Second only to glib equivalencies between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, 2016’s most popular lazy media trope is the idea that rabid Sanders fans have unleashed dark populist forces that threaten our republic. Both are fairly common, and more or less write themselves if the author tosses coherence and intellectual honesty out the window. But it’s rare that both are on such stark display as with New York Observer‘s editor-at-large Ryan Holiday’s recent op-ed (2/17/16).
The diatribe, “The Cause of This Nightmare Election? Media Greed and Shameless Traffic Worship,” poses as media criticism but is little more than petulant establishment gatekeeping. Let’s begin with the thesis, or what passes for one, which is that the democratization of media has created a “sub-prime market” for the media. A superficially catchy hook but one that, upon further examination, make little sense:
I am talking, of course, about our media system. A system in which tens of thousands of reporters—bloggers—chasing online traffic bonuses produce sensational, inflammatory and outright dangerous “news” at the expense of the public they are supposed to be serving. A system in which speculative, high-valence news—whether it starts as a tweet or a rumor—is packaged, dissected, repacked and passed along from outlet to outlet until a thinking person can hardly follow what is real and what is fake.
Those damned “bloggers” (gasp!) are “chasing online traffic.” This is opposed to sometime in the past when ratings, newspaper sales and the ad revenue they generated didn’t matter. But never mind that; this new breed of vague “media system” has created a monster:
Atypical candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are effectively subsidized by the media in order to provide the storylines those outlets require to create the compelling spectacles they need to keep the cycle going and audiences hooked.
Here Holiday—formerly the marketing director for American Apparel and, according to his bio, a “media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business”—has hatched a somewhat goofy conspiracy theory: that “the media” are intentionally propping up “atypical” candidates to keep “audiences hooked.” He begins by saying the “the media” (now morphed from bottom-feeding bloggers to major corporate media) disproportionately covered Trump and help feed his rise, which is empirically true. Trump, as the the Tyndall Report documented (Washington Post, 12/7/15), was the focus of 234 minutes of nightly network news coverage in the first 11 months of 2015—more than twice as much airtime as the next-most-covered candidate, Hillary Clinton, at 113 minutes.
But he lumps Sanders in with Trump in a misreading of media coverage so off-base as to be hallucinatory. Over the same time period, Sanders got just ten minutes of coverage—less than 5 person of Trump’s coverage, 10 percent of Clinton’s coverage and even a fifth as much as the 56 minutes given to Joe Biden and his protracted decision not to run for president.
To justify his complaint that even this minimal coverage was too much, he puts forth one of the more risibly elitist nuggets of political commentary of the 2016 campaign:
On the other end of the spectrum, the rise of Bernie Sanders simply doesn’t pass the smell test. This is a candidate who Nate Silver shows is extremely unlikely to win, who would be 75 years old on Inauguration Day, who embraces, quite openly, the word “socialist” in a country that considers the word more dangerous politically than “atheist,” and who is drowning in headlines.
Of course, Sanders has not been “drowning in headlines” (emphasis in the original). His coverage did tick up after his poll numbers began to catch up to Clinton’s—but even in 2016, as Sanders virtually tied in Iowa and beat Clinton by a wide margin in New Hampshire, he still got only 83 percent as many mentions as Clinton in the New York Times (and 75 percent as many as Trump).
What, exactly, would Holiday have the “the media” do? Should they ignore Sanders because Nate Silver—one of those dreaded bloggers—ran a model and said the voters didn’t matter? Since when does 538.com determine who the media should and shouldn’t cover? It’s hard to overstate how contemptuous of the democratic process this line of argument is.
Holiday’s piece is written by media elites for media elites, the type of thing that gets passed around in journalistic circles because it angrily expresses what so many of them truly believe: Candidates must win the Washington Post and New York Times primaries to be taken seriously by voters in actual primaries. The whole premise—that some scruple-free, vaguely defined gutter “media” helped propelled Sanders in a supra-democratic fraud—ignores the fact that nearly every major media outlet, from the Times and the Post to NBC and CNN, has either marginalized or openly warned against Sanders.
The post goes downhill from there, with pseudo-important generalities like this:
Pause for a second to tally the millions upon millions of pageviews outlets from Salon to Breitbart, Gawker to Huffington Post have raked in writing about Sanders and Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Clinton’s emails and all of the rest of it.
What does this even mean? Politically oriented sites get clicks reporting on…politics. So does CNN, the New York Times and virtually every news website, including the Observer. Indeed, the Observer, which is owned by Trump’s billionaire son-in-law, ran a number of pieces highlighting Clinton’s emails, most of which were by former NSA spook and current mudslinger John Schindler (who also called for “potential jihadists” to be put into internment camps in the Observer’s high-minded pages).
And yes, the Observer also writes, repeatedly, about Sanders, Trump, Rubio and Cruz. By Holiday’s own standard, not only is his publication guilty, but so is every publication on earth that dares write about things of political relevance. Holiday, for some strange reason, has walked into a barbeque restaurant and self-righteously condemned them for serving meat. He laments further:
Instead of being a force of reason and accountability in 2015 and 2016, the pageview-hungry media has become an enabler of chaos and divisiveness.
This is the rub: This article is not a serious piece of media criticism and the reason we know that is because it has no clearly defined target. First it’s the “bloggers,” then the cable news outlets, then any publication that reports on major candidates not preordained by Nate Silver, then any media outlet that wants ad revenue—including, by definition, his own. It’s not media criticism, it’s lazy centrist navel-gazing. It’s a way for Holiday to signal to other establishment media types that he’s above the fray like them, while lamenting their—and by extension his—increasing irrelevance.