by Russell Dobular
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” – Fight Club
My habit started innocently enough, as it does for so many, with the Nightly News. Growing up, my family watched the 6:00-6:30 local reports over dinner and then adjourned to the couch for the 6:30-7:00 World News Report. ABC was our preferred station, so whitey, whitey, white boy, Peter Jennings, gave me my first impressions of the world outside of then crime-ridden, post-apocalyptic New York (at least if you were to believe the endless accounts of murder, rape, robbery, and just pure madness that the aptly named Roger Grimsby would deliver in a straight monotone night after night).
By high school I had started to dip my toe into The New York Times, and This Week with David Brinkley, feeling very grown-up carrying around the “newspaper of record” in my Daily News-saturated section of Queens, and already developing a deep affection for the uber-WASPy Brinkley. Man, was he fucking suave.
By the time I got out of college, my addiction had progressed to that ultimate expression of bourgeois respectability; the Sunday Times spread out on the coffee table, with by then, Tim Russert on television, explaining the world over breakfast.
And once MSNBC went on air it got completely out of control. I’d get my fix from 6-11 every night, raptly shooting up the whole nightmare, from Chris Matthews straight through to Lawrence O’Donnell. I even read Newsweek on the regular. I guess you could say I hit rock bottom around then.
If you asked me at the time what my political opinions were, you would have had the kind of experience that I now often have when I speak to someone who still considers Chuck Todd a newsman. Which is to say, all the years thinking that staying informed consisted of watching an ancient reptile like Cokie Roberts reminisce about the fabulous Washington parties her family once threw had left me with some very warped perceptions about the world, mainly:
- ‘America has its problems, but its still the greatest country on earth, bar none. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a cuckoo radical nutjob.’
- ‘The Democrats want to give you health care and higher wages and all the rest of it, but…Republicans! Donors have nothing to do with it. And even if they do, that’s smart politics. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight and all.’
- ‘The middle is where the votes are. Twenty years after Rove and Bush (and two years after Trump) proved that theory completely wrong, that’s still the story we’re going to stick with, all statistical evidence to the contrary be damned.’
- ‘There’s no such thing as an economically liberal and culturally conservative, voter. The same people who are against abortion rights are also against a $15 per hour minimum wage. Therefore, you can never win those people over with economic populism. Again, all evidence to the contrary be damned.’
- ‘Change happens through slow, bi-partisan compromise, not through mass movements, protests, social unrest and activism. “And next up, tune into our hour-long special on the Civil Rights movement.”’ They never really address that contradiction and most people seem not to notice. I sure didn’t, until I did.
- ‘Corporations aren’t evil. They’re our partners in building a better world. Just look at all their programs in Africa. And besides that, all the reasonable people know that if you lean on them too hard, they’ll just fire everybody and move to Mexico and then where will we be? Also: Communism.’
- ‘It’s a dangerous world full of dictators and theocrats beyond our borders. We don’t want to bomb the shit out of countries that pose no obvious threat to us, but think of the children. Not the ones we’re bombing, the ones we’re saving from despots by bombing them. Supporting mass murder doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you informed and pragmatic. Y’know, like us.’
- And this is the big one, without which none of the others could exist: ‘The media has no agenda. It only reports the news. People who criticize their coverage are themselves biased and therefore their opinions don’t matter. And even more insidiously: Since the opinions the media offers are the “smart, fact-based” opinions, if you don’t share those opinions, you must be stupid, or at the very least, uninformed.’
The increasingly difficult-to-ignore elephant stomping around the spin room these days is the undeniable reality that the corporate media has been catastrophically wrong about every major event in American life for the past twenty years, from WMD’s to the election of Donald Trump, to the Mueller report. This would be fatal in any other industry. If a car company repeatedly made cars that blew up in the driveway as soon as you put the key in the ignition, that company would go bankrupt very quickly. At the very least, some heads would roll with the people responsible being disgraced and driven from their professions. And yet the corporate media keeps on chugging along, with no accountability for its constant industrywide failures, and with no one losing their jobs. The cast of characters that assured you that Donald Trump would never be the President, while at the same time gifting him billions of dollars in free advertising, are the same people offering their “hot takes” now on everything from Syria to the electability of Joe Biden. But alas, these same institutions, that, through their relentless coverage of Trump’s campaign were the single biggest factor in his election (their own fevered attempts to re-focus public attention on Russia aside), have since seen an explosion in viewership and subscriptions, which is kind of like turning to the person who broke your kneecaps for comfort and perspective on your debilitating injury.
So, what shattered my own illusion that what I was receiving from my “most trusted” news sources was actually news? As for many, many people who experienced a similar epiphany around the same time, it was the relentlessly hostile coverage of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries. Without getting into too much detail (that’s a subject that’s been well-covered by some great journalists, most notably Thomas Frank), it was impossible for a Sanders supporter to come out of that experience without feeling like Roddy Piper in the sci-fi classic, They Live, having donned a special pair of glasses and suddenly seeing that everything you ever believed was total bullshit. Of course, for people on the Clinton side in those primaries, nothing much changed. After all, it’s not bias if you agree with it; its just the smart take. But if you disagreed, it was kind of breathtaking in its scope. Sixteen negative articles from the Washington Post in 16 hours; The New York Times retroactively altering positive stories about Sanders; Chris Matthews screaming about socialism so hard his show looked like a FOX News audition tape; even Maddow, our beloved Rachel Maddow, repeating the lie that Sanders supporters had thrown chairs at the Nevada state convention, going so far as to use a clip of chairs being thrown at a wrestling match in lieu of actual footage of the fabricated event. And if the smartest, smarty-pants purveyor of smart takes ever, Rachal frikkin’ Maddow, was lying to us, what did that say about the rest of them? On the upside, this revelation did allow me to avoid wasting two years on Maddow’s charts, diagrams, and “it was Don Jr. in the pantry with an oligarch” coverage of Russiagate. Those are untold hours of many millions of people’s lives that they’re never getting back.
I was honestly depressed for about a month after I realized that I had spent literally decades offering opinions that were not truly my own, and believing things that very obviously made no sense if you just took five seconds to think it over. When you’ve always thought of yourself as an informed, intelligent person, that’s a hard day. But once the stages of grief had passed, I had only one question: why hadn’t I realized this before? Its not like you have to go on some kind of Indiana Jones quest through the jungles of the dark web to figure it out. All you have to do is look at who the advertisers are. For the Sunday morning talk shows in particular, its a virtual comic-book line-up of the world’s most evil corporations, from Boeing, to Monsanto, to BP. All that’s missing is Luthercorp. Its all very obvious, no fevered conspiracy theories required.
I gave a lot of thought as to why so many otherwise intelligent people continue to consume such a blatantly defective product. Why would they trust journalists who had repeatedly fed them disinformation that later blew up in their faces, most recently by promising both implicitly and at times explicitly that the Mueller report would end with Donald Trump in handcuffs? Or that an obvious dufus like Beto O’Rourke was gonna be a thing? I mean seriously, it’s trivial now, but did anyone actually watch him do his messianic table-jumping, arm flailing thing, before anointing him the Great White Hope?
It’s not like the old days, when you had to go to a street corner in Union Square to find alternative media. Reputable alternative sources like The Intercept, Common Dreams, Truth-Dig, and a host of others are available to anyone with an internet connection. Under those circumstances, why would anyone read The New York Times or watch CNN for any purpose other than to keep an eye on them? Who does all of this appeal to at this point? This is what I came up with:
Aside from the elderly, and actual elites, for whom the whole tone and viewpoint of the corporate media, particularly its political coverage, must feel like something akin to reading the hometown paper, right down to the names of people you went to school with being featured prominently in the bylines, the bulk of the audience for corporate media are members of the middle class who have a deep emotional need to see themselves as part of a club that they will never actually be invited to join. Where their European forebears filled their homes with cheaper versions of the kinds of decorations and tchotchkes that might have been found in the palaces of the aristocrats, today it’s regular trips to museums where they pretend to like art produced by an industry that abandoned any sense of accessibility and public utility a hundred years ago, and a house full of fair-trade products made by third world craftsmen. The New York Times and regular viewings of Meet the Press, seen in that context, are a way of checking in on elite tastes and opinions, by way of convincing yourself that you’re one of them, just with a little less money.
In the end, that’s why no matter how many times they get it wrong, and no matter how obvious their biases are, there will always be an audience for what they’re peddling, and for most of their customers, it isn’t news. Corporate media is a lifestyle brand, no different from Goop, or Lululemon. The point of consuming it isn’t to become informed about the world, any more than agreeing to stick a jade egg up your hoo-hah and paying good money for the privilege has anything to do with improving your health. If it was about becoming informed, there would be a steeper price to pay in viewership and subscriptions for getting it mostly wrong, most of the time. Carrying around The New York Times under your arm and cultivating opinions that align with the its dominant narratives, is a way of telling everyone around you, “I’m in the club.” It’s aspirational. And if you aren’t quite like those twee couples in the investment bank ads, who seem to spend all their time strolling along fabulous beaches in remote areas and hanging out at their rustic cabin, well, with just a little more money in the 401K, you will be. You already have all the right opinions, so it’s just a matter of time.
Along the way you end up absorbing and championing viewpoints that are not only completely contradicted by the facts, but that run counter to your own interests. Health care is a good example. Even with health insurance, a lot of middle class people are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. And yet many of those same people advocate for slow, incremental change. Why? Because they’ve been told that’s what they’re supposed to think by a media that takes millions of dollars in advertising from drug and insurance companies. A cursory examination of American history will tell you that the core premise behind this argument is a lie: from the union movement, to civil rights, to gay rights, real, structural change has only ever come through mass movements and activism, and never from moderation and slow, patient, incremental reform. But there’s no incentive to question these narratives if your purpose isn’t to hold objectively true opinions, but to hold the “right” opinions.
The good news is, the next generation isn’t buying it, for the most part. For people starting out in life facing grotesque wealth inequality and imminent eco-catastrophe, the soothing tones of Doris Kearns Goodwin and company waxing poetic about the glorious bi-partisanship of the Lincoln White House are about as culturally relevant as Pat Boone. In light of that, it’s hard to imagine that, in twenty years, the corporate media as we know it will continue to exist. But they’re going to do a lot of damage on the way out the door. And no one is going to be less prepared for the consequences than the people who thought they were members of the club, not realizing they were only invited in to do the catering. In the meantime, when you encounter these folks on social media or IRL, and they start calling you a Putin puppet for not sharing their point of view, seemingly oblivious to the ugly history in this country of that kind of thing, go easy on them. As any drug counselor will tell you, everyone’s rock bottom is different. Mine came in ’16. For some, its going to take the evaporation of their retirement savings and the ocean in their front yard before they bottom out.
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