A confluence of institutional failures, not least of which the mainstream media, have gotten us into this mess. Can we expect any of them to get us out of it?
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a Korean War vet turned brawler and convict, persuades the state that he is “insane,” so that he can serve out the rest of his sentence in a psychiatric hospital. He thinks the “madhouse” will be easier, or at least more fun, than prison. For a while, it is more fun: Mac boozes and carouses with fellow patients. He’s got an all-American insouciance and swagger as he bucks the rules imposed by the all-powerful Big Nurse—cracking jokes even as he’s strapped down for his first electroshock treatment. All the snark and bluster can’t save him from the body-quaking, mind-erasing pain. His face contorts in a mute wrenched agony—and in this agony, there is an expression of genuine wonderment: How in the ever-loving fuck did I get here? It’s a bitter, if appropriate, irony, then, that his story—a parable on the perils of living under cruel, authoritarian conditions—is a perfect encapsulation of what happened to America on November 8, when the “free world” elected an oily-tongued, orange-skinned autocrat as its president: Trump voters gambled on the madhouse. Like Mac, they wanted “a change,” believed in a thoughtless promise of “more freedom”—and put the whole country under the thumb of Big Nurse in the White House.
As a nation, we find ourselves collectively writhing under each jolt of fresh, electro-Hell, wondering how the ever-loving fuck we got here. The pundits gnash their teeth over the Democratic Party’s inability to inspire the white working man, and they salivate over each chance to remind their loyal viewers that Hillary Clinton was too stiff, too “Establishment” to prevail over “a candidate of change” like Trump. The leftist bros stir up a witches’ brew of dorm-room Marxism and Julian Assange-approved propaganda. Those of us who are shocked and singed with grief after Clinton’s loss blame biased, uneven media coverage; right-wing conspiracies and a corrupt, interventionist FBI; and good ol’ fashioned sexism. Trump’s victory was assured by a steady deadening of our intelligence, sensitivity, even our humanity—a continual force-feeding of reality shows; “if it bleeds it leads” news coverage; cheaply jingoistic pop songs and action movies; social media that has become little more than a curation of ads and memes; and hours of lazy TV procedurals that have left us dopey and lethargic. We’re living in that crash after a sugar high, jonesing for our next fix of easily digested content.
The mainstream news media has—quite deservedly—been pilloried for its neurotic fixation on Hillary Clinton’s damn emails, a non-scandal that obliterated all coverage of her policy proposals, and, perhaps more importantly, Trump’s lack thereof. Just a week before the election, Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow for Media Matters, analyzed the results of a study that examined trends in the ways that the three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, covered the candidates: “Combined, the three network newscasts have slotted 100 minutes so far this year for reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails while she served as secretary of state, but just 32 minutes for all issues coverage.” Boehlert sees this not only as a gross abdication of journalistic responsibility—“Journalists want there to be a blockbuster story,” he writes. “The campaign press wants more spectacle to cover during the closing days of the election. (Especially anti-Clinton spectacle)”—but as a refutation of the common right-wing refrain that the “media elite” wields an ever-sharpened axe against conservatives. And yet, this refrain has become the song itself: The belief that the “lamestream media” is inherently biased against Trump and is ilk has become such a widespread assumption that even the most damningly overt evidence to the contrary registers as a briefly skipped beat—if it registers at all.
CNN’s CEO, Jeff Zucker, who was the president and CEO of NBC Universal back when The Apprentice was a ratings juggernaut, keeps a framed screenshot of a Trump tweet praising the network in his office. It’s hardly a shock that, even in the primary season, CNN would broadcast Trump rallies utterly uninterrupted, and without real-time fact checking, so often that even Zucker himself would casually admit, “we put them on because we never knew what he was going to say … in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have done that as much.” That is cold comfort, I’m sure, to the millions of women, and Muslims, and immigrants, and people of color, and members of the LGBTQ communities, who stand to lose their basic bodily autonomy, not to mention their civil liberties, under a Trump administration. Of course, CNN’s journalistic oopsies don’t stop there—Zucker hired Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, a man who allegedly physically assaulted two reporters, as a talking head because the network “needed to bring in voices supportive of the Republican nominee.”
This supportiveness is at the very core of the deep institutional rot that carried Trump’s pseudo-populism out from under the floorboards of the white nationalists and right into the living room. Most of the news organizations that valiantly, and vociferously, challenged the great Orange Menace, were print and online publications like The Washington Post and Newsweek. Kurt Eichenwald, a journalist with Newsweek, spent the summer dropping bombshells about Trump’s businesses violating the embargo against Cuba and purchasing steel from Chinese, not U.S., manufacturers; and on November 4, he published a piece that definitively established Russian interference in the election. The Post’s David Fahrenthold did dogged reporting on systemic corruption in the Trump Foundation—but the TV news outlets found this story lacking in the panache of yet another round of Clinton Email Roulette. Eichenwald and Fahrenthold represent a kind of gumshoe journalism that simply isn’t embraced anymore—not when attention spans are better satiated by the two-minute hot take, or yet another Pepe the Frog meme. As the newspaper industry continues its slow fade, the public turns increasingly to the boob tube and ye olde internet for news.
Declining subscriptions don’t just have an impact on national elections—Bloomberg reports that the number of journalists covering U.S. statehouses fell 35 percent between 2003 and 2014, meaning that the average American isn’t just beholden to sweeps weeks’ stunts and click-bait for her national coverage, she’s also less aware of the legislation enacted in her own backyard. So, no wonder, then, that the goings-on in Washington, D.C., should feel as removed from her own work-a-day life as a particularly twisty episode of House of Cards. Our politics are no longer regarded are matters of life and death, but as bread and circuses. And our politicians are no longer public servants vying for the chance to shape the nation; they are tributes in our own American Hunger Games, forced pageants where they must flawlessly balance viciousness and “likability” in equal measure. The madhouse of Trumplandia no longer seems so extreme.
Donald Trump has famously referred to himself as a “ratings machine,” and that machine has been well-oiled and fine-tuned by elites like Zucker, and Les Moonves, the CBS chairman who quipped that the Twitter-addicted tyrant’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS … the money’s rolling in and this is fun.” The LGBTQ youth who are flooding suicide hotlines with calls aren’t having Moonves’s kind of fun. This begs the question of why, then, Moonves’s gleeful acceptance of Trump’s corn-fed sadism has become the norm—not a craven aberration to be righteously abhorred. A girl can only dream of the thunder that Edward R. Murrow would’ve unleashed upon Trump and his surrogates. The news media may have normalized Trump himself; however, CNN and CBS and NBC are only cogs in the great grinding wheel of American culture, which has become increasingly myopic and coarse.
Trump’s rise was irrefutably fueled by reality TV: Millions of Americans tuned in to watch The Donald deploy his signature catchphrase—“You’re fired!”—and became conditioned to the wicked thrill of watching him demean other aspiring business people’s dreams. So, why, then, should we be surprised when he made sport of other people’s hopes—to have bodily autonomy or a path to citizenship, to truly be considered as American—on the campaign trail. Reality TV, by its essence, promotes an adversarial, isolationist outlook to life—when everyone is a competitor, and every alliance is only temporary and conditional, a Clinton or Obama platform that prioritizes coalition-building seems foolish and weak. This outlook remains ever-popular, ever-present, because reality shows are cheap and easy to produce: Content creators and network executives simply aren’t willing to invest in shows that elicit real thought and emotion, and don’t just ring a Pavlov’s bell of “oh-shit! She said that?”
While there have been strides in real diversity across all areas of entertainment, The Sentencing Project has rung the alarm that TV programs “overrepresent racial minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.” When John and Janie White Working Class only see people of color as the “bad hombres” being interrogated by Tom Selleck on “Blue Bloods,” they’re more likely to nod their heads when Trump brands all Mexicans as rapists or refers to “the Blacks” as some kind of monolith. The problem is compounded for Middle-Eastern men and women, who most often appear on-screen as foot soldiers and suicide bombers—existing only so that The Rock can kick them out of windows, or Carrie Matheson can use her chaotic brilliance to foil their terrorist schemes. Works like “The Night Of,” which deals explicitly with anti-Muslim bias and beautifully humanizes a Pakistani-American family; or “The Wire,” which takes a nuanced, novelistic look at the inner-city life Trump is so quick to dismiss as a blighted Hellscape where a trip to the corner store requires a flak jacket, only appear on cable or digital TV. Films like “Moonlight” or “Loving” arrive exclusively at downtown arthouse theaters—and all of this means that truly intelligent, empathy-cultivating entertainment is out of reach for anyone who can’t afford it.
The paucity of our cultural discourse is only compounded by an educational system that has been cowed by “No Child Left Behind,” invested only in improving test scores, and not grooming critical thinkers. At least 14 states—including those much ballyhooed swing states Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Indiana—use tax dollars to teach Creationism in the classroom. And at least 37 states have instituted abstinence-only teachings—even though abstinence-only has, by and large, been proven woefully ineffective. When our educators openly flout scientific fact for Biblical speculation, they promote a notion that curiosity is toxic and reason can be ignored. Writing for Forbes magazine, George Leef with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a think tank that is, ironically enough, old-school conservative, laments that “a great many [American students] leave high school with pathetic abilities in crucial areas: reading, writing, basic math, and reasoning.” These pathetic abilities leave Americans vulnerable to the digital quicksand of misinformation—unable to suss out carefully-verified information from thrill-seeking innuendos spread on Reddit.
Though it’s tempting to dismiss this as the willful ignorance of the hardline Right, there are plenty of lefties who are more than willing to treat memes as founts of eternal wisdom; and to reduce the dark complexities of electoral politics into snotty platitudes like, “The DNC rigged the primaries against Bernie,” or, “Bernie would have won the election.” Anyone who wants to believe that has ignored Kurt Eichenwald’s sneak peek at the Republican opposition file on Saint Sanders. Some of the loudest people on both sides prefer stewing in their own indignation to bathing in the cold, clear waters of fact. In a September interview with Wired magazine, Breitbart writer and gay white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos—who was banned from Twitter after he aggressively harassed Leslie Jones, first with his racist and misogynist trolling and then by hacking her personal site—brags that “We live in a post-fact era. It’s wonderful … The Washington Post gives a truth check, and no one cares.”
The current efforts to normalize Trump, to get in a froth over his spat with the cast of Hamilton and not address the many-headed hydra of his conflicts of interest; to discuss Cabinet appointees whose radical racism previously disqualified them from federal judgeships, as “a shift to the right,” are counting on the fact that no one cares. Especially not the “journalists” who take private, off-the-record meetings at Trump tower like supplicants bowing to a king. And, if their anonymous accounts to the New York Post and The New Yorker are to be believed, these people—who are vested with the responsibility to present facts and unveil truths, however raw and uncouth, to the general public—sat around, complacently accepting abuse and refusing to disclose some of the more genuinely frightening, proto-fascist moments from this meeting on-high. As one source told The New Yorker’s David Remnick: “He truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment. He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.” However, another source attempted to shuck this off with a “It was all so Trump. He is like this all the time. He’ll freeze you out and then be nice and humble and sort of want you to like him.” But this is not a particularly whacky episode of “That’s so Trump!” it is nothing less than the fate of the free will. Fred Turner, a Stanford-based cultural historian who studies the ways that mass media shaped, and responded to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 40s, says that “Trump has used the media to take over an existing state apparatus. Whether he’s able to do what he wants or not, whether he’s competent or not, and whether institutions will resist him, that’s an open question.” For the American experiment, that question now is “to be or not to be?”
And as we reckon with the matter of how, exactly, we got here, to a moment that threatens the very future of the Republic, we are pressed with another, equally terrifying question—where, exactly, we’re going. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick McMurphy’s gamble on the madhouse costs him dearly—he ends up fully lobotomized, zombified, and is only released by a mercy killing. The TV producers and the journalists, the social media stars and the educators of this country owe us more than a slow, smothering death. Their imperative should be to inspire resistance—not to drive an ice pick through the American consciousness.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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