Of all the Gawker postmortems birthed into thinkpieceville last month, the one with the most long-term resonance comes from former Denton acolyte Tom Scocca. His requiem — “Gawker Was Murdered by Gaslight” — frames the gossip site’s demise as a journalistic failure. Not Gawker’s, but by those tasked with covering the site’s proxy war with a thin-skinned Ayn Randian sploosh dream willing to spend millions to put people out of work over an accurately reported story published when Bear Stearns was still trading at $100 a share. In short, Scocca argues the traditional media was too busy fisting themselves over a disliked website’s demise to spend a minute delivering an honest account of what actually transpired. Any story that falls outside traditionally accepted narratives or jeopardizes conventional wisdom is either reframed to become more palatable or ignored altogether.
Journalists are, despite their political reputation, fundamentally conservative. The only way to keep explaining what’s happening in the world, day after day, is to rely on some basic frames. Cause and effect have to unfold within stable institutions, according to accepted rules.
A story that falls outside the everyday frames —The mayor is a crackhead who leaves a trail of violence where he goes, say, or This beloved entertainer is accused of being a serial rapist — requires a radical shift of perspective. Possibly the best and truest part of the movie Spotlight was how much of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s secret sexual abuse came out of the Globe’s own morgue. The paper had already written the story, piece by piece. It just hadn’t read it.
Gawker flew too close to the sun; hoisted by its own petard in a long-gestating, much-anticipated example of poetic justice. That’s the easy story to tell and an even easier one to sell. It satiates readerships ravenous for schadenfreude without forcing them to consider frightening questions like, Who will protect me should an infantile plutocrat launch a jihad over something I do or say?
This easily digestible narrative packaging should come as no surprise to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention to recent journalism trends. Because modern American media is, pound for pound, complete trash.
Pinpointing precisely when journalism morphed from a revered profession into unanimous laughingstock loathed by members of every color, creed, political persuasion, and socioeconomic status isn’t easy. Like an outwardly healthy blue-chip financial institution with half its portfolio tied up in subprime mortgages, the warning signs weren’t apparent until it was far too late to change course. Media companies cleverly hid their toxic assets — listicles, punditry, false equivalencies, repugnant comment sections, contrarian debates, click dependencies, outrage generation, #hottakes — beneath a veneer of respectability. Savvy traders lumped a thousand ARMs and balloon mortgages (horse meat) in with a dozen solid 30-year fixed rates sold to homeowners with 800 credit scores (Kobe beef) and told the world the resulting stew was USDA Prime. The New York Times wins two Pulitzers this year and keeps its triple-A rating despite getting fooled by an Onion article and playing a key role in fraudulently leading America into the Iraq War. No one realized how much of the industry was built on a foundation of feces until one day you visit the website of the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal and see a five-bylined post where readers can react to political conventions using their favorite emojis. Journalism was too big to fail. Then it did.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way this election is covered by both the mainstream and alternative media. The English language lacks the adjectives necessary to adequately describe the failures of America’s political press. Flush with cash and blessed with robust constitutional protections unheard of even in many developed countries, American journalists charged with informing an overworked, undereducated public about what is, without hyperbole, the most important presidential election in two generations, has opted to frame a race between a flawed but ultimately well-qualified presidential candidate and a repugnant tittybaby whose most impactful contribution to American exceptionalism would be to leap in front of a cement truck, instead as a contest between two equally loathsome figures.
That the political press will employ false equivalencies, warped narratives, and shoddy reporting during election season is a given. Mainstream political journalists — and more importantly, their bosses — are, with few exceptions, lazy and spineless. Trapped in an antiquated mentality where every issue has two equally valid sides — and thus terrified of alienating viewers and readers who confuse facts with bias — the media adopted a cut-the-baby-in-half strategy that solves nothing and irritates everyone. Usually, this is just annoying. Then a creamsicle made from hobo semen and Garfield’s pelt snatched the Republican presidential nomination, and garden-variety incompetence became a tangible threat to democracy.
Soccoa’s argument that journalists lack the ability to deliver much-needed context and perspective is both irrefutable and inadequate when it comes to our political press. Certainly, they’ve done a horrific job delineating the two candidates’ differences. They’re both terrible, scream the millions supporting a meme-obsessed anti-vaxxer or a flat-tax aficionado who wants to abolish the IRS, FDA, Department of Education, and ACA. National perceptions don’t form randomly. They’re conjured and shaped by a press corps too preoccupied with traffic stats to give a shit whether they’re doing the job entrusted to them.
Clinton not having an official press conference for two hundred-odd days (but giving over 350 interviews) is treated as an offense comparable to Trump attacking a grieving Gold Star family. Despite zero evidence of impropriety, the A-rated Clinton Foundation charity is considered some shady slush fund where the world’s elite buy access to America’s most famous political family. Meanwhile, Trump University, the pyramid scheme facing a lawsuit by hundreds of defrauded “alumni,” barely registers. Nor does the racist attack Trump leveled toward the judge presiding over the case. A routine, perfectly legal withdraw from a presidential pension program is presented as a nefarious crime befitting the slimy Clintons. In other news, Trump still refuses to release his tax returns that very likely prove he’s in tremendous personal debt and has numerous business relationships with Russian interests.
Trump has offered no concrete (or even vague) policies. He courts and embraces white supremacists. He is a pathological liar with deep ties to a dictator. He is a racist with a long history of discrimination. He has barred prestige news organizations from covering his campaign. One of his former campaign managers was charged with battery and another resigned after his name was linked to $12 million in cash payments from a pro-Russian former Ukrainian president. Yet somehow, in what is the most amazing statistic since Wilt Chamberlin averaging 50 points per game in 1962, Hillary Clinton suffers more negative media coverage than her opponent.
So yes, Soccoa’s argument that the media machine lacks the perspective necessary to truthfully present paradigm-shifting stories is an accurate one. But claiming the political press isn’t equipped to handle a demon like Trump grants them an excuse they haven’t earned. Fingers pointed in every direction when Trump emerged from the leper colony with the Republican nomination clutched in his chicken-grease-covered doll hands. The nominees should have conspired to take him out earlier. Pienz Bleebus was asleep at the wheel. Conservative primary voters wielded too much power in a crowded field. These were all factors with the exact percentages up for debate. But the party most responsible for Trump’s ascension is a craven, sycophantic political media so desperate for eyeballs they’re willing to risk democracy’s future for a better ComScore.
They gave an unqualified buffoon millions in free advertising by booking him on every cable news show, because they knew he’d deliver ratings. They let him ban competing outlets from covering his campaign without protest, because they didn’t want to lose their own golden ticket. They let him get away with not releasing his tax returns and submitting a health certification written by a doctor who looks like he sleeps in a conversion van on a stack of Crosby, Stills, and Young records. They failed to use words like “racist” and “treason” and “lunatic” when he claimed Mexico would pay for a 2,000-mile long wall and openly asked foreign hackers to steal classified information. The media isn’t responsible for Trump, says the media. We didn’t know how to deal with someone like him.
Bullshit. This isn’t the first crackpot to seek political office. Pretending Trump is some previously unseen Machiavellian media manipulator against which there is no inoculation infuses him with a cunning and strategy he doesn’t deserve. A crazy asshole yelling nonsense on the corner will always cause tourists to whip out their camera phones. Had the press treated Trump like the disreputable con artist he is rather than a legitimate presidential contender, well, perhaps the latter wouldn’t be reality today.
Give Trump this much: He understands how little Americans give a shit about substance and how our feckless press grades on a curve. He knows the news cycle has the attention span of a mayfly whose Ritalin script ran out two weeks ago, which is why he can use charitable funds to bribe an attorney general and slander a slain soldier’s family and still receive praise for managing not to call the Mexican president a “wetback” while they’re in the same room together for 30 minutes. A scripted meeting at a Detroit church — literally, as in, the script for Trump’s interaction with a black pastor was leaked in advance — resulted in Politico writing that he “flashed humility.” Nowhere does the piece mention that Trump is polling at zero percent among African-Americans. Or that Trump has a 30-year history of discriminating against blacks in everything from housing to business. None of this matters because the inevitable Trump comeback narrative was written months ago and stuffed in a drawer. All Politico needs to do is update the datelines on their pivot pieces and press “publish”. Who cares if Clinton still holds a dominant lead both nationally and in swing states? Facts are boring.
A lot of amazing things are happening in "journalism" these days. Here's one that still has me floored. pic.twitter.com/1nN309ZFvp— E!! (@elizthompsn) September 2, 2016
So what’s to be done here? Clean house. Fire the editors who allowed a story on the front page of their newspaper examining how the sexting habits of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s soon-to-be ex-husband affect Clinton’s presidential bid . Dismiss headline writers and social media managers who intentionally misrepresent facts for clicks. Terminate the contracts of every worthless pundit paid to scream partisan talking points into a camera lens. Shitcan news directors who greenlight 15-person debate panels and force their reporters to present absurd competing viewpoints in service of faux non-partisanship. Advocating for career professionals to lose an income seems drastic. But the press has shown no ability to recognize its culpability in the current state of affairs. Nothing improves until the asteroid shatters these dinosaurs into a million pieces.
To be fair, The Media is not a monolith. Not every reporter is a shameful embarrassment. Buzzfeed, a site best known for kitten-GIF listicles, cultivated a crew that’s running circles around old media. CNN — a network that once ran a segment debating whether a missing airliner disappeared into a black hole — is actually delivering some excellent raw reporting when they’re not busy allowing Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski to cosplay Twitter eggs on live television. Brian Stelter, Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Soledad O’Brien, and Jake Tapper have repeatedly called Trump and his surrogates on their bullshit and refuse to tread the false equivalency path. These outlets and individuals are an endangered species, struggling to endure in this anti-Darwinian ecosystem where only the senseless survive. We’re outraged when a celebrity inartfully discusses social issues, yet can’t seem to muster much collective anger over the Fourth Estate’s systemic failings.
Get mad. Rage. Frame it in a way even a political reporter can understand. Only then will the narratives finally change.