That which is potentially lethal should not be allowed to go unobserved. We don’t like it with diseases; indeed, much of contemporary medical practice is aimed at ferreting out the hazards to life that have yet to produce palpable symptoms. It’s even worse when great powers – in any sense of that phrase – are locked in mortal combat while presenting a vision of courtesy, even amity, to those of us not directly engaged in their battle. Yet it’s often the case that such a power will strive to its utmost to conceal the dimensions of its hostility even while in the middle of a war of conquest.
A lot has already been said and written about the riotous, destructive “demonstrations” that have occurred in Washington D.C. and elsewhere these past two days. A smaller amount has been said about the behavior of the “Fourth Estate:” the broadcast and print media, which seek to shape our perceptions and attitudes through the practice they call “journalism.” This is understandable: those commenting on recent events have mostly been components in those media. But that dispreferred focus is likely to be the more important of the two.
There’s been ample coverage of the exchanges between the newly installed Trump Administration and its denigrators and detractors in the media. Some of it has been straightforward, essentially objective and honest, but much of it has not. Considering the many blows the Trump campaign hurled at the media – most of them wholly justified – any degree of candor is a bit of a surprise. But as is often the case, what we aren’t seeing is at least as important as what’s being paraded before us.
Journalism as an institution has one overriding priority: finding “news” to report, that its importance to those who consume its offerings will continue to treat it as important. That institution is populated by journalists with motivations of their own: advancing their careers, feeling important, and promoting what they believe to be important causes. The two sets intersect in a specific aspect of human affairs: conflict.
Conflict is the key to the news industry. Without it, the media would be greatly diminished in importance. Times of low conflict are bad for the media.
Canny media figures are aware of this. They act on it: they seek out conflicts to cover. They emphasize the importance of the conflicts they find. They base their decisions about placement and emphasis on the novelty and intensity of those conflicts.
When there are no conflicts to be found, they fabricate them.
There’s a standing attitudinal conflict between the media and the political Right. The Right’s promotion of individualism and individual performance clashes with the personality profile of the typical reporter or commentator. Individualism in practice puts a powerful damper on conflicts of all sorts. Though they compete with one another in the marketplace, individualists respect both the rights of the competitor and the power of performance. “May the best man win” is an individualistic sentiment.
When individualistic attitudes predominate among Americans, the media are deprived of the large-scale conflicts that arise from collectivist clashes of conviction. Outlets that cater to large, regional or national markets have less to write about. Their opinion-mongers become less relevant to their readers and viewers. That’s bad for circulation, and therefore for profits.
It follows that the barons of the media will have an interest in promoting and enlarging such conflicts as they can find.
These concepts are on my mind for some obvious reasons, and for one less-than-obvious one: media machinations aimed at making particular outcroppings of conflict appear larger or fresher than they really are. Some of the media’s most recent attention has gone to tempests in a teapot that have nevertheless been accorded front-page / above-the-fold status.
Media coverage strove to make the riots and demonstrations in Washington D.C. around the inauguration appear as large, as impassioned, and as threatening as possible. Some work was involved, as the rioters and “demonstrators” achieved less than they hoped, particularly as regards closing the city to ingress. The coverage of yesterday’s “women’s marches” in various cities around the country was even more tendentious. The crowd in Washington, though of significant size, was “headlined” by a gaggle of second-echelon and has-been celebrities. The sense of the thing was stale, well past its days of relevance. The “coordinated” demonstrations in other places were of even less interest, as the participation of fringe communities that normal American women disdain was more visible there.
The “women’s movement” has taken a serious blow. In recent years it’s taken setback after setback, steadily diminishing in importance. But the media need the conflict for their circulation numbers. Therefore the marches and demonstrations had to be promoted, in puff-adder fashion, into something they’re not: a symptom of a major conflict between American women and men.
But where are the real, genuinely important conflicts, if any?
Standing behind recent media machinations is the evident and much discussed decline in the public’s confidence in journalism and journalists. The news media are so deeply and thoroughly distrusted by average Americans that their whole business model is tottering. The stakes are high, as is usually the case when whole industries and vast quantities of money are involved.
To perpetuate their viability, the broadcast and print media must win the conflict behind all the pseudo-conflicts and teapot tempests they’ve been promoting: the one between themselves and American public opinion. Ironically, this is the one major conflict of our time the media aren’t anxious to report on.
The exchanges of fire between the Trump Administration and the media can be more easily understood in that light. The media are not unhappy about those exchanges. Indeed, they promote them, for they elevate the media’s importance in the minds of readers and viewers: “Our true size is that of our largest enemy.” They would greatly prefer that we focus on those tensions, rather than on why so much of the “news” they slather us with consists of fabrications and exaggerations.