In November 2016, just days before the election that would send Donald Trump to Washington D.C., North Dakota’s lone House Representative Kevin Cramer announced his intent to call for congressional hearings in the new year to ferret out alleged liberal bias in the national news media. “Your FCC license and the liberty that comes with your First Amendment rights are not a license to broadcast anything you want or in any way you choose,” wrote the Republican to executives at the four major networks at the time. “Rather, this special freedom comes with basic moral and legal parameters.”
Cramer’s interest in the media problem was piqued by “recent polls and studies, which seem to confirm that our national network news has devolved from fact-based journalism to surreptitious propaganda,” as he told the Grand Forks Herald.
Taking his own 40-point win and Trump’s election as an endorsement, Cramer moved forward on a revised effort to challenge the mainstream media’s ostensible leftism in March 2017, sending instead a Questionnaire to the heads of NBC Universal, CBS, and Disney Media (which owns ABC News). Included in the two-page letter were such questions as “Do you believe your coverage of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was as critical as your coverage of Donald Trump’s candidacy?” and “Do your current efforts to aggressively cover the Trump administration match the approach you took in the early days of the Obama administration?”
Ignoring the constitutional queries such a questionnaire begs, not to mention the suspicious timing of his initial call for hearings, Cramer was right to needle the news media for its form and function: in the United States the commercial mass media especially does have a profoundly problematic bias.
But not for the reasons Cramer thinks.
To perhaps state the obvious, across platforms the commercial news media as an institution leans neither to the political left or right at the level of reporting so much as it is obsessively focused on its own bottom line. This self-interest generates headlines, reporting, resource allocation, story framing, sourcing, and opinion pieces that over time prejudice media organizations’ reporting and citizens’ consumption of news and information. Where major news organizations do seem lean left or right, they do so for no other reason than they have strategized that pandering to a particular demographic is in their financial self-interest.
The result of this market orientation is a news and information system that cannot help but think and act in the most cynical of ways. That is to say, the commercial mass media has one goal: the accumulation of capital accomplished through the attraction of not news consumers but revenue from advertisers. To achieve this goal, the preponderance of privately owned outlets focus their energies on stories and frames that are dramatic (but not necessarily “controversial”), oversimple, centered around the words/actions of familiar “official” voices, hardly critical of the business class, and “personalizable” for the middle-class consumer.
Such a fact has been demonstrated time and again over the last several decades by researchers from Lance Bennett and Paul Starr to Robert McChesney and Greg Palast in a parade of studies and institutional analyses. To take only the most well-known work, Noam Chomsky’s and Ed Herman’s exhaustive 1988 analysis of the commercial media system Manufacturing Consent argued that five specific filters employed by the commercial media system amount to nothing short of a propaganda model that shapes how news consumers come to understand the world. These filters—reliance on “official” sources for news reporting, dependence on private capital (in the form of advertising and underwriting) to function, consolidation of ownership, the generation of “flak” directed at the news media by state and non-state organizations, and anti-communist/anti-socialist content—discipline news outlets into making, and inculcate consumers into expecting and accepting, overwhelmingly nationalist, pro-business, often anti-intellectual, and ultimately conventional views of social and political problems. Not even public media is immune to these effects, as the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has demonstrated.
Such a model, based upon market principles and endorsed by a “professional” class of news-gatherers who have internalized such values, can prove more effective at policing thought than the state media systems of many authoritarian states. So does it bear repeating that such journalism is inevitably far more interested in reinforcing the status quo—which is to say capitalism and existing power relations—than challenging it, especially when doing so is in the system’s own financial self-interest.
Assuming Cramer is savvy enough to understand all of this, his critique rings as cynical as the news and information system he pretends to oppose. And so it is that politicians like Cramer and the investor-owned, profit-oriented news organizations tasked with keeping power in check represent different versions of the cynicism that today is the ideological core of American democracy.
Ignoring mainstream journalists’ obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails in advance of the election even as evidence of her opponent’s chronic sexual misconduct piled up, take, for example, not only major newspapers’ overwhelming support for Trump’s recent cruise missile strike on Syria, but MSNBC’s Brian Williams going so far as to admit to feeling “guided by the beauty of our weapons” during one live report on the Syria strike. The line, a reference to Leonard Cohen, was disturbingly reminiscent of Italian fascist F. T. Marinetti’s claim in his Futurist manifesto that “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for.” Hardly examples of a Fourth Estate going out of its way to “aggressively cover the Trump administration,” in Cramer’s words, or hold itself accountable for the role it continues to play (as in the case of the Iraq War) in allowing such cynical decision-making to go essentially unchallenged.
The situation is hardly different at the level of local media, which is far more likely to be covering someone like Kevin Cramer in detail. Leighton Broadcasting (which owns and operates several AM and FM radio stations in North Dakota and Minnesota) openly–almost refreshingly–brands itself not as a news and information service, but “an interactive design and marketing company that happens to own a few radio stations.”
Or consider Fargo’s NBC and CBS affiliate KVLY, known in the Red River Valley by the brand Valley News Live. Owned by the Georgia-based media firm Gray Television (which also owns affiliates in Minot, Bismarck, Williston, and Dickinson, North Dakota), Valley News Live has morphed, over the last two decades, from a provider of serious local news and public affairs reporting into an entertainment service concerned more with the delivery of sports and advertising than news and information. This shift was especially palpable after KVLY was acquired by Gray, which for its part admits to seeking out mid-level markets with popular university athletics programs and a high ceiling on political advertising.
As Gray Television notes in its 2015 annual report, “We believe university towns and state capitals provide significant advantages as they generally offer more favorable advertising demographics, more stable economics and a stronger affinity between local stations and university sports teams than other markets. We also seek to operate in markets that we believe have the potential for significant political advertising revenue in periods leading up to elections.”
That is to say, Gray, not unlike Leighton Broadcasting, brands itself not as a news gathering operation so much as a marketing firm in the business of buying and selling audiences–and sports fans in particular–to its commercial clients. It just happens to use what it calls “news” as the medium for so doing. And as study after study has shown, the consequence of this business model, this cynicism, has been the decline in reporting on public policy, the environment, local government, and world news in lieu of the steady increase in crime/mayhem news, celebrity pieces, weather, sports, and sensationalism, as in something like KVLY’s recurring “Restaurant Report Card” segment. Ironically, it is for these reasons that many news consumers tune out, unwilling to any longer be exploited as such.
“Old” media notwithstanding, many of the advertising-oriented public affairs blogs and news websites necessarily operate in a similar way. So it is that even when consumers continue to watch, read, or listen to local news outlets, they increasingly come to regard their communities as deteriorating and the institutions of government at all levels as corrupt, ineffectual, and, yes, cynical.
As a result, when citizens are encouraged—conditioned—by a self-serving mass media system to expect cynicism, scandal, self-interest, and incompetence from their neighbors and leaders, cynicism and self-interest is what they get, even as they become more cynical themselves.
Kevin Cramer is a case in point.
In railing against the ostensible liberalism of advertising-supported Fortune 500 multinational corporations, even as he accepts money from the National Association of Broadcasters and the telecommunications industry, Cramer embodies the very ideology that gives contemporary American politics its shape.
“The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask,” argued philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology, anticipating in 1989 the arrival of figures like Cramer and Trump on the American political scene. “Cynical reason is no longer naïve, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.”
What makes such cynical reasoning and the discourse it produces so problematic for democracy is that in posing as an authentic critique of ideology and the status quo—in this case the media’s obsession with Clinton’s emails and Cramer’s chastising of the commercial mass media—it masks the fact that both the Fourth Estate and American self-government are, in patently self-interested ways, actually doubling down on ideology itself: alternative facts, a fracturing market economy, anti-intellectualism, and a rather crude populism. Furthermore, it neutralizes “actual” criticism as discourse, making it harder and harder for citizens to know an authentic critique from a cynical one.
This reinvestment in cynical reason, this pretending not to know what one knows, allows Cramer to continue the fantasy that he and his President are the poor victims of a coordinated smear campaign by the media elite even as that same media elite helped elect both, donating money to their respective campaigns. Meanwhile, the symptom that generates such a fantasy–that is, cynicism itself–only spreads across the body politic, which, swollen with disease, continues to deteriorate.
To hear Zizek tell it, the consequence of cynical reason, sooner or later, is totalitarianism, which no longer even needs to feign its own earnestness to function. “Totalitarian ideology no longer has this pretension. It is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriously—its status is just that of a means of manipulation, purely external and instrumental; its rule is secured not by its truth-value but by simple extra-ideological violence and promise of gain.”
One can read in Zizek’s 30-year-old line a commentary on the news media or Trump. Or both simultaneously. The true anxiety of the present moment arises from the simple fact that all such readings are today spot-on in profoundly troubling ways. ⍟