One of the most striking features of the post-Trump media landscape in America is the extent to which it (the media) apparently learned nothing from the whole sordid ordeal that was Donald Trump’s presidency. Or maybe it learned quite a bit.
For years, Trump insisted that outlets like the “failing” New York Times should be singing his praises, if not in print, then certainly in the boardroom, because were it not for his unrivaled capacity to conjure “news” out of thin air (usually by courting controversy), the “lamestream” media would be out of business.
From inception, Fox played the demagoguery card as a matter of course, creating a safe space for disgruntled white Americans nostalgic for a bygone era that never actually existed. We stitch together an idealized version of the mid-20th century using what we’ve convinced ourselves are “memories.” In fact, we’ve created a kind of mental propaganda patchwork using reruns from classic sitcoms, the recollections of our grandparents and cherry-picked Americana. I touched on this tendency in “Little League,” albeit tangentially.
A more accurate representation of reality (in many locales, anyway) can be had by watching the first hour of “The Deer Hunter.” And even in that dreary, foreboding setting, there’s something oddly nostalgic — the joyous camaraderie offsets the charred, rainy reality of factory work.
Fox perpetuates an absurdly idealized version of a “wholesome” society built around semi-prosperous, white nuclear families, a vision which, irony of ironies, isn’t entirely disparate from Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity.” Atop that foundation: A nationalistic, us-versus-them frame, plastered over by tacky jingoism and obligatory nods to Christianity and capitalism, the country’s two religions.
But demagoguery isn’t the sole purview of Fox or “the right.” Demagoguery is, after all, just the practice of playing on people’s fears and prejudices in the quest for political or monetary gain. Increasingly, it’s become synonymous with the radicalization of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum.
CNN, for example, is now mostly unwatchable. As afternoon fades into evening and then prime time, the network’s coverage descends into overwrought farce. Chris Cuomo’s shtick is now wholly unbearable. Nearly everyone is excoriated (besides his brother, of course) and sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. His only goal seems to be riling up viewers. His tagline (“Let’s get after it”) ostensibly conveys an impassioned pursuit of the truth, but more and more, it seems like an incitement. The idea that “sticking to the facts” somehow exonerates Cuomo from his role in polarizing the masses doesn’t hold much water. Once Cuomo is finished regaling viewers with everything that’s wrong in America and assigning blame for it, he hands the baton to Don Lemon, whose job it is to be newly incredulous at the same list of injustices that have plagued the country for 200 years. The more melodramatic, the better.
All of that is demagoguery. That CNN’s coverage is based (mostly) on facts as opposed to Tucker Carlson’s demonstrable falsehoods and Sean Hannity’s cartoon fantasy world, is no longer exculpatory. How many times, for example, can you air the same video of mask proponents being harassed and threatened by anti-maskers, before you risk radicalizing some formerly sane Democrat? It’s obviously important to expose just how irrationally dangerous “the other side” has become, but the risk of trying to outfox Fox is that you end up perpetuating the very same us-versus-them mentality that Fox thrives on, while simultaneously driving the wedge between left and right even further into the ground — or the stake even further into the country’s heart.
At the same time, the “respectable” media has no qualms whatsoever in 2021 about employing the most visceral, damning, accusatory language imaginable to describe various goings-on. In some cases, that’s an appropriate (indeed, it’s the only) way to approach a story. For example, if eyewitness accounts of Sunday’s drone strike in Kabul are accurate, then any media outlet would be derelict not to emphasize the tragedy inherent in the incineration of civilians, including small children, while targeting suicide bombers. Of course, the suicide bombers (assuming there were any there, which in this case is debatable) were themselves intent on incinerating civilians, just maybe not those civilians.
But these are the same media outlets who spent last week speculating on every conceivable point of failure in the lead up to the airport bombing. Imagine a parallel universe in which that suicide bomber had his curtains closed by a Reaper drone at the cost of a dozen civilians, thereby preventing the attack that killed 170 Afghans and 13 Americans. If we could somehow avail ourselves of the omnipotence required to weigh the two scenarios side by side, which is “better”? The utilitarian outcome in which 12 lives are lost to save 200 or the alternative in which a dozen innocents look on, unbeknownst and unharmed, as a vehicle pulls away from the house next door, the driver on his way to murder 200 people?
The media doesn’t grapple with these questions, and therefore the public isn’t forced to confront them. Instead, the polity exists in a continual state of hysteria, always mourning something, be it the senseless loss of life half a world away or the loss of a lifestyle half a century removed. (I should reiterate that when it comes to the drone strike mentioned above, there are competing accounts. The Times has the story.)
Everything is always someone’s fault, and even the sane among us are now expected to abandon our sanity and “fight,” because if we don’t, the “other side” will accidentally dynamite whatever’s left of the nation’s democracy, effectively sawing off the branch on which they sit because they don’t understand the principles they claim to be defending.
Virtually everyone is complicit in this, unfortunately. Myself included. I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with one of only a handful of living people who “know the real me,” so to speak. She’s a vaccine skeptic now. And that was that.