Why is the cast of Hamilton addressing a white nationalist VP-elect an important story?
Much hay was made this weekend over the fact that the staid global news outlet The New York Times had the audacity to put the story about Mike Pence’s well-timed stunt at Hamilton above the fold, while it relegated the story of Donald Trump’s hasty settlement of $25 million over the Trump University lawsuits (an amount which lawyer Lisa Bloom called “power evidence of guilt”) to past the jump, in the print edition.
First of all, who is kidding themselves that people are still reading only the New York Times print edition above the fold?! If someone buys the New York Times they gon’ turn that shit over, maybe head on brazenly over to A2. And if they’re reading the story online, they didn’t come to it from the New York Times front page.
Secondly, how is Hamilton, the most dearly beloved Broadway musical in recent memory (so popular, in fact, that tickets are sold out for the next ~2 years) — playing in the Richard Rodgers Theatre just a few short blocks away from The New York Times building — not an important story when the city and the nation’s brightest talent make a powerful public statement of non-violent resistance from the stage, in a way that clearly resonated with people whether it was on the front of the goddamn New York Times or not? OK, sure, we expect the NYT to have a global perspective; and they do — but it doesn’t mean they gonna ignore the hometown hero that is literally footsteps from their door and the talk of not just the town in the theater department, but of the entire world.
Arguably, there was an even more important story still: the news that Trump is actively courting foreign diplomats to pay him money via his hotel there, implying it will allow them to gain interest and favorability from America. This is consistent with the statements made during his campaign, that “when you give [politicians money], they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” and that he would consider coming to the aid of NATO allies when requested if and only if they pay up for the privilege, as well as his and his family’s non-answers about whether he will divest from his businesses come January 20.
You can’t always get what you want
The Trump U story establishes further DJT’s character as essentially a criminal, but most people are already well aware of that by now and it very depressingly hasn’t been a deal-breaker — whereas the diplomat story speaks to actual fraud occurring today: because it violates the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution it is theoretically impeachable on day one unless he divests completely from the hotel. It is also essentially an act of presidency already, whereas the Trump U story represents closure for a business entity no longer in operation — it is the beginnings of a governance in which foreign leaders can curry favor with the United States for the price of… well, money. Regardless of their policies or oppressions or expansionist aggression… you get the idea.
But most people spent time arguing that the Hamilton-concerned people were frivolously being taken in by the emotional appeal of the story vs. the “objectively ethically problematic” issue of the $25 million settlement in the Trump University case. This is unfair — especially in light of the above — if there is an argument to be made, those folks are not making it with the most salient story (less credibility), and I think they are discounting the role of emotion in the resonance of news (just as we all have recently discounted the role of emotion in politics). It’s also — and I can see how this sort of “backseat headlining” is easy to do for folks who haven’t worked in the media — way too simplistic a moral judgment on a process that is in some sense, 75% of what news outlets do: anguish internally over which stories are a) important enough to cover and b) how much prominence they should be given in relation to other stories.
Some things to keep in mind about the Hamilton story:
- It’s a “local” story (for the NYT) as well as a global one.
- It wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, time that multiple stories about the terrible misdeeds of our erstwhile President-elect will break at once. We have got to get better prepared for this. Hopefully we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and pay attention to GOP political assault strategies on multiple fronts.
- Hamilton isn’t just any old piece of entertainment. It’s a dramatic re-interpretation of the story of one of America’s Founding Fathers, who among other things helped champion the Constitution, develop the country’s financial system, was a senior aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, first Secretary of the Treasury, etc. Part of the outcome of Election 2016 is arguably related to the erosion of our widespread civic appreciation of the nation’s founding ideals; so an already poignant symbol of the early political philosophy of the United States has become even moreso recently.
- It’s an intentionally diverse retelling of a story whose original “cast” was mostly white; again, it’s difficult to imagine a more compelling symbolism of the very issues facing our nation right now.
- Broadway is super duper hella gay. Pence is known for supporting gay conversion-therapy programs — including allocating public taxpayer dollars to the controversial practice that is currently banned in 5 states. Who cares if Pence was kicking the hornet’s nest on purpose: to not react at all would have been a missed opportunity.
- Hamilton has an emotional resonance that is already built-in; the NYTimes knew that diehard fans of the show (and the outer concentric circles of folks who can’t even get tickets but want to) would be interested in this news, and they were right. How paternalistic do we feel we really need to get in terms of “policing” what stories people should hear about (and who decides what those are? Well, that question has an answer: it’s the editors of the New York Times et al) vs. the ones they clearly do want to hear about? (That question doesn’t have an answer, and will be wrestled with for as long as there are people and there is media)
- President-elect Trump’s response to the incident carries both an insult to art and the stench of censorship — demanding an apology from the cast continues DJT’s long-lasting ignorance regarding the First Amendment’s protections for such things, and in terms of the kinds of policies we can expect given his disregard and content for humanities education, reminds us we need to to brace ourselves for an all-out conservative murder spree on arts funding, arts education (and humanities education more broadly), free speech, arts industries, etc. It is important to thwart this, and one way in which we can do that is to appreciate our talented folks in the arts: and Broadway is certainly no slouch in that department. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is a friggin’ genius. For the President-elect to insult his work is well, an insult — not just to Miranda, but to all of us who take pride in the country’s creative and cultural capital.
- It’s a powerful public act of non-violent resistance that, when shared, gives permission and comfort to others who seek to mount resistance efforts against the incoming administration. If we’re being honest, reading yet another bullet point in a long litany of dubious or outright criminal ethics over the tenure of his real estate career just isn’t going to motivate people to act against Trump in the same way that engaging with something near and dear to their hearts will.
CauseWired founder and Columbia lecturer Tom Watson had an insightful related tweetstorm on this front:
All that said…
I do agree we need to come up with better ways of conveying the urgency around activities like fraud, corruption, lying (aka “post-truth”), etc. As well as needing a number of things from our media ecosystem — in which the rise of fake news and propaganda offers us a far more existential threat than quibbling over the relative positioning of two (or three, depending on how you count the “scandals of note” from this weekend) Real Actual Stories in either editorial discretion or popular discourse.
On the flip side — it’s also important to note that the NYTimes doesn’t just get a free pass on any and all editorial discretion, either. Over time, coverage patterns do emerge and I would agree that some of them are troubling — most notably, the NYT’s general reluctance to cover financial corruption and conflict of interest stories that might draw some side eye from the powerful Wall St. types working just down the A train.
Whither the Fourth Estate? Withering…
On the flip flip side — we haven’t yet truly confronted the heart of the issue yet: which is whether or not (and how much) the media as an institution has a civic obligation to inform the public. Historically as the “Fourth Estate” they have been perceived in this way in the past; but as with many of our civic institutions and frameworks, it hasn’t entirely been “culturally true” for some time. Do the owners of the New York Times and the rest of the country’s major media outlets still feel an obligation to provide a civic function to the nation? Or is their modern-day obligation predominantly aligned with creating shareholder value?
I think we know the answer, but not the solution.
(p.s. ohai Google bots and maybe there’s a human or two who enjoys techno-political rantings: this post originally appeared on civic.vision)