In the midst of current economic chaos, a few loud perspectives get much attention. They lack good judgment.
To paraphrase one of Abraham Lincoln’s early speeches, the public, guided by community and institutions, says what’s fashionable. Lincoln used the word fashion deliberately, because even in the mid-19th century appearances mattered most. Once the media, leaders, and legislators converge on what is or isn’t fashionable, invisible self-censorship pervades debate.
Alas, for reasons best left to historians, but surely linked to income inequality and President Obama’s ethnicity, today this grand convergence includes anarcho-capitalists who lack skills or tools to contribute purposefully. The media reports on these clowns because they attract attention, but they also set trends, so political fashion now stymies logical economic discussion.
When analysts claim public leaders set terms of debate and determine the nation’s story-line, they often overlook media’s root power. A recent, widely cited New York Times op-ed piece, by psychologist Drew Weston, hammered President Obama for his failure to upstage the right-wing with a progressive story-line. Obama’s compromises, according to Weston, are his loudest message. Weston’s recommendation: Obama should pick an enemy, label it evil, and lift his populist lance for a good fight, a triumphant story that will move the country left.
Although his focus on the nation’s dominant narrative is on target, Weston commits a basic attribution error. He specifies a national leader as capable of establishing a national narrative, when this must be a collusion between politician and media. A President can introduce and push original ideas, but at least since Vietnam, the mass media (TV & radio, papers & magazines) converge on the era’s dominant narrative, as much or more than politicians. Broadcast TV, newspapers weekly magazines, and their online clones, select stories for circulation and ratings, because of outlook and circumstance, and to ride and guide trends.
The media is as powerful as a branch of government. Once upon a time that was a commonplace; struggling newspapers and broadcast news claim it’s no longer so. Internet and cable news cut into their market share, but these don’t change the mainstream media’s role, which is to determine mainstream national story-lines. Powerful people and institutions, whether elected, successful, purposeful, or disturbed, grab headlines and make statements that shape public dialogue. But media channels and manipulates the narrative. We know this tacitly, but overlook it most of the time.
To claim the media determines debate is like Freud saying the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious mind. Such statements only seem evident when historical events strip away surface appearances. A brilliant President rages with obscene paranoia at a mirage of enemies; a gifted orator convinces neighbors to kill each other because of ethnicity; gentlemen of leisure duel over an offhand remark. Momentous moments open chasms to reveal genuine, usually hidden forces. They re-shut quickly, so public consciousness regresses, to ignore what hides beneath.
The media isn’t the only source of conventional wisdom, instead of originating convention, it parades it. Interest groups, wealthy influencers, and charismatic folk from any class, try to change ideological trends, most of which rain on the media’s parade. Broadcasters and publishers duck and cover, but when special interests seed the atmosphere, media gets wet. Conventional wisdom changes. News media appears to find truth out of common-sense, but what’s common is not always clear. To say the media determines which ideas and perspectives get mainstreamed, and by default those left ignored, upends power assumptions usefully, but also exaggerates.
The media’s potentates and prattlers lead the parade, but their show and tell is about other people’s lives; they don’t lead the nation. The professional journalist is lucky to get a simple byline to articles; to carve his or her niche among colleagues, stories need juice. This power, whether from broadcast blather or crisp craft, doesn’t emerge from institution structure. Sure, it’s hard to join the White House journalist pool, and impossible to get new TV bandwidth. But for such an important institution, a newsroom is a pretty lightweight headquarters. Media gets power, instead, as audiences chew on words and images, plots and pretty faces. Citizens need information; their media quick serve packaged bites, and when the public’s ill winds shake politics, the media’s power gets revealed. It’s a multi-step process. The news camera’s lens hopes to stand in for the public’s eye, the news presenter’s story tries to articulate a typical response, but viewers and readers have many different eyes and responses. The art of the common denominator is to find image and story that satisfy the most.
|A rubric for common denominator media: it equals
were interpretations refers to the number of ways a media’s average audience will interpret a story, given the complexity of the story.
Wikipedia defines “lowest common denominator” [LCD] as a product “in a vulgar fraction”. The “vulgar” part comes from Latin, meaning common, but even in Latin it refers to “common people” or the ordinary class.
In media news, a story is intended for an audience who interpreted it in common.
In math, we know we’ve got the LCD when the numerator is one. It can be larger than one, of course, but when it’s one there’s nothing simpler. In mass media news, a story that drives towards a single interpretation is also simpler.
In media news, any subject can have too many angles and detail. Complex events are unique, but they get simplified to communicate something an audience will interpret in common. Story details are bits of information, their quantity is the denominator. The common’s best stories have a small number of information bits.
A big denominator, complex facts, makes the journalist present too much information. Reducing 5/20 (a story with 20 bits that splits audience interpretations 5 ways) to 1/4 (4 bits the whole audience interprets in common) makes something easy to understand. Now consider 5/21. Mathematically, it can’t be reduced, but if it represents a media news story, it has too many interpretations and too much complexity.
Media news stories can’t be summarized with precise math; it’s always possible for story reductions to lose critical information. To meet audience expectations, journalists reduce stories by choice, not to eliminate redundancy. Individuals have limits on the number of stories they expect and are comfortable with. As a “plot” deviates from expectations, its interpretations increase, which mass media avoids. It’s a mini-max function: maximize the media channel’s gain, in audience, revenue, and smooth sailing, by minimizing story types.
Some scholars analyze storylines to identify the set of known plots. Christopher Booker claimed there are seven basic story plots that all traditional and literary stories fit. Ronald Tobias wrote a book called 20 Master Plots. Given mass media tries to simplify news to fit the most common, it probably uses between five and 20 storylines. They are the target all news stories get reduced to.
A President can try to “educate” the public as Weston would like, say focusing on excessive executive incomes, but the media digests this in its mini-max process. The President may state that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies earn 485 times what their company’s janitors get, but that’s complex information. From an ordinary person’s view, he’s saying regular employees earn 1/485 of the CEO. Income inequality stories need simpler math, like the 99% slogan. So the President’s rhetoric will get media channeled into 99% territory, where it shares identity with riff-raff occupying Zuccotti Park. Low and behold, the President’s “lazer sharp” concentration on CEO pay, Weston’s recommendation, becomes a mish-mash of populist sentiments. Wait an interval, and pundits like Weston will criticize Obama for muddying up the subject.
If a President can make up new memes, mass media is the Hobbesian environment that culls with the harsh disinterest of Darwinian selection. Since humans, especially in Presidential teams and major media organizations, are clever, calculating manipulators, they send signals to each other to manage opportunity and risk. The White House press questions the President’s media “secretary” almost daily; the subjects and views embedded in their questions signal which narratives mass media want to follow
White House reporters freely reframe subjects from day to day. An example occurred around the Libyan civil war’s biggest turning point, when Qaddafi’s armored military set out from Tripoli to destroy Benghazi, Libya’s second city and home of the rebellion. Qaddafi’s statements and overwhelming firepower made clear the world was about to witness horrible carnage.
Obama spent difficult days consulting with the Pentagon, State and political advisers, to determine a response. These groups more or less shared a static view of U.S. public opinion, seen as construing foreign policy along narrow, brittle fault lines, forcing peculiar conditions on U.S. military deployment.
This perspective fails to incorporate the news media’s dynamic input. It assumes the public balances foreign people to save, with the U.S. troops who may die, on a scale that verges on jingoism. During President Clinton’s Haiti intervention, Bob Dole said the island nation wasn’t worth a single U.S. soldier’s life. The denominator was too high: Americans couldn’t value the relationship between one G.I. and a high number of Haitians Dole would not say that about Cuba, if the U.S. intervened there, because Cubans fit a standard category, a simple number. The most notable difference between Cuba and Haiti is skin color, which presumably complicates things. Another static variable about intervention is the U.S. public’s agreement that a hateful enemy, one who can be demonized, may be worth attacking. Ever since Hitler, a really bad person can justify war. But, particularly among those Baby Boomers who cut their political teeth demonstrating the Vietnam War, many people despise any foreign intervention. This complexity often gets reduced to isolationist slogans. The Pentagon also believes that Americans demand quick victory. But G.W. Bush was reelected over a year into the poorly managed Iraq War, in part because Americans seemed more disturbed by potential defeat, then enthused by victory. Victory doesn’t get much political benefit; G.H.W. Bush beat Saddam Hussein decisively in 1990, only to lose to Bill Clinton two years later. The public’s view of victory and defeat doesn’t fit neat ratios.
Qaddafi was palpably crazy bad, but he didn’t have Saddam’s heavy record of evil. Antipathy towards Qaddafi was dated; he had negotiated his way back into the international community, by abandoning Libya’s nuclear weapons program. Still, he was a dictator with a long overdue expiration data, had American blood on his hands, and was impossible to admire. So Qaddafi made a moderately acceptable enemy. The rebels were also suitable for American sympathy, except for Islamists, who get bundled with terrorists in popular imagination. Libya had a good education system, so many rebels were moderate and well-spoken, and often are more European looking than many Arabs. So rebels were more sympathetic than most Arabs, but they were still Muslim.
In balance, neither Obama’s principal advisors nor the Pentagon saw enough upside. Whoever ruled Libya had limited influence on U.S. regional interests; the country was an Arab outlier, sold petroleum to Europeans, and was not a nuclear proliferator. The Pentagon worried about Islamists, because Libyan radicals were among the Iraqi insurgency’s leaders. Most important, the Pentagon doubted rebels could succeed, and thus U.S. intervention would not lead to quick victory. Political advisors said Libya barely exists in U.S. political consciousness, so any intervention would get reframed and painted by the administration’s opponents in the worst way. Finally, 2010 marked the eighth year of American intervention in Muslim countries. Many Muslims worldwide detested it, and many Americans were sick of it. The public was in no mood to “save” another Muslim country, and doubted they wanted the U.S. saving them.
So though Qaddafi made an acceptable enemy, and Libyan rebels included friendly people, Americans were tired of interventions, Republicans would fault every move, and the Pentagon was opposed. While this was what normal government review concluded, there were two other factors. First, environment. The U.S. army doesn’t do well in jungles or in cities, but does great in deserts. Deserts let American air power unleash its full potential, with visible targets and no civilians to worry about. And Qaddafi’s armored column was driving across the desert to Benghazi. Despite uncertainty of rebel success, a U.S. strike could effect immediate conditions.
Second, the Pentagon and most political advisers forgot about the media.
The media impact isn’t a static factor, like public attitudes towards foreigners. The media shape shifts, moving from one angle to another, and gathers attention when events surprise people. Media likes to cover war, but dares not get too far ahead of politicians and popular sentiment, because the only thing as newsworthy as war is anti-war controversy. The media sensed Libya was high drama, in ways the Pentagon failed to see, and goaded the administration to do something. Although Americans dismiss foreign conflicts that don’t involve U.S. interests, Libya was a chronicle of genocide foretold. It put media in the catbird’s seat, because they could get up close and personal with people about to be slaughtered. Once the death toll mounted, media could actually lecture Americans about their own government’s irresponsibility. This wasn’t Rwanda, where mainstream news was incapable of penetrating. Rwanda was a malaria-infested jungle, without transport, airlifts, or potable water. Libyans looked European, and Mediterranean Italy was a short plane trip away.
|I reviewed the White House media corps press conferences starting February 2011. On February 17, Qaddafi security killed protesters in Benghazi, and the rebellion began. Four days later, the White House press corp asked its first Libya questions, painting the administration as powerless to affect the Libyan outcome. This shot across the bow told the administration the press expected nothing, but it would get skewered for doing it.On February 23, ABC’s Jake Tapper announced “hundreds of people have been killed in Libya,” and asks Obama’s intervention criteria. Another reporter says a defector had “evidence that Qaddafi himself ordered the Pan Am bombing in 1988, which obviously is of great interest to the American people — large loss of life, huge terror attack.” These are categories Obama’s advisers probably considered: how many dead Libyans is worth an intervention, and is Qaddafi evil enough to attack?As Libya unraveled, the press corps asks about military options. CBS’s Chip Reid pronounced one the U.S. public wants “taken off the table, and that’s sending significant numbers of U.S. troops into Libya.” If ABC said hundreds of Libyans were dying, CBS decided Americans didn’t consider that worth boots on the ground. This is what Obama’s advisers were thinking.
But two days later, CNN came out swinging. Glenn Thrush says one of his network’s reporters taped a Libyan woman saying, in English, “We are being murdered and the world is just standing by.” Thrush adds “the President yesterday said the whole world is watching.” CNN is telling the administration that Americans may not want U.S. infantry in Libya, but CNN will have boots on the ground. Instead of carrying guns, they have cameras, and the whole world can watch, as Obama himself announced.
This puts the shoe on the other foot (the meek news media more powerful than the vaunted U.S. military), and if CNN’s boots are made for walking, they’ll walk all over you, Mr. President. Trush even mocks the administration, asking if words are all Obama is “giving to the people who are being killed right now in Libya … who are simply exercising their desire for freedom?” As the “international” network among the media represented, CNN gains the most from a foreign war that involves the U.S..
The President’s team spent the rest of February dealing with Libyan sanctions, Europeans, evacuating Americans, and so on. The press kept to these subjects with difficulty. On March 3, Ben Feller of AP said “you’ve admonished the press corps about impatience … But I’m wondering while this is happening, if you fear this is headed for a bloody stalemate.”
On March 6, 27,000 Qaddafi troops started a two-week drive across the desert to destroy Benghazi. This marked a new, bloodier phase. The next day ABC’s Tapper delivered an ultimatum. “As somebody who covered then-senator Obama on the campaign trail,” Tapper said he heard Obama’s “great eloquence about using U.S. force … not just words and not just sanctions … to stop slaughter.”
Tapper got no takers two weeks earlier, when he said hundreds of Libyans were dying. Now he upped the ante, “more than a thousand people have died … How many more people have to die before the United States decides, okay, we’re going to take this one step of a no-fly zone…”
Michael Lewis suggests Tapper’s comment made waves in the White House. If so, they considered if thousands of dead Libyans balance U.S. troop risks. But it wasn’t just about numbers, as Press Secretary Carney’s answer to Tapper shows: “Jake, it is understandable that as we watch the images that we are able to get … that show us what’s happening in Libya … that we all want to move quickly.”
The news media doesn’t just add an extra zero, like in newspaper days, to turn 100 deaths into 1,000. Instead it turns a two minute story into a four minute imagery of crushed buildings. inhabitants screaming, rebels dying in hospitals, children cowering in basements, parents dead.
In practical terms, a no-fly zone made little sense, because Qaddafi’s forces weren’t flying. Secretary Clinton was talking with Europeans and Arabs to stitch a coalition, and these partners knew a no-fly zone was too little. But the Europeans needed the American military to eliminate Libyan anti-aircraft systems before any pilots attacked Qaddafi ground forces. Clinton found French President Sarkozy eager to commit his air force, with the British. But Clinton, like the Pentagon, didn’t like intervening in another Muslim country.
On March 15, NBC’s Trish Regan asked “given that the rebels seem to be finished or coming near being finished, does the U.S. have any regrets about not doing more sooner?” This nasty dig was ill-timed. Unbeknownst to the press, Obama was holding a pivotal meeting that same day, with Clinton, U.S. UN Representative Rice, Joint Chiefs Chair Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates, and 13 others.
Michael Lewis’s description of the meeting differs from the New York Times report four days later. Lewis, after discussions with Obama and staffers present, writes Clinton supported a no-fly zone, but wasn’t for bombing Qaddafi forces. According to the Times article it was Mrs. Clinton and some staff who “convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act,” implying military action.
Obama was frustrated by the Pentagon’s lack of options, and asked lower-level staff for opinions. Theirs was the critical input that enabled Obama to turn to Mullen and other Generals present, and say he wanted a new military strategy — in two hours. He got it, and the bombing campaign was authorized, but not publicized.
On March 16, CNN’s Jill Dougherty said “we asked you yesterday, doesn’t it appear that it’s over for the opposition,” and pushed harder: “now it’s not just the opposition … it’s the citizens who could be at risk. Doesn’t that raise the flag to do more now than simply say the United Nations should act? But nobody seems to be doing anything.”
CNN was getting used to the idea that they’d be reporting, along with Al Jazeera and others, on a horrible massacre. Dougherty wasn’t threatening Obama with atrocity images; she was surprised he didn’t think the story itself was threatening.
Three days later, Obama announced air sorties bombed Qaddafi positions, as missile attacks secured Libyan airspace. The Benghazi catastrophe was averted. It would be several months before the Libyan rebellion was complete, but the press immediately changed its tone.
Obama appreciated a visual disaster projected into American living rooms would damage his Presidency. His political opponents demanded intervention before it occurred, then opposed it once it happened. They swiveled according to Obama’s perceived vulnerabilities, and broadcasts of Benghazi genocide would open big vulnerabilities. According to Lewis, Obama knew Clinton-era staffers were guilty about Rwanda’s genocide, so when he unexpectedly asked them for advice, he expected them to want greater intervention.
While Rwanda’s genocide occurred outside the media’s gaze, Libya was easy to report on. The guilty staffers voiced a valid perspective, because Bengazi’s genocide would be broadcast, indeed with Qaddafi forces moving steadily, it could be scheduled (“tonight at 8, Benghazi slaughtered live”). Obama’s regular advisers thought he could ride out the ignominy of having a hundred thousand Benghazi citizens murdered on his watch, as Clinton’s power sustained 800,000 Rwandan deaths on his. The orthodox advisers misunderstood the impact of watching it happen.
Rwanda’s genocide occurred outside the media’s gaze, since what made it hard for military intervention, made it difficult for journalists to cover. But Libya was easy to report on. And what made it easy to cover, made it feasible for military intervention.
The NATO mission, which destroyed Qaddafi’s army before it could attack Benghazi, offered mass media opportunity to visualize U.S. weapons technology. Reporters had spent so much time warning about Qaddafi, they were in no position to second guess the bombing campaign. While they emphasized the uncertainty of the civil war’s outcome, it was clear that media and the White House had converged on a narrative. In no way was this the White House’s choice imposed on the media. It was a choice the media offered the White House, an offer Obama couldn’t refuse and maintain his identity as a caring President. Did Obama force the Pentagon to intervene in Libya only for public relations? Of course not. In 1949 Truman intervened in Korea despite media attention, because war didn’t induce a public relations frenzy like in the television age. Truman or Obama would have intervened in Libya quickly, if people only read newspapers. But mass media changes the political terms, and forces Presidents to respond to it.
Today’s media era may have begun in the 1960s. Broadcast news boomed during the Vietnam War, displacing all other information sources in public estimation. Walter Cronkite became America’s most respected individual; the importance of being earnest mattered. When media thrives on war, it often uses lies. Hearst established his dynasty by promoting and abetting the unnecessary Spanish-American war. Rupert Murdoch’s father started the family’s media empire with a brilliantly vulgar lie: British generals deliberately sent Australians to die on Gallipoli’s shores in World War I. But America’s young, yet mature medias of the 1960s did not stoop; instead television painted blood images that exposed war’s seamy, mindless destruction.
The Korean War, fifteen years earlier, had as much strategic idiocy and even more violent horror, but combat TV was absent, its journalists different. Korea-era reporters had seen the end of World War II, Auschwitz bodies and Warsaw’s ruin. War, even with its senseless brutality, could have purpose, with real evil enemies. Vietnam’s journalists were younger, eager to set their own path, unsympathetic to elder’s sentiments, and perhaps guilty reporting on peers facing battle (a charge vigorously dismissed). In formative years they endured absurd Cold War absurdities like ‘duck and cover’, or the aptly named MAD (mutually assured destruction) strategy. Government’s war plans were suspect.
The media’s cameras, reporters, and news anchors converged on a Vietnam narrative in the public’s living-rooms It was compelling, had as much truth as any other offered, and sold fast. American politicians did not set the tone or story; they adapted it. But Vietnam War’s supporters too often believed the media was a liberal anti-war cabal. Some of these ideologues went on to create Fox News, a right-wing version of what they imagined they saw in the 1960s. The Vietnam story wasn’t conspiracy, however; it was institutional media flexing new technical and human asset power and prestige, readily embraced by the American public.
So Vietnam was fought on broadcast television, as well as paddy fields and jungles. Its talking heads interpreted battles, frequently based on the same images audiences saw. Wars can be won even if battles be lost, but that’s not a bread and circus philosophy; media thrives on trends, not stiff upper lips. And it paid off, in media earnings and reputation: this was the media’s golden era.
Careening into the 1970’s, newspapers impeached Nixon more surely than any Senate committee. Repulsed readers forced Nixon to resign, then lionized Woodward and Bernstein, and assumed Deep Throat was a Nixon staffer who turned democracy’s witness. In time, most narratives lose early coherence. Nixon was a thief, but like many criminals capable of more creativity and chutzpah than by-the-book duds. Woodward became a not-so-super reporter of presidential drama, and Deep Throat was finally revealed to be a right-wing FBI miscreant with a Nixon vendetta.
From 1975 on, media’s moral power crested and it spread influence differently. Saturday Night Live began hip comedy’s long march to mainstream political influence. The media’s fashion evolved with the Carter presidency. It started with Carter’s “Andy of Mayberry” peanut farmer story, and a dollop of beer brother Billy’s back-roads hazards. But by 1977 broadcast news wasn’t clicking so well with its Nashville theme (the movie Nashville captures the era’s politics perfectly). The ABC network shook up venerable broadcast news culture, bringing in big-time sports producer Roone Arlidge to direct the news. This signaled more than new blood. Arlidge ‘s famous Wide World of Sports theme translated to news: “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat!” Arlidge began Nightline, initially a live play by play on the Iranian hostage game. Its first episode faced off a revolutionary Iranian leader and an articulate, sympathetic wife of an American hostage. This balls to the wall format, a political boxing match, inspired cable news.
Media discovered the public had an appetite for patriotism, was easy to rouse to anger, and hated authority. Humble, moral, peace-loving Carter was the product of media’s relentless carping on corrupt Washington’s insularity, a story that lost steam after Carter got elected. If Carter won because his opponent, Ford, pardoned the unpardonable Nixon, it was anti-climatic, a coda to a disturbing event. A bored public found Carter interesting for a few months, then lost interest when he started talking about shared sacrifice. The media scrambled. Carter’s failure felt like their own, the flaw of trying to be good rather than powerful. Media turned on him with the vengeance of self-loathing.
Of course this is only one slice through recent history. Carter’s naivety was easy to target, and though the Soviet’s Afgan invasion would end up a disaster, no American president could look strong watching it happen. Iran’s anti-Americanism evolved in the 1950s, after Mosaddegh’s coup, but every President since had embraced a peacock throne on the Soviet border. In one respect Carter differed: his lack or gravitas would have been obvious in any era, the lilting Georgian accent neither standard nor deep.
Carter’s economy stuttered in a giant hangover from the 1960’s go-go equity surges, corporate merger cycles, and massive federal military and social outlays. His moderately supply-side response mostly alienated the Democrat’s still youthful, potent left-wing, rather than enjoying a conservative embrace. Inflation first emerged several years before Carter entered office; its cure required a dose of unemployment, which neither Presidents Nixon or Ford dared play with. When inflation returned in 1979, supposedly meek Jimmy Carter took the bull by the horns, set Paul Volcker atop the Federal Reserve, who took a hard-nosed approach that cost jobs but ended inflation, period.
Under Obama 9% unemployment signals calamity. Americans were more sanguine about 10% under Carter and 12% under Reagan. But the late 70’s media was not simply reflecting a national mood with a keen vision, they brewed a mean narrative by pouring heat on raw nerves. Carter might have survived naivety, unlucky global events, and stagflation’s cure — but not the accretion of un-Presidential stature. This was the poison media served, and the nation drank from its chalice.
An example is a Carter holiday story: the President entered a runners’ marathon but didn’t finish. Newsweek’s lead photo spread showed Carter bent with runner’s stitches, gasping air ingloriously. The last picture had Carter on his knees, with the ugly grimace all exhausted extreme athletes have. Newsweek excused such unsympathetic portraits on artistic merit: Carter’s exhaustion symbolized his leadership. By these standards, they should have photographed Richard Nixon getting hit by a truck.
Americans accept this Carter image, which illustrates a story of failed leadership. Yet the Carter narrative didn’t develop around substance. The era’s media tried out different plots, and settled on passive-aggressive hostility as the national mood. After the Soviet’s Afghanistan invasion, Carter withdrew the USA from Moscow’s summer Olympics. Hardly controversial; it’s difficult to imagine Americans on podiums observing the USSR anthem, while Soviet troops strafed a sovereign state’s civilians. By preventing US participation, Carter deflated the Kremlin’s international platform, a real blow to totalitarian prestige. But the media delved into story after story about disheartened US athletes. Their Olympic dreams were bruised, not by Soviet aggression, but a silly man in the While House. Reporters didn’t make this claim; they knew how to dig emotionally into athletic angst, and cull the part targeting the President.
It was a lesson in subtly generating subjective feedback, regularly used since. But NBC’s felt real pain, rather than just mirroring the public mood. NBC’s Olympic coverage was to be the flagpole of its fall season; it got sacrificed along with athletic dreams. A Time article noted “Just thinking about the summer of 1980 used to make NBC proud as a peacock … 1,210 commercial minutes spread over 152 hours of programming, advertising revenues of $170 million. What is more, a promotional blitz during the Games could give the network’s fall lineup a rousing sendoff. Surveying his prospects a year ago, NBC President Fred Silverman predicted that the network would be in a ‘leadership position by Christmas.'” The chairman of NBC’s parent RCA apologized to shareholders that NBC had to drop the games “because the President of the United States has so desired this to be the stance we take.” Not exactly patriotic chest-thumping, this sounds like someone who wants to evade the draft.
Then in the election between Carter and Reagan, NBC used early exit polls to predict Reagan’s victory, before West Coast polls had closed. Not only did this inhibit Californians who planned to vote after work, it was the first time exit polls were used by a major broadcaster to declare a winner. CBS and ABC announced results more than two hours later. Exit polls haven’t been used for early prediction since, because they lack statistical rigor (understood even in 1980). But NBC’s Carter problem was not electorally decisive, rather it was what powerful and vindictive organizations do. Twelve years later, EDS founder Ross Perot, vainglorious, vindictive, and clever, used a presidential run to help defeat a Texas arch-rival, President Bush 41.
The only Carter-Reagan debate, with one of the decade’s highest TV ratings, put focus on national defense. Among in-depth comments, Carter tried something home-spun: his 12-year old daughter Amy told him nuclear arms control was the nation’s most important issue. Though Reagan didn’t engage the remark, post-debate media commentators did, with a bandwagon effect. This was the story-line they wanted; it became the most-quoted of Carter’s debate statements. A post-election cartoon shows Amy on her father’s lap, asking if she should have said the economy, instead. It was a Big Chill narrative about childhood’s end: would Americans embrace starry-eyed pubescent idealism, or mature tough-love realism.
It’s cavalier to suggest tycoons dream up these plot-lines. My guess is the media’s convergence on story is classic weltanschauung, where an idea is almost on everyone’s lips, a fuzzy shape almost described. Between 1950 and 1990, America’s leading news magazines, Time and Newsweek, frequently had identical cover subjects. Despite conspiracy theories, it merely showed how obvious dominant story-lines can be. One pundit pounces on Carter’s Amy comment, and other commentators’ pulses quicken. Their editors and corporate suits were trying to get them to find something similar, but couldn’t specify exactly what. Suddenly a simple comment puts the missing puzzle piece in place; just a tiny element of Carter’s debate, but its symbolism completes media’s Carter picture.
The media did not deliberately align with the Reagan campaign’s advertising, which compared their man’s walking-tall forward march to Carter’s backward-focused entitlement defense. Reagan’s team and the media successfully converged on a generalized theme appropriate to 1980. They exploited the actor as candidate, ideal for television if a script was handy. Reagan was primed for the candidate debate with a pilfered copy of Carter’s debate briefs. Reagan’s handlers carefully polished those effortless brushoffs of Carter points, zingers like “there you go again.” Given this debate turned Carter’s momentum around, it may mark the moment prefabricated leadership began. With lines carefully vetted like a TV season’s pilot episode, Reagan rehearsed until he got it locked-tight.
Instead of Presidents who fought with reporters, hated, loved, befriended, cajoled, or looked down on them, Reagan was a new animal. A programmed performer, he seemed as mind-numbing and easy-listening as pop culture’s immensely successful ABBA, music RCA’s chairman, and many other big bosses, played in elevators.
Certainly Presidential style matters. A Roosevelt or Churchill with any other personality might not have moved history as they did. President Carter offended regal expectation, his presence not fully charismatic. But for a while that was reassuring. Until the USSR’s Afghanistan invasion in summer 1979, and Iran’s seizure of American embassy hostages five months later, American fear of the Cold War diminished to a lower point than at any time in post-war history.
Events in 1979 made “the world is a dangerous place” into a well-worn media commentary.
Baby boomers in the press and public lacked military experience (only a small fraction served, much less fought, in Vietnam). Few matured as wide-eyed pacifists; instead they floundered to identify what national security meant. Lack of experience bred shallow, simplistic notions. Through events like the Iran hostage crisis, the media discovered how to prick American fear and pride, a palpable force they could profit from. Centrists like Carter restrained potentially sweeping narratives, hot new renditions of Cold War fear. It was time for a change. But Ronald Reagan?
Henry Kissinger once told scholars (and later confirmed in his book Diplomacy) “When you talk to Reagan, you sometimes wonder why it occurred to anyone that he should be president, or even governor. But what you historians have to explain is how so unintellectual a man could have dominated California for eight years, and Washington already for nearly seven.” This provoked a firestorm from the right. They said it showed Kissinger’s contempt of American voters.
But Kissinger, a true believer in real-politic who served a deviously Machiavellian President, wasn’t talking about voters. That they can be manipulated he surely accepts. Instead he refers to how leaders get chosen and supported in the spotlight. Kissinger himself was plucked from Harvard by Nelson Rockefeller, without whom he might have remained a historian. He can’t understand how powerful interests, through their elites, chose Reagan and found him satisfactory. Kissinger, an easterner, didn’t appreciate television’s native culture, where southern California combined Hollywood mirage and a defense-industrial complex.
Reagan showed his uncanny ability to make Orange County talking points resonate on TV like High Noon’s sheriff. He stepped in for an ill Barry Goldwater, Gary Cooper filling in for the town sheriff, and fired off a televised fundraising campaign speech. It raised over a million dollars,”then a staggering sum, for the impoverished Goldwater campaign, and made Reagan a conservative hero overnight,” according to biographer Lou Cannon.
An actor, Reagan offered television a free, high-ratings set piece. Media had a choice: on one hand, pleasant scripts, pleasant stars, and storybook commercials. Or, if they chose to keep up the Watergate stuff, reporters would get stonewalled, careers upended by favored sycophants, and media companies might face bloody take-overs. Nixon’s Attorney General Mitchell said he’d put Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham’s “tit in a ringer, and we are going to squeeze it and we are going to cancel the licenses of your television stations,” if the Post published the Pentagon Papers. Graham didn’t blink; Mitchell’s “tit” was the one rung, as he became only US attorney general sentenced to prison, for his Watergate role. Since the outcome of the Nixon administration was disastrous, it’s threats seem hollow to casual observers, but not to newspaper and broadcast boards of directors.
Nixon’s mafia-like henchman all followed his doomed orders, but Reagan was laissez-faire, and let staff loose with ideological guidelines. CIA Director William Colby planted op-eds and spread disinformation with false story-lines, some unknowingly by the President, to stoke communism fear. The administration’s anti-regulatory reform strategy was to eliminate particular government constraints on businesses, which let staff reward or punish as pleased. Most famously, Reagan’s Vice-President, George H. W. Bush, facilitated the bankruptcy of Texaco, America’s third-largest oil company at the time, with assets awarded to Pennzoil, a tiny company but one Bush was closely connected to. It’s ironic that when this same George Bush became president, he never would have allowed his VP, Quayle, such immense power.
In 1983 the Reagan administration changed rules so corporations could terminate pension plans and distribute proceeds as wished. Raiders took over firms to get at pension reserves and other previously off-limits cash. The administration also changed media ownership rules and regulations to concentrate ownership and power. Reagan’s employer of many years, General Electric, acquired RCA in 1986, and immediately sold it off except for its NBC network. The year before, Capital Cities purchased ABC amicably, after threats by corporate raiders. Loews Corporation purchased CBS in 1987, after the broadcaster had been forced into debt by other corporate raiders.
News departments and reporters chafed with professional compromise, but soon found it easier to go along. Their audiences were anesthetized from two decades of political crisis, now spiked with epidemics of cocaine, fundamentalist Christian methane, over-hyped REITS, alcohol-fueled sporting brawls, in an 80’s climax (“Bonfire of Vanities”) before AIDS was fully appreciated.
Media gave Reagan a Teflon pass that worked for unconstitutional acts. Even what Republicans deemed unnatural acts were avoided, namely the life of Reagan’s ballet dancing son. Broadcast company stocks soared, a big part of Warren Buffett’s explosive portfolio. It was an era that lacked moon landings, but more people trusted Reagan’s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts than moonwalks. In Martin Luther King’s silence, Reagan’s chats restored majorities sense of righteousness. His receding memory symbolized the unimportance of real politics; audiences preferred entertainment instead of news. TV’s Dallas showed how power corrupts with fun and gusto, while Reagan provided a measured trampling of laws and poor people with agreeable panache. Where the line between fact and fiction disappeared, the era’s storyline converged: if it kept from rocking the administration’s boat, media could invent the era’s heroes and villains. For example, junk bond calamities weren’t caused by poor regulation, they were the fault of evil genius Michael Milken. Another example: the CIA had relationships with both Contra and Sandinista leaders, and worked to mitigate human rights abuses by both sides (really!) even while funding mercenaries, but these dilemmas were no match for an Oliver North story, simply a hero or villain to vast audience segments.
President Bush 41 blew his media cover by deciding a campaign act wasn’t as important as Presidential reality. “Read my lips” might play on the voter trail, but if the largest superpower in history needed revenue, it was his job to raise taxes. Bush Sr. played the evil Saddam Hussein card to get public support for the first Gulf War, and the media gushed it in spades. But when world diplomats, led by the US, determined chaos would result if allied troops entered Baghdad, the global leader’s story grew complex. Boring! Was Saddam no longer insufferable? Had we snatched a stand-off from the jaws of victory? If Americans understood why Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was apprehensive about sending Americans into Iraq then, that he’d promised Saudi princes US troops would be out of their country in a year, they might have been less gullible about the second Gulf War.
Did this most powerful nation’s leader determine a new story-line successfully? No, he became the first Republican President to lose reelection since Herbert Hoover.
Clinton, oh Calcutta, was as smooth as Reagan but too smart and cocky for media comfort. Luckily, he liked sex too much, an irresistible headline draw. “Anonymous”, a Newsweek reporter, could only write a popular romp about Clinton’s inside story if it was sex drenched. Reagan’s lieutenants had learned media was a perverse ally, surprisingly willing to take trash if offered. They grasped Clinton’s anti-hero potential had the word anti first, and skewered him for it, with press assent. Audiences watched Reagan simplicity and Nixon tragedy, but the media worried Clinton’s details, both mental and psychological, lacked a popular story hook. Just in time, the right-wing’s calumny offered a narrative about shiftless character and rudderless leadership, better than boringly complex governance.
Clinton adapted, swallowed media’s “welfare is good people paying for bad” hook, story line, and sunk it. Politics had a new champion for a time, who knew when to sacrifice job duties to stand by their narrative. Monica Lewinsky changed that, a most lascivious drama that meant almost nothing, but like Dallas, sure got attention.
Gore scared the media even more than Clinton; he was not only smart, but dutifully competent, and not psychologically vulnerable. A President Gore could ignore a low-brow media story, and even force reporters to work hard. They’d investigate his policies and end up assenting to most, carping at the margins, hardly a recipe for audience interest. That could reduce the media’s essential foothold as the public’s “go-between”, making them look foolish. So they attacked Gore’s resume, like someone on a hiring committee afraid of being overshadowed by a new employee. Given Gore’s later success going directly to the public to raise concern about climate change, perhaps it wasn’t unreasonable for mass media to be afraid that he could spin around them.
Bush Jr., instead, promised foolish fun and plenty of planted stories. The memory of Reagan’s threatening but easy media environment was more appealing than Gore’s potential Spock-like focus on hard issues. Even after Iraq turned sour, mainstream media treated the Bush-Kerry campaign with kid gloves. Much evidence pointed to Bush wearing a communication receiver under his suit coat, which made the internet buzz but was dismissed by mainstream media. Then a NASA space program’s lead scientist, with spectrographic and photometric expertise, analyzed debate images. His results showed Bush “wearing something — probably a receiver of some kind — under his jacket for each debate.” The scientist, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, had good credentials, and when he approached a New York Times’ science reporter, he was taken seriously. Times science reporters took on the story, confirming Nelson’s bona-fides and triangulated the story with industrial spyware executives. However, its publication was canceled, deemed too close to election day (according to more recent New York Times official statements). That is, the story could have impacted the election’s outcome, which media was afraid to do.
The media’s fear seems misplaced in a democracy, but not given their Mephistopheles relationship with Reagan’s team. Criticism of their failure to adequately investigate President Bush 43’s claims about Iraqi nuclear weaponry sometimes attributes it to media’s laziness or latent conservatism. But fear is probably more relevant: when CBS’s Dan Rather reported how Bush 43 avoided military service, conservative bloggers successfully made the story’s documents appear falsified, although no definitive determination was made. Bush’s military behavior had redundant sources, and has since been more confirmed, but CBS (then owned by Viacom) fired Rather, its flagship news anchor for decades. Afterward, CBS’s CEO said “The White House doesn’t hate CBS anymore.”
The 2008 election was remarkable, because it occurred during an economic meltdown. The Republican standard bearer, John McCain, was a throwback to decency, unwilling to engage story-lines about Obama’s hidden Black Panther roots. The media never trusted war hero stories; both Republican Dole and Democrat Kerry lost to Vietnam dodgers; President McCain would be at most an Arizona cowboy, not ex-POW. Obama was cool, and if he couldn’t sell in Peoria, he could be vilified with equal profit.
Obama lacks personality flaws. He’s not wooden, foolish, neither Casanova nor born-again moralist. He doesn’t fume with paranoia, or bluster macho. Obama’s biggest media factor is his tropical ethnicity, but though eminently juicy, it’s also completely off-limits to most media commentary. Once again, the right-wing tries to help, with its Tea Party faction that uses codes like Muslim and foreign-born to protest Obama’s race. If those who can’t accept a black President just said so, they would be dismissed, but by lying with codes, their story-lines twist with life.
So the media is in a bind. They may respect Obama’s aplomb, but they now dislike what he does for their audiences. They probably salivate over what President Palin’s ratings would be, but her story has more holes than Swiss cheese. Obama isn’t about to reinvent government like Gore, a plus for middling reporters, but if you can’t exploit his race, where’s the punch line? Media drummed about Tea Party separatists to keep the race story alive, fell into a trance and forgot its economic story sessions.
They woke to discover their camouflaged racists converged on a story already: Godzilla budget deficits are about to kill the nation, along with unemployed zombies. These are serious issues, but hardly existential catastrophes. Reagan’s first term had over 12% unemployment, and few consider this his defining legacy. Today the Euro zone has 9.9% unemployment, and that’s not even the biggest European news. Regarding deficits, simply letting the Bush era tax cuts expire would level the national debt to a historical norm, and make the nation an beacon of fiscal rectitude.
Of course right-wing Republicans aren’t all racists, but to write this administration’s narrative, media needed the excitement of subtle racism. Yet the media knows that convergence takes time, and once the shell closes, to pry it open takes just as long. So now we can hope a new narrative emerges, one profitable enough for media embrace, and rational enough for the economy to survive. The the world of small numbers, the set of prime storylines media provides, forces complex economic relationships into ridiculous vulgar form. The best we can hope for is the least bad vulgarity.