Scripted Fake News: Discerning Politics as a Smart, Not a Mark
We need some new terminology when it comes to “fake news” and the Media/Political soap opera. Messaging, campaigning, and outreach have learned to go viral by appearing to be anything other than the direct messaging they are. News and fake news are terms being applied to anything you either agree/disagree with. New terms are needed; something to distinguish between the real, the not real, and the mixture of the two.
What we need in political thought is the logic and psychology of professional wrestling.
No, really, professional wrestling, which has mastered the art of blending the real and the choreographed into a complete performance art. When it comes to blending the real with the scripted for public consumption, they are the experts.
If you are not familiar with the genre, a quick overview. What we now know as professional “fake” wrestling started years ago when two unknown guys- fighting at the carnival sideshow- figured out they could fake hitting their opponent, make it look real as possible, and still get paid without beating each other within an inch of their lives. The beauty of it was they could trade places as winner and loser at the next town without the new audience being any the wiser. This evolved into a promotional system; always having a “face” or good guy fighting the dastardly “heel” or bad guy. The clean operators settled for a good gate, while the unscrupulous ones would run side betting on the unsuspecting townspeople. Over the years the whole thing grew, minus the sideshow and straight con game elements, into its own genre of entertainment. The evolution continued till you now have the present form of World Wrestling Entertainment, a billion-dollar publicly traded company with international reach and media presence.
The athleticism is very real, the performers being world class athletes from various fields and backgrounds. The well documented dangers, both physical and in the toll an unrelenting lifestyle takes on the participants, are all too real. Production values are top notch. Some of the best video and internet production to be found anywhere make the product come to life. The fans coming by the thousands and watching through TV, digital, and app by the millions. Yet wrestling never quite sheds the dismissive label of being “fake”. What is real in the fake world of professional wrestling is the money, constant revenue from a perpetual story machine. The money comes from the emotional investment of the fans, monetizing passion being a sound business model. The model is called “Sports entertainment” the blending of both to make a new, exciting product.
But to the fans of this genre of entertainment, the draw isn’t just the fake or scripted aspects. It’s the “game within the game”. The storylines as presented in the shows and official marketing is called “kayfabe”, the scripted movie-like aspect of characters and stories presented exactly as the company intends them to be. The fans that follow the story this way, or “kayfabe only” are called “marks”, a slightly politer term than the carneys’ utterance of “suckers” to the forbearers of wrestling. Then there are the “smarts” who know and see the machinations behind the scenes and enjoy following the genre that way, not only unbothered by the fact that Oz is just a man pulling levers but preferring to spend their time debating, second guessing, and following his motivations for doing so. Then there are the “smart marks”, which is most fans, who know what it is but enjoy it anyway without overly concerning themselves with behind the scenes, happily dialing down reality for entertainment purposes.
It is time we start viewing our politics, especially our media coverage of them, as smarts, not marks. Both politicians and media, of all biases, sides, and agendas, want the public to digest what is presented exactly as intended. Media and marketing consultants are now as important as political strategists. Messaging, in the age of news cycles that are both heightened in intensity and shortened in lifecycle, is king. Many forces are spending big money across multiple platforms to present consumers with exactly the information they want us to have. The news, after all, is not a public service, though it can be that. It is a business; a model for making revenue, ratings and profit with an unlimited supply of content in the form of current events. Politicians are not that different, measuring their success in campaign contributions, Q ratings, and ability to influence both their own office and the greater body politic. Both sides are characters in the stories that drive the perpetual news cycle. The top two or three things driving it are presented as the big story, but it is only part of the real game. Constant stories, maintaining emotional investment, producing perpetual revenue is the business at hand. Like the tired fighters at the carnival, the most savvy politicians and media members have figured out that the public fighting draws the crowd while behind the curtain quiet cooperation and mutual aid keep the funds rolling in.
Constant stories, maintaining emotional engagement, producing perpetual revenue is the business at hand.
Which is where our wrestling lesson comes in. The news cycle is a perpetual story machine, presented to incite passion, create ratings, and bring in the crowds. It is the monetizing of peoples feelings either for or against, and it doesn’t matter which you are as long as your watching. We can admire the skill of the participants, marvel at the production values, we can even get caught up in the emotion of the moments; but we should never forget we are being presented a product. The base mineral of the news-current events-is real, but supercharged with performance art for the purpose of inciting passion for the purpose of profit. Call it “news reporting entertainment”, and it is not just the networks that participate. Almost all public figures, pundits, and even average politically engaged citizens play their character rolls in the never ending drama.
Donald Trump of all people knows this, having even appeared in his own WWE stories on several occasions over the years. Not long ago he retweeted a GIF of his exploits with the CNN logo superimposed to depict Trump clotheslining it to the ground. The real person in the unedited version is WWE founder and chairman Vince McMahon. Linda McMahon, long time CEO of the WWE and wife of Vince, now serves in the Trump administration overseeing the Small Business Administration.
As part of his branding to go national in the 80’s then international in the 90’s with his company, Vince coined the term “Sports entertainment”. To the anger of his traditionalist fan base, he doggedly eschewed the term “wrestling”. The term, in his explanation, didn’t accurately reflect his product and had been overused and stereotyped. Strikingly similar to our current usage of “fake news”, which has become all things to all people for all purposes. It has become the Presidents favorite rhetorical weapon to deploy when dealing with the news media and change the narrative from whatever the covered story is to who is doing the coverage. To be fair to Trump, the “fake news” slogan was started by the very media he now slings it at, a poorly thought out piece of business that backfired and has haunted them ever since. Having been thus defined, “fake news” as a term has lost all meaning, even when it should be a valuable descriptor.
For example, on Sunday Jake Tapper was hosting his “State of The Union” program and had as a guest Stephen Miller, titled Senior Policy Advisor for President Trump. The clip is readily available and there is no point going through a point by point analysis of it. But it serves as a media Rorschach test in which the viewers see what they wanted. The feedback was alight with variations on who “won” or “served” the other, almost exclusively based on what your pre-existing opinion was.
So, let’s step back and see what the setup to this was. Miller was there as a surrogate for the Trump administration, but his reason for this appearance had many more layers to it than just his official position as Trump policy advisor. The purpose and the promoted reason for Miller’s appearance was to get his, and by default Trump’s, comments on the release of the Wolff Fire and Fury book. The 1A issue was to the fallout and public pillaring of Steve Bannon. Miller, having been perceived as a Bannon guy in the past, came forth publicly to add his stab to the public execution of the condemned Bannon’s political future. This was the capping of several days of Trump administration officials professing their loyalty to Trump through condemning of the loathsome Bannon.
Miller, at 32 years of age, has quickly risen to a high position by any standard of measure, his resume being fairly thin. Before his role in the Trump Campaign and then the White House, the Duke graduate’s highest profile job was communications director for now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Such a background, or lack thereof, leads to speculation that Miller might be where he is based more on his true believer status than actual expertise. Using media invites to go into assault mode on behalf of Trump will do little to dissuade that opinion.
Opposite Miller was Jake Tapper. Tapper, for reasons endlessly debated on social media, is alternately viewed on the right as the last honest man in cable news or the incarnate destroyer of all things conservative by wielding the almighty power of liberal bias. If you fall anywhere between the two views ,you are derided by both sides for not paying attention. Tapper has the reputation of being a good news man, biased like every other human being on the face of the earth, but one with the habit of holding his own accountable and advocating for integrity in his own profession. He tries, in other words, to be fair. Helping his reputation is his engagement in social media, an openness that gives him the benefit of the doubt with many people. The day prior to the Miller interview implosion, Tapper had tweeted about fellow CNN colleague Brian Stelter’s and other experts use of the term “rings true” not being up to journalistic standards. As the aftermath of the State of The Union show unfolded, he posted a link to the entire Stephen Miller segment on his Twitter account with the statement of “here’s the interview, judge for yourself”. Later the same day of the Miller interview, Tapper, along with many others, took to twitter to support Fox News Senior Political Analyst Brit Hume over some truly vile personal attacks the veteran personality had received and publically shared. None of this is to venerate Tapper, but some context of the people that are in the news media is needed besides just broad-stroked dismissal of them all as bots of the liberal media hive mind.
Again, the back and forth will give you whatever you want out of it. Miller points out, correctly, CNN’s recent retractions and problematic stories, but did so with so much repetition of “your network” that the insinuation was they are somehow personally Tapper’s fault. Tapper tried to get Miller to answer a question, any question, with something other than the talking points and preplanned speech with which Miller came prepared, to no avail. Tapper comes off exasperated; Miller comes off snotty and slightly unhinged. Several times Miller stumbled and searched for his words, while Tapper clearly caught himself more than once, stopping and starting again trying to keep the in-progress train wreck on the tracks while maintaining his bearing. Thrown off by Miller’s utter refusal for any type of back and forth, the host was left looking as though he was searching for a way out that wouldn’t come. Tapper staring direct to camera, plowing through a tease which was barely intelligible over Miller’s crosstalk is a true oddity in world of sanitized TV talking head debate. The abrupt and combative ending to the interview will be perceived as either a great insult to the guest or a journalist taking control and having had enough. Which camp you fall in depends on your impression of the previous 11 odd minutes before Miller’s mike is cut off and Tapper throws to a commercial. Depending on which reports you believe, the off air may or may not have included Miller being escorted from the building.
Plenty of ink and twitter characters of analysis followed, but Tapper’s go-home line of Miller being there only for “one viewer you care about right now” proved to be the most insightful of the whole debacle. Right on cue, as soon as the interview aired POTUS weighed in on Twitter, declaring Miller as having destroyed fake news CNN and the “hateful and unfairness” of its flunky Tapper. We can have long and justifiable conversations about media liberal bias, and CNN’s many shortcomings thereof, but media bias is not what was on display here, political news entertainment was. Trump’s surrogate presented exactly the story he was supposed to, played his role as assigned, and set up the next event, which was the President himself tweeting a response to what he “just saw”.
What was displayed was the game within the game, much like a wrestling angle. Miller was positioned for Trump supporters to be the defender of good guy Trump against the evil fake news media and their minion Jake Tapper. The coordination of talking points to be follow up by presidential tweet is not accidental. It’s smart messaging, and might even be good strategy, but let’s see it for what it is. Trump and his team know they must have a bad guy to campaign against, and so far, the media have assisted them in playing this role at every turn. It is their own fault, having covered Trump with unheard of coverage that, contrary to their purposes, helped get him elected. The modern age also allows the news media no quarter when they get a story wrong, as information is just too universally available for a blatantly false story to linger long without push back.
But we are starting to see something more than just the “standing up to the media” shtick. Spontaneous pushback when treated unfairly or falsely creates great drama and good television. This episode was calculated, and the strategy is clearly to provoke fights like this for the enragement and engagement of Trump’s base. There are few things MAGA land hates more than the media, and keeping fire squarely on them keeps Trumps flanks cleared. The plan is clearly to be able to dismiss everything unflattering off as “fake news”. When the media is unfair, fine call them out on it. It happens frequently, and we should absolutely demand accountability amongst our journalist and news makers the same as politicians and everyone else. But not everything the media reports on is fake news. Not everything they do is bathed in liberal bias. There is a liberal bias that shapes many of their stories and coverage, and many times lately the news makers have done themselves no favors by feeding the stereotype. But we still need to take reporting on story by story basis and not just dismiss what we do not like because of the source, the reporting, or the challenge it might make to our thinking.
Discernment must be the new currency of media consumption, especially in political matters. If you are not seeing the greater game afoot you are simply being the mark that media, the politicians, and the advertisers want you to be. In other words, your impact is limited to that of usual pawn, a statistic, and a reliable vote. The media and news, however flawed, is needed and has a role to play. Sure, there is bias in the news media, and manipulation forms the core workings of politicians on all sides. Every living human being has bias. The notion that you reject every shred of information from a source because it has a bias is juvenile and limiting. Recognize the bias, discern the individual stories and messages on their merits, then react accordingly. Do not be a mark; understand the game, appreciate the skill it takes to do it, even get emotionally invested in it, but learn to distinguish between the real and the performance.
Comments, questions and interaction is always welcomed:
Original writing and photos Copyright © 2018 Andrew Donaldson. All others attributed to source. No reuse without permission or credit to original.