The mass media that in the lead up to the 2016 election gave a billion dollars of free publicity to the truculent blimp who became America’s 45th president is at it still. And why shouldn’t they be? Wasn’t it Reagan who said “the business of America is business”?
The bottom line is a sacred thing in a profit driven culture — it is certainly more important than fairness and accuracy in reporting, critical analysis, reasoned debate. Unrestrained lust for advertising dollars is a bad substitute for judgment, discretion, concern for the harmful public effects of open, notorious collusion with those who have the most money to spend and the fewest scruples about what they’re buying. The crazed pursuit of ever more wealth for the already wealthy exerts a downward momentum of its own, even when no foot is on the gas.
I remember the night in 2016 when Bernie Sanders won numerous primaries. Instead opf broadcasting his speech in front of a fired up crowd, the corporate media had its cameras trained on the empty Trump podium waiting for their meal ticket to show up and make some attention-grabbing remarks. A lingering. longing shot of the empty podium with the Trump sign on it, a perfect symbol for what has gone wrong in America.
I recall the head of CBS, a smug asshole who’d later have to leave the network in disgrace (with a nice chunk of his $100,000,000 severance package, as I recall) after numerous complaints emerged that he’d molested female subordinates, saying he might not agree with Trump’s politics (whatever those might be) but he sure had to love what Trump did for the CBS bottom line. True that, multimillion dollar golden parachutes for sexual abusers do not grow on trees.
John Starks was on the foul line about to shoot two, during crunch time in a playoff final game the Knicks were in, when the network abruptly cut away to watch a helicopter shot of a phalanx of cop cars following a white SUV in which OJ Simpson, with a fake beard and a satchel of cash, was fleeing with his buddy and wheelman Al Cowlings after somebody hacked OJ’s ex-wife and a friend to death outside her home. Why were we suddenly watching that slow motion car chase instead of the NBA finals? Somebody at network made a ratings decision, based on eyeballs and advertising dollars.
Sekhnet worked in the mass media and there are certain broadcasts of public significance she must watch. So I found myself sitting with her as the grotesque Vice Presidential debate unfolded. A debate moderator, a seemingly intelligent and likable woman, was asking questions of the candidates. I found several of them, tailored to the individual she was questioning, flat out shit questions, but it was what the network commentator said afterwards that brought the bile up into my throat. I knew I should have been back in the other room playing guitar by then, so it’s my own fault I was still on the couch, watching the post-game show.
“Mike Pence was masterful,” Norah O’Donnell of CBS said of the overbearing robot’s evasive, wooden debate performance. I snarled at Sekhnet who insisted O’Donnell had misspoken. Then O’Donnell clarified her comment. “He didn’t answer a single question he didn’t want to answer.” That is a masterful debate performance in America in 2020 — “I know you are, but what am I?” “Make Me!” “I make you in the toilet every day!” I know you are, but what am I?”
In this land of proud, assertive idiocy I am always relieved to read intelligent analysis of the shit show that we are all the forced audience for. I am so relieved to hear a story told with full context, without the maddening, stupefying false equivalence that makes a claim of climate change hoax, witch hunt, massive voter fraud or COVID-19 hoax just another legitimate point of view deserving of equal time and respect in the public square. I admire the intelligence, care and clarity of people like Bill Moyers, Jane Mayer, Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Shoshana Zuboff, Eric Foner, heroic outliers in an age of corporate conformity. (I realize only four of these are journalists).
Recently I’ve become aware of another talented presenter of thoughtful perspective on current events, historian Heather Cox Richardson, lately author of the nightly news digest Letters From an American. Last night she nailed (and gave the historical background of) something so basic that I need to share it here. You can read her full piece here.
She points out that Norah “Pence was masterful” O’Donnell, who interviewed Kamala Harris on the 60 Minutes episode that Trump had enough of when Lesley Stahl unfairly insisted on asking him questions that offended his delicate sensibilities, posed a pointed and unfair question of Kamala Harris, with no equivalent one for the politely fuming Pence.
O’Donnell set up the question by remarking that Harris is the most liberal member of the Senate (Senators Sanders, Warren and others might disagree) and then asked Harris, point-blank, if she was a “socialist”.
Harris laughed a robust little laugh that chilled my blood a bit, then laughed off the suggestion she was anything like a socialist. I was waiting for the steely follow-up “are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Socialist party?”
Heather Cox Richardson lays out the long, sordid history of making the word socialist a political smear in the United States of America. It has long been a sturdy tool of the anit-labor titans who spend so much money to keep the American populace politically unsophisticated. On network TV we have a respected journalist asking a vice presidential candidate, in effect, “are you a crazed, dangerous, America-hating, vicious, nasty, dogmatic monster who will, as the president claims, destroy our cherished way of life?”
All the monster can do at that point is laugh. The laugh, of course, is not a good look, nor a good answer to a loaded, disrespectful question. The fast moving TV format does not lend itself to thoughtful discussion, of course — it’s all about sound bytes, memes and gotchas.
The historian, after describing the long vilification of “socialism”, dating back to the years right after the Civil War, asks why a similar question was not posed to the masterful Mike Pence. Why wasn’t Pence asked to defend himself against the evidence-based charge that he’s part of a fascist administration. Fair point, no?
“Mr. Pence, a lot of your critics claim that you and the president are corrupt pay-to-play authoritarians who give special treatment to wealthy donors and loyalists while using the power of the state to attack, harass and punish critics real and perceived, that your governing style is fascistic. You dole out generous handouts to the already wealthy while imposing pain and suffering on the vast majority during an economically devastating pandemic, use state violence, backed by the Justice Department, to crush constitutionally protected protests, spread false, incendiary, personal smears against opponents and critics, sow fear and hatred between ethnic groups, retaliate against those carrying out their lawful duties, obstruct investigations, intimidate witnesses, prevent the introduction of evidence and witnesses at your leader’s trial, fire government inspectors and watchdogs, call for the jailing of political opponents, repeatedly lie about a massive, deadly, rapidly spreading public health crisis that has already cost over 220,000 American lives — insanely weaponizing proven safety protocols in defiance of science — designate sanctuary cities as enemy territory– “anarchist jurisdictions” and force these cities to bring court cases to get federal funds already allocated to them, support dictators around the globe, slash regulations that protect the public, spread demonstrably false propaganda while insisting that the free press is the enemy of the American people, as is voting by mail … blah blah fucking blah.”
Ah, you know what they say, the masterful few — “I know you are, but what am I?”