The carnival-like quality that best captures the flavor of today’s cable news has been unfolding for a long time. The imagery of barking, shouting, teeth-gnashing commentators is neither exceptional nor uncalculated. The picture of elite-school graduates, multimillion-dollar salaried regular “joes” and "janes" earnestly deploring political wrongs supposedly troubling the masses and saluting the banal antics of the US professional political stratum would be laughable if it weren’t so transparently contrived.
The early US success of Fox News didn’t go unnoticed by the heads of the other entertainment mega-corporations. When Fox leaped to the head of the pack with a posse of relentlessly partisan, right wing gas bags, competitors scrambled to find a way to recapture the ratings.
Immediate rivals, CNN and MSNBC, were locked in the jaws of a dilemma, however.
The management of both networks were genetically disposed toward the political space already occupied by Fox News. But they also understood that no gains could be made by merely duplicating the Fox News strategy.
Instead, they tried to find a position to the left of Fox, the space that made the most sense for a competitor. Unfortunately for the networks, the management suits were unnerved by even the most tepid leftists, leading to a revolving door of commentators who either crossed a cautious line in the sand or needed to be “balanced” by an always growing stable of right wingers hired to counter the appearance of left-wing rabble-rousing.
The 2003 firing of liberal Phil Donahue serves as a prime example of this paranoia. Despite the fact that Donahue generated greater viewership than either Chris Matthews or Joe Scarborough, Donahue was dropped from MSNBC because executives believed his show would become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
Nevertheless, the Obama victory opened the door for a network to attach to the youthful, media-savvy, and well-spoken President. Obama’s cool aloofness and measured manners served as a politically centrist counter to the ravings and bluster on Fox News.
MSNBC grabbed the brass ring and challenged Fox. The network earned the title of the “Anti-Fox,” awarded by The New York Times (November, 2012). The paper quoted Bill Clinton as saying, "Boy, it really has become our version of Fox."
And the presidential election of 2016 offered a unique opportunity to further reset the hierarchy of the cable news networks, depose Fox News, and construct a new entertainment-posing-as-news direction. As I described in an April, 2016 post:
...CBS CEO Les Moonves is ecstatic over the revenues flowing into entertainment coffers from the primary campaigns (“I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us.”). Moonves, the entertainment mogul, understands better than most the triumph of entertainment over substance, posture over issues; CBS and the other mega-corporations peddle reality television and tabloid news. So it's not surprising to see him hail the current electoral season's antics as special (“Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ...Who would have thought that this circus would have come to town?”). For Moonves and his ilk the more inanity and sensationalism, the more money flows into corporate coffers (“You know, we love having all 16 Republican candidates throwing crap at each other. It's great. The more they spend, the better it is for us...”).
It was this “circus” and the subsequent election of Donald Trump that worked all the entertainment moguls into a frenzy. For MSNBC, it was a perfect conjunction of factors: a reputation as the liberal channel, a vulgar, truth-averse President with absolutely no basic principles, a host of conspiracy theories concocted by hollow and incompetent Democrats, and, not least, a stable of sharp-tongued, ambitious personalities even more adept at the Fox News method of earnest fibbery. Thus was born the 24-hour news cycle of alleged leaks, anonymous tips, suspicions, and exaggerated fears. Thus was spawned a reserve army of self-styled experts: think-tank hired guns, rejected politicians, pensioned generals, hectoring columnists and commentators, and publicity-seeking celebrities ready to affirm any threat, any scenario fabricated by the guiding lights.
What appears to some as a deplorable, but hopefully temporary state of media childishness-- a departure or deviance from good practices-- is really the culmination of the persistent, advancing concentration of media assets-- books, newspapers, radio, television networks, communication systems-- into fewer and fewer hands. A handful of giant corporations control what we are to see, to hear, to read, and-- the ultimate goal-- what to think.
Entertainment monopolies do not look to innovate; they prefer settled, tested genre. Monopolies do not like surprises; they favor reproducible formulae. That is the essence of brand building. That is why we swim in a cultural sea of reruns, prequels, sequels, celebrity pulp writers, revivals, homages, and other diluted art forms that are repeated and are repeatable until the last dollar is collected.
Of course these “values” carry over to the monopoly-controlled news-as entertainment-sector. It explains the cookie-cutter, robotic gesturing news readers, as well as the search for sensationalism and political narratives that, like a mini-series, can be repeated until the public grows bored.
That certainly captures the allure of the Mueller investigation to the big corporate media-- it is the gift that keeps on giving, until it doesn’t. And it seems, more and more, that it has stopped giving. That would likely be the meaning of Senator Mark Warner’s comments last week at a retreat with important fellow Democrats: “If you get me one more glass of wine, I’ll tell you stuff only Bob Mueller and I know,” Warner reportedly told the 100 or so guests, according to the Boston Globe (6-25-18). “If you think you’ve seen wild stuff so far, buckle up. It’s going to be a wild couple of months.”
Warner knows better than most that Mueller and Russiagate are the only meatless bones that the Democrats have tossed to the ravenous corporate media. Also, he knows that the Democrats need the issue to stay alive for the next “couple of months” to help the Democrats in the interim elections.
But most significantly, he knew when he spoke that confidence in the Mueller investigation had waned and was in need of some juice. As The Hill reported on June 13: Mueller’s public image sinks to all-time low in new poll. “The Politico–Morning Consult poll found that 40 percent of voters believe that Mueller's probe has been handled unfairly — a 6-point increase from February…”, and a greater number than those who thought the investigation to be fair.
That, too, explains the endless, desperate, nagging emails that I get from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) begging for my support for the Mueller investigation (Breaking: Robert Mueller’s image is at an all time low.)
And in an opinion piece in The Hill, former National Security Prosecutor, Joseph Moreno, hopes to let the faithful down gently with Prepare to be disappointed with Russia investigation conclusion (6-26-18).
Clearly, this mini-series is losing the public, a development that backs the Democratic Party into an awkward corner. The Democrats needed wildly sensational stories to court the sensationalist monopoly media and to cover the embarrassing loss to a vulgar entertainer who makes Ronald Reagan look like a seasoned, measured diplomat.
And we can draw some consolation in knowing that the cable news shows each draw no more than a couple of million viewers each night, despite the pose they take as the opinion makers for the entire country.
Meanwhile the youthful Democratic Socialist (DSA) wing of the Democrats continues to demonstrate to an intransigent corporate Party establishment that Democratic Party voters really place more importance on the issues that the voters want addressed rather than the issues that consultants believe that voters want answered. Good jobs, debt relief, healthcare, education-- the issues that have always mattered to working people-- are anathema to the corporate Democrats who cannot touch these issues without touching up the wallets of their fundraising base.
It is no small pleasure to see the media lackies squirm with the victory of a young, outspoken DSA woman over a ten-term house member, possible Pelosi successor, and corporate Democrat in this past Tuesday’s New York primary. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s overwhelming success underscores the dilemma faced by a corrupted Democratic Party locked into a Republican-lite posture by its corporate masters. The ruling class really only needs one corporate party. And the people are in dire need of their own party.
While many are growing tired of the 24-hour news cycle of Russia-baiting, while many are weary of watching politicians “...throwing crap at each other,” as CEO Moonves so eloquently put it, corporate-owned media and corporate-owned political parties dare not address the fact that 43% of US citizens live from paycheck to paycheck with no room for even a minor unexpected expense. They run from the fact that Baby Boomers are faced with insufficient wealth and income to successfully negotiate their retirements. Both recent studies point to desperate straits that can only be engaged by a substantial redistribution of wealth and income to the needy, a solution completely unacceptable to the elites that control our media and our politics.
Instead, they choose to attack what they deem “evil”: Russia, President Putin, Chairman Kim, and a host of other imagined threats that will distract many from the real problems.
And so the carnival continues. When you have nothing to say, tell a joke!