Anyone note the explosion of advertising for free access to content like Spotify or Netflix? This T-Mobile ad samples TV so much it could be mistaken for a Netflix promotion. But if we look past the smiling shots of our favorite TV characters high-fiving, we see the first signs of what life on the web will be like after Network Neutrality.
It is no coincidence we see these offers in the wake of weakened Network Neutrality principles. This practice, “zero-rating,” is a clear example of what NN advocates have feared. Zero rating is the practice of creating partnerships with content providers like Netflix and making access to content from certain providers cheaper. Those who control the network get to play favorites in choosing the content flowing through their “pipes.” In short, not everyone trying to reach users/customers is treated equally.
How is this anti-competitive? Imagine we want to launch a music service to compete with Spotify. We have a good tech team that worked hard developing a friendlier user interface and faster file access for the consumer. Spotify’s deal with T-Mobile means our start-up music service, regardless of our app’s superiority, will likely fail. Why? Incumbent market advantages:
Access to customers. Spotify will have a guaranteed user base in T-Moblie’s subscribers. Big user bases attract revenue from venture capital and new media investors of the Silicon Valley sort.
Advertiser appeal. A high number of users (high traffic) will mean increased interest from advertisers, another revenue stream.
Data sales. High traffic also provides user data. User data is valuable to marketing firms and several new industries that lurk in the shadowy world of data brokers (one broker offering a “Rape Sufferers List” for targeted marketing).
All of these factors add up to tall barriers to entry for competitors. By preferring Spotify’s content over others, network owners will effectively pick and choose winners while stifling innovative startups. And what is the likelihood that T-Mobile will allow a Spotify competitor to use the T-Mobile network?
This glimpse of a post-Network Neutral internet shows how anti-competitive the legal environment can become. It is a sharp contrast with the early (network-neutral) internet that allowed a young Netflix to challenge cable providers. Even seemingly innocuous Netflix package deals could be harbingers of a significantly less competitive industry in which consumers and startups ultimately lose.
Despite the upbeat Netflix vignettes, these growing and merging media companies are not friendly giants. Zero-rating is a first stage of dramatic changes in store for a post-NN world. Network Favoritism of this sort dampens the industry’s ability to produce innovations and removes incentives to improve customer services. Without Network Neutrality, we risk more concentration in ownership and the development of distribution-content trusts. These trusts are more likely to stifle innovation.
Internet service providers like Comcast argue they would suffer unfair market disadvantages, but Comcast’s position on NN is contorted. As T.C. Sottok noted in The Verge, Comcast’s incoherent NN policy goes something like: “We respect and abide by NN principles and that is why we want them removed.” It begs the simple question: If the company appreciates NN, why petition to change FCC rules?
Public relations speak has made Comcast’s position nonsense, but policymakers have maps for navigating these waters. Nineteenth century Americans fought the Standard Oil monopoly because trusts and monopoly violated American ideas of capitalism. Concentration led to market dysfunction and harmed the economy at large. Early in the 20th century, AT&T had bought up most of the nation’s phone networks but accepted substantial government regulation in exchange for becoming the nation’s sole telephone company. AT&T owned all the market and Americans had public interest (9-1-1, fair rates, equal access) hardwired into US telecommunications system.
Standard Oil’s J D Rockefeller was a strict, church-going man. Reporters of the era noted that he taught Bible school on Sundays, but, by Monday, he was as ruthless a business mogul as the Gilded Age could produce. Disney may have the veneer of progressive ice princesses and dancing tea sets, but the media business is, well, business.
Russian interference in the 2016 US election took many forms. Twitter bots, paid trolling, memes, and Facebook ad campaigns put politically charged messages in front of Americans, enflaming preexisting social divisions in the US. This paper seeks to place RT in a larger complex of the fragmentation of the American public, the role of “disruptive media” strategies and, finally, the geopolitics of US-Russian relations. By tracing the intellectual work of Kremlin political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, we get a clearer picture of Russian media campaigns that dominate the headlines.
There is mounting evidence that Russian efforts consciously sought to play on preexisting tensions in American civic life. Race, class, gender and sexuality, all subjects of political strife in a hyperpartisan American political system, became fodder for Russian meme-factories and a small army of covert online commenters. RT’s disruptive role also reflects the Anti-Liberalism of Dugin in his work on geopolitics and so-called Fourth Political Theory. This paper argues that RT is part of a larger strategy we call “disrupt media” and reflects the under-explored teachings of Russian political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin.
Disrupt media refers to persuasive campaigns that play upon growing American distrust of US news as an institution of political and social life. But the strategy is not unique to Russian disinformation. For years, domestic news operations -Fox News and Brietbart- have played on the distrust of “mainstream” journalism to draw and retain viewership by cultivating distrust in American media. This paper explores how RT combines a disrupt strategy with the geopolitical thinking of “Duginism” which suggests “introduc[ing] geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts” (Dugin, 2015, p. 367).
Sharable partisan content, regardless of its support for right or left, Democrat or Republican, left vs. far left, is best understood as an outgrowth of the information bubbles and fragmentation of the American electorate. Disrupt media, in Dugin’s model, fortifies group identity. In line with the Council of Europe’s 2017 report, we reframe this strategy of “information pollution” as a question of culture and ritual rather than simple information transmission, recognizing that “communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs” (7). RT’s campaign found success by taking advantage of the commercial foundations of the US (new) media system and forms of redistribution enabled by user sharing functions of new media platforms.
Surprised by Trump’s election in 2016, pollsters have had to do some soul-searching. How could their statistical models have missed so many Trump voters? Polling organizations and pundits failed to see Trump’s populist base: the disaffected, white working class.
The narrative goes like this. These Americans felt left behind by globalization and neglected by national political elites. Where jobs are not fleeing across the border, wages were stagnant. Though wages don’t improve, financial networks like CNBC celebrate the S&P or Dow’s record-breaking highs with bells and whistles.
For the downstate Illinois voter, the economy on TV does not look like life in Charleston with its scenes of boarded up storefronts and abandoned theaters. Just as cable news seems detached from the lived experience of small town Illinois, downstate voters grow skeptical of the wealthy political establishments in Washington and Chicago.
Income inequality in places like Charleston can spike to levels on par with developing economies like Brazil, a country notorious for its gated communities separating the poor from the wealthy. Clearly there should be a broad public sentiment that would take to a message of income equality.
But how can progressives sell policies that address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in political territory Trump won handily? Republicans are suspicious of so-called class warfare and easily dismiss economic agendas that would put more money in their pocket. We find, for example, more support for repealing the Estate Tax than plans to alleviate the burden of student loans, an agenda much more likely to improve the economic standing of those living.
Republican, conservative orthodoxy has a grip on the region, and knee-jerk rejection of the Democratic brand means a Democratic candidacy is all but doomed. (The Dem candidate won around 33% of the general vote in 2014). This political situation requires a candidate run as a Republican. At once, candidate X must show how arresting the growth of wealth inequality fits into the conservative traditions: equality of opportunity, individual liberty and economic growth. Since the Republican Party has a lock on downstate voters, any pro-public economic reforms need to be clearly argued from Midwestern values and spoken in a language Republicans can relate to.
Charleston is in Illinois’s Assembly District 110. Economic data show a median household income of under $30,000. Graphs of income distribution in 110th district have a significant “bulge” in the lower incomes. This means the district has a greater number of low income residents relative to the rest of Illinois.
Data also shows how many unwed mothers a candidate would represent. A candidate could emphasize a pro-children agenda. In addition to the generic appeal of a call to support mothers, candidate X could seek to expand daycare options with subsidies that can free unwed mothers to pursue degrees or careers.
If we look closely at the data, the presence of a university partly explains Charleston’s high wealth gap. Students earn little, pushing down on average incomes. Champaign, home to the University of Illinois, also has high wealth inequality (mid to low 50s).
Still, incomes are disproportionately low. As a result, this kind of unending rural recession will fail to attract new business development. And this is the beginning of a longer list of ills afflicting small towns like Charleston.
The Illinois fiscal crisis and partisan polarization in the House and Governor’s office has triggered furloughs among university staff.
Budget impasses prevent a predictable pay schedule for local contractors employed by the university.
Students who rely on the state funding often have their entrance to school subsidized by state schools when bipartisanism fails in the statehouse. This pushes institutions of higher education further into debt to honor their educational mission.
Public services are also threatened by dysfunctional state politics as budget deadlines pass without appropriating funds for essential services.
The sum total of these tribulations is a municipal economy that ends up lurching from one emergency appropriation to another with little stability for long-term financial planning and investment.
So, a progressive economic message may have some appeal in places like Charleston, but selling this idea requires understanding the values of rural America, i.e. Trump country. And yet I can’t help thinking about what it would take to address income inequality in a deeply red district.
What can the campaign emphasize? Pro-business and pro-EIU (higher education) funding.
“If EIU thrives, so do we.”
A candidate who is business-friendly but also recognizes that the economic base of the region is EIU can argue for both greater support for higher education. EIU relies on the funding of public education. Therefore, you are “business growth through public funding.” Being pro-consumer is being pro-business.
The economic base is consumption. That means we need expendable income. So, how is the average consumer doing in the District? It does not look good. Average household income in Coles County, for example, is lousy. Median is 37,040/yr. And this is low compared to surrounding counties (also in the 110th district). Charleston is just a particularly bleak part of the county.
The more elaborate argument for this is simple economics. State funds for the university (as well as student aid programs like MAP) make stronger consumers. Greater consumption is good for current business and future business development which, in turn, funds public projects. A smart Republican can combine a pro-business platform with the ‘compassionate conservative’ respect for public programs (like DCFS and public higher education).
Now, I’m not naive. I recognize that Republicans dominate as a political brand in East Central Illinois. Since Democrats don’t have much of an operation, there might be a place for a moderate Republican to capture what would be Democratic voters (and hope they vote in Republican primaries).
The key fight is in the primary. Jockeying for position might push the campaign to focus on conservative planks. Taxes, guns, and economic growth, I imagine. The trick is selling public funding of EIU to help boost salaries and business development. Maybe even shifting the state tax burden more to Chicago-level incomes.
Stump speech excerpt:
“Look at our median income. It is unacceptably low. Why does Charleston pay for Chicago’s prosperity? We need policies that support downstate businesses, downstate communities, downstate mothers and the educational opportunities for the next generation to thrive.”
An inconvenient truth for a Republican: the Gini coefficient
Basic data shows Charleston has one of the worst wealth gaps in the state and, perhaps, nation. The poor are very poor and the rich are very rich.
The problem with this kind of chasm between economic groups is about more than the loss of social cohesion and problems of poverty in general. There is an economic reason to fear weakening consumer power. Middle class shrinkage pulls money from the economy by cinching the belt on those who spend the most.
The economics term for the divide between rich and poor is the Gini coefficient. To offer some perspective, Mexico is at 47. Brazil, the highest concentration of wealth, is at 61. Charleston is at 54. Some economists argue that revolution is probable at around 60 or higher. These are key data points that can rebrand a Republican as both pro-business and concerned about sustainable economic growth.
Stump speech excerpt:
“Charleston should not rank with Third World economies when it comes to the welfare of our people. Policies that empower our middle class will increase our paychecks and drive growth from the bottom up. Illinois citizens deserve better than Third World economics from Chicago.”
I believe there is a place for moderate Republicans in Illinois. Too often, Republicans sell corporate tax cuts as “relief” for the middle class. But we can no longer endure politicians who sell the myth of a classless society and ignore the ills of the growing wealth gap: a tearing of the American social fabric and continued political polarization.
Rural Americans are entitled to feel cheated by a system that has been oversold by rhetorics of free trade, deregulation and competition. A clear message about good paychecks to those who spur production is crucial. Progressive policies put more money in the hands of those who buy then spur production. That creates jobs. A clear and direct appeal to economic security.
Regardless, the current trajectory is not sustainable for places like Charleston. The middle class floats on a bloated raft of credit card debt while the poor slide deeper into deprivation. The need for change in these communities is clear. Gracefully, framing issues of wealth inequality, a bold candidate can lead on these issues and make Republicans a pro-middle class party.
RT, Russia’s cable news channel, has grown considerably since Moscow started funneling money into global news production. Moscow has a vested interest in influencing foreign publics, especially those in the United States. Typical responses to RT fall along two lines of reasoning.
The first interpretation is rooted in a predictable Western response to government-funded news: RT is nationalist propaganda. There are less accusatory labels for Russia’s effort like “public diplomacy” and “nation branding,” but at root they all place Russian motivations at the center of understanding RT. Foreign influence is bad for democracy.
The second view of RT is a bit less obvious. RT is simply good independent journalism in the best Western traditions of an antagonistic press, a press that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” RT contributes to pluralism in our media system, and having many perspectives is good for democracy.
Should we view the media outlet as foreign propaganda? Or should we look at the often critical reporting as news with extraordinary independence?
I argue that the critical agenda of RT’s operation in Paris or Washington, D.C. should be distinguished from the domestic press. If for no other reason, the fate of mainstream domestic media is tied to the maintenance of many domestic institutions, economic, social and otherwise.
The two interpretations of RT.
RT as Propaganda:
The geopolitical rivalry of the US and Russia may seem to preclude any view of RT as a source for good journalism. Advocates for RT-as-propaganda point to RT’s critical coverage of the Russia government, Putin or Moscow’s foreign policy. There is none. RT burnishes Russia’s image as a powerful and innocent international force. Likewise, RT’s reporting on geopolitical conflicts significant to Russian interests follow the foreign policy du jour in the Kremlin. Such coverage predictably supports the Russian government’s view of, for example, militant Crimean separatists as a defense of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. There may be no glorifying pictures of Putin on horseback, but RT uses subtler forms of persuasion in the Western-styled presentation of news. Thus, the news channel has unavoidable bias in its portrait of international events and should be considered propaganda.
RT as Journalism:
Those who view RT as journalism are not naively taken in by this ruse. RT’s defenders are often clear-headed about the intentions of the channel but express sympathy for RT’s mission to counterbalance a global news agenda largely driven by American and British news producers (CNN and BBC). Russian officials, they understand, chafed against the Anglo-American domination of the global news agenda and sought balance by replicating Western news production styles to offer stories under-reported by Western news agencies. If Reuters, AP, The New York Times and CNN reflected Anglo-American geopolitical interests, it is only fair that news consumers had access to alternative worldviews. According to this logic, RT completes our picture of world events.
The view of RT-as-journalism is a bit counter-intuitive but has merit. Many of RT’s defenders are quick to point out “bias” in American news. Reliance on official sources make national reporters reluctant to alienate office holders. Some media companies seek favorable regulatory conditions from an administration’s FCC and offer themselves as message vehicles for patrons. Sinclair Broadcasting may be a strong example of this quid pro quo media politicking. Reliance on advertisers introduces another set of pressures on editorial boards. The list of compromising conditions for news industry professionals is long and challenges more rosy pictures of the intrepid journalist speaking truth to power.
News critics aware of these vices in American journalism want an antagonistic press with true independence. Beyond critics, portions of the American public, too, agree with President Trump’s frequent shots at the press. Indeed, Trump’s victory may have hinged on casting clouds of doubt over mainstream press organs like CNN. This growing body of “woke” news consumers is part of a trend in American public opinion, a trend of skepticism. Simply, Americans show a waning faith in domestic, corporate news. A glance at the history of Gallup Poll public opinion numbers shows a declining faith in “the mass media” as a neutral source of information.
At once, we see a countervailing trend in how Americans appreciate their news sources. Those who disregard media at large as biased or fake will often praise the news channel they regularly use as an objective source of information about the world. We see an analogous Gallup trend in public views of Congress. Much like members of the public will give “Congress” low scores yet praise their district’s Congressional representative, Americans tend to hate “media” but love their channels.
Despite the downward trends in Americans’ regard for news media, many argue that we should hate the press. At least a little. A contentious press system that holds those in power to account and offers a range of opinions should anger and delight different groups of the public. If it did not, it would not be fulfilling its mission in a pluralist democracy. Journalism worthy of the name should occasionally attack, pillory and shame public figures and American culture.
Even if we appreciate a vicious watchdog press, we still must make distinctions between domestic and foreign media to appreciate RT’s role in the American media landscape. A thought experiment may help. If, for example, French political culture is significantly destabilized by events (terrorism, social strife, economic failures), Le Monde could reasonably be expected to report on contentious issues with the aim of re-stabilization. As domestic journalism, Le Monde is invested in the maintenance of French society and, given significant disruption, the paper would report in a way that sought a return to the status quo or normal economic, political and social French life. After all, “normal” French life has sustained Le Monde’s business model. The same can be said for The Washington Post and NBC Nightly News. The aim is not destruction of institutions but reform.
Not so with RT. Safely distant from Paris and Washington, RT can practice a sort of journalism of pure criticism, highlighting fractures and conflicts with little regard for clarification of debate and resolution. It is the difference between harsh criticisms from a family member versus a stranger in the street. One has an investment in you and your future. The other does not.
How we handle these new players in global media today will chart a path. This path can lead us out of a parochial age of national news and forge links across national boundaries. Pessimistic readers will see propaganda and hostile foreign powers seeking geopolitical advantage in news-diplomacy. Idealists envision a sort of global public sphere developing. Regardless, the path will be shaped by policy choices today.
Trump’s recent sit-down with reporters on Air Force One show a candid and off-the-cuff president. Initially “off the record,” Trump’s team released a redacted version of the transcript. . .
Many of Trump’s “authentic” mannerisms are a break from traditional rhetorical styles of the American presidency. One example is the “now you know” technique. Trump takes on a professorial persona and relates common knowledge as if enlightening the audience with special wisdom they would not otherwise have. The tone is insulting for those who are well aware of the world faced by the president, despite Trump having discovered these truths only recently.
It is when Trump tries to inform that his ignorance is most clearly displayed. The exchange with reporters on Air Force One reveals a great deal about how limited he believes the press pool’s understanding of the world actually is.
“They have an 8,000 year culture. . . . And you know, don’t forget, China, over the many years, has been at war with Korea — you know, wars with Korea.”
[Yes, China has been around for awhile]
“But don’t forget. He’s for China. I’m for the U.S. So that’s always going to be.”
[Yeah, you are presidents of distinct countries.]
“We have a thing called healthcare.”
[likely a joke but indistinguishable from raw stupidity or creeping alzheimer’s]
“Look, there’s no better place for solar than the Mexico border — the southern border.”
[Mexico is South of the US. Lots of sun. Got it.]
“. . . when they throw the large sacks of drugs over. . .”
[I hate it when my drug dealer accidentally throws my sack of drugs at the border patrol agent’s head]
“They have pressures that are tough pressures”
[have an indistinct grasp of concepts much?]
“[The meeting with a Russian lawyer] was attended by a couple of other people who — one of them left after a few minutes — which is Jared. The other one was playing with his iPhone.”
[As if the attempt and failure to work with US adversaries vindicates the crime of working with US adversaries.]
“Q Are you mad that Putin lied about the meeting that you had with him, especially about —
THE PRESIDENT: What meeting?”
[This would make sense if he then asked ‘Who are you? How did you get in here!?]
“I’m a tremendous fracker”
[Yes you are. Yes you are.]
The age of the celebrity president is upon us. Reagan pushed us that way. Jesse Ventura a sign. Schwarzenegger was the writing on the wall. Trump is the breaking of the damn wall. The television presidency is here.
Let’s just hope Dwayne Johnson believes Americans deserve healthcare.
“. . . 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.
The week after Colbert’s monologue, Outhad published little on the issue. The Advocate‘s fleeting coverageframed 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. Instinctstaff 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, @germanrlopez 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.
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:
Stephen Colbert is being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission for his disgusting homophobic remarks. Good! #FireColbert
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.
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.
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.
Obama Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use:
Trump Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trump wins. So did much of white, male America. Were the elite press and analysts blind to white nationalism?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?