when it’s happening to anyone,” Pam Bondi replied. “It needs to be condemned,” agreed tepid Congressman Ted Deutch. “Those struck me as radical people trying to create disruption, and potentially to hurt people,” concurred Congressman Matt Gaetz. And thus, the circle was complete. The idea that “mobs” of angry voters who are destroying “civility” are a real issue that deserves serious attention has been cemented. The fact that it deserves serious attention has been demonstrated by CNN giving it serious attention. Even a professional journalist has sent the message that it is Wrong and Worrisome and Not Okay to aggressively confront politicians in public. Suddenly, the very officials who are most responsible for the fucked up shit that people are angry about have been magically transformed into victims about whom we must all be concerned. The “issue,” conjured up from fundamentally unimportant strands and designed only to distract, has been blessed by the media and become something real that we must all consider. And every moment spent discussing it is a moment when the politicians are not forced to discuss something more meaningful.
We all gotta do better. The time we live in is too serious. Don’t do this.