Monday, June 24, 2019

Good Night, and Good Luck

You're gonna need it.

I love this kind of analysis, because it's simultaneously insightful and self-defeating.  It posits a problem, and proposes a solution, but in positing the problem it takes that solution away.

The problem:

Very early in his life, Trump learned that if you claimed to be a billionaire, and acted like a billionaire, that everyone, including the morons in the news media, would believe you and even treat you like one. At the very least, the vast majority of people are afraid to call bullshit, mostly out of fear of being wrong about such a serious charge, while also ending any hope that they might be able to get some money from you.

Trump, a classic conman, has clearly mastered this form of manipulation, particularly now that he is president of the United States and the threshold for the “elite” news media calling him a blatant liar has been pushed even further to his benefit. Since he knows well just how pathetically tiny the attention spans of the media and the public are, he is safe knowing that he can easily finish a short race without ever being forced into a landmine that might actually cause him some real political damage.
The latest examples are the Stephanapolous interview and the Todd interview.   And here is the cause to that effect:

The fundamental vulnerability in the way everyone tries to interview Trump is that they cave into two antiquated concepts. The first is that the president of the United States must be treated with extreme respect. The second is that, because it happens so rarely, their network’s interview must cover a large number of very diverse topics.

But the real problem, the one buried in that identification, is the way we do "news" in this country.  Notice that "second" issue:  "their network's interview must cover a large number of very diverse topics."  Why?

Right there, if the interview is a 100-yard dash, Trump is already 50 yards ahead before the starting gun has been even fired. Trump knows that all he has to do is lie, deflect, obfuscate, and change the subject (maybe even by telling a new bald-faced lie) and the interviewer will soon move on to another question, fearful that they will be seen as badgering the president, while also not being able to provide enough varied content to feed their network’s news monster.
Competition, in a word.  Interviewers of the stature of Todd and Stephanopolous have no choice but to plow on with their questions, getting as many soundbites as they can ("Meet the Press" didn't run the whole Trump interview, and ABC said they spent 30 hours with the President.  Anybody expecting a broadcast of all 30 of those hours?  Besides, how many internet articles have you seen about the MTP interview, covering portions of it?  You don't get that coverage if Todd sticks to one subject until Trump cries or leaves the room.).  And what's the solution?  First:  collaborate, rather than compete; second:  go after the President (see item one above:  "Fearful they will be seen as badgering the president."  Which they would be.)

If, instead of playing this game they cannot win, the news media was disciplined and patient enough (it would help a lot of they could work in tandem on this) to drill on just one subject with him until they finally struck pay-dirt, Trump would be in real trouble. The media needs to create new “Trump Rules,” where when the president tells a clear lie the interview does NOT move on until either he is forced to admit to that lie, or he walks out of the interview like the immature man-child that he is.  
There's a scene in "Good Night, and Good Luck" where Ed Paley, head of CBS, calls Ed Murrow into his office to berate him about trying to do a story on Sen. McCarthy, a story Paley considers too thinly sourced to justify airing.  McCarthy is a U.S. Senator, after all; and Paley doesn't want to poke that bear without sound evidence, which he thinks Murrow doesn't have.  Granted, the movie is fictionalized history, but who doubts that's the way corporations operate?  They don't want to offend power, they want to assuage it.  I think this is how BBC gets away with it:  the Queen is the "real power," so PM's and MP's are fodder for criticism.  You aren't disrespecting the monarchy by challenging the competence of the PM or an MP.  But that's not the way it works in America, nor the way it's ever going to work.

So the solution is:  there is no solution.  This is "wish in one hand, spit in the other, see which fills up faster" analysis.  Sure, if pigs had wings they could fly, and if journalists were truly interested in "the truth," they'd drill into Trump like a gang of wildcatters.  But the market forces that incentivize wildcatters in oil fields (or used to, before market forces turned those fields into corporate fiefdoms) are the same forces that force interviewers to jump from topic to topic.  It's not that they don't know Trump is violating all the rules; it's that they have no other rules under which to function.  They literally don't know what else to do.  Having been put in a round room and told to sit in the corner, they just keep running around and around the room, desperately trying to follow orders.

Murrow finally got Paley to let him follow his information, but Murrow didn't bring McCarthy down:  public opinion did, guided more by public hearings than Murrow's journalism.  A handful of people in the country read the Washington Post articles by Woodward and Bernstein; it was the public hearings that did Nixon in.  Most of us still think of Woodstein as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, and we know their story from that movie.  Journalists are never going to collapse Trump; especially not TV interviewers.

They have far too much interest in protecting the status quo.

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