Stephen Colbert’s homophobia, social censorship and the outraged liberal?

 

Stephen Colbert made an obscene joke. Attacking Trump for his treatment of a well respected CBS journalist, Colbert implied Trump was subservient to Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin. He did so in rather crass terms.

“. . . you [Trump] talk like a sign language gorilla who got hit in the head. In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cockholster.”

The oral sex reference caused a backlash with the predictable hashtag #firecolbert. The impulse to remove Colbert might seem obvious. But objections to the comedian’s “obscene” monologue are not coming from the voices we might expect: media outlets focused on gay rights.

TheAdvocateColbert

The week after Colbert’s monologue, Out had published little on the issue. The Advocate‘s fleeting coverage framed the outrage as driven by the right, noting how “[c]onservatives alleged the joke was homophobic.” They credit Trump supporters for the FCC filings as well as the hashtag #FireColbert trend on Twitter. Instinct staff focused on the damage the monologue did to Trump and prompted readers to question if the comment was indeed homophobic. “Or, is it just correctly using the anatomy of the two people involved? Do you think Colbert would have called Trump a cunning linguist if the leader of Russia was a female?” In these leading publications, there is little outright ire or condemnation of the comedian.

Mainstream publications are more critical. Time magazine weighed in with its humorless and clinical take on Colbert’s political comedy. Journalist Daniel D’Addario criticized Colbert’s mockery of the president as a “controversial monologue in which he directed a homophobic slur at the President.” Over at Vox,  tried to spell out out how Colbert’s joke was worth offense.

“. . . the only way this works as a joke is by demeaning gay people. The underlying implication here is that gay relationships are somehow extra funny — that Trump engaging in sexual acts with Putin is hilarious because it’s gay.”

The Washington Post, too, was scathing in its treatment of Colbert’s reliance on homosexuality as gag. In a Wapo perspective piece, Craig Konnoth admits “[c]omedy is an effective means of protesting the new administration. But” he says, “these particular jokes rest on homophobic assumptions.” Konnoth recognizes Colbert’s public expressions of support for LGBTQ communities but is quick to shoot down the idea that political support grants a pass on using homosexuality as a punch line. He goes on to point out the implied insult in putting Trump in a submissive, feminine posture to make the point about his relationship to Russia. This, he argues, sends a harmful message about gender:

“It teaches kids that making gay jokes about classmates who are a little too friendly is all right. It tells conservatives and Trump supporters that gay jokes are funny — and that being gay is, indeed, being weak.”

Responding in Wednesday’s monologue, Colbert seemed to answer critics focused on homophobia at the root of the joke. He clarified his view of freedom to love.

“But I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love in their own way is to me an American hero. I think we can all agree on that.”

Right or Left-wing Criticism?

A review of tweets and memes complicates a easily-offended-liberal, snowflake narrative. The push to oust Colbert awkwardly mixes the defense of LGBTQ folks with a more predictable right-leaning internet verbiage. For example, a #firecolbert meme refers to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, an insulting nickname for the liberal senator from Massachusetts, a frequent target of conservative commentators.

Warren pitted against Colbert

The response to Colbert’s assault on all things Trump cuts across a common political divide. Criticism mixes the conservative’s outrage at indecency directed at the president and the liberal’s outraged defense of social minorities. Often, these are separate public segments being outraged, but not always:

The complaints to the FCC will go nowhere. Why? Because the First Amendment protects against silencing critical voices. But there is a competing vision of liberalism that has less tolerance for free speech. It is the liberalism that leads many to criticize college campuses and triggers twitter wars over offensive language targeting unprivileged social groups.

Identity politicking can serve to defend a president who is openly hostile to dissent and minority justice. We see less animosity from social groups who “should” be concerned about slandering gay life. Instead, Colbert’s critics are nested in mainstream media and conservative corners on social media.

In these conservative corners, voices on the right complain of liberal hypocrisy. Liberals level accusations of homophobia and sexism only when conservatives show cultural insensitivity, they argue. But the claim of hypocrisy ignores the larger political context of how we take offense as a public.

Though “illiberal” tendencies on college campuses have made headlines recently, the response to Colbert is more complicated. Political conservatives with sympathies for the LGBTQ community may have already been turned off by Colbert’s increasingly political Late Night act. At once, Colbert’s poor joke choices provide opportunistic fodder for conservatives to reject the anti-Trumpism that has proven a ratings success.

In some ways, this backlash mirrors an earlier burst of hashtag activism in response to Colbert’s farcical rightwing character from The Colbert Report years earlier. Colbert’s character displayed clear insensitivity toward Asians by announcing an offensively named foundation to support Asian communities. The satire was lost on many critics who created #cancelcolbert in response. They, too, sought to undermine the advertising base of the show rather than expecting the FCC to challenge (and censor) programming content.

So, while legal protections will allow Colbert to continue hammering away at the 45th president, another form of censorship remains a threat. Social censorship is the non-legal form of policing speech. Instead of legal action, socio-commerical censorship can have a potent effect on free speech. If a voice we disagree with does not violate law, the power of group pressure, hashtags and boycott movements can step in. Even when advertising revenue is not immediately threatened, media outlets can shy away from certain voices that do not fit the long term branding. Glenn Beck and, more recently, Bill O’Reilly, have suffered as advertisers withdraw from controversial media figures.

Classic voices of free expression (J.S. Mill) and more recent studies of public culture (spiral of silence) point out how legal action is only rarely needed to silence dissent and offensive speech. Public pressure and, importantly, the fragile financial interests of corporate media shareholders can influence free expression.

The impulse to silence objectionable voices is paradoxical. We celebrate the empowerment of public voices through new media tools, but what happens when online communities rally against the speech of others?  Boycott and #cancel movements are a valuable tool for audience empowerment in the age of social media, but the pressure of public opinion may not always be the best mediator. Social pressures put important limits on public discourse. This is why Holocaust deniers are not consulted as experts on CNN. But the function of social censorship also cultivates ideological homogeneity. The public is supposed to learn from the media environment, but increasingly, that does not happen.

 

 

 

Inaugural Address Fun with Data

trump-inaguration-speech-2009-wordcloud
President Trump’s inaugural speech in wordcloud form.

Ronald Reagan talked of a prosperous America as a beacon of democracy around the world. And Barack Obama talked about the hope of which he was the living embodiment.

Donald Trump gave us “American carnage.”

-ANDREW ROSENTHAL @ NY Times

The New York Times‘ Andrew Rosenthal and others across the media have commented on the unorthodox tone of Trump’s inaugural address. Many had hoped for a tone of reconciliation after a vicious and often fact-challenged campaign season, but most commentators were struck by the “dark vision” of Trump’s address. EJ Dionne felt “Abraham Lincoln was more upbeat during the middle of the Civil War.” Fellow journalists at NPR were quick to agree.

Reporting on the inauguration speech fell into the Trump-as-deviant narrative that seems to be taking root in these first days of his administration. Trump did indeed employ striking rhetoric. News reports noted that Trump was the first president to use terms like carnage, bleeding and tombstones. This framing became the focus of reporting because the speech fit neatly into the preexisting narrative. This narrative feeds on a steady supply of (often superficial) Trump novelties and eccentricities to shock and surprise. Was his speech as much an anomaly as the candidate?

New data tools give us quick and easy means to look at bigger pictures of tone and language use. Data visualization techniques like wordclouding are simple analytic tools that offer easy to grasp observations. If you want to quickly assess the tone of a speech by counting the frequency of words use, these analytic tools are a snapshot of the verbiage and get at some empirical data on tone.

obama-inaguration-speech-2009-wordcloud-2
Obama Speech Wordcloud
trump-inaguration-speech-2009-wordcloud-2
Trump Speech Wordcloud

By way of illustration, here are wordclouds of the Obama and Trump inaugural speeches.

Of course, numbers back up these data-snapshots. We can parse the data out to see the top words used ranked according to frequency (see below).

With this data, we can examine address tone, gauged by word frequency (words used 4 or more times).

The top five words in Obama’s 2009 address: will, can, nation, new, America.

Trump’s top five: will, America, American, people, country. Not too much deviation in tone according to these numbers.

More noteworthy is the number of times words were used. Obama used the words “will” and “can” 17 and 13 times respectively. Trump used “will” and “America” 43 and 19 times. We also see some notable differences that might make for a basis of analysis. Where “women” has mention 4 times in Obama’s speech, wealth is in that position in Trump’s.

*credit to wordclouds.com‘s generator

Obama Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use:

17 will
13 can
12 nation
11 new
8 America
8 every
8 must
7 people
6 common
6 less
6 work
5 generation
5 spirit
5 today
5 world
5 know
5 time
5 now
5 day
5 let
4 greater
4 whether
4 crisis
4 things
4 peace
4 women
4 power
4 words
4 meet
4 come
4 seek
4 long
4 men
4 end

Trump Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use:

43 will
19 America
11 American
10 people
9 country
7 one
6 nation
6 never
6 great
6 world
6 back
6 new
5 President
5 protected
5 dreams
5 across
5 every
5 right
5 many
5 make
5 now
4 Americans
4 citizens
4 wealth
4 heart
4 power
4 today
4 bring
4 jobs
4 God
4 day

TV makes you vapid. Don’t be vapid.

TV makes you vapid. Don’t be vapid.

A simple request: stop watching TV news.

This is the simplified argument of Neil Postman, the quasi-famous cultural critic of the 1980s. Postman looked at television and saw a medium of great potential. The entertainment tv offered its audience was unparalleled. TV gave us live images from around the world. The spectacle was amazing. TV took families from their daily lives and transported us to 1000s of imaginary worlds. We escape the grind of paying bills, family squabbles and workdays through TV. But, Postman argued, TV is also supremely ill-suited for the “serious stuff” of news and public affairs.

Many are concerned about fake news on Facebook, but what is the alternative? A return to CBS network news? Should we look to cable’s CNN? Reanimate Walter Cronkite?

Sad news, folks. If Facebook hurts an informed electorate, network and cable news are handmaidens in the erosion of American political intelligence. Let’s look at CBS and CNN for evidence.

Three Pieces of Evidence Commercial News Will Fail Us

Evidence 1: Media executive values; the Moonves Doctrine

CBS chairman, Les Moonves, commented on the relationship between commercial media and Trump’s campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said, candidly. He continued, “[m]an, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Speaking to CBS stockholders, Moonves was pleased with the “circus.” “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

If a skeptical reader thinks one statement from a media executive is not enough, here is some evidence that Moonves’s reckless commercialism is the operational logic for the American commercial news.

Evidence 2: News coverage: a Trump Narrative

Trump received excessive coverage from news organizations. These breathless and bemused reports function as free publicity (“Earned Media”), keeping the Trump campaign in control of the news narrative. Researchers estimate commercial news offered what amounted to $2-3 billion in free advertising for Trump. Who says you are wasting time with those 2AM tweets? It worked for the president.

nytimesearnedmedia

The “Moonves doctrine” is quite influential. So much so that news directors preferred no news over actual news. During the 2016 campaign, CNN, Fox and MSNBC broadcast an empty Trump podium while Mrs. Clinton was actually speaking to unions in Las Vegas.

Evidence 3: CNN Boss’s relationship with Trump reality TV.

What incentives do media executives have for creating a candied reality instead of offering unvarnished news of the day? Well, if news is to serve corporate profits, its job is to attract eyeballs rather than inform. Take current CNN chief, Jeff Zucker. Formerly the head of NBC Entertainment, Zucker played a major role in creating NBC’s The Apprentice, coordinating with Trump to create a show “built as a virtual nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle.”  Zucker rode Trump’s celebrity up through the ranks at NBC. At the helm of CNN, he continued to profit from Trump and, by extension, helped create a media landscape in which Trumpist falsehoods could prevail.

News and Reality

News was the original “reality TV.” Now American media have corrupted the very idea of the real. Kim Kardashian is now “truer” than Wolf Blitzer. The New York Times (formerly “real”) describes reality as much as ABCnews.com.co (formerly “fake”). Gary Busey’s apprenticeship on Trump’s TV show is as real as Mitt Romney slavishly interviewing for Secretary of State.

The point? We should stop watching TV news. Just stop. Not because “reporters are biased.” Not because media owners have political agendas. We should because they do not offer news. They offer shiny packages to us and then sell our views and clicks. The shine matters more than truth. Anger and laughs over thought and insight. Profits matter more than an informed electorate. Ratings fuel Jeff Zucker’s shameless direction of CNN content. If we pay our attention, they will feed us more to get paid. Stop paying.

Postman said TV was dangerous nonsense in the 1980s. Turns out he was right about 2020. The good news? We don’t have to put up with it or deal with the messy business of resurrecting dead news icons. America may have voted, but we can still take action . . . or inaction.

Stop paying TV news attention. Starve the beast that is sustained by enslaving your mind. Demand better. You’ll be better for it; America might, too.

White Nationalism in the cringing eyes of the refined elite

Trump wins. So did much of white, male America. Were the elite press and analysts blind to white nationalism?

(L-R) Brandon Miles, Brandon Partin and Michael Miles cheer before Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Thayer - RTSMSW0 via Salon
(L-R) Brandon Miles, Brandon Partin and Michael Miles cheer before Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Thayer – RTSMSW0 via Salon

On the “Enlightened” Academy and Moonshine

So much of the American academy and journalist community was caught off-guard by the support for Donald Trump. How can these groups, groups devoted to writing & thinking about America, have been so blinded to the tone of the country?

As a newly minted professor, I am part of that intellectual class. I was surrounded by a common sense that a sober America would choose status quo Clinton . . . that routine lies and conspiracy theories could not win the day . . . that “reason” would prevail.

Where did this confidence come from? Looking back, it was foolish. Take David Brooks and his description of shopping for a pink rug as a metaphor to explain why Trump voters would turn away.

How did we become so delusional as to believe overt racism and sexism was off the table for “progressive” America?

Looking back on my graduate studies, I wonder how the echo chamber of higher education is responsible for the disconnect between two sides of America I know.

I studied international media and American responses to foreign news. At my final defense of the research, some of my professors objected to my study of media nationalism and the white male anxiety I argued was at the core of anti-foreign media groups.

I was a graduate student with a sprawling dissertation. The 300-page study of foreign news in North America thudded on the conference table between the intimidating dissertation committee and me. The professors were challenging me on certain points of my argument, undermining claims and questioning premises. Pretty typical stuff, though I was surprised one premise came under specific scrutiny: white nationalism was an important force worth studying in American media politics. These groups were “fringe,” a professor argued. They were not worthy of the academy’s attention.

I countered that groups like Accuracy in Media and the pro-Israel Honest Reporting Canada are important in a study of foreign news. Both took hard lines against foreign media that expressed unorthodox views on America’s place in the world. Both organizations, for mildly different reasons, resisted Al Jazeera’s growth in their respective countries.

Front page of Accuracy in Media days after Trump's surprise victory with the support of white nationalism in key states.
Front page of Accuracy in Media days after Trump’s surprise victory with the support of white nationalism in key states.

For both activist organizations, the middle-eastern channel offered different (and threatening) perspectives on international affairs, undermining national interests and political ambitions (as envisioned by conservative media critics).

Conservative media activists interested me and, I believed, played a significant but poorly understood role in media policy. To some, however, these groups were weak shills for major political-economic forces. Exxon was behind them rather than an alienated portion of the country. Nativist media activists were not an expression of tension related to a contest American identity in a shrinking, multicultural world.

After years of research, guided by these respected scholars, I was tuned into the concerns of the professoriate. I was focused on the hundreds of articles and books read in preparation for this moment. Panic gripped me. Was I wrong to spend so much time detailing these groups?

As I listened, my mind left the room. I floated away from the large oaken table and regal atmosphere of the defense seminar. I drifted away from that moment in my slow march toward a middle-class income and intellectual refinement. All I could think about was my life 20 years earlier in rural Illinois. Scenes paraded through my memory as if a flashback before death:

  • The casual racism of close friends next to the bonfire at a farmhouse. Strange, irreverent belches of the word, “Nigger!,” when (white) Jeremy was annoyed with his (white) brother. There were no black people within miles.
  • Their working class parents, our elders, drinking jarred moonshine and Miller High Life on couches dragged out next to the fire.
  • Innocent Peter’s (white) face as he threw moonshine parties at the country house he rented with a couple more (white) friends who also rejected the college track. When The Rolling Stones song, Gimme Shelter, played he asked me if I liked “that black music,” referring to the wailing backup vocalist on the song. “I don’t,” he told me with some trepidation.
  • The two black classmates in my graduating class of 218 232. (thanks, Ryan)
  • Timothy White (white), small-town classmate, now a line cook, turning to his black kitchen co-worker. “This is Trevor. I call him ‘Big Nig’.” He laughs. “Trevor calls me Tiny Whitie.”
  • A non-white, non-rural student who transferred into my high school only to be punched so hard by the (white) class muscleman that he suffered brain damage. I never got to meet him.
  • Receiving word, years into my grad school training, that the same high school muscleman had died. His father was a garbage man. After high school, he was as well. But he was dead at 36.

Peter was dead at 39. Jeremy was dead at 37. Their condescending ghosts floated in front of me as I tried to regain focus on the panel of professors, on my ticket to a middle class life.

I refocused on the slim, hard-lined, white face of the prof challenging me. I pushed back again. “While these groups may exert little obvious pressure on policymakers and the industry behemoths, we should not ignore the steep cultural anxiety of white, non-elite America. We cannot ignore the cultural resonance these nativist groups have with Americans if not D.C. policy makers.”

The prof seemed unconvinced though willing to tolerate my research choices.

Looking back on this moment, I can see how America is divided. I can sense how I was divided. It is not simply white vs. black or white vs. Arab. It is not a matter of shining the sunlight disinfectant on the stain of racism in America. It is a fundamental difference of experience. Different bubbles. When living in affluence, race debates are academic. When living in restaurant kitchens and moonshine bonfires, race becomes a means to assert superiority despite economic struggles. It is a nervous burst of drunken slurs at your annoying brother. It is a barbaric yawp in the woods when no one in the city can hear you.

The America that elected Trump surprised the professors and politicos. Such angry discussions of race were artifacts of the 1960s Voting Rights movement. They were the feelings of a submerged and disenfranchised everyperson. Racism was important but safely at the fringes of American society, driven to the dark wilderness of the web, they seemed to suggest.

Then Trump. It is at the margins no longer. Shades of white supremacy have been long ignored and dismissed. It was precisely this view of the fringe from On-High that blinded the highly educated and professional class. The tide was rising and a figurehead like Trump was all it took to bring these views into the center of American political discourse.

The lesson here is not that I had the intelligence to see something my academic colleagues could not. The point is that American democracy has forced a fragmented American public to look at one another and recognize competing views, no matter how dismissed, misguided, uneducated, elitist, shallow or repugnant.

The jarring drunken shouts of “nigger” around campfires and between acoustic renditions of Cash and Skynyrd shaped my view of racism. It showed me the depth of its roots, roots one can only know if digging in dirt. Moonshine gave me a glimpse into the anxiety of white, male America. It invited me into the culture through the seminar room that is a deteriorated couch on a bare yard. The question is how I can use my position, straddling the world of this anxiety and a “refined” world in which describing its existence can be an offense worthy of Academic termination and marginalization.

To be truly anti-racist as a white person, we cannot flinch from seeing the substantial racial and economic animosity that animated the candidacy of the least qualified person to reach the White House. We must see it by moonshine and bonfire to understand the depth of the American divide.

The trouble covering Trumps, both hard and soft

“There could certainly be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people . . . We want people — we have some great people in this country.”

-Trump to Sean Hannity, August 24, 2016

“I don’t think it’s a softening. I’ve had people say it’s a hardening, actually.”

-Trump to Anderson Cooper, a day later

Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has wavered on policy points in this pivot from the primary process to the general election. His position is always strongly worded and “plainly” delivered, but many are noting how the positions are inconsistent. Inconsistency makes reporting on the policies of a Trump administration exceedingly difficult for reporters. I do not envy journalists on the Trump beat.

Take, for example, a recent New York Times piece on the candidate’s immigration plan.

Reporting on Schizophrenic Policy
Heavily revised reporting on Trump’s policy vision under revision

NYT reporter, Patrick Healy, has the unenviable task to produce a coherent story on the Trump immigration plan, a touchstone of the campaign and a central issue that allowed Trump to rise to the top of the Republican scrum.

Adding to Healy’s troubles, the Trump campaign is fond of disputing the neutrality of reporters when the message does not reflect his position clearly. News media are “scum” and “so dishonest,” he often intones to an audience eager to dismiss mainstream media.

As the revision process suggests (documented by NewsDiffs), reporting on the Trump campaign can get quite messy, reflecting the messiness of the candidate’s political messaging itself.

So, how do we get clarity in reporting when there is so little? It is the job of good election journalism to clarify and summarize the position of the candidates. But what happens when candidates refuse to offer clear policy positions while attacking the press for misinterpreting the message?

Continue reading “The trouble covering Trumps, both hard and soft”

News Flash: The New York Times thinks Trump is beneath America

Trump racist meme

New York Times to America: “How Can We Recover From Donald Trump?”

And then we have the NYT lamenting Trumpism with a now familiar hint of shame and foreboding. It captures a tone US politicos and intellectuals feel in every newsroom and artisan bagel-filled faculty meeting. “America is better than this,” we pretend.

We are not. The tone of this new genre of election-cycle journalism, the Trump Lament, bothers me because it misses a key point: Trump did not invent racism. He is just packaging it in a way white, middle-class people can see . . . not unlike cell phones now capture, for white America, the systemic oppression black Americans experience at the hands of our lauded and praised police force. The difference is that white America now has to look at it on their television screens and Facebook posts of distant relatives. Oh, lament white America! Your poor eyes and refined sensibilities must be strained.

Trump marvelers seem to wring hands over the Donald as an enabler or facilitator of American racism. True, but this journalism trope misses a key point. These sentiments preexisted Trump. Trump’s cynical fanning of the isolationist and racial/national purity fire is a problem, but to lament its expression on the national scene smells wrong. It is like wishing the lesser intellects of America would go back underground . . . would return to the hidden recesses of Southern Illinois dinner tables and the sexual harassment in executive boardrooms.

“Often, Trump marvelers seem to wring hands over the Donald as an enabler or facilitator of American racism. True, but this new trope of election journalism misses a key point. These sentiments preexisted Trump.”

I think we’d do better to view Trump as a litmus test. He is showing us something we need to see rather than dismiss or hope dissipates with the election of a Democrat. When educated, liberal thinkers lament Trump’s rise, we are really just regretting having look at a side of America that is real, has been real and has reality beyond Donald Trump. Sure, Trump has given it a “voice,” but the fire was already there, shooting unarmed black men in the back, shooting down voter protection laws in the South and allowing the lumps of bloated flesh that collectively undulate into Roger Ailes to operate as serial sexual predators.

I think we’d do better to view Trump as a unique lens into hidden worlds of America. It is a reality show that most of us would pretend belongs on trashy network primetime for trashy network viewers. It is a show as much as Trump is a showman. But what we are seeing is real. It is a reality lived by millions of Americans everyday. Those of us in cloistered bubbles of “right thinking” believe we need to do deep readings of Disney’s Pocahontas to find American bigotry. We do not. It is right next to us on the bus, if we care to look . . . or take public transportation.

 

 

Ted Cruz, critic of commercial media?

Trump Cruz Fox
Trump and Cruz during the 2016 Republican primary debate on Fox Business Channel

“There is a broader dynamic at work, which is network executives have made a decision to get behind Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes at Fox News have turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network.”

 -Ted Cruz, two months after suspending his campaign to be the Republican nominee

I’m not used to agreeing with Ted Cruz.

But I might have to when it comes to his post-nomination view of Fox News. Did Trump (almost literally) steal the spotlight on cable news? If so, how?

The how is important. Cruz is content to paint Ailes, Murdoch and company at Fox News as overly powerful Republican kingmakers, but it is important not to be reductive about so-called media bias. Fox is equal parts commercial organization and deep-throated political beast. We need to properly understand bias to get at the how of Trump’s surprising rise in American politics.

Discussions of bias usually stall on the political question. Americans are often content to yell “conservative” or “liberal” bias and leave it at that. And it makes sense. Those of us in the US have been trained to expect balance and objectivity from their news. It is only natural that the public perception of Fox News emphasizes the right-leaning commentary on the channel.

Still, I believe this is short-sighted. Yes, Fox News is politically motivated. Yes, Fox News provides a platform for conservative voices . . . but these are surface observations of bias and fail to appreciate a core insight about media companies. Fox is also former subsidiary and (now) a profitable partner with News Corp. with holdings around the world and across media platforms. It is a company, like all companies, with the sole aim of generating revenue for shareholders. We should not forget this form of bias when we speculate on the rise of the Donald.

The 2013 company break up of News Corp. can tell us something about the role of the profit motive in corporate decision-making. When Murdoch insisted on buying up flagship newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, major investors in the conglomerate balked. Everyone in that corporate boardroom understood newspapers were dying a slow death by a thousand bytes. No profit-minded, voting board member saw the paper as a worthy investment, particularly compared to the revenues generated by non-publishing enterprises. Perhaps it was his father’s beginnings in publishing that made the media tycoon need more newspapers in his portfolio. Whatever the case, investors demanded a business break-up. Print would be financially quarantined under News Corp. while more lucrative holdings in film and television go to the newly created Fox Group. We see a sort of corporate philosophy at play: Murdoch’s “vanity” publishing properties should not undermine returns from TV and film. Other corporations, like the Tribune Company, followed suit.

The point is this. Media literacy demands we be wary of political motivations in our news. They abound. But we cannot let this obscure the business motivations that aim cameras in certain directions and send reporters to events. Commercial needs direct our media and, thus, our national conversation. With this in mind, we might better understand why Fox, MSNBC and CNN all mysteriously ignored other candidate speeches to broadcast, live, an empty Trump podium. What journalistic principles tell us that an empty Trump podium is more newsworthy than an actual Sanders speech after a rough primary? Other programming principles are influencing the decision, of course.

Cruz’s criticism is sound (even if surprising given how out of character it is for Republicans to accuse media of much more than the “liberal agenda”). The target of Cruz’s attacks, however, is Fox News. We assume there is no surplus of liberal agenda there. So how do we understand the preference for one kind of Republican over another? Though Cruz points to TV executives as handmaidens to Trump’s victory, we need to also ask about the larger structure of media. How we think about media power matters. Something bigger than political bias refines the selection process: the commercial bias.

If we extend Cruz’s criticism a bit, we see what worked against him. Trump has media power. This goes beyond his media savvy, his charisma and his experience in front of a camera on The Apprentice. Trump has something more. Media power is also  “the economic, political and cultural impact of organisations that deal in information, symbols and narratives,” as Des Freedman puts it. When we marvel at Trump, we are also marveling at our media system.

Many Republicans are dismayed by American news in light of Trump’s primary rampage. “Look at what the media did to the Republican party,” they implore. Establishment candidates appeared to sag into lumps of poorly refrigerated meat as they sought to stay above the rhetoric and refused to engage Trump in the very familiar language of 140-characters-or-less. The Cruzes and Jeb!s tried to use the private media as a forum to persuade voters their policies were best; they were bested by a policy-light entertainer with his tiny, tweeting hands on the levers of private media.

Trump twee at Jeb

So when mainstream Republicans lambaste the role of Fox News in propelling this reality television figure into frontrunner status or acerbically note Trump’s bumper-sticker policies in contrast to other candidates’ plans, every time they paint Trump as the clown at the “media circus,” there is a glimmer of recognition that commercial news is not responsible news.

If we look long enough (a kind of thousand yard stare of the shell-shocked) we can see a logical syllogism about media policy in Ted Cruz’s anger toward Fox News. One I don’t think the Texas senator would speak aloud, but one I wouldn’t mind hearing from campaigns more often: commercial media put Trump where he is today.

Premise 1: Commercial media’s primary function is to draw large audiences with disposable income for advertisers. NBC sells our eyes and ears to them. Ratings, therefore, are the prime metric guiding the behavior of corporate media enterprises.

Premise 2: Donald Trump draws public attention (i.e. eyes and ears as measured by ratings agencies) and “media power,” the social connections to key media figures that provide access to audiences and add to his personal publicity.

 

Trump’s media advantage goes beyond having a knack for statements that draw media attention like a fly to human waste. He has functional and productive relationships with those that craft both American reality TV and American news. When Buzzfeed reporters went through Trump’s various biographies, they found CNN’s Jeff Zucker lovingly featured several times, once in typical Trump fashion as a “total dynamo”.

Trump Zucker Partnership
From one of Trump’s several books on Trump’s love of dynamos.

Trump’s relationships with people like CNN president Jeff Zucker matter. A lot. It translates into what Politico has liken to “an experiment in free media.” Normally, candidates pay to communicate with audiences . . . like advertisers. Not Trump. The NYT estimated Trump had attracted $2 billion in free media coverage as his campaign and corporate media managers feed off of one another. In short, help weak cable ratings and get airtime for publicity.

We saw the commercial bias in action with the debates. Fox News’ debate in Detroit on March 3 drew an amazing 17 million viewers. Compare that to 5.5 million drawn by the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan. Or compare 2016 to the 2012 Republican primary debates’ largest audience that year at 7.1 million. Trump has a magnetism that ratings-minded programmers cannot deny.

The Zucker-Trump alliance is long-standing . . . but more unnerving is what these two worked on: the creation of audience-attracting spectacles and catch phrases. As the success of Trump’s reality show carried NBC through a financially perilous time, Zucker learned how Trump was valuable to him as an NBC chief. Now that Zucker is leading CNN, what kind of value does Zucker see in brand Trump? CNN’s ratings jump with Trump on tap is telling if a bit disconcerting for those that favor deeper political conversations.

Trump’s unorthodox public relations style, honed in the ratings-focused cauldron of NBC’s sitcom lineup, pushes media manager to shift the editorial focus to Trump’s slightest move. The coverage? Trump unwittingly makes racist comment. Trump wittingly makes racist comments. Trump defends additional racist remarks. The most telling moment came with the “feud” instigated when Trump attacked Fox host Megyn Kelly. Not only did Fox News carry the Trump-Kelly drama to a ratings crescendo with Kelly’s awkwardly personal follow-up interview but other media outlets covered the tense public exchange as if an offended news personality were actual news the public needed. It had begun as a question about Trump’s regard for women and ended as a mildly flirtatious break-up/make-up worthy of any episode of The Bachelor. 

So, we come to a testable hypothesis:

Conclusion 1: Figures who create public events which score better audience measurements will be preferred by commercial news’ editorial policies. Therefore, Trump will receive more coverage given the overlapping interests of the Trump campaign and commercial news producers.

Evidence? Sure thing. The left-leaning media criticism group, Media Matters, crunched the numbers. Trump received nearly double the coverage of the candidate with the second-most airtime (Cruz). Said another way: Trump was considered two times more “newsworthy” than Sen. Cruz (see graphic).

fox-primary-may-2016-candidate-overall.jpg
source: Media Matters for America, 2016

Cruz’s assertion that Fox News had “taken sides” in the primary process may make media critics out of some Republicans, but it also points up the need to weigh the virtues and vices of a public culture driven by private companies. The “side” the news networks took was the one that grew viewership by any means possible. Donald was a means to that end. Trump seeks publicity. Commercial news is a means to that end.

Much of this will play out again during the Republican National Convention. What is a convention other than a publicity event? Both Trump and media executives, dynamos or otherwise, will use the event to achieve their goals.

But what effect will the hypercommercial nature of the American press have on the democratic process? Will disenfranchised  Republicans pull the curtain back on Zucker, Ailes and the long list of media execs whose livelihood depends on courting the outrageous? Not likely. Republicans are loath to restrict the prerogatives of private corporations. But Cruz’s demise and the rise of Trump politics might awaken those on the right that a free market does not necessarily produce the best journalism for democracy. The irony of Cruz’s comment is that the Republican pro-business orthodoxy shaped the media system that helped defeat his White House bid. It also means the corporate media status quo will continue, despite having bitten one Republican hand that fed them.