No single incident can holistically sum up the sheer derangement and utter absurdity that has characterized cable news punditry during the Trump era. But in pondering the phenomenon, one particularly emblematic moment comes to mind: namely a December 2015 appearance on Tucker Carlson by Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald.
Eichenwald, who is probably best known to the Twitterverse for accidentally tweeting out his own tentacle-themed search history, was then a highly visible member of the burgeoning anti-Trump pundit brigade and had recently made the rather incendiary claim that the Republican front-runner had been “institutionalized in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1990.” The details of said claim (Eichenwald, as far as I can tell, never offered even a shred of evidence that it was true) ultimately matter less than the histrionics that followed.
Challenged repeatedly by Carlson, whose own agenda was obviously to pantomime a paint-by-the-numbers conservative complaint about liberal media bias, Eichenwald obfuscated for over seven minutes while insisting with increasing absurdity that he was being prevented by the host from substantiating his claim — in the process making use of a prop he’d prepared in advance (a binder emblazoned with the words “Tucker Carlson Falsehoods” printed in oversized Arial font). Several minutes in, Eichenwald’s filibustering act had become so blatant that a visibly gleeful Carlson proclaimed, “This is performance art! I’ve never had an interview like this in my life!”
Somehow, what came next was even more absurd. Challenged directly, yet again, to provide corroborating evidence for his claim that Donald Trump had been institutionalized in 1990, Newsweek’s intrepid truth-teller decided to make a bizarre appeal to the personal sacrifice of the individuals who staff America’s espionage apparatus while seeming to imply he was also the bearer of a message on their behalf intended for both Carlson and Trump.
Eichenwald: “Ok, I will say this, cause it’s a message I’ve got from people at the CIA. I know a lot of officers, I know a lot of agents. I’ve been in their homes, and they’re really delivering this to you and to Donald Trump. These are people who have sacrificed a lot for this country. They go through into the CIA every day, they walk past that wall with 117 black stars.”
Carlson: “What’s the message?”
Eichenwald: “If you’re going to say we can’t talk about the fact that there are 117 patriots whose lives have been lost serving this country, that’s fine. Right now we have people in Russia who are putting their lives on the line to be sources of information for the CIA. That information is coming in. That information is then being put together by analysts who are not well paid, and they do very hard work, and they do it because they are patriots.”
Apart from its sheer theatrical quality, off the charts even by the standards of cable news, there is actually nothing particularly remarkable about the incident. Any number of others could anecdotally stand in to demonstrate the frenetic inanity of the medium through which tens of millions of Americans unfortunately get their news and formulate their opinions about politics.
Nonetheless, the roughly nine-minute Carlson vs. Eichenwald train wreck offers us one hell of checklist when it comes to parsing the worst themes of mainstream media coverage in the Trump era: a notoriously partisan news anchor hosting a segment to decry the scourge of media partisanship; a fact-free claim about a presidential candidate from a guy LARPing as a hybrid of Watergate-era Woodward and Bernstein; the foregrounding of props and empty spectacle over any pretense to objectivity; a reflexive appeal to the CIA garnished in conspiratorial undertones; an obligatory reference to the Red Menace and the thin blue line of ironhearted patriots standing in its way.
Between these and (of course) a whole lot of shouting, it’s pretty much all here.
Notable also is that, despite their adversarial back and forth, Carlson and Eichenwald were less interacting with one another than they were performing for their respective audiences: one which despises the godless liberal media in all its smugness and coastal elitism; the other which despises Trump and sees him as a potential agent of foreign subversion.
Too dumb for words, but somehow absolutely par for the course on American network TV.
Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. is a seething, if amusing, indictment of American political media in the Trump era. But, more importantly, it is a systemically-minded account of the actual sources of media debasement and the ways in which particular patterns of behavior are hardwired into the news.
Those unfamiliar with Taibbi’s past work in media criticism, invariably skewering, may get a misleading impression of the book’s content from both its title and cover. Subtitled “Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another” and featuring ominous profile shots of both Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, Hate Inc. at a casual glance looks like it might be yet another generic screed leveled against partisanship or lamenting the descent of the once-proud enterprise of journalism into adversarial virulence.
The American political class and its media proxies have been pumping out versions of this story for decades, bemoaning the sorry state of a politics where no one gets along, leaders won’t work together to find bipartisan “solutions” (which are generally just assumed to be centrist hobbyhorses like conquering the almighty deficit or gutting Social Security), and the discourse is confrontational rather than conciliatory.
That narrative has long been nestled in the public imagination as well, particularly among liberals, and ultimately became one of the defining impulses of the Obama era. Amid the rise of the Tea Party, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert famously held a kind of ironic opposition rally whose basic MO was to issue a giant plea for Americans to start using their indoor voices (the meanest, least conciliatory people imaginable would recapture the House of Representatives a few days later). During the Trump era, the popular front coalition of establishment liberals and so-called Never Trump conservatives has appealed in similar fashion to the idea of restoring sanity and friendly cooperation as a bulwark against the nasty extremes of both right and left.
In this all-too-popular conception of what ails American politics, the issue is mainly one of aesthetics and tone rather than substance, structure, or ideology. Vacuous shouting matches a la Eichenwald v. Carlson are source rather than symptom, and media rancor is largely about the moral decline of a once noble institution. Given the ubiquity of these narratives, we certainly do not need a further contribution to the tired “American politics are excessively partisan and the media is to blame” genre so beloved by centrists, nor another paint-by-the-numbers attempt to blame Fox News for Everything That’s Wrong With America.
Thankfully, Hate Inc. is neither. Instead, Taibbi offers us a necessary and timely update to the theories advanced by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their landmark 1988 book Manufacturing Consent and a series of illustrative case studies drawing on his own frustrations with contemporary journalism. The basic thesis advanced by Chomsky and Herman was that management of public opinion in capitalist democracies rarely takes the form of overt propaganda or censorship, but is instead achieved through vigorous policing of what constitutes acceptable opinion such that, as Taibbi puts it, “the range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it.”
The classic illustration is how the American media covered the Vietnam War by presenting the spectrum of support or opposition as one running from “hawks” to “doves,” with the former group holding the war to be noble and winnable and the latter noble but unwinnable. Since one polarity is pro and the other at least nominally con, the average news consumer gets the impression that a vigorous debate is underway. Missing entirely from the equation is genuine dissent about the war’s actual prosecution or any hint that it might be less a well-intentioned enterprise that failed than a murderous one that should never have been undertaken to begin with.
While the same basic epistemology is undoubtedly still at play in today’s media landscape, Taibbi argues that three significant changes since the late 1980s necessitate an update of the thesis pioneered in Manufacturing Consent. The first is the rise of conservative talk radio and Fox News, which triggered the partisanization of news so familiar to today. “Using a point of view rather than ‘objectivity’ as commercial strategies,” Taibbi writes, “these stations presaged an atomization of the news landscape under which each consumer had an outlet somewhere to match his or her political beliefs.” The second major change is the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, which the author says trained reporters to “value breaking news, immediacy, and visual potential over import” while creating “a new kind of anxiety and addictive dependency” among consumers. Finally, the rise of the internet and social media contributed even further to the general atmosphere of frenzied and atomized content consumption that today structures the news business.
Much of the book is taken up with case studies showing the modern media model in action and underscoring how its basic structures contribute to a toxic, often deranged ethos that systematically fails to hold powerful people and institutions to account.
A particular highlight is the chapter on Russiagate, which forensically deconstructs the hyper-politicized stylization of information that gave us the Trump era’s equivalent of Iraq’s nonexistent WMD. Another notable chapter concerns what Taibbi calls “the media’s great factual loophole,” which deals with the way entirely bogus national security and law enforcement stories can effectively be laundered through sourcing to “unnamed officials” — a tactic that often succeeds thanks to a credulous media class whose default posture toward the military and State Department is one of Pavlovian deference (particularly when there’s some partisan interest at stake).
The chapter on the transformation of the news business into one dominated by affluent professionals is also a highlight thanks to Taibbi’s discussion of the way class biases have led some media figures to view the powerful more as “cultural soulmates” to be celebrated than subjects to be challenged. One anecdote is particularly emblematic of the “courtier culture” that now inflects much of political journalism:
By the 1990s and 2000s, the new model for political reporting was found in books like Primary Colors and Game Change, which celebrated politicians and their aides, and looked at things from their point of view . . . I remember stepping onto Obama’s campaign plane for the first time and seeing the press section plastered with photos. It looked like a high school yearbook office at the end of a semester. Apparently, there was a tradition of reporters taking pictures of themselves covering Obama. They often posed with the candidate and pasted the pics on the plane walls.
Again and again, Hate Inc. returns to its central insight that the media is first and foremost a business driven by the pressures and imperatives of large-scale private enterprise. Though this will probably sound like a truism to many on the Left, it is nonetheless a useful materialist explanation for why the media tends to operate within discrete partisan silos: not, as is so often suggested, because the country suffers from some vaguely defined culture of “divisiveness,” but because it’s what the current business model both necessitates and demands. With audiences cordoned off into partisan market niches, the media can more easily commodify resentment and its leading talking heads can always get a ratings boost by stoking outrage, engaging in conspiracy, or just plain making stuff up.
It’s unclear what the solution is, or to what extent Taibbi even believes there is one. The preceding era of the news business, taken on by Chomsky and Herman in Manufacturing Consent, was arguably preferable to today’s media in that its ranks were more working-class and its leading voices less shrill. But the ethos of objectivity it projected was still the function of a business model driven first and foremost by the profit imperative (albeit in a somewhat more inclusive way) and ridden through with deference to corporate and national security interests.
Hate Inc. ultimately makes a forceful case that the American media is broken by design. Though no one will find this a particularly comforting thought, it’s nonetheless a liberating insight for those of us who would sooner suffer a hundred hours of sensory deprivation than sit through three minutes of Rachel Maddow talking about Donald Trump’s tax returns — or watch Kurt Eichenwald and Tucker Carlson do performance art on national TV.