The Summer of the Shill
Campaign 2016 won't just have lasting implications for American politics. It's obliterated what was left of our news media
Years ago, when I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union, a Russian friend explained how he got his news.
American media consumers are fast approaching the same absurd binary reality. We now have one set of news outlets that gives us the bad news about Democrats, and another set of news outlets bravely dedicated to reporting the whole truth about Republicans.
Like the old adage about quarterbacks – if you think you have two good ones, you probably have none – this basically means we have no credible news media left. Apart from a few brave islands of resistance, virtually all the major news organizations are now fully in the tank for one side or the other.
The last month or so of Trump-Hillary coverage may have been the worst stretch of pure journo-shilling we've seen since the run-up to the Iraq war. In terms of political media, there’s basically nothing left on the air except Trump-bashing or Hillary-bashing.
Take last week's news cycle:
Red-state media obsessed over a series of emails about the Clinton Foundation obtained by Judicial Watch (a charter member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy") as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit. The emails hinted that Foundation donors might have had special access to Hillary Clinton's State Department.
Meanwhile, the cable-news channels consumed by Democrat-leaning audiences, MSNBC and CNN, spent most of last week hammering Donald Trump's latest outrages, especially the "the Second Amendment people" comments seeming to incite violence against Hillary Clinton or her judicial appointments.
Practically every story on non-conservative cable last week was a Democratic Party news flash: Reagan's daughter blasts Trump's comments! More Republicans defect to support Hillary! GOP, expecting Trump loss, shifts funds to down-ballot races! Khizr Khan challenges McCain to Dump Trump! Trump's worst offense was mocking disabled reporter, poll finds!
It's not that stations were wrong to denounce Trump's comments. He deserves it all. But he's not the only stupid, lying, corrupt politician in the world, which is the impression one could easily get watching certain stations these days.
These all-Trump, all-the-time story lineups are like Fox in reverse. The commercial media has devolved, finally, into two remarkably humorless messaging platforms.
What's crucial to understand is that a great many commercial media outlets now are not so much liberal-leaning as Democratic-Party leaning.
There's a huge difference between advocacy journalism and electoral advocacy. Not just occasionally but all the time now, private news organizations are doing the work that political parties used to have to pay for in the form of ads.
In the same way that Fox used to (and probably still does) save on reporting and research costs by simply regurgitating talking points from the RNC, blue-leaning cable channels are running segments and online reports that are increasingly indistinguishable from Democratic Party messaging.
Trump really sent this problem into overdrive. He is considered so dangerous that many journalists are beginning to be concerned that admitting the truth of negative reports of any kind about the Democrats might make them complicit in the election of the American Hitler.
There's some logic in that, but it's flawed logic. When journalists start acting like politicians, we pretty much always end up botching things even more politically and crippling our businesses to boot.
Our job is to grope around promiscuously for stories on all sides, like dogs sniffing fire hydrants. Trying to fill any other role leads to trouble. It's the media version of the Bull Durham rule: "Don't think, it can only hurt the ball club."
Just look at the history of Fox and its satellite organizations.
Yes, the Murdoch empire has succeeded in accruing enormous power across the globe. In the United States, its impact on political affairs has been incalculable. It's led us into war, paralyzed Democratic presidencies, helped launch movements like the Tea Party and effectively spread so much disinformation that huge majorities of Republicans still doubt things like the birthplace of Barack Obama.
But Fox's coverage has been so overwhelmingly one-sided that it has lost forever the ability to convince non-conservatives of anything. Rupert Murdoch has turned into the Slime Who Cried Wolf. Even when Murdoch gets hold of a real story, he usually can't reach more than an inch outside his own dumbed-down audience.
Worse still, when you shill as constantly as his outlets have, even your most enthusiastic audience members very quickly learn to see through you.
This is a problem because if there ever comes a time when you want to convince your own audience of hard truths, you'll suddenly find them not nearly as trusting and loyal as you’d thought. Deep down, they'll have known all along you were full of it.
"Our job is to grope around promiscuously for stories on all sides, like dogs sniffing fire hydrants. Trying to fill any other role leads to trouble."
This happened to many Republican/conservative media figures in the past year.
The world may never have heard a yawn louder than the one evinced by flyover audiences in January, when the National Review gathered 20 prominent conservatives, headlined by Glenn Beck, to demand that Republican voters draw a line in the sand against Trump. It was an unprecedented show of media unity and determination.
Trump casually walked over the red-pundit-Maginot-line and raced straight to the nomination from there.
This was a powerful lesson. Media power comes from trust and respect, and both are eroded quickly if you only ever give people what they want to hear.
The formula for profits in the news business has grown stale. Commercial news shows now are subsisting on audiences of mostly older viewers who tend to enjoy programming that simply bashes whatever party it is they’ve grown to hate over the years, be they Republicans or Democrats. The median age of both Fox and MSNBC viewers is over 60.
But young audiences in particular tend to be incredibly turned off by the media-as-cheerleaders model of reporting. News audiences among the young have in recent years declined rapidly, mirroring a corresponding loss of trust in major-party politics.
"Garbage, lies, propaganda, repetitive and boring," is how a University of Texas researcher described the perceptions of young people vis a vis the news. Corporate news directors, much like the leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties, seem blissfully unconcerned with the changing attitudes of their future customer base.
They'll be in for a huge shock five or 10 years from now when more people are getting their news from independent web content streamed to them through video games or online shopping platforms than they do from people like Wolf Blitzer.
Certainly that won't change if the "MSM" devolves completely into a McDonald's/Burger King situation where the major media splits into Trump Sucks or Hillary Sucks outlets. Forget about the fact that it's boring. From now on, how will we know if a real scandal hits?
The model going forward will likely involve Republican media covering Democratic corruption and Democratic media covering Republican corruption. This setup just doesn't work.
For one thing, if most of your staff is busy all day working up negative stories about Republicans, that dramatically lowers the likelihood that they'll develop sources with info about Democratic corruption.
Moreover, even if you do make an effort to look at both sides, stories usually must be picked up by outlets across the spectrum to have an impact. That happens less and less in the partisan age.
Last year, the New York Times dipped a toe into the "Clinton Cash" material and did its potentially damaging "Uranium One" story about a series of suspicious donations to the Clinton Foundation. The story was soundly reported and forced the Clinton campaign to admit to "mistakes" in its disclosures.
But the response of other non-conservative outlets was mostly silence and/or damage control. That left it to mostly circulate in the Washington Times and Breitbart and the Daily Caller, rendering it automatically illegitimate with most blue-state audiences.
Some people will say that is because the Uranium One/Clinton Foundation matter simply isn't newsworthy. Maybe not. But if it isn't, are we sure we would know?
Right-wing audiences, almost irrespective of source, already discount most scoops about Republicans. That means even potentially devastating stories, like the troubling sexual misconduct lawsuit against Trump and the infamous Jeffrey Epstein involving a 13-year-old victim and an adult witness, will be dismissed out of hand as just more politicized coverage.
The public hates us reporters in the best of times, when we’re doing our jobs correctly, merely being conniving, prying little busybodies forever getting up into peoples’ business.
But the summer of Trump could easily turn into an Alamo moment for the press. There are reporters who are quietly promising themselves they'll go back to being independent and above the fray in November, after we're past the threat of a Trump presidency.
But just ask the National Review: Once you jump in the politicians’ side of the pool, it's not so easy to get out again. And what will they think of us then? Is there a word for "lower than scum?"