Reporters aren’t used to losing power struggles in DC, and they are have gone back to school — the school of war.
So from his near-distance, Virgil can identify five major topics that journalists are avidly discussing as they plots their revenge on the dreaded Donald Trump.
1. The Low Ground or the High Ground?
In military affairs, as we all know, the high ground is better. And yet sometimes the fighting commences on less-than-ideal terrain. An obvious case in point, as we saw in the previous installment, is the battle started by BuzzFeed, a belly-crawling site that’s often found down in the muck. As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote, by publishing that dirty dossier — the one full of allegations about Trump and the Russians — BuzzFeed’s ambush had backfired; it had, in effect, given Trump a “steel rod” with which to beat not only BuzzFeed, but also, by extension, the whole MSM. And that’s just what Trump did.
So now what is the MSM to do? Should it go racing into the swamp to help BuzzFeed, or should it let it sink into the mire?
One MSM veteran offered his answer on January 14. Len Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he blasted BuzzFeed’s “irresponsible decision to publish a seamy and wholly unsubstantiated research dossier about Mr. Trump.” That decision, Downie continued:
. . . poses a deep danger for legitimate, aggressive journalism, especially from the president-elect, who has been consistent in his heavy-handed demonization of any and all media whenever he dislikes critical but accurate stories about him.
And so, Downie concluded, the MSM must focus on being “fair,” and that means “scrutinizing the practices of those who don’t have the same standards.” In other words, Downie argued for cutting BuzzFeed loose, for letting it disappear into the swamp. Downie doesn’t seem at all to be a Trump fan; instead, he just wants the MSM to fight better by standing on firmer, higher, ground.
Yet not everyone in the MSM agrees with Downie. Indeed, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, the man who approved the dossier’s publication, has been enjoying a sudden burst of celebrity; on Sunday, for example, he appeared on “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s media show. (One can make up one’s own joke about the improbability of Smith as a “reliable source.”) And now, whether or not everyone in the MSM approves of him, it’s a safe bet that Smith, if he wishes, can become a regular on the Michael Moore/Bill Moyers conspiracy-theory circuit.
So yes, it’s a hinge strategy question for the MSM: Does it get down with BuzzFeed, or does it keep its distance? And what will be the MSM’s reaction the next time there’s a low-blow attack on Trump? Many journos might cheer any attack on the 45th president, but the smarter ones know that it’s hard to win when you’re floundering in a wetland.
2. Divide and Conquer?
Another key military concept is that it’s typically not wise for an army to divide its forces. If it does, the enemy can pick off smaller units one by one; the technical phrase is “defeated in detail.”
And so, returning to the case of the dirty dossier, we can see that the MSM is still reeling from Trump’s divide-and-conquer approach at his recent press conference, in which he praised some outlets for not touching the document, while damning those that did, namely, BuzzFeed and CNN.
So what to do? How to respond? For his part, the Times’ Rutenberg lamented that reporters did’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Speaking of the press corps, he sighed that Trump “played them off each other with labels of good and bad and selectively answered their policy questions.” That is, once Trump had stomped CNN — he labeled the network as “fake news” while refusing to take a question from its reporter Jim Acosta — others at the press conference had not stood up for Acosta; instead the journalists simply went on with their questions, as opposed to, for example, yielding their time back to the CNN man. As Rutenberg wrote, “a united front would have given the reporters stronger footing.” And yet that united front, he added regretfully, was “woefully lacking.” We can add that Rutenberg did give a shout-out to one journalist who went out of his way to praise Acosta and criticize Trump: That would be Shepard Smith of Fox News.
So that’s one view: Reporters should have stuck by CNN. Meanwhile, others might say, as did Downie, that if one or two outlets are playing dirty, the right thing to do is to ignore them, even shun them — certainly not help them. And still others might say, incidentally, that it’s not their fight, that they should pursue pursue their own angles, seeking their own clicks.
So what’s the right answer? Stay united at all costs? Or be divided, if necessary? Here’s all Virgil knows: The MSM is working these questions.
3. Alliance with the Deep State?
Okay, this really shouldn’t be posed as a question, since the alliance is obvious — it’s already happening. So if there’s strength in numbers, then the MSM has a lot strength, because, as Virgil has noted many times in the past, the Deep State — also known as the Permanent Government, or the Shadow Government — is the MSM’s ally in the war against Trump.
But don’t take Virgil’s word for it; here’s Politico’s Jack Shafer, who, from his point of view, sees great promise in the MSM-Deep State alliance. Under the headline, “Trump Is Making Journalism Great Again: In his own way, Trump has set us free,” Shafer cites, as just one happy example, the resource that is the federal Office of Government Ethics, a bastion of anti-Trump legal activism. Describing the OGE’s bulging personnel files and disclosure forms in temptingly come-hither terms, Shafer writes, “Reporters will be mining these forms for months and producing damaging results without any Trump administration confirmation or cooperation.”
Continuing in this cheerleading vein, Shafer adds:
As Trump shuts down White House access to reporters, they will infest the departments and agencies around town that the president has peeved. The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump.
Of course, it’s not legal to leak such material, but that’s not a reporter’s problem; journalists never get prosecuted for breaking the law, and their sources, only rarely.
And then Shafer cites just about every other agency in town, from the State Department to the Department of Labor, as a hoped-for further source of anti-Trump leaks. It will be, he enthuses, quoting the words of Beltway veteran Mike Allen, “a story that will never go away.”
In the meantime, other Trump administration officials are getting the Deep State treatment: For example, on January 12, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on future national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls to the Russian ambassador. Now how did Ignatius know that? The Postman won’t say, other than that he got his information from a “senior US government official.”
Once again, such disclosures aren’t legal, but once again, nobody in Washington, DC, seems to care. Maybe Trump will change that.
4. Bring in the Reinforcements!
Once again, this is not a question, but rather, a statement. Yes, the MSM has been devastated by the Internet; in the last two decades, nearly 40 percent of journalism jobs have disappeared, about 20,000 positions. The deepest cuts have come out in the provinces, and yet here in Powertown, the situation isn’t much different. That is, reporters want to be here, and will settle for less money, or string together various gigs, in order to stay and do what they love. Indeed, MSM outfits such as The Atlantic and The Huffington Post are notorious for paying many of their writers nothing — that is, not just paying a little tiny amount, but, literally, paying nothing. And yet even so, those portals are full of content, because reporters and reporter-wannabes always want to be seen as being in the game.
In addition, deep-pocketed individuals — including, but hardly limited to, Mort Zuckerman, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, and Carlos Slim — seem happy to “invest” in money-losing news operations, all for the privilege of being media magnates. And at a smaller level, anyone can “invest” in journalism. That is, if one clicks on left-leaning news sites such as The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, The Nation, or Slate, he or she will be hit with banners and pop-ups proclaiming, more or less, “Want to Stop Trump? Give Us Money!”
In addition to such micro-giving, macro-philanthropies have gotten into the media-subsidy game. For example, the muckraking site ProPublica was founded in 2007 thanks to a $10 million charitable donation. Since then it has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a host of other awards — and raised a lot more money. In the meantime, the Hillary Clinton-loving Center for American Progress runs Think Progress, a site that employs dozens of “journalists,” and could rival many traditional media operations in its depth and newsiness, even if it is, in the end, nothing but progressive propaganda.
More is coming: Here’s a revealing headline from the website of NiemanLab, a project of the Nieman Foundation: “Philanthropists Galvanize Around News.” The author of the piece is Molly de Aguiar, whose title is “program director for informed communities at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.” In her opinion, “Foundations should provide operating and project support with few or no strings attached.” What reporter or editor wouldn’t dig that? And there’s plenty of evidence that she is being heeded: Indeed, hardly a day goes by when some big-name outfit — Kaiser, Knight, Nieman, Peterson, Pew, Poynter, Soros — doesn’t step up with some new scheme to subsidize journalism. And then, of course, there’s foreign money, and lots of it. Not long ago, for example, a Hong Kong-based charity put $25 million into a news service owned by the United Nations.
And let’s not forget the shadowy domestic operators, such as David Brock, proprietor of the Media Matters empire. Having raised hundreds of millions of dollars to bash conservatives and promote liberals, Brock said last year that he now wants to create a “Breitbart of the left.”
In other words, there’s a lot of money sloshing around DC-based MSM journalism. The New York Times, for example, continues to shrink its overall payroll, and yet at the same time, it just announced that it’s putting in an additional $5 million to cover the Trump administration — and you know what that means.
Meanwhile, Virgil wasn’t surprised to see that on January 15, the notorious BuzzFeed debuted a colorful infographic of what it called a map of “TrumpWorld.” That is, it’a diagram of all of Trump’s personal and financial relationships, some 1500 people and organizations altogether. It was, to be sure, a major — and costly — undertaking.
Does that map prove any wrongdoing? Does it prove anything at all? Virgil doesn’t know, at least not yet. And no doubt the map will be scrutinized closely; yet in the meantime, we know this much for sure: BuzzFeed spent a lot of money on this new project, a lot more money than is typical for a publication that usually focuses on low-cost cute-kitten listicles.
5. Capture the Facebook Fortress
Fifth and finally, as we know, in war and in anything else, it’s always good to control the key citadel.
And the central citadel of the news today is Facebook. With a market capitalization of some $371 billion, the Menlo Park Media Mammoth is bigger than all the other media put together — unless, that is, one counts Google, which has a market cap of $564 billion, as a media company as well.
The genius of Facebook is that it offers many web-surfers “one-stop shopping.” That is, one goes to the site and never needs to leave, because everything — including news — is there. And that’s why Facebook is the third-most-visited site in the US, behind only Google and YouTube.
And while Facebook tends to argue that it’s a mere “platform,” as opposed to a media company, there’s probably not a single major news portal these days that doesn’t have a presence on Facebook. And that includes Breitbart, even as Breitbart has rigorously critiqued Facebook for its handling of the news in articles such as this — and hundreds more.
In other words, Facebook is the big prize — the highest of the high ground — in media today. To borrow the phrase from Lord of the Rings, “One site to rule them all.”
Still, despite all its immense power, Facebook is a political football, kicked around in the political realm. So we must ask: Who will shape Facebook’s algorithms? Who will curate its “news feeds”? Who’s going to think about the “filter bubble”? Who decides what’s “fake news”? Who will make judgments as to what images are appropriate, or not appropriate, for the site? Who will deal with censorship issues? Who will be the public face of its news operation? And should anyone care that Facebook employees give money mostly to Democrats?
And new controversies are coming: In December, the CEO of The New York Times company, Mark Thompson, argued in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club that social-media companies such as Facebook, having drawn so much advertising revenue away from “legacy media,” should now return some of it, in the form of a subsidy to the old publishers. So far, Facebook hasn’t been interested in any such schemes, but could that “no” ever become a “yes”? Especially if, as Vanity Fair reports, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might be interested in running for president?
Interestingly, Vanity Fair adds the detail that Zuckerberg loves to play, even now, Risk, the board game of strategy and conquest.
We might note, too, that the #2 at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, an alumna of the Clinton administration, is also thought to harbor political ambitions; she has been mentioned as a possible statewide candidate in California, and she was also rumored to be on the short-list for Treasury Secretary had Hillary Clinton won last year.
So Virgil ends where he started: with martial analogies, war metaphors, and dreams of entering the imperial city in triumph.
The MSM has its mission: Having been bloodied in its battles with Trump, it must now study strategy so as to regain power — and to crush Trump. To have any hope of winning, it must stay off the low ground, it must remain united while avoiding being tainted, it must cement its alliances with the Deep State, it must gain financial reinforcement, and it must, if it can, capture, or at least influence, the commanding fortress that is Facebook.
All this might seem like a daunting mission for the MSM. And yet as Virgil wrote 2000 years ago, furor arma ministrat. That is, “rage supplies arms,” as in, weapons.