One of the few useful things that Donald Trump has contributed to our national conversation is the concept of “fake news.” He was right, but for the wrong reasons. For Trump, news is fake if it does not sufficiently fawn over his fragile ego. In reality, the news we consume is a dangerous stew of fearmongering and corporate groupthink, which has nothing to do with the public interest, and everything to do with scaring the shit out of each and every one of us. It is the path to totalitarianism, and we’re already well on our way.
Does the idea that the corporate media can lead us to totalitarianism alarm you? It should. Do you believe it can? Probably not. That could never happen in America … we live in the land of the free. Right?
The more you read about it, the more frightening the power of corporate media becomes.
The academic discipline of media studies is still young, but it has made important progress in lifting the veil on how the news industry works. Media studies pursues the questions: why do we see what we see, and what effect is it having on us? A pioneer in this field was Marshall MacLuhan, and the current north star is Manufacturing Consent, a book by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, (Pantheon, 1988, 2nd ed. 2002). My Reader’s Guide to Manufacturing Consent, published in 2018, offers critical analysis of Herman and Chomsky’s book, and a framework for an update of their well-known propaganda model.
With his new book Hate Inc.; Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (O/R Books, 2019), Matt Taibbi enters this field with a journalist’s background, and the eye of an academic. Taibbi is a reporter for Rolling Stone, and a self-appointed media critic. The book begins and ends with touching paens to his father, an old-school gumshoe reporter, and is peppered with fanboy homage of (and an interview with) academic Noam Chomsky. This journalist/academic background gives Taibbi a unique insider’s take on modern journalism, one with an eye toward the bigger picture.
Taibbi calls Hate Inc. a “serialized book,” which means it is a collection of essays on various topics about today’s media environment. Taibbi’s observations are anecdotal, and suffer from the same axe-grinding that weighs down Manufacturing Consent. Still, the anecdotes, at various times, will shock, amuse, and enrage.
It is rage, though, that is the gist of Taibbi’s thesis. In sum, Hate Inc. documents the fall of actual reporting, and the rise of what we now call “influencers.” Their rise was in service of dividing the audience into equal halves, whipping both sides into mutual rage, directed against one another. The result is a news product that has increasingly less to do with facts and context, and more to do with dumbing down the message, and consequently, the audience.
The result is an open door for further abuse of governmental power. If we stay on the current trajectory, totalitarianism will not just come to the United States — we will demand it.
Taibbi’s singular accomplishment in Hate Inc. is pointing out the culture shift in (what for the moment is still called) journalism. He points out that, where reporters once generally came from the working class, like their audience, they now are, like many of their sources, predominantly Ivy Leaguers, and prefer to be known as influencers.
In sum, it’s the story of how Q Scores became more important than Pulitzers.
The effect is the rise of a class of journalists who not only can be credibly accused of being elite — but who in fact embrace the title. Journalists have joined capitalists and politicians at the table of power. And, like anyone in power, their motivation — their only motivation — is to acquire more power.
It is a power shift that could only happen in the information age.
The fact that journalism is a business is almost incidental. Sure enough, journalists are in it for the money, but their path to riches is the power to control public opinion — to be an influencer.
Influencers probably first arrived on the scene sometime soon after 1972. Taibbi points out that the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which led to the primary elections we have today, made public opinion actually matter. It put the press in a new position:
“By the seventies and the eighties, when the nomination process left the smoke-filled room and became a more public affair, it became a kind of elite beauty contest in which Washington journalists assumed the role of judges.” (p.25)
Now we have the
“’Gang of 500’ [a loosely-defined group of] campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern-day political establishment.” (p. 94)
This has led to a degraded product. Now, in 2020, stories from the culture wars, and sports-themed election coverage, predominate over actual substance. Context is unimportant, as are, alarmingly, facts.
“The Russiagate era has so degraded journalism that even once ‘reputable’ outlets are now only about as right as politicians, which is to say barely ever, and then only by accident.” (p. 246)
Taibbi states the ideal:
“One political party may be preferable to another. A news channel, though, can’t be a vehicle for a political party and be anything but a bad thing.” (p. 272)
Today the ideal sounds laughably naive. Journalists no longer relate with their audience; now they identify with their sources, and consequently, the institutions they represent. This gave Trump a wide opening in 2016:
“The media was supposed to help society self-correct by shining a light on the myopia that led to all of this. But reporters had spent so long trying to buddy up to politicians that by 2016, they were all in the tent together, equally blind. Which is why it won’t be a shock if they repeat the error. You can’t fix what you can’t see.” (p. 187)
And Taibbi names names. He slams Judith Miller, Richard Cohen, David Remnick, Thomas Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Brooks, and Fred Hiatt, all of whom were prominent cheerleaders for the Iraq War. He calls Jonathan Chait “a human wrongness barometer.” (pp. 214–215)
Not only do reporters relate more with their sources than their audiences, they are also metaphorically, and sometimes physically, embedded with their sources. (And yes, the word “embedded” in this instance can and should be read as “in bed with.”)
As discussed in my Reader’s Guide, embedding reporters with U.S. troops was an important part of the Bush administration’s media strategy during the Iraq War. Elections too are covered by reporters who are travel companions with the candidates and their staff. This close huddle of reporters and their sources has resulted in groupthink.
“[T]his business … prefers herd animals to true hunters.” (p. 76)
“Reporters in large commercial organizations make mistakes as a group because they do everything as a group.” (p. 226)
Groupthink is a term that derives from Orwell’s 1984, and today has similar dystopian consequences. In his discussion of the WMD story, Taibbi points out that the press actually surprised their sources, not by calling out obvious lies (which it almost uniformly failed to do), or even by ignoring obvious lies (which it almost uniformly did), but by building on the lies, giving them an air of credibility:
“On their own, without prompting, American journalists went beyond what the intelligence chiefs hoped, even piling abuse upon the French, whose Security Council opposition imperiled the backroom deal cooked up by the British and Americans.” (p. 225)
The result is a dynamic structure where, on an as-needed basis, the press regularly gives institutional cover to official lies. One need not point out that this is the exact opposite of what the Fourth Estate should be doing. It does bear mention, though, that the consequences of this dynamic are dire.
It starts with the government crafting official releases using public relations principles, rather than with stodgy, fact-laden bureaucratese:
“When the expert authors turned out not to be intelligence analysts but mid-level press officers, this was an admission that the messaging operation’s real target was not Saddam Hussein but the media itself.” (p. 229)
The press ignored fairly obvious signs that the so-called “intelligence reports” were actually hatchet jobs. Taibbi points out how shockingly dysfunctional that is:
“The press was used as a laundry machine, tossing dirty information made ‘reputable’ by attaching it to names of prestigious news agencies.” (p. 230)
“When officials use the press to launder information either offered off the record or developed by foreigners, what they’re telling you [the journalist] is they want you to put your name on assertions they wouldn’t touch themselves.” (p. 230)
Was the press’ ignorance of fairly obvious lies merely an error?
What is truly alarming is that, not only do reporters who get duped by their sources routinely avoid negative career consequences, they often advance, because their insider status is seen in the industry as more important than any single reportorial error.
“[M]edia figures who get things wrong do not experience professional consequences. Instead, they remain in place or are promoted, in case they’re needed to make a ‘mistake’ again.” (p. 214)
“The lack of blowback over episodes in which reporters were put in compromising public situations speaks to the overly cozy relationships outlets had with official sources. Too often, it felt like a team effort, where reporters seemed to think it was their duty to take the weight if sources pushed them to overreach. They had absolutely no sense of institutional self-esteem about this. … Being on any team is a bad look for the press, but the press being on team FBI/CIA is an atrocity. Trump or no Trump. Why bother having a press corps at all if you’re going to go that route?” (p. 253)
Taibbi describes how Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, who was the first reporter to name Christopher Steele as a source, and who reported regularly on the more scandalous aspects of his dossier, laughed off the news that the “pee tape story” in the dossier was probably false. (p. 244) Isikoff knew there would be no consequences for his error.
Oddly, Taibbi predicts a different outcome for Rachel Maddow, a (if not the) major proponent of the disproven Russiagate story:
“Absent a crazy new development, Rachel will almost certainly be turned into the Judith Miller of Russiagate, the human symbol of What Went Wrong. Just like Judith Miller, she won’t deserve to wander the desert alone.” (p. 259)
Maddow has yet to suffer any professional consequences for this error, nor likely will she. Insider status confers more protection than even Taibbi gives credit.
The consequences, as discussed below, will be borne by the rest of us.
With the rise of influencers, and their identification with politicians, it was probably inevitable that the press would develop partisan leanings of its own.
Journalistic dualism was, of course, pioneered by Roger Ailes and Fox News, on the right. Because nature abhors a vacuum, it would not be long that there would be a corresponding channel on the left. Taibbi convincingly argues that MSNBC has stepped into that role.
The fact of dualism cannot be denied. We are almost numerically equally divided — red and blue. The problem is, in Hate Inc. along with the rest of the literature, there is very little data or analysis on how we became cleaved, almost perfectly, in half. One would think that, in the marketplace of ideas, one idea would certainly prevail. But it hasn’t. How? Taibbi raises an important point:
“[Chomsky’s] take was that in a sample size that enormous [i.e. the 111 million people who voted in the 2000 election], a tie would only be expected in one situation: if people were voting for something random, like the presidency of Mars.” (p. 104)
Does our almost perfectly even duality have something to do with the fact that neither political party actually represents the interests of most Americans? If neither party has anything to offer us, in a sense, we are voting randomly.
The narrative being pushed by the media is mostly culture war stuff, and even then, the culture wars have no clear winner. The question of how we became so evenly divided is worth further inquiry.
Whether dualism is another question. Taibbi calls the idea that two parties are the only brand of thought in existence an “insane notion.” (p. 270)
The human tendency towards dualism is a broad topic in philosophy and theology. Perhaps it is a vestigial remnant of our tribal not-so-very past. But when 537 votes in Florida decide an election, dualism is an undeniable fact. Perhaps it is because pluralism serves the people, dualism serves the powerful — and it is the powerful who make the rules.
Partisan dualism is a major structural component of the media environment. Sports is how we got there. Taibbi points out that much reporting, especially election reporting, draws on sports metaphors, and further, news broadcasts have borrowed production techniques from the sports desks. He also ably compares Trump to a WWE heel:
“Throw an attention magnet into a political journalism business that feeds financially off conflict, and what you get is the ultimate WWE event.” (p. 127)
“Most sports media trains audiences to see the world as a weird dualistic theology. The home city is a safe space where the righteous team is cheered and irrational worship is encouraged. Everywhere else is darkness.” (p. 195)
“What do pro wrestling and the U.S. Senate have in common? Both are dominated by overweight white guys pretending to hurt each other.” (p. 45) (quoting Jeff Cohen)
Almost every news story now has a face and a heel, a home and an away team, it’s just their roles are reversible, depending on which network you’re watching. Dualism works because it’s easy. Taibbi points out that it serves a commercial purpose, by making viewers return, to see how their team is doing. It has the unfortunate effect, says Taibbi and others, of having culture wars displace other, more complex and important content — but that’s the point.
“The schism is the conventional wisdom. Making the culture war the center of everyone’s universe is job one.” (p. 80)
Culture wars make it easy to identify friends and enemies:
“[T]he biggest change to Chomsky’s model is the discovery of a far superior ‘common enemy’ in modern media: each other. So long as we remain a bitterly divided two-party state, we’ll never want for TV villains. Who we hate just depends on what channel we watch.” (p. 208)
Probably knowing it would create controversy, Taibbi put Fox’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on his cover. He did so for a reason: they personify duality in the era of the influencer:
“Fox promoted Sean Hannity as their perfect vision of conservative manhood. The rectum-faced blowhard was celebrated for his fake daily victories over the intellectual Washington Generals act that was Alan Colmes.” (p. 60)
“The Rachel Maddow Show in the Trump era assumed this exact us-and-them format, down to the last detail. It’s been amazing, watching a woman who in life is naturally bright and inquisitive, turned into a vehicle for this kind of extreme anti-intellectual exercise.” (p. 265)
It would be funny, if it wasn’t true.
Anger and fear are closely related emotional reactions to perceived threats. As set forth above, dualism, by design, creates perceived threats. The anger that follows is a consequence of that design. Whether or not it is an intended consequence is another question. Taibbi concludes that it is intended.
“[W]e’re now manufacturing discontent.” (p. 209)
“The coverage formula on both channels is to scare the crap out of audiences, then offer them micro-doses of safety and solidarity, which come when they see people onscreen sharing their fears. There is a promise of reassurance that comes with both coverage formulas.” (p. 141)
Duality without anger would have no utility to media companies. The anger is the passion which keeps viewers coming back.
“We sold anger, and we did it mainly by feeding audiences what they wanted to hear. Mostly, this involved cranking out stories about people our viewers loved to hate.” (p. 18)
Taibbi relates this dualism to religion:
“[W]e keep people away from the complexities of these issues, by creating distinct audiences of party zealots who drink in more and more intense legends about one another. We started to turn the ongoing narrative of the news into something like a religious contract, in which the idea was not just to make you mad, but to keep you mad, whipped up in a state of devotional anger.” (p. 3)
Dualism creates an addiction which can only be fed by more conflict:
“We addict people to conflict stories so that our advertisers can remind them to indulge other addictions, like McDonald’s. … It’s a perfect business model.” (p. 90)
It has transformed our country into a mass of very frightened, very angry people:
“[T]he new normal will be coexisting, dueling panics: the caravan versus Russiagate. … The only constant will be more and more authoritarian solutions. In the social media age, we can scare you as never before. Which means politicians will have an easier time obtaining permission for censorship, surveillance, immigration bans, and other expanded powers.” (p. 160)
It has rendered us impotent…
“Listening in anger to your favorite political program, you will act like a person who is shaking a fist at power, when in fact you’ve been neutralized as an independent threat, reduced to a prop in a show.” (p. 206)
…which is sort of the point. From the perspective of corporate power being served by an increasingly totalitarian state:
“Scare the crap out of people, and media companies get richer, while state agencies get more and more license for authoritarian crackdowns on the ‘folk devil’ of the moment. A perfect partnership.” (p. 153)
There is nothing new about dumbed-down news coverage. What is new is how it now pervades the so-called “elite” legacy media. It pervades because it’s profitable. Culture war dualism works because it creates a simple narrative that anyone can follow. Taibbi points out that the issues which actually affect us, such as healthcare, economic inequality, infrastructure, and government waste, are expensive to report on, and do not create the oppositional passion that culture wars create, which translates into fewer viewers. All are “no-gos” for corporate-run media.
“All of this column space devoted to [Trump’s 2015 ‘schlonging’ comment] was not going to other subjects.” (p. 128)
“Real evil typically appears as institutional greed and inattention, and is depressing. People should never enjoy reading about the truly awful, and they don’t — which is why we spend less time on the water in Flint than body-language analyses of Ivanka Trump. You can’t ‘love to hate’ the Flint water crisis. But you can love a good heel act. … Character sells. Reality, not so much. … Get used to a world of heels and heroes, with not a whole lot in between.” (p. 133)
This represents a dangerous intellectual regression in our culture. While the informed used to laugh at people who read supermarket tabloids, the media these once-deep thinkers consume has now taken on tabloid-like sensationalism and incuriosity. Like the boiling frog metaphor, the regression went slowly enough for it to go largely unnoticed.
“Part of the ‘media illiteracy’ concept involves the idea that Fox is a giant evil misinformation platform designed to mislead uneducated people, which of course it is. But we run that story regularly, as though it’s a surprise.” (p. 89)
The public’s eager reception of Trump’s aggressive ignorance was greeted with surprise, but Taibbi points out that the media should have seen it coming. Theirs was the soil that nurtured his noxious seed:
“[T]here was synergy between a game show host building up his Q rating and a commercial news media whose business model thrives on conflict and was often starved for the real thing. Reporters who’d spent years concocting dubious features about the ‘Gore Bore’ problem or the ‘Wimp Factor’ now had a real presidential front runner talking about ‘schlonging’ a female rival. Ka-ching!” (p. 129)
Taibbi discusses how the shock of finding itself in the Trump era presented the legacy media with a choice: to reform and retreat to more standard coverage, or to wade deeper into the fact-free cesspool. It came as little surprise that they chose the latter:
“The press, though, profits from sheer noise, drama, and divisive ‘heat’ the same way Trump once did. When reporters after 2016 began bowing to reader pressure to ‘call Trump out,’ they gladly entered the ring with him.” (p. 132)
And why not? Trump has been extremely profitable for the media. The profit motive not only hastened the decline in news product, it made it inevitable. Taibbi makes a bold proclamation:
“THE NEWS IS A CONSUMER PRODUCT” (p. 135)
“This is not reporting. It’s a marketing process designed to create rhetorical addictions and shut any non-consumer doors in your mind.” (p. 21)
The idea of news as a commodity probably never occurred to Edward R. Murrow. But commodification is what capitalists do. News was once considered “public interest” programming — a requirement under the old FCC rules. Informing the public is no longer required. Instead, the media has chosen to inflame the public — for profit. Complex issues do not inflame people. Easy-to-digest stories inflame people. Hence the culture wars.
“The notion that you are reading the truth, and not consuming a product, is the first deception of commercial media.” (p. 136)
“Modern cable news is a promise to protect the viewer from intellectual challenge.” (p. 264)
Buried in Taibbi’s essays in Hate Inc. are two novel ideas, which can be applied as innovations to media studies. The first is the institutionalization of the relationship between the press and the intelligence community, and the other is an emphasis on the unique nature of election reporting. Both bear directly on the changing power structure in the time of the influencer. We look at both separately below.
The rising influence of source journalism discussed in my Reader’s Guide has led to a more permanent alliance between the press and the most manipulative actors in government. The intelligence community is, by definition, secretive. Any light that escapes from that dark star is on purpose — and the purpose is not to inform the public, it’s the opposite.
Taibbi describes national security reporting as a place where facts come to die. As the WMD scam and Russiagate make exceedingly clear, this reporting should never have happened in the first place, but it did. Hate Inc. casts serious doubt on the media’s ability (or desire) to not repeat these errors, so informed readers should know how to identify them. Taibbi proposes this metric:
“[If the story] involves national security; [it is] sourced to unnamed officials; [and t]he basic gist of the scoop is classified or otherwise unconfirmable” then the story should be read with suspicion. (p. 162)
The WMD and Russiagate failures are neither new nor unique. Government has been disseminating false information in service of the war machine for centuries. The media’s credulousness might be excusable if it only happened once … or even less than most of the time. The fact that it is a recurring theme should alarm us all. It’s almost as if the people who benefit from war, control the national media. At least to an extent.
Taibbi’s evidence is anecdotal, but damning:
“This is how totally without ethics our intelligence sources are, and how lazy newspapers are — we don’t even notice when we report the same terrorist killed by drone on different dates and different countries!” (p. 169)
My Reader’s Guide discusses recent developments in the government’s increasingly sophisticated use of public relations principles, including the use of John Rendon, a “perception management” consultant, to build the case for the Iraq War, like a real-life Conrad Brean from the film Wag the Dog. Taibbi builds on this work, noting how flimsy the government’s case can be, and still be picked up by the corporate media. According to Taibbi, the WMD scandal was
“a case for war that at best was designed to hold up to only temporary scrutiny.” (p. 214)
Like Conrad Brean, John Rendon only fed the media pieces of information in 2002, baiting them to “connect the dots” — that is, to draw unsupported inferences:
“Evidence was always over the next hill. It was a pioneering effort in a kind of Journalistic Ponzi scheme, in which news organizations justified banner headlines in the present by writing checks against a balance of future revelations.” (p. 216)
The increasingly obvious fact that the media acts in willing service to the war machine degrades the national spirit, leads to actual human death, and enriches the worst actors in our capitalist society. This, with media’s increasing influence in our elections, leaves an open door to totalitarianism.
For now, elections still determine who wields governmental power. Media corporations wield considerable gatekeeping power in elections, and they are actively seeking more power. This effort is not in service of an open, democratic process, or the public interest. It is in service of corporate power, which does not benefit from democracy, or the public interest. The power to appoint is the power to control. As the corporate press gains more gatekeeping power, the corporate control over government increases. The loser in the process is the people, whose voting power is diminished.
Taibbi has first-hand election reporting experience, so his observations give media studies unique insights into how corporate media uses, and increases, its gatekeeping power.
The media environment changed, though, in 2016. Trump’s election was to the press what 9/11 was to the airline industry. We look at the two eras separately.
Like other news topics, elections have been, as Taibbi puts it, “reconfigured into a sports coverage saga.” (pp. 52–53) The “invisible primary” is where duality comes into the open. Elections naturally deepen the divisions in our society and, as discussed above, the media is active in this effort.
Elections are the healthiest and most effective ways that the people exercise democratic power. If elections fail, civil insurrection will necessarily follow. Because of the centrality that elections have in the power balance, the corporate media’s treatment of them merits special attention, and separate analysis.
Election coverage involves the most sophisticated aspects of public relations theory. Every ounce of the corporate media’s effort is to create a narrative. And again, that narrative does not serve the public interest — it serves the corporate media’s interest. With his insider knowledge, Taibbi breaks down how it works, calling it
“Punditry 101. You make up some meme like ‘lazy Fred’ or ‘the Wimp Factor’ (Bush I) or the ‘Bore Effect’ (Gore), and insist the candidate needs to beat the rap to win. If the politician is obedient enough in trying to do so, you start talking about how he or she is ‘turning things around’ or ‘reinvigorated,’ and the candidate will magically begin getting good press.” (p. 97)
In other words, the purpose of the effort is to create obedient politicians. The goal is to force candidates to conform to corporate media’s norms, in order to be elected:
“Grass-roots support and super PACs can help compensate for a lack of broad support, but they probably can’t overcome broad opposition. The voice of the elites is too strong and influential.” (p. 116) (quoting Jeff Cohen)
Influencers take great pride in their ability to cut into the support of popular politicians, and to elevate unpopular ones. It’s in service of both power and profit:
“Before long we saw the remarkable phenomenon of Democrat-leaning pundits everywhere praising absurdly maladroit Romney as a contender. … It was the ultimate demonstration of the Manufacturing Consent principle of a concocted, artificially narrow public debate.” (p. 35)
Taibbi describes how corporate media created, from whole cloth, the idea of “electability.” Electability is the corporate media’s own artificially imposed standard which, if met by a candidate, will afford him or her positive media attention and, consequently, electoral success. It’s a Faustian Bargain offered by corporate media to anyone seeking public office: play by our rules, and we’ll give you positive coverage.
An early example is the “which candidate would you rather sit down and have a beer with” standard.
“[T]his madness began as a publicity stunt by a beer company [Sam Adams], looking to latch on to debate coverage as a way to score free PR.” (p. 92)
“[R]eporters just happened to like it. It appealed to our caricatured idea of voters as brainless goons who can be trained to pick politicians using the same marketing techniques we use to sell soda or breakfast cereals. With tests like this, we never had to write about the policies.” (p. 93)
Taibbi identifies many such manufactured “electability” standards, and how they have become ritualized in election reporting. The result is people being convinced to vote against their own self-interest — an enormous achievement in the effort to undermine people’s democratic power:
“The whole ‘electability’ question usually implies a) there’s a candidate in this field who’s most likely to win, and b) there’s a candidate who appeals to you on a policy level, and c) those candidates are not the same person.” (p. 107)
Taibbi points out how polling is used selectively, and often dishonestly, to create an “electability” narrative:
“The easiest way to predict what kinds of ‘electability’ stories you’ll see in an election season is to look at the field of candidates and see which ones have a lot of lobbying and ad money behind them. … Those candidates will be described as electable. Everyone else will get the ‘polls say’ treatment. Be wary of our version of junk science.” (p. 113)
Taibbi points out how the corporate media’s anti-democratic efforts are particularly effective against the institutions and groups that most represent the vulnerable in our society:
“The [‘polls say’] trick works best with political minority groups, who’ve been trained to vote according to how they’re told a larger plurality thinks.” (p. 107)
“[It] also works, sadly, with labor. Every year, even in the primaries, unions endorse candidates with poor records on labor, because they buy the ‘electability’ pitch.” (p. 108)
Taibbi recounts a remarkable discussion he had with a graduate student who, in the 2016 primaries, favored Dennis Kucinich on a policy level, but chose to vote for Kerry or Edwards instead. Asked why, the student said “Well … It’s probably going to have to be someone who’s tall.” (p. 109)
Corporate media is doing its all to make people to want to be on the winning team, regardless of what benefit (or lack thereof) that confers. The reality is, being in the majority will probably leave a voter worse off.
“Middle- and lower-middle-class Republican voters still endorse tax breaks for billionaires. Labor votes against labor. Inner-city minority voters endorse candidates who pledge to lengthen prison sentences and put more cops on the streets. Right-wing voters driving around on Medicaid-funded scooters applaud candidates who rail against the consumers of ‘free stuff.’” (p. 110)
To repeat, the 2016 election was to corporate media what 9/11 was to the airline industry. While a larger discussion of Trump’s election was beyond the scope of Hate Inc., Taibbi did make one trenchant observation:
“Trump doesn’t happen in a country where things are going well.” (p. 64)
The fact that the Clinton campaign sought to elevate Trump as a “pied piper” candidate, precisely because he went completely against the corporate media’s “electability” standards, speaks volumes about how far those standards have embedded themselves in the minds of the political elite.
“Most campaign analysts see the campaign season as a referendum on their ability to steer the electorate.” (p. 116)
Trump’s election proved, with clarity, that there is a tension between the corporate media’s profit motive, and their effort to gain more gatekeeper power. They gave Trump billions of dollars of free coverage, which generated enormous profits, but ended up actually getting him elected. And Donald Trump, for his manifold faults, is not a puppet of the corporate media. The opposite is true: Trump’s election proved that the corporate media is his puppet.
“[V]oters entering 2016 were willing to cheer any pol with the insight to tell [the campaign press] to fuck off.” (p. 31)
Trump’s populism is almost anarchic:
“The ‘fuck it’ vote felt like a huge part of Trump’s win. Lots of people recognized Trump was a jackass and that’s actually why they voted for him. As has been reported many times, people who disliked Trump and Clinton were maybe his most important constituency. … These people were so pissed and depressed and angry with everyone — especially phonies on television — that they sent Trump to Washington hoping he would blow it all up, so America could start over. Such people are not going to be receptive to a twenty-four hour lineup of anti-Trump news because they hate the partisanship more than [they hate] Trump.” (p. 269)
The election was an emperor’s clothes moment for corporate media:
“Assholes like [John] Heilemann and [Mark] Halperin are part of the reason voters picked Trump in the first place. People got so tired of watching politicians do stupid pet tricks for gatekeeping snobs that they voted in huge numbers for the first politician with the nerve to flip the script, which absolutely happened in this case. Trump had these idiots riding around on a Zamboni, for God’s sake[!] Now, of course, after years of casting Obama as Rocky and telling voters to pick the guy with whom you’d rather have a beer, the Heilemanns of the world are draping themselves in solemnity. They’re denouncing voters for being dummies who refuse to take their civic duty seriously. And we wonder why people hate us?” (p. 101)
How will the media respond to 2016?
“[Trump’s win] should have proved ‘electability’ was a crock, and killed it forever as a form of campaign analysis.” (p. 104)
We already know that’s not how it’s going to go. Instead, in the 2020 cycle, the corporate media is diving even further into the fact-free Tumpian cesspool. For example, MSNBC recently aired Mimi Rocah — as a legal analyst (she is a lawyer), discussing Bernie Sanders, saying:
“Having Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren next to each other [on the July debate podium] will really highlight — because for me, as you know, again, I’m not the political analyst here, but just as a woman, probably considered a somewhat moderate Democrat, I … Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl … I can’t even identify for you what exactly it is. But I see him as a sort of a not pro-woman candidate. So, having the two of them there — like, I don’t understand young women who support him. And I’m hoping having him next to her will help highlight that.”
The Sanders campaign recently took the extraordinary step of turning that segment into a campaign ad. They did so, certainly, counting on the fact that people are, at least, suspicious of the corporate media.
There are two types of political power: democratic and corporate. The difference is their source — where they are derived. Democratic power derives from the will of the people. People joined together in large numbers for a common purpose will always get what they want. Corporate power derives from capital — money. The power of money is only effective when it can be used to control people. Capital controls people with distraction and division. Ignorance and anger. Taibbi’s book directly addresses both.
Isn’t political power held by the government — and only the government? The answer is no. Government is an agreement, or a war, between the two sources of its power. Government only has the power it is given — either by the people or by the capitalists. If everyone decided to disregard the government, it would evaporate. Government is a go-between, a proxy, vested only with the power of its benefactors, who are locked in a sibling struggle worthy of Cain and Abel. From a historical perspective, today’s balance of power is dominated by corporations. That is, capitalists.
That is the duality that really matters.
While an in-depth discussion of power relationships is outside the scope of this review, it is not overstatement to say that the shifting tide of political influence between the people and the rich, will likely determine the fate of humanity.
In 2008, Barack Obama famously said “Elections have consequences.” That was true in a larger sense. Shifts in power always have consequences, intended and otherwise. The corporate media’s rise in power has afforded them magnificent profits in the information age, and power shifted the capitalists’ favor as a result.
But Trump’s election, and events in Europe (Brexit, gilets jaunes), demonstrate a rising trend toward populism, which can actually either increase or decrease democratic power. Trump’s strain of populism can break down the few remaining governmental restraints protecting civil rights, and lead to totalitarianism. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders’ populism would likely cut into corporate power, leading to more democratic power for the people.
The game is changing, and the stakes are high. It’s almost axiomatic to point out that, when the people are divided and ignorant, they have less power, and when the people have less power, corporations have more power.
“As it turns out, there is a utility in keeping us divided. As people, the more separate we are, the more politically impotent we become.” (p. 21)
“Hatred is the partner of ignorance, and we in the media have become experts in selling both. … We manufactured fake dissent, to prevent real dissent.” (p. 21)
“So long as the public is busy hating each other and not aiming its ire at the more complex financial and political processes going on off-camera, there’s very little danger of anything like a popular uprising.” (p. 42)
Taibbi points out that popular anger, fear, and ignorance leave an open door for erosion of civil rights:
“Russiagate has led to unprecedented cooperation between the government and internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, all of which are censoring pages on the left, right, and in between in the name of preventing the ‘sowing of discord.’” (p. 255)
This is the path to totalitarianism. Capitalism doesn’t serve government. Government “cooperating” with Facebook is an invitation to give Facebook direct political power. When corporate and government power unite, when government serves only the capitalist, civil liberties — democratic rights, vanish. It’s no different than giving banks the right to jail debtors. The water is hot, and we frogs need to get out — now, but it’s only a little warmer than last time we checked, so….
Trump’s populism is dangerous, but it is his own. If (when) it is co-opted by corporate power, that will be a different matter altogether. Only then will the people be convinced to drown themselves in the river of Hamelin. To put it mildly, it will be interesting to see if Sanders’ populism can defeat him.
Conclusion: Turn it Off
Taibbi offers a remarkably simple solution to the problem: turn your television off. The power of corporate media derives from its influence over people, which itself derives from our voluntary participation in the act of being propagandized.
Studies show that heavy consumers of social media regularly experience depression. Some conclude that this is due to constantly comparing our lives to other’s lives. What if it was due to something else? What if people’s depression comes from being in an environment of constant conflict? Either way,
“It will be hard to keep concealed for long the obvious fact that turning off the news results in an instantly positive psychological change for most people.” (p. 209)
In a book that is otherwise light on raw data, Taibbi offers two interesting facts:
“Not long after Monicagate, Fox assumed the top spot and stayed there for fifteen years, making $2.3 billion in profits in 2016 alone.” (p. 143)
“Trump led a boom that saw a 167.4 percent rise in ad sales in 2016 compared to 2012.” (p. 130)
Disinformation is profitable, but the dirty secret is that it requires our voluntary consent. People may not realize this, but we do have a choice. The internet offers a source of freedom from corporate media’s influencers.
Being informed means gathering information from many different sources, reading them critically, and forming our own opinions. That is the path to pluralism — many people with many different views. There are hundreds, thousands of independent news sources available online, which have many different perspectives. The more attention we give these independent sources, the more powerful they become. The corresponding consequence is corporate media becomes less powerful.
Thinking about the power dynamics discussed in Hate Inc. can be depressing. The corporate media are a cultural Goliath which seems undefeatable. But remember, in I Samuel, Goliath did not survive David’s sling.
Taibbi offers a few glimpses of hope. He talks about “a massive collapse in the influence of political elites with viewers.” (p. 121). This may be wishful thinking, but it is, at least in part, supported by
“A 2015 Pew survey … showed declining interest in ‘electability.’ … The thing was, nobody in the press had any clue what would happen if people stopped listening to our ‘electability’ horseshit.” (p. 111)
Only when people take control of their own media environment, will we move to a more pluralistic society. In the concluding interview of Hate Inc., Chomsky offers the solution:
“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts. You’re not going to find the information on Facebook.” (pp. 285–286)
Influencers are not trying to bring on totalitarianism, they’re just trying to make a buck. They’re not the problem. The problem is the system that encourages them to make money in a manner that is so noxious to the public interest.
The degradation of journalism documented in Hate Inc. is endemic of the extraction economy that causes us to burn up the planet using petroleum products, and inflate the cost of prescription drugs so high that people have to mortgage their homes to stay alive. Just as venture capitalists are in the business of extracting value from companies, for profit, so are the influencers in the business of extracting credibility from their news organizations — for their own self advancement. In both cases, the rich get richer, and consumers are left with a shoddier product.
There are other options. We do have choices other than the duopoly offered by the corporate media. We simply need to vote in people who will make the system work for us, not the corporations.
 Shameless self-promoting plug #1.
 Shameless self-promoting plug #2: I too (self-)published a series of essays. My book was on progressive politics, posted on my blog during the Obama years. It documents my attitude shift from conventional neoliberalism to democratic socialist progressivism. The New American Progressive: Thoughts on Moving America Forward (2018).
 This is certainly not to say that canonical reporting is dead. There are still thousands of journalists who practice their trade honestly and honorably. This shift is more general, is still in progress, and affects mainly the upper-tier national organizations.
 Prior to McGovern-Fraser, presidential candidates in most states were chosen (often corruptly) by delegates elected during insider-run state party conventions. Democrats adopted rules for primary elections (of delegates). Republicans followed suit as states passed primary election laws.
 The fact that wars now have media strategies should itself be alarming.
 An influential early text on this topic is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking 1985).
 Shameless self-promoting plug #3. My A Reader’s Guide to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2018) addresses these power relationships in more detail, but not directly. A future project is a detailed analysis, in the guise of an analysis of Lord John Dalberg-Acton’s Essays on Freedom and Power.