Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us

Last week I I read Matt Taibbi’s HATE INC.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.  Of all the books I’ve read during the past 12 months or expect to read in the near future, this is the one I’d most recommend to anybody who wants to understand what’s going on in the USA..

It is about how and why the business model for the American press changed from the seeking of a broad, noncontroversial consensus to the promotion of conflict.  It also is about why the conflict so seldom involves fundamental issues.

Noam Chomsky famously said that the way to preserve the illusion of freedom of the press is to allow vigorous debate, but only within certain prescribed bounds.

There is extreme polarization for and against Donald Trump.  Some say we’re on the verge of a new civil war.   But the debate remains within limits, and is focused on personalities.

We the public are encouraged to think that there is a deep and permanent conflict of ideas between Democratic liberals such as Rachel Maddow and Republican conservatives such as Sean Hannity, but also that there are no ideas worth considering beyond the limits of what they say.

Neither side questions ever-increasing military budgets, everlasting wars, ever-expanding surveillance, ever-growing bailouts of tax breaks for and and handouts to the most powerful corporations.

The current $716 billion military appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year contained a $165 billion increase—in itself more than the entire military budget of Russia or China, and more than the entire cost of the Iraq war in 2003 or 2004.   Large majorities of both parties in both houses of Congress supported it.

The press coverage of the bill focused not on its contents, but on whether President Trump was disrespectful of Senator John McCain, the sponsor, by not mentioning his name during the signing ceremony.

In the old days, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite sought to appeal to a broad, bland consensus.  The feeling he tried to project was reassurance—that all was right with the world.  Other broadcasters were the same way.

They also were limited by the government’s Fairness Doctrine.  If they broadcast anything controversial, they had to provide free air time for the other side.

Newspapers followed a similar path.  Most had local monopolies.  All had secure revenue streams based on classified advertising (job listings, legal notices) and as the main source of information for stock prices and the like.

I got started in journalism at the end of the old era.  The ideal in reporting in that era was objectivity and impersonality.  Reporters strove to write in a way that nobody could guess their personal opinions.  Routine newspaper articles lacked bylines because it shouldn’t matter who wrote them.

Then the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Opinion no longer had to be balanced.  CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.  The easiest way to fill time was with commentary and opinion.

The Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, provided a way to segment the readership individually.  No longer did a newspaper or TV broadcast have to appeal to the whole family.  Each person could have their own news, tailored algorithmically to their own desires and viewpoint.

Fox News, and also talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, took advantage of the new business model.  They realized they didn’t have to have universal appeal to make money.  All they needed to do was to target a segment of the viewers or listeners and tailor things to their interests.

For a time there was a division between a highly partisan right wing journalism and an establishment journalism that sought to appeal to everyone, but nowadays there is little difference.

Another change is that, in the earlier era, the Cold War was the background to the news.  We Americans were given to understand that we were participating in a historic drama—a global duel between American freedom and Soviet totalitarianism.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, we Americans found a new enemies to define us and generate drama—each other. Public opinion surveys show a deep and irreconcilable division between so-called red and blue American.  But as bitter as these differences are, the acceptable range of opinion is as narrow as it was in Walter Cronkite’s time.

I don’t want to deny the great reporting that went on during the earlier era, and still goes on today.  To name but a few, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward on the Watergate conspiracy, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne on the Vietnam War, Seymour Hersh on Pentagon and CIA misdeeds.  And most reporters, then and now, are devoted to getting the facts right.

But the framing of the reporting is different.  Years ago, scandals and injustices were aberrations in a system that is fundamentally sound.  Nowadays, scandals and injustices are exclusively the fault of the Democratic or Republican enemy.

Tabbi said news coverage today is oriented around “ten laws of hate.”

  1. THERE ARE ONLY TWO IDEAS
  2. THE TWO IDEAS ARE IN A PERMANENT CONFLICT
  3. HATE PEOPLE, NOT INSTITUTIONS
  4. EVERYTHING IS SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT
  5. NOTHING IS EVERYBODY’S FAULT
  6. ROOT, DON’T THINK
  7. NO SWITCHING TEAMS
  8. THE OTHER SIDE IS LITERALLY HITLER
  9. IN THE FIGHT AGAINST HITLER, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED
  10. FEEL SUPERIOR

I’m struck by how the revolution in journalism described by Taibbi coincides with the business strategy of Facebook and other social media companies, as described by Jaron Lanier and Shoshana Zuboff.

Facebook’s and Google’s business goal is to capture your attention for the benefit of advertisers.  Their results are optimized, based on processing of your personal data by artificial intelligences, to engage you emotionally, with emphasis on the two most powerful emotions, fear and anger.

I’m also struck by how the new journalistic segmentation coincides with the corporatist political strategy outlined in the Powell memo and implemented by Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell.  Instead of aiming for the broadest possible consensus, they aim for the narrowest necessary majority to push their agenda as far as it will go.

Arguably the same tactics are used on the other side in pushing for the extension and validation of the sexual revolution.  I am not trying to equate this issues based on the merits—just pointing out how a small group can bring about large changes in public policy.

Along with these changes have come changes in my own attitude.  Until 20 or 25 years ago, I was hopeful about my own country and the world in general, sort of like Walter Cronkite.  I saw serious problems, but I thought, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. liked to say, that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and these problems would be solved.

I have always tried to think out things for myself, and get beyond the Democratic-Republican, blue-red binary.  I do not watch Fox News or MSNBC.  In fact, I do not watch TV news at all.

But my basic feeling about the world has changed from a basic optimism to low-level despair and anger—the same feelings that Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow induce in their audiences.

I like to think that my change is a result of understanding things better than I did before.  But it is a fact that the timing coincides with the changes in society I’ve mentioned.

There are a lot of other good insights about journalism and politics in the book, apart from what I’ve mentioned.  The book was originally published in serial form online and each chapter can be read and understood as a stand-alone article even if you haven’t read the rest of the book.

I wonder whether the changes in journalism that Taibbi described are unique to the USA or whether there are similar trends in the UK, France, Germany and other countries.  If they are unique, I wonder how much the rest of the world is affected by US American journalism.

LINKS

The Media’s 10 Rules of Hate by Matt Taibbi.  The key chapter in the book.

It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD by Matt Taibbi.  Another chapter from the book.

Why Rachel Maddow is on the cover of Hate Inc. by Matt Taibbi.

Manufacturing Fear and Loathing, Maximizing Corporate Profits: a Review of Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. by John Simon for Naked Capitalism.

Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone articles.

Matt Taibbi Substack.  Online subscription service which gives access to Hate Inc., Business Secrets of a Drug Dealer and Untitledgate, a work in progress about the origins of the Russiagate scandal.

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2 Responses to “Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “Instead of aiming for the broadest possible consensus, they aim for the narrowest necessary majority to push their agenda as far as it will go.”

    That defines politics today. And the more people are disgusted by it and opt-out, that majority is from a smaller and smaller corner of the electorate. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump won the last presidential election. The real victor was None of the Above.

    Only 55% of the eligible people register and of that 55% actually vote and of that the top vote-getter can’t even manage a majority.

    Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to toss the last set of candidates and retry.

    Like

  2. Perette Barella Says:

    Thank you for the review. I look forward to reading this book.

    Personally, it’s struck me how politics and reporting have devolved to resemble sports. In politics, the goal is no longer to do something reasonable for the country. It’s to win the game by defeating the opposing team.

    News reporting plays into this, reviewing the strategy and wisdom of each new event instead of focusing on the facts of the matter, and how or whether they matter to the country. Why did Pelosi choose that moment to look into impeachment? What’s the Republican strategy for defending Trump? Experts discuss what’ll happen next, speculate what’s in both side’s play books. The story is the drama of the impeachment inquiry unfolding, rather than the validity of the original reporting or reflection on how that impacts our country’s reputation, our democracy’s future.

    So the people play into this. They want their side to win. What does their side stand for? They don’t seem to think about this. Simply, “This is my team. They are right, and the other side is wrong,” in the same way people prefer the Bills, the Ravens or the Steelers. Misled by the media, those who don’t reflect on what matters are mislead to think the Dem’s plan to defeat Trump, and how he’s going to fend off their attacks, are what matters instead of truth and consequences. And that shallow thinking encourages the media to provide shallow coverage in search of an audience and advertising dollars.

    And the politicians play into this. They’ve adapted to the game of sound bites, of presentation over substance. In some cases, it’s how they present themselves, knowing they can’t present subtle opinions in the few seconds of media time they’ll have. Other times, I think we’re electing shallow politicians whose model is that of a game.

    Our country, our democracy are more than a game to be won. Unfortunately, until/unless we replace that model, I think we’re in trouble.

    Like

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