News & Politics

Taibbi: We're 'Too Dumb for TV News'

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has a flawed but thoughtful analysis of the media and the public and how we, as “consumers” of news, have driven the ideological bias that has become standard in the industry:

It’s our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it’s just that the Fox version is a little kinkier.

Taibbi appears clueless that the “purists” like Edward R. Murrow were just as intent as networks today at delivering a news product not meant to “inform,” but to propagandize for a political agenda. When the national media universe was made up of the “Big Three” networks and a few magazines like Time, Life, and Newsweek, Americans were told what was good, what was bad, which side to root for, and who should be destroyed — all from a left-wing perspective. There was no room for conservative commentary or even a less relentlessly liberal take on the news.

The rest of his analysis is just about right. During the course of a single morning, I will scan and read stories from about 30 publications. The take on a particular news story is entirely predictable and disturbingly monotonous.

And there has probably never been a better example than Donald Trump’s recent comments about seeing “thousands of Muslims” celebrating the fall of the towers on 9/11.

The collapse of reason and critical thought by many conservatives in rushing to Trump’s defense is insane.

When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.

And who shops for products he or she doesn’t want? That’s why the consumer news business was always destined to hit this kind of impasse. You can get by for a long time by carefully selecting the facts you know your audiences will like, and calling that news. But eventually there will be a truth that displeases your customers. What do you do then?

In this case, as Rush said, “Americans are well aware Muslims were cheering” after 9/11. Because America “knows” this, it now expects the news media to deliver that story. And if reporters refuse, it can only be out of bias.

What this 9/11 celebrations story shows is that American news audiences have had their fantasies stroked for so long that they can’t even remember stuff that happened not that long ago. It’s like an organic version of 1984, with audiences constantly editing even their own memories to fit their current attitudes about things.

It was preposterous from the start to think that there could have been contemporaneous broadcasts of “thousands” of people in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Does nobody remember how people felt that day? If there had been such broadcasts, there would have been massacres – angry Americans would have stormed Jersey City.

In fact, police had to be deployed to places like Paterson anyway to protect immigrants from exactly that sort of mob violence. This is one of the reasons we know Muslims weren’t dancing en masse in the streets, because police were parked on those streets in huge numbers to keep people out.

How can you defend what someone says by ignoring what he said and substituting your own version of the quote? It’s balmy. But even more basic, it’s incredibly dishonest.

And for Trump’s campaign manager to actually promote the idea that there is a media conspiracy to suppress the Jersey City footage that would exonerate Trump is literally beyond belief. Where is this coming from?

The answer is found in the popularity of Trump himself. The right is conditioned to disbelieve anything from the media as hopelessly biased and Trump has become the poster child of the right’s backlash against what they perceive as a sinister effort by the media to destroy any right-wing hero. While this is true to a certain extent in coverage of conservatives, how does that translate into reality when the right rejects a direct quote by a conservative reported by news outlets, and subs out a completely different version of what the candidate said? And then tries to pass off the altered reality as “proof” of media bias?

It would have been nice if Taibbi had mentioned Hillary Clinton in his rogues gallery of deniers of reality. Hillary’s whoppers about the reasons why she adopted a private email server as secretary of State and her subsequent string of reality-denying statements about how the emails were handled — and her supporters and enablers pretending her explanations were perfectly logical — should have been conspicuous in the article, but weren’t.

Trump may ride this altered reality all the way to the White House. At that point, instead of “newspeak” we’ll have “Trumpspeak.” And the job of reporting what’s happening in the world in a reasonably factual way will suffer a blow from which it may never recover.