They Haven’t Learned

The media showered Donald Trump with unnecessary attention all last week in honor of his re-election rally kickoff in Orlando, Florida. The coverage was so reminiscent of 2016, that it raises fresh concerns about whether the news media has learned anything from previous campaign about covering a whiny bully like Trump. Will journalists still view him through the lens of celebrity and hold him to almost no substantive standards, while echoing his lies and bogus attacks on his enemies?

Coming off the monumental failure of 2016, the press seems poised to stumble through another campaign to failure. Especially since, following the 2016 debacle, many in the press refused to concede that any mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection.

It’s likely the White House loved how rally week played out, with an avalanche of coverage that mostly regurgitated Trump’s stale, familiar rally speech, which leans heavily on victimhood. One of the media themes regarding Trump’s event was that, with his endless attacks on Hillary Clinton, he’s stuck in the past.

But the same point can be made about the press, which seems determined to hit rewind for 2020. And that means a return of the circus-like, spectacle-type campaign coverage Lord Dampnut loves.

Last week the press sent some 500 journalists to Orlando for the indoor event. But what exactly was the point of the endless media attention, considering that Trump has held more than 50 rallies since taking office?

Trump talking = news is a ridiculous formula for newsrooms to be using in 2019. Yet last week, ABC News adopted the premise, when the network aired an hour-long prime-time special of, well, Trump talking. There was no news hook for the unusual programming event, which featured ABC’s George Stephanopoulos shadowing Trump over the course of two days and recording Trump lying relentlessly. Not surprisingly, it was a ratings flop.

Still, the press seems committed to the idea that every Trump utterance is wildly important and newsworthy. Here’s how The New York Times reported Trump’s rally:

“President Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of the news media, the political establishment and what he called his radical opponents on Tuesday as he opened his re-election campaign in front of a huge crowd of raucous supporters by evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.”

Subtract the phrase “opened his re-election campaign,” and that paragraph could have easily been published during any month in the last four years. We’ve seen this Trump show over and over and over, to the point where it’s quite obviously not news. Weirdly enough, the Times acknowledged that fact in its report, “in the end, it was not so different from the dozens of rallies he has held during the past two years” yet they still treated the rally as front-page news.

In fact, lots of other journalists commented on the ho-hum nature of the event. CNN’s Betsy Klein wrote on Twitter, “I was promised new material.” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty added, “When Hillary Clinton runs in 2020, Trump is totally ready for her.”

In others words, Trump hyped up the rally as a huge event. The press played along and treated it that way, even though reporters in real time conceded the rally was something of a big fat nothingburger. Guess who walks away the winner in that scenario. To its credit, MSNBC did not carry Trump’s rally live Tuesday night, while CNN broke away after five minutes (although they did show his empty podium for a while). Naturally, Fox News aired the event in its entirety.

And yes, the rally coverage featured the hallmark media whitewashing that so often protects Trump supporters from the harsh glare of reality. Trump was met in Orlando by “cheering and chanting supporters,” reported USA Today, and by “thousands of adoring supporters,” according to Politico.

Both of those cheerful descriptions remind me of the bland, innocuous ways his supporters were often described in 2016. What has traditionally been missing from the nonstop deluge of Trump voter stories? A look into the dark nature of Trump Nation, and an open acknowledgment that his base is often fueled by racism.

Trump’s candidacy was driven by immigrant-bashing, and so too has his presidency. But when journalists profile his faithful supporters, acknowledgment of Trump’s racist rhetoric rarely comes up. The problem with that type of whitewashing is that the Orlando rally attracted throngs of white nationalists, who clearly have become part of the Trump’s political coalition, and whose presence was not mentioned in most press reports. The whole fascist vibe of the rallies is badly underplayed by the press.

Trump spouting off doesn’t qualify as news. But will the press acknowledge that before 2020?

Drumbeats in the Distance

Has the American media learned anything since George W. Bush drove the country into the Iraq War on false pretenses and warped intelligence? Hopefully it has, but we are be on the verge of a high-stakes test of this hypothesis.

The Trump administration appears to be on the cusp of walking us into a conflict with Iran. And we need to be clear about how this all started: Against the advice of many of his top aides, Trump decided to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal crafted under President Barack Obama. The deal strictly limited Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, a goal nearly everyone in the U.S. shares, but Republicans decided that anything with Obama’s name on it made them sad, so it had to go. Then, last month, the administration announced it was labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and unprecedented and aggressive move.

That brings us to this month, when officials have been trying to convince the public that there is intelligence suggesting that the threat from Iran is growing even though U.S. Central Command released a report saying the regime had no interest in going on the offense against the United States unless provoked.

So the administration decided to provoke them. National Security Adviser, and talking mustache, John Bolton announced that he would send aircraft carriers and bombers to the Persian Gulf in response to some new information. But Bolton is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He was, after all, a part of the administration that manipulated the intelligence to make the case for the Iraq War under Bush. Even Bush would later sour on his former ambassador to the United Nations, saying, “I don’t consider Bolton credible.”

The Associated Press credulously reported Monday that a U.S. official said that the military has assessed that Iran is likely responsible for a recent attack on oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates over the weekend. But the story was thinly sourced, relying only on one anonymous official citing a military assessment.

Bolton has never seen a regime that he didn’t want to overthrow and he is clearly gunning for Iran. And given how stupid and easy to manipulate Trump is, Bolton may well lead him into war.

Reporters must be particularly skeptical of what administration sources are saying, whether they’re speaking anonymously or before Congress. Who’s agenda are they serving? How reliable is the information they’re citing? We’ve seen how the government can manipulate the media into banging the war drums for them. And there are signs it is making such a mistake again.

The American role in any rising tensions, beginning with Trump’s tearing up of the nuclear deal, is the important context for understanding any emerging conflict. Reporters need to be particularly skeptical of any claims they’re hearing as the Trump administration, with John Bolton at the helm of national security, coalesces around the idea that Iran poses an imminent threat.

Trump Will Never Love CNN

Last week it was reported that Sarah Isgur Flores, a GOP hack who has never worked as a journalist, will be joining CNN as one of the network’s “political editors.” The exact contours of Isgur’s role remain unclear (due to CNN’s lack of transparency), but it appears she will be helping to shape the political coverage of an outlet whose agenda-setting power plays a large part in determining which stories receive national attention and how they are covered.

The arguments against this move are numerous and obvious: Isgur is a longtime Republican political operative who most recently served as a spokesperson for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a position she gained after personally pledging her loyalty to Donald Trump. She has no experience in journalism, yet her job will now be to help guide its production. She has previously denounced CNN as the “Clinton News Network.”

In her role at the Justice Department, Isgur defended the administration’s war on leakers and will now be working with reporters who have confidential government sources; her abundant conflicts of interest have forced CNN to silo her off from vast swaths of political news. This seems like a handicap for someone in an editorial role.

For CNN the appeal seems simple: It suggests that the network is doubling down on its false notion of neutrality: a defensive, “both-sides-are-the-same” kind of political coverage that fails to both prevent Trump and the Republicans from attacking them (which they will do regardless), and more importantly, serve the public.

CNN has consistently failed to grapple with this form of false balance. Cable news networks traditionally hire a coterie of partisan contributors and turn them loose to discuss the issues of the day. This leaves viewers confused about what’s actually true and what isn’t as a representative from one party denounces a person or policy while the other excuses it. As a semi-famous saying goes: “If CNN covered sports, every game would be a tie.”

The results of this frame of mind have been grim. CNN has stocked its greenrooms with Trump lackeys, paying a motley assortment of shills, grifters, and extremists to lie to its audience under the guise of being “neutral” and (I suspect) trying to show Trump that they’re not “Fake News™.”

Many of these hires are ethically dubious, handpicked by the president himself or subject to nondisparagement agreements making them contractually forbidden from criticizing Trump on air. In perhaps the most embarrassing case, the network hired (and defended the hiring of) former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to comment on the election even though he was bound by an NDA and was still on the Trump campaign payroll.

The network wants to look like it is being “fair” to Trump, an allowance he has not earned, so it continues to shove these people in front of its cameras.

Like many newspapers and broadcast news outlets, cable news networks received a lot criticism for their false, “both-sides-are-equally-bad” coverage of the 2016 election. However, CNN doesn’t seem to be learning any lessons about their “neutrality-at-the-cost-of-all-else” coverage, or the type of people they are hiring.

When lies and the truth are given equal consideration, it serves the purpose of the liars.

Ban the Billionaires?

The idea that the rich have too much wealth at the expense of everyone else has taken off in recent months. There’s even talk of “banning billionaires” and there are extremely popular policy proposals looking to significantly raise taxes on the ultra-rich coming from legislators like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Americans have supported raising taxes on the rich for a long time. But the ultra-rich, Republicans, and anti-tax extremists like Grover Norquist have kept that popular sentiment at bay. Partly with rhetoric about “freedom” and partly by philanthropic deeds, not to mention a right-wing media ecosystem (itself full of rich pundits) that portrays them as benevolent, self-made geniuses.

Then came Lord Dampnut.

With (self-proclaimed) billionaire Donald Trump occupying the White House and daily revealing what a profound moron and amoral con-man he is, the veil has been torn off. It’s easier to see that many billionaires are grifters that at best, stumbled into their wealth rather than the self-made entrepreneurs that we’ve been told they are.

Before, Americans wanted to tax the rich to pay for specific policies like Medicare-for-all, public college, and repairing infrastructure. Now, Americans are beginning to see it as a moral issue. These days, the reasoning goes that taxing the ultra-wealthy will tamp down extreme wealth inequality. They believe that someone shouldn’t start out with that much of an advantage in life, especially given what kind of people they turn out to be.

It’s a truism in American politics that there’s a natural tendency for public opinion to swing in opposition to whichever party is in power. Still, I think it’s fair to say that the public’s reaction to Trump has been more intense than it would’ve been under a President Jeb Bush. Trump has energized liberals and progressives on issues, like women’s rights, in resistance to the president, which has inspired record numbers of women to run for public office.

There are also other factors, such as outrage over the Great Recession, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign which focused heavily on wealth inequality pushing the Democratic Party (the rank-and-file at any rate) to the left regarding economics. Also, our rich president, his super-rich Cabinet, and the millionaires on mainstream news TV have repeatedly demonstrated how out of touch they are with regular people when it comes to financial issues.

Finally, Trump has set himself apart from all other modern presidents by keeping his tax returns secret, bringing up daily questions about what he is trying to hide. Inadvertently shining a constant light on how the rich often get away with not paying their fair share.

Who Cares What the Media Says About Gamers?

A common refrain about the media in America is that our media has  a “liberal bias.” This has been debunked several times of course, the largest “news” network in the U.S. is basically the Republican Party’s media arm after all, but the media definitely does have a strong bias:

Laziness.

The American media is lazy, and it hates nuance. That’s why you’ll get a network like CNN spending weeks endlessly talking and speculating about a missing Malaysian airliner until the next big obvious thing comes along.

It’s in the midst of this laziness and hatred of nuance that gamers once again find themselves in relation to the media narrative of the #gamergate consumer revolt. There’s been a lot of wailing and rending of garments over the coverage that #gamerate has gotten in the media with outlets like MSNBC, The Guardian, and numerous online outlets regurgitating the narrative spoon fed to them by the people who despise gamers the most, a low-rent games press anxious to advertise its moral virtue.

At the behest of the games press, the mainstream media has entirely cast aside any ethics considerations brought up by #gamergate despite the fact that The Escapist, Kotaku and Polygon have each amended their editorial policies as a result of the concerns brought to light. This would seem, to me at least, like an acknowledgment of systemic failure.

Gamers supporting #gamergate have also successfully helped green-light a female developer’s game on the Steam marketplace via a Twitter campaign (all while opponents of #gamergate urged a boycott because she has the wrong opinions) and also contributed over $20,000 to the Fine Young Capitalists, a feminist organization.

Instead, the media has lazily stereotyped #gamergate as the highest expression of sexism in gaming and that gamers are a horde of basement-dwelling, fedora wearing neckbeards who hate the idea of women and/or minorities playing videogames and will threaten to murder and/or rape any that try. Five minutes of independent research would disprove most of these stereotypes but that would be work, and work is hard. Plus, it has the unfortunate side effect of complicating your tidy narrative.

It also bears mention that not a single arrest or prosecution has yet been brought as a result of alleged threats in which #gamergate has been implicated. nor a shred of evidence linking any #gamergate supporter to any threat. It should also be pointed out that social justice fundamentalists use online “threats” as currency in a perverted sort of Oppression Olympics, showing off to one another and begging for donations with each new round of threats that, in many cases observers suspect they have deliberately manufactured for themselves.

The annoyance is certainly understandable, but it shouldn’t really be surprising at this point. In fact, as depressing as it is, this perception of gamers is actually an improvement. You may recall, 10-15 years ago, once it was discovered that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who committed the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, were avid players of Doom, the media narrative around gamers became that we were all just one bad day from becoming mass-murderers.

Is it any wonder gaming enthusiasts and #gamergate supporters alike look at these dishonest summaries of themselves and the hobby they love, which in many cases has been an escape from everyday troubles, and are driven to hyperbole when describing their critics?

However, this media attitude in some ways actually helps #gamergate in that it solidifies opposition to lazy, ideologically motivated  media coverage which takes the easy route through the #gamergate controversy, instead of addressing the movement’s concerns and scrutinizing the claims made by the people who want to turn the entirety of the internet into an echo-chamber for their opinions.

It seems pretty clear at this point that gamers as a whole are a long way from getting any kind of fair shake from the media, even the media that purports to serve us specifically. Perhaps in another 10-15 years we’ll become acceptable members of society. In the meantime, if they don’t want gamers as part of their audience I think we should oblige them.