A new book explores the rise and impact of partisan perpetual-outrage machines.
By John Strausbaugh
The collapse of Russiagate, which left Rachel Maddow nearly in tears, also caught the New York Times “a little tiny bit flat-footed,” as executive editor Dean Baquet confessed in August. “The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.’ …We built our newsroom to cover one story… Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story.”
Baquet was addressing a private meeting with the paper’s demoralized staff. Three days later, Slate posted a transcript of the inevitable leaked recording, and Fox News pounced. Hannity riffed a ten-minute tirade about how the Times finally “came clean about how anti-Trump their agenda really is,” while Newt Gingrich went on Fox & Friends to denounce the Times as “a propaganda paper worthy of Pravda or Izvestia in the Soviet Union.”
That the New York Times acts as anti-Trump as Fox News does pro- cannot be news to any sentient adult in America. The question, especially for Americans old enough to remember Walter Cronkite and “the paper of record,” is what happened to journalistic objectivity and “fair and balanced” news. Why are major news outlets so partisan now?
In his new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, journalist Matt Taibbi assays some answers. The short form is: It’s good for business. In the Cronkite era, the media “operated in artificially scarce markets,” he writes. There were three national TV networks, the FCC limited competing radio stations, and the huge cost of putting out daily newspapers meant that most had few if any rivals in their markets. They could all charge their advertisers giant fees. In return, advertisers insisted that they attract the broadest possible base of consumers in their markets. One effect of this was the innocuous “family entertainment” that dominated television in the era. But it had an impact on news reporting as well, Taibbi argues. In both print and broadcast, this was the heyday of objective, fair and balanced journalism — the deadpan, seemingly omniscient and uninvolved recitation of facts and figures, down the middle and above the fray. Think Dan Rather, or any daily paper of the time. It was, Taibbi contends, less an exercise in journalistic ethics than a marketing strategy.
He derives this view chiefly from Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, a book he says changed his life. But shortly after that book appeared in 1988, the media started to be thoroughly transformed by the explosive growth of talk radio, cable news, and the Internet. By the mid-1990s, some in the business, like Roger Ailes at Fox, saw that this crowded, fragmented, and ever-expanding field of competitors required new tactics. Forget trying to lull large, coherent markets with uninflected comfort-news. Target a specific “silo” of consumers — conservatives for Fox, liberals for MSNBC — and shout at them opinions they already hold, while demonizing the other side. Ailes’ usurpation of the “fair and balanced” tag for Fox’s anything-but métier amounted to high satire. Taibbi calls it “manufacturing dissent.”
A thin, diaphanous veil of propriety used to separate Cronkite and Rather from Gilligan and Mr. Ed. Now the news is some of the most entertaining, emotionally (if not intellectually) engaging show biz there is. No wonder Trump has romped through this new landscape where traditional pols stumble and plod. For those still baffled by Trump’s success, Taibbi suggests a wonderfully simple exercise. Watch this amazing clip of Trump at Wrestlemania in 2007. It was billed as the Battle of the Billionaires, Trump v. WWE’s Vince McMahon. See a startlingly spry Trump body-slam McMahon, then humiliate him by shaving his head in the ring. Now think about how many of Trump’s tactics in the political ring — the bullying, the bluster and blarney, the personal insults, the preening before aggro crowds, the drive not just to defeat but to humiliate his enemies — is straight out of the WWE villain’s playbook. Forget Hitler; think Ric Flair.
Like the breathless announcers of WWE matches, both “pro” and “anti” Trump news departments play along. The “Trump bump” has been as good for soaring ad revenues at MSNBC and the Times as for Fox. It’s a Trumped-up battle of the billionaires in another arena. (Taibbi might have added that one should think twice before indulging any feelings of superiority to the average WWE audience. At least they know it’s show biz.)
A lot of this may not be new revelation, nor is Taibbi its only messenger. The Times itself ran a long think-piece by James Poniewozik on September 8, “The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV,” making a similar case, though without mentioning the WWE or how the Times profits from it all. Still, as an insider’s apology from a writer who founded his career on being, as he puts it, “the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of journalism,” Hate Inc.carries some weight.
The Trump presidency has been decried as the “new abnormal.” But today’s partisan media may actually represent a return to an old normal. The ideal of objective journalism, pushed by progressives like Walter Lippman in the 1920s, was already being challenged by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe in the 1960s. In the 1973 Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, another book Taibbi cites as a life-changer, Hunter Thompson declared, “With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” Around the same time, Tom Wicker called it the media’s “biggest weakness.”
Before the 20th century, news outlets were at least as rampantly, fiercely partisan as they can seem today. In the Jacksonian era it was common for politicians to buy the support of newspaper publishers with promises of political appointments and lucrative government printing contracts. When Jackson ran against the incumbent John Quincy Adams in 1828, the newspapers pitched in to make it what’s still considered the ugliest presidential campaign ever. Jackson papers slurred Adams as an elitist prig and closet monarchist who had pimped young women to the Czar of Russia. Adams papers went lower, claiming that Jackson’s mother was a prostitute who married a mulatto, that his wife Rachel was a bigamist and adulterer, and that he was a primitive, murdering wild beast. Their cartoonists drew him as a jackass, the symbol for the Democratic Party to this day. Jackson won, but the slander campaign so mortified Rachel that her heart gave out and she died as they were packing to leave for Washington.
With the explosive growth of the populist penny dailies that started in the 1830s, newspapermen fought ferociously (sometimes literally) in crowded fields for limited pools of readers and advertisers. Editors of competing papers insulted one another with abandon. When James Gordon Bennett started the New York Herald to compete with Morris Day’s New York Sun in 1835, he vowed in an early editorial to “extinguish the Sun and put out the light thereof, to the great gratification of all persons of taste, good sense and judgment in this city.” Day jabbed back that Bennett’s “only chance of dying an upright man will be that of hanging perpendicularly upon a rope.” When Bennett accused another competitor, James Watson Webb, of illegal speculation on Wall Street, Webb found him on the street and gave him a public thrashing that went on for twenty minutes while bystanders gawked. Meanwhile, their newsboys were beating each other up, too.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Horace Greeley’s abolitionist stance got him burned in effigy many times in the South, and once beaten on a street in Washington by an Arkansas congressman. The hatred some newspapers expressed for Lincoln could be positively psychedelic, as in the one that called him a “white-washed octoroon mulatto.” During the war, Lincoln shuttered many newspapers he accused of publishing treason, sometimes when they were just being extremely critical and insulting, and jailed several editors without due process, releasing them only after they signed a loyalty oath.
In the late 1890s, the desperate circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal went a long way to inciting another war. Hearst’s circulation increased as he played every jingoistic and warmongering trick in the book to goad President McKinley into warring with Spain over Cuba. It culminated with banner headlines, such as “WAR! SURE! MAINE DESTROYED BY SPANISH” and “NEW PROOFS THAT TREACHERY DESTROYED THE BATTLE SHIP MAINE,” that were as unsubstantiated as they were loud. Pulitzer’s experiences as a soldier with the Union army had left him rather a pacifist, but as he saw Hearst stealing readers from him he gave in and joined the braying. McKinley gave in as well, and gave Americans, to Teddy Roosevelt’s glee, the short, wildly asymmetrical Spanish-American War.
Then, as now, selling the news was an extremely competitive business amid a crowded field, and publishers saw that the best way to grab market share and advertisers was with screaming headlines, extreme opinions and undisguised bias. But even in the 20th century era of supposedly objective journalism, highly-charged issues could draw out the biases of media moguls. In the late 1930s, Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, was a staunch isolationist, extremely opposed to FDR’s efforts to get America involved in Europe’s war. After Pearl Harbor, Patterson’s reporters were among the most critical of the American war effort. In 1942, Roosevelt got so fed up with the negative dispatches of one Daily News writer that he awarded him a German Iron Cross “for his service to the enemy.” Thirty years later, the Washington Post and New York Times played key roles in forcing Nixon to resign, though only after protracted soul-searching about whether they were violating the spirit of journalistic objectivity.
When Trump threatens news outlets with lawsuits, or calls the media the enemy of the people, the actions of Lincoln and FDR are not usually cited as precedents. But a little historical perspective does suggest that the new abnormal is neither.
John Strausbaugh is the author of The Village, City of Sedition, and most recently, Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: September 14, 2019
Author: John Strausbaugh
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Hate Inc. / OR Books