The Empty Piety of the American Press
The press, giddy with its newfound sense of mission and purpose, is carrying out a moral crusade against Donald Trump. The airwaves and print have shed their traditional claims of “impartiality” and “objectivity.” They fulminate against Trump, charging—falsely—that he was elected because of Russian interference and calling him a liar, ignorant and incompetent. They give airtime to his bitterest critics and bizarre associates, such as Omarosa Manigault-Newman, a onetime star of “The Apprentice” and now a fired White House aide, and Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who says she had a sexual relationship with Trump. It is great entertainment. It is great for ratings. It is great for profits. But it is not moral, and it is not journalism.
The empty piety is a mask for self-interest. It is accompanied by the veneration of the establishment politicians, generals, intelligence chiefs, corporate heads and hired apologists who carried out the corporate coup d’état that created our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” The corporate structures that have a stranglehold on the country and have overseen deindustrialization and the evisceration of democratic institutions, plunging over half the country into chronic poverty and misery, are unassailable. They are portrayed as forces of progress. The criminals on Wall Street, including the heads of financial firms such as Goldman Sachs, are treated with reverence. Free trade is equated with freedom. Democratic politicians such as Barack Obama—who assaulted civil liberties, transferred trillions of dollars upward to reigning oligarchs, expanded the drone wars to include targeted assassinations of American citizens, and used the Espionage Act to silence investigative journalism—are hailed as champions of democracy. Deference is paid to democratic processes, liberties, electoral politics and rights enshrined in our Constitution, from due process to privacy, that no longer exist. It is a vast game of deception under the cover of a vacuous morality.
Those cast aside by corporate capitalism—Noam Chomsky calls them “unpeople”—are rendered invisible and reviled at the same time. The “experts” whose opinions are amplified on every issue, from economics to empire and politics, are drawn from corporate-funded think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, or are former military and intelligence officials or politicians who are responsible for the failure of our democracy and usually in the employ of corporations. Cable news also has the incestuous habit of interviewing its own news celebrities. Former CIA Director John Brennan, one of many former officials now on the airwaves, has morphed into a senior national security and intelligence analyst for NBC and MSNBC. Brennan was the architect of the disastrous attempt to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria, oversaw the huge expansion of our drone wars and instigated the canard that Russia stole the last U.S. presidential election. The most astute critics of empire, including Andrew Bacevich, are banished, as are critics of corporate power, including Ralph Nader and Chomsky. Those who decry the waste within the military, such as MIT Professor Emeritus Ted Postol, who has exposed the useless $13 billion anti-ballistic missile program, are unheard. Advocates of universal health care, such as Dr. Margaret Flowers, are locked out of national health care debates. There is a long list of the censored. The acceptable range of opinion is so narrow it is almost nonexistent.
Where is the flood of stories about families being evicted or losing their homes because of foreclosures and bank repossessions? Where are the stories about the banks and lending agencies that prey on recent college graduates burdened with crippling loans and unable to find work? Where are the stories about families going into bankruptcy because they cannot pay medical bills and the soaring premiums of for-profit health care? Where are the stories about the despair that drives middle-aged white men to suicide and millions of Americans into the deadly embrace of opioid addiction? Where are the stories on the cruelty of mass incarceration, the collapse of our court system and the reign of terror by police in marginal communities? Where are the investigative pieces on the fraud and the tax boycott that have been legalized for Wall Street, the poisoning of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries? Why is climate change a forbidden subject, even as extreme weather devastates the nation and much of the rest of the planet? Why are the atrocities we commit or abet in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen ignored? Why are the war crimes carried out by Israel against the Palestinians erased from news coverage?
The relentless pillorying of Trump is news-as-reality-television. Trump fills in for Richard Hatch of the old “Survivor” show. Trump’s imbecility, dishonesty, narcissism and incompetence are at once revolting and riveting. The press, ostensibly seeking a more polished brand to improve the public presentation of empire and corporate capitalism, is in fact further empowering the lunatics who will dominate the political landscape.
“America is ceasing to be a nation,” reporter and author Matt Taibbi writes in his book “Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus,” “and turning into a giant television show.”
The stunts pulled during the last presidential election—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul wearing goggles as he chain-sawed the tax code in half, Trump inviting women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to a presidential debate and Ben Carson having to defend himself against allegations he lied when he wrote that as a child he attempted to stab another boy—will become staples of political campaigning. Voters, stripped of all meaningful power or control over their own destiny, used only as stage props in rallies and at party conventions, are permitted to vote only for a system they hate. And the winners are those who can give the best and most entertaining expression of that hatred. “Trump found the flaw in the American Death Star,” Taibbi writes. “It doesn’t know how to turn the cameras off, even when it’s filming its own demise.”
If the press sided with citizens and exposed the corporate systems of power that hold them captive, its advertising income would dwindle and it would be treated as an enemy of the state. Since corporations own the airwaves and declining city newspapers, this will not happen. Journalism will remain burlesque. The Public Broadcasting System, along with National Public Radio dependent on corporate money, including the Koch brothers, is as loath to take on the corporate establishment as its for-profit competitors. Dissenters and critics exist only on the margins of the internet, and the abolition of net neutrality will see them silenced.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the high priests in the Trump Inquisition, was quite open about the narrowness of the assault. Being interviewed on “The Axe Files” podcast, hosted by former Obama White House aide David Axelrod, Tapper addressed charges that he opposes Trump’s policies by saying, “Whenever anybody says that to me, I say, you can’t find any evidence about what I think about his tax plan or repealing Obamacare or DACA or immigration or trade or any of these issues—terrorism or ISIS or Syria. I’m agnostic on that. I want to have full and interesting and provocative debates and call balls and strikes. But I’m not putting out there an immigration proposal.”
The corporate airwaves have a depressing habit of taking political hacks like Axelrod or the former Clinton strategist George Stephanopoulos and transforming them into journalists. Even Chelsea Clinton got a shot at journalism, being paid $600,000 a year to do fluff pieces for NBC. The fusion of news and celebrity, with figures like Tapper appearing on late night talk shows, fits with the reality-television presidency the corporate press empowers.
The press, like the Democratic Party, is playing a very dangerous game. It is banking, as Hillary Clinton did, on Trump being so repugnant he and those who support him will be replaced with Democrats. It relies on polls to guide its tactics and strategy, forgetting that every national poll offered assurance that Trump would lose in 2016. This gamble may work. But it may not. Policy issues accounted for only 10 percent of the media coverage during the 2016 presidential race. News reports concentrated on the latest polls, scandals, publicity stunts, campaign tactics and strategy as well as Trump’s bombastic remarks, according to a report issued by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. In short, there was little substance to the coverage. This will only get worse. The gossip, trivia and invective masquerading as news are not only irrelevant to most of the electorate but reinforce the image of liberal elites being out of touch with the pain and rage rippling across the nation.
Corporations that own the press look at news as a revenue stream. The news division competes against other revenue streams. If news does not produce comparable profits, its managers are replaced and its content is altered and distorted to draw in more viewers. Journalism is irrelevant. The disease of celebrity and greed, which warps and deforms the personality of Trump, warps and deforms celebrities in the media. They share Trump’s most distasteful characteristics. The consequences are ominous. An ignored, impoverished and frustrated underclass will turn to increasingly bizarre politicians and more outlandish con artists and purveyors of hate. Trump is only the beginning. The grotesque mutations to come, ones that will make Trump look reasonable, are being spawned in newsrooms across the country.