Tag Archives: political campaigns

How Much Media Oxygen Will He Get?

All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers or viewers to keep feeding them news from the swamplands of insurgency politics.

Donald Trump is right to note that most in the mainstream press disliked his administration and him personally. After all, he did make a habit of calling the ‘fourth estate’ the “enemy of the people.”  So they eventually repaid the favor after slowly shedding their regard for his version of the Office of the Presidency.  They rarely took their eyes off the unfolding train wreck of his years in office. Now, as his administration stumbles to its last days, a looming question remains about how much coverage the publicity-craving Trump will receive. My fear is that an odd symbiosis will remain. Trump will be suitably outlandish and stoke more coverage, especially from the cable news networks. There is no way President-elect Biden or Vice President-elect Harris can compete with the arrogance and excess that whets news appetites.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.

In 2016 CNN especially treated even minor Trump primary successes as deserving lavish coverage. Jeff Zuckerman’s network at times simply turned over their air to garish displays of  stunning excess: jaw-dropping expressions of self-regard combined with pitches for Trump Steaks and Wine. I remember commenting to my wife after one of these lavish shows that I hoped there where a few fist fights in the New York control room.  At least some producers should have been furious with their network’s apparent inability to cut away to cover anything else.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.  Zuckerman has heard the criticism before and offered the strange, inverted view that “We wanted access and Donald Trump gave it to us.”  It would be more accurate to note that Trump wanted access and CNN fully obliged. All candidates want free media coverage.

This is old news, but also a cautionary tale. All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers, viewers or the nation to keep feeding them stories from the marginal swampland of insurgency politics. Reporters never want to be told what to cover. But I am sure Trump believes he can continue to create spectacular attacks that trigger coverage.  Conflict is a positive news value.

To be sure, Trump was also good for ratings. But there was a time when networks ran their news operations as “loss leaders,” providing a civic service without necessarily expecting a high return from their news divisions. Now, the cable networks live for high numbers. It’s too bad because the parent companies of Fox (Fox Corp.), CNN (AT & T) and MSNBC (Comcast) have deep pockets. The cable news networks would do better journalism without always trying to pack the circus tent.

There is a difference to providing essential information in a civil society and falling for public relations stunts. CNN might check its impulses against more the sober and balanced editing of other mainstream sources like The Associated Press or Vox News. Cable News needs to begin to act on the premise that they can cover more than one or two stories at a time, some even about public policies that actually matter.

The Decline of Campaign Predictability

 

   “Internet Research Agency,” St. Petersburg Russia        

The current unease in the politics of Western nations owes a lot to the disruptive effects of social media contagion, seen in the rise of the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts, who accept the trashing of American political traditions as payback for being left on the political margins.

We are on the edge of another extended presidential contest, reflected in the growing preoccupation of  the national news media on possible challengers in both parties.  While its natural to speculate on those who might rise to become a party’s nominee, forces in play now make this handicapping process far less predictive.

The parties once had a tighter grip on its members and it’s brighter lights who were ready to vie for the nomination.  But they are now weaker and less cohesive.  Leaders and rising stars within them still claim attention, but steering the nomination is more difficult. The difference is the growth of social media.  Think of a poker game with two wildcards.  That can make for some surprises. Now imagine another game with eight wildcards, which would make any bet far less certain. That’s roughly the effect that media contagion can have on those who want to end up at the top of the heap.  Twitter and other social media are always potential disruptors in ways that the once dominant broadcast networks were not.

To be sure, those of us who have studied presidential politics used to be cheered by the decline of the “smoke filled room” of ‘pols’ who could make private deals well out of sight of the the public side of a campaign.  For example, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, famously helped pave the way for the nomination of his son. The elder Kennedy and his friends had the power to make it happen. Now, not only are there no back rooms with true power-brokers, there is no process-centered roadmap that will help predict how the finalists in this long struggle for party dominance will fare.  Once they ‘surface’ as candidates they will hit a maw of social media forces not easily controlled by anyone. The serendipitous nature  of peer to peer connection is now a driverless car, leaving a lot up in the air in terms of where a candidate will end up. Add in the seemingly endless desire of Russian state actors who can sabotage campaigns with misinformation or inflammatory rhetoric.  The point is that the effects of these forces cannot be predicted in advance.  It is in the nature of internet contagion that private citizens and others blending with them will create campaign roadblocks no more predictable than a California mudslide. The best we can do is know that some of these narratives will weaken strong contenders, while leaving others mostly untouched.

This was partly the fate of the Clinton campaign in 2016.  A range of factors contributed to her defeat: Wikileaks “dumps” of private emails, Trump  campaign contacts with Russians eager to see her lose, and a hefty dose of nativist appeals. Trump himself has tried to quell astounding but credible speculation that he is a willing or unwilling “Russian asset.”  Yet in other ways the fate of his administration is also to be determined by the social media cards that remain to be dealt.

 

We cannot predict whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives.

 

This defeat of even minimal predictability owes much to the gap between what might be called a “strategic/rhetorical” model of politics and a new and more fluid model of how information now enters the public sphere.  The first assumes an understanding of the rules and key audiences that must be satisfied.  The second blurs the idea of “audiences” altogether.  At this stage and for the immediate future, we cannot know whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives from unvetted sources.  The best we can know is that when they arise, the “viable candidate” of today may suddenly look unelectable.

In short, the politics of Western nations is now shaped by the disruptive power of social media contagion, seen in the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts.