(And If You Believe That, You’ll Believe Anything)
Think of the 2016 presidential campaign as the political equivalent of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s loud; there are plenty of abusive special effects; the critics hate it, but the crowds turn out; a media company or three rake in the dough; and foreigners can’t get enough of this new vision of the American way of life — or is it of a Bizarro world?
If you prefer, you could think of Campaign 2016, the never-ending blockbuster, as an affirmation that, whatever the hell this country is, it’s still, like Hollywood, at the top of the heap. When it comes to gluing eyeballs, it remains the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth. Think of it, in fact, any way you like, but just notice that the only thing you can’t do is not think about it.
This came to my mind recently on my daily trip to the gym. A TV is always on in the anteroom you pass through to reach the men’s locker room. A couple of weeks ago, I started to jot down what was onscreen. So let me give you a rundown of one week’s worth of my comings and goings.
Monday: This proved the oddball news day of my exercise week. As I arrived, CNN was reporting from a “locked down” Capitol — shots of people running hither and yon — and it was still doing so with remarkably similar shots an hour and 40 minutes later when I left. It turned out that some madman — and I mean that quite literally since, on an earlier occasion, the same fellow was arrested for shouting that he was “a prophet of God” from the gallery of the House of Representatives — had pulled out a pellet gun in the Capitol’s visiting area and been shot by the police. In the new American media world in which 24/7 obsession is the definition of news, that minor story played nonstop for the rest of the day and I caught it again leading NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (“Gunman at U.S. Capitol Shot by Police”).
Tuesday, as I walked in, CNN was focused on the arrest of Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for an “assault” on Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields in Jupiter, Florida (the American version of outer space). As I left, Governor John Kasich on MSNBC was just “weighing in” on — you guessed it — Lewandowski’s “alleged battery,” with a Washington Post reporter on deck, ready to offer crucial analysis on the same subject, while a Donald Trump tweet was also under discussion.
Wednesday as I arrived, MSNBC was reporting that a new Hillary Clinton ad had just blasted — you guessed it again — Donald Trump for “xenophobia” and that she was four percentage points behind Bernie Sanders in the latest Wisconsin poll. On the crawler at the bottom of the screen, Trump’s campaign manager was said to have declared himself “absolutely innocent” of the battery charge. On my way out, I found correspondent Katy Tur “awaiting” Trump’s arrival at a stop in Wisconsin. And oh yes, women, I learned, disliked Trump for his “some form of punishment” abortion comment.
Thursday as I came in, MSNBC was showing a Jimmy Kimmel Live! clip in which Ted Cruz half-jokingly told the nighttime host that, were he to see — yes, you guessed it yet again! — The Donald through his rearview mirror in a parking lot as he was backing up, he wasn’t quite sure which pedal he’d hit, the gas or the brake. On leaving, I wandered past a crew of Washington Post writers discussing — yep! — Donald Trump’s first meeting with his foreign policy advisers in Washington. He was, I was fascinated to learn, “huddling” with them.
Friday, I arrived just as the CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin was revving up under the logo “America’s Choice 2016.” “Wisconsin,” Baldwin was saying, “is the next big primary for both Democrats and Republicans, but on the GOP side frontrunner Donald Trump is also focusing his attention on the party’s convention in July and how the delegate process will play out.” As I left, she was still yakking away, this time over a caption that read: “Backing off pledge could cost Trump delegates.” On a split screen with her was a Republican National Committee member — “an expert on GOP nominating processing,” she told us — discussing the significance of Trump’s recent meeting with Republican Party head Reince Priebus. (Not much, it turned out.)
And that was one week’s exercising news for me. I can’t for a second claim it didn’t keep me in decent shape, but the rest of America?
Now, let me try to sum up that week in American “news” glimpsed in passing at the gym and then watched as it repeated itself at dinner time and other moments. Here goes: Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Ted Cruz. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. (Bernie Sanders.) The previous week, it would, of course, have been Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, etc., etc.
There. Satisfied? Now, turn off that TV, put down that screen in your hand, I’ve got something to tell you about the news.
It goes without saying that I’m not talking about the news as it once was. Think of it now as a kind of obsessive onscreen activity, sometimes humdrum, remarkably repetitive, yet often riveting. Think of it mainly as something most of us live with but have yet to come to grips with or really define. With the ever-present screens in all our lives, no one can help but tune in these days in one way or another to various versions of what we still call “the news.” In doing so, we largely leave the real world and any sense of balance or perspective behind. Otherwise a startling percentage of Americans wouldn’t be convinced that terrorism of the Islamic variety — yes, terrorism! — is America’s number one problem; this in a country in which you’re more likely to be killed or wounded by a toddler with a gun than an Islamic terrorist with the same.
In other words, from Brussels, Brussels, Brussels to Trump, Trump, Trump, this is not in any previously understood sense news at all. It may actually be the opposite of news. Believe it or not, there is still a world out there filled with problems that we know so much less about than we should because we’re all immersed in the same Trump soup.
Here’s what often dominates the news zone these days:
* The Donald, The Hillary, and the others crisscrossing the country, shouting at and insulting each other, and giving more or less the same speeches (or, in the case of Trump, narcissistic rambles).
* Blood-curdling accounts of the latest terror attacks in Europe or the U.S.
* Photogenically weepy or stoic Americans bemoaning the loss of houses, schools, and lives in what the news now regularly refers to as “extreme weather” (without a hint — 99% of the time — of why that weather might be increasingly extreme).
* And let’s not forget those remarkably ever-present American “lone wolf” killers who take out their fellow citizens with numbing regularity in workplaces, movie theaters, military bases, schools, etc.
All of this and more, of course, becomes the essential adrenalizing fodder of the 24/7 attention machine. Sometimes, when the story’s just right, its drumbeat lasts nonstop for days, or even weeks (see: San Bernadino), with whole corps of “experts” mobilized by the network news and cable outfits to… well, you know… say whatever it is experts say.
As newspapers shrink and collapse, as local investigative reporting all but disappears, the above has become the repetitive norm for the paperless world most of us inhabit. And keep in mind that, in an age of shrinking reportorial staffs, on TV as well as in print, it’s of obvious economic advantage to pool your resources and focus audience attention on just one (or a few) magnetic events/horrors/nightmares — stories guaranteed to glue eyeballs. Some of these stories have become so common in our onscreen lives that, as with a mass killing or “violence” at a Trump rally, a formulaic way of reporting them has fallen comfortably into place, making the all-hands-on-deck moment so much easier to organize and handle. So, for instance, from the initial shock of a terror attack in Europe or the U.S. (but not, say, Iraq or Libya) to the funerals of the victims, from the early parade of counterterrorism “experts” to the last grief counselors, there is now a pattern of coverage that normalizes such events for the news zone.
The Comb-Over in the Mirror
So much of this, of course, is about money, ratings, and the coffers of those who own TV networks. Gluing eyeballs to screens (and ads) is, of course, the real news about the news.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves couldn’t have been blunter on how the present system works. At a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference last month, speaking of the Trump campaign, he said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And then he added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
We know, roughly speaking, what Moonves and his ilk make of the frenetic onscreen world their employees present us with — a world of relative inconsequence that is often, at one and the same moment, horrifying, fascinating, stupefying, shocking, terrifying, enervating, saddening, and even, if you happen to like Donald or Ted or Hillary or Bernie, sometimes uplifting or hopeful. The question is: What are we to make of it?
The most obvious thing that can be said is that it leaves us painfully unprepared to face, or grasp, or begin to deal with the actual world as it actually is. What’s left out? Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…
But why should I go on when you can do this perfectly well yourself? After all, just about everything that matters much of the time means… well, just about everything that really makes a difference in your life, or national life, or planetary life. What you can see on your screen right now is plenty of Donald Trump, but what you can’t see when it comes to the United States is, for example, the increasingly undemocratic, unrepresentative, semi-demobilized country with a new, informal constitution and new power centers that he — or some other candidate — will head in 2017. It’s largely MIA.
The menu of the news, as presently defined, lowers your chance of understanding the world. It is, however, likely to raise your blood pressure and your fears on a planet in which there is plenty of reason to be afraid, but seldom of what’s on screen. In a sense, at its best, what the all-day obsession that’s still called “the news” really provides is the kind of rush that we might normally associate with a drug or an addiction rather than reportage or analysis.
The news — no matter your screen of choice — increasingly does several things:
* It creates its own heightened, insular world to replace the world we actually live in.
* At its most effective, it’s like a recurrent floodtide washing over you.
* It has an obsessional quality, with single stories engulfing everything else, inducing a deeply skewed view of the world, no matter what event or events are being followed.
Who can doubt that the Internet, social media, email, and the rest of the package are the signature addictive activities of our age? Anyone who can put away that iPhone without resistance, or not check one last time to see if the email you weren’t expecting has arrived, should join the short line now forming at the exit. For the rest of us, let’s face it, we’re trapped here.
The “news” is a key part of this addictive package. In a sense, in an age of electronic obsession, onscreen news purveyors like Moonves may have little choice but to make it so. It’s that or, assumedly, watch your cable network or key news programs die a grim financial death.
And of course Donald Trump, he of the trademark bouffant comb-over — yes, I’m back to him — is certainly sui generis and regularly admired for the deft way he plays the news and the media. He’s less commonly thought of as the creature of the news and the media. In a sense, though, he’s their ultimate creation of this moment, the top-of-the-line drug on offer so far. If he’s also the ultimate narcissist without filters, then perhaps what we still call “the news” is itself a new form of narcissism. When you look in the mirror it holds up, it’s not you or the world that’s reflected. Just tell me, I’m curious: Whose hairdo do you see?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt