If you made it here without reading Primitive Politics, Pt. I – I strongly encourage you to do so.
Our Path to Talking Parrots
When mass broadcast radio came around in the 1920’s, the goal of any media platform ever since has been fairly straightforward. Relay information while grabbing the largest market share possible, using the entire nation as a target audience. The unbiased and unfiltered stream of news and events in previous decades wasn’t such simply because there were kinder humans with our well-being in mind back then. The relative purity of news experienced then as compared to now, was due to their lack of interest in ratings and user-engagement, which are the only focus as of late. Rather than tailoring news to the audience as we do today, the past assumption was that the public could take in the “raw material” and form it into an opinion on their own.
The overarching goal of turning a profit from journalism, reporting, and broadcasting is still the same today – one hundred years later. What has changed however; is that today we’re receiving our “material” as heavily processed, refined, and addictive substances that are delivered to us in flashy, colorful and convenient packaging.
Enter the “Murdoch-Era”
Seeking to expose an opportunity in the American news media, Robert Murdoch (founder of Fox News) began crafting his media empire in the states and unknowingly would also be changing America’s future simultaneously. Murdoch had built quite the reputation in both Australia and the UK before he decided to tackle US media, and when he did, he went big. After successfully purchasing and overhauling a few smaller operations including the acquisition of the New York Post, Murdoch hit a home-run in 1984 when he was able to get his hands on 20th Century Fox.
What made Murdoch’s approach to media in the states so different than any competitors he faced, was that he knew exactly how to harness emotion to sustain viewership. His goal was not to present information as it lay, but instead shape it into things that would keep consumers engaged. “Caution, you are about to enter theeee No Spin Zone, The O’Reilly factor begins…right now.” The first we saw of Murdochs new approach to media was with the introduction of The O’Reilly factor. First aired in a prime time spot on the Fox News channel in 1996 and was filled with a cantankerous, red faced, surly man shouting on camera that kept consumers entertained for hours on end. Along with the launch of The O’Reilly Factor, in ’96 Murdoch also hired (now vilified) Roger Ailes to take over Fox as the acting CEO, and he made certain to run with the opportunity. While Roger Ailes was leading the charge for Fox until his resignation in 2016, he was hell bent on making the network become as powerful as can be no matter whom he stepped on along the way – his interests were profits, ratings, and pummeling the other networks. Ailes himself in 2000 claimed “I created a TV network for people who are 55 to dead”. While you certainly could play devil’s advocate and make the case that Ailes was just highlighting Fox’s targeted demographic as an older generation – the statement undoubtedly speaks volumes towards how much the person at the wheel of the network cared about the consumers well-being.
Making sure not to fall behind on consumer engagement and ratings, other networks were quick to produce a plethora of similar shows to keep pace with Fox, such as CNN’s Crossfire and The Situation Room. Thanks to Murdoch and Ailes, media had begun a major change that would spread like a plague infecting everything it touched: news, journalism, politics and our daily lives.
Funnels, Filters and Fury
As I’ve pointed out in a previous post “Attention Economy”, the individuals pulling the strings behind social media platforms and television are smart and they know how to achieve peak levels of user engagement. With a well built profile of consumers containing far more details than we should be comfortable with, the networks are hard at work producing stories that you already agree with, to ensure you take your shoes off and stay a while. Once they’re able to narrow down your interests, or fears, they’ve got you in a corner.
Being targeted with personalized ads on social media is something we have become accustomed to. Advertising firms can buy your data, find out nearly everything about you, and feed you with ads for products and services you need when you’re at your weakest. With cable news the script is the same as social media, but the characters have been swapped out. Much of cable news has become very effective in pushing hate and fear through a funnel that they wrap up and present to the consumer. By airing very narrow straight-ticket views, rather than showing the full picture of any event, they can estimate specific and accurate demographics which are then packaged up and sold to advertisers who get a better bang for their buck.
In the last twenty years we have become the product that media can sell to advertisers, a captive and guaranteed audience. We’re being persuaded to compulsively buy gold (somehow always an all-time high), bitcoin, Nike shoes, or diapers – from targeted ads based on your political views, gender, income levels, or ethnicity. If a journalist or reporter dares to present an opinion that the homogeneous, fine tuned, and whittled down audiences may disagree with – networks have a knack for getting rid of these outliers quickly. Those press members with divergent opinions will not only hurt the networks ratings and consumer retention, they also present a threat to the very establishment.
As Rolling Stones writer Matt Taibbi brought to my awareness in a recent post – journalism has somehow found itself at a point where firing an editor for running a headline “Buildings matter, too” is an acceptable thing to do. Was posting that particular article insensitive? Probably. But aren’t journalists hired to voice an opinion? Isn’t it our job to formulate an opinion on what they share, whether we agree or disagree with them? Yes. This is censorship, and just like the Epstein case – it’s happening more and more everyday, everywhere.
“…the Philadelphia Inquirer editor was fired for running a headline – “Buildings matter, too” – that the poll said expressed a view held by 89% of the population, including 64% of African-Americans. But why not just make this case in a rebuttal editorial? Make it a teaching moment? The main thing accomplished by removing those types of editorials from newspapers — apart from scaring the hell out of editors — is to shield readers from knowledge of what a major segment of American society is thinking. The traditional view of the press was never based on some contrived, mathematical notion of “balance,” i.e. five paragraphs of Republicans for every five paragraphs of Democrats. The ideal instead was that we showed you everything we could see, good and bad, ugly and not, trusting that a better-informed public would make better decisions. This vision of media stressed accuracy, truth, and trust in the reader’s judgment as the routes to positive social change.
This is not reporting. It’s a marketing process designed to create rhetorical addictions and shut unhelpfully non-consumerist doors in your mind. This creates more than just pockets of political rancor. It creates masses of media consumers who’ve been trained to see in only one direction, as if they had been pulled through history on a railroad track, with heads fastened in blinders, looking only one way.” “The American Press is Destroying Itself”, Matt Taibbi
How can any editor, journalist, or press member operate in full honestly and truthfulness knowing that airing, publishing or sharing an opinion that doesn’t fall in line with the current ideology can result in their termination?
While I do believe major news is at fault for a large portion of the tribalism we are seeing in politics, Twitter and Facebook can be just as bad at times, if not worse. Their ability to spread information like wildfire within minutes is like nothing we have ever seen before, and when finger-pointing left vs right antics cloak themselves in “facts” or “news” it’s easy to be confused and fall victim to the pushed polarization.
When misinformation is coupled with a hot-button topic such as the Minnesota riots, the effects are amplified to new levels that can ripple through every city in the US. As we’ll see later, the facts that Joy Reid was sharing in the tweets above were unmistakably wrong. We can then safely assume that Joy Reid was sharing this information with her thousands of Twitter followers before doing any type of verification or fact checking herself. While someone else may be at fault for starting this false narrative, is it not our (public and press) job to test the validity and accuracy of said facts before shouting from the heavens? I would guess that her goal much less innocent than a mistake, and was intended to place the blame on white nationalists which fits both her, her networks (MSNBC), and her audiences (far-left) ideology.
Trump quick to catch stride with the left, crafted his own way to take advantage of the less than poor situation. With his own tweet storm that followed, he is appealing to those in the public (far-right) who truly believed ANTIFA and the radical left alone could have been responsible for all of the looting and rioting in Minnesota. With these claims, he is (just as Joy Reid) finding a scapegoat on the other side of the aisle to try and win the approval of those so susceptible to believing these kind of claims. Yet just like with Joy Reid, we will not hold him accountable for his spreading of misinformation. This is an issue.
When the dust had settled, 86% of those arrested in the riots, were in fact from Minnesota. There were no radical groups organizing out of state looting trips or terrorist groups taking a stronghold during a tragedy like the initial reporting would have led us to believe. This kind of haphazard reporting that is allowed nowadays when we don’t hold reporters, politicians, and media accountable is worrisome. It’s this accepted/allowed falsehood of information that leads to anti-vaccination propaganda, claims that Bill Gates created Coronavirus, and that Warren Buffet was supplying the bricks for rioters.
Two-Party System: Here to Stay?
Looking forward to this coming November, it’s hard to imagine voter satisfaction will improve from the results we saw in 2016. Do we fold our hands and forfeit another four years and hope for the best in 2024? With the current state right now, it seems unlikely that anything will have changed by then without taking action now. In any industry outside of politics which is this large, with such high levels of dissatisfaction, one of two things would typically happen: the government would look into breaking up the parties in power or an entrepreneur would take advantage of the situation, responding to what the customers/public desire providing an alternative solution.
“Well there aren’t any laws against a 3rd party running in our current system, so why haven’t we seen anyone outside of the Democrats and Republicans in contention for any major office? Maybe the two party system is just natural.” While it is true that there are parties outside of the major two, the system is set up to put handcuffs on any politician outside of the our two major parties. With the Presidency for example, the necessity to win an election by absolute majority (270 electoral college votes), rather than the ability to win plurality of the electoral college or the popular vote, dampens much of any 3rd parties hopes. To make it even more difficult, an independent will never have sufficient time once primaries are over to be placed on a sufficient amount of ballots across the nation to get those 270 votes needed. As an example: Evan McMullin who ran as an alternative to Trump in 2016 and had a fair amount of popularity leading up to the election, polling slightly behind Gary Johnson, only saw his name appear as an option for President on roughly 15% of ballots nationwide.
While I am still holding out irrational hope for a dark-horse candidate in 2020 (did someone say The Rock? Mark Cuban? Mark Hyman? Anyone?), we will certainly be left with Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump. You’d be hard pressed to find any American who believes that out of 330 million people, this is the best we have to offer. What became ever so clear in 2016 is that, the only thing one party needs to do in order to win is convince the voters that they are the lesser of the two evils. They do not need to deliver results (as I’ll say again) because we do not hold them accountable. A candidate does not need to have realistic, objective and strategic plans for action because they only need to show their ideas are better than one other person. Let’s put it this way: say you’re walking into an interview for a new job that you are dying for – would you like your chances more after seeing five other candidates in the lobby participating in thoughtful discussion before their interviews or if you walked in and saw just one candidate sitting over in the corner talking to themself?
We have based our last few elections based on a candidates ability to: preach promises that will be unfulfilled, combat dozens of inevitable scandals, and “one-upping” other candidates during live debates that are treated more like horse races than discussion. Would an outsider challenging our two parties improve accountability and inspire competition? Maybe, but we likely won’t have the chance to find out. Under our current laws, a 3rd party could theoretically win the popular vote in the country, yet not win a single electoral college vote. The last candidate to run independent with any type of real traction was Ross Perot in 1992, and even though he was able to gain over 19% of the popular vote, he did not receive one electoral college vote. Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting we rip up our election process and disregard The Constitution, but is it time we look at the 244 year old document to see if we could help it better fit our times?
Maybe there is an opportunity to keep the current system in place, but also change the hostile landscape in occupancy. Without changing any laws is there any way we can give an outside party a fighting chance? Bret Weinstein is petitioning (and pleading) that we as the public try to “draft” a fusion of both the parties, to pair center-right Admiral William McRaven as Presidential nominee, along with center-left (previous candidate) Andrew Yang as Vice President(Yang Gang lives on). By doing something so drastically different, with such moderate candidates compared to the extremes we have experienced as of late, would such a plan be capable of producing the kind of shake-up in the system that we need?
To bring this idea full circle, what I believe to be the biggest downfall of current news and political debates on TV is the very format of conversations the personalities participate in. The networks will place two, three, sometimes up to six people in a room (or even worse on a delayed call), call it a panel and give them 2-3 minutes to solve issues that even with careful planning will take decades to solve. There are no longer real conversations where (if we have forgotten) one listens, processes and responds. In that order. If you want to get your point across in the current format of a debate or cable news segment, you have three options: yell, get angry, or yell louder. Not only are these fiery tidbits of information being hurled across tables incapable of progressing a conversation toward any solutions on proposed issues, to make matters worse – these were never original opinions in the first place (as I’ve outlined many times above). As you can see below, the result is multiple people incoherently shouting conventional ideology at each other with their ears closed and veins popping until the two minutes are up and the camera shuts off.
Even without winning the election, would a moderate proposition such as Bret Weinstein suggested (McRaven and Yang) put our current system on the hot seat, letting them know that the public is unsettled and tired of our current conditions?
The Illusion of Choice
Just as we saw above in the “Rubin Report” clip with the heads of the DNC and RNC, when we turn on the news today it is very unlikely we are hearing an individuals true opinion. Scripts being provided by those who own massive networks can slide across a news hour with viewers completely unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes.
The first thing someone playing antagonist might say is “Well why is this an issue? Large corporations advertise in many ways so why can’t this just be one of them?” My response: what if your local news station (who, remember, was paid by Amazon to run a story) voices an opinion on how we should support small businesses during COVID-19? Now we’re in a predicament. More people shopping local equals less money for Amazon. If a station wants to continue to receive funding for their programming, isn’t it likely that they will forgo airing any opinions contradictory to the hand from which they feed?
Our democracy could be in danger, and unfortunately the news stations running those scripts may have had no idea that they would end up being a perfect example of why. Without doing a deep dive into history, we should all be aware of the potential cataclysms that can occur when all of our information is owned by a handful of entities. Sinclair currently has ownership of 190 TV stations across America. Yes, it unlikely that Sinclair alone is going to point our country towards an inconceivable action like taking up communism, but it is hair raising to see that The FCC has allowed Sinclair to integrate all of it’s media operations into one, leading towards even more centralization of news. The more consolidated media becomes, the less opposition it faces, the less we are able to think for ourselves, the more we should worry. In any case, viewing a company with such power as Sinclair utilizing local news stations as puppets for (ironically) a smear on fake news should raise concern.
These aren’t only corporate and/or right wing antics either, our politicians are beginning to sound more and more like a broken record, skipping and repeating themselves over and over again. The top down unaltered flow of information in the press is operating more like a pyramid scheme than the original intent of the publics defense against corruption .
Consumers are being forcefed script after script of individuals who all are claiming to be in perfect agreement with one another. As we’ve seen it’s leading to not only misinformation but polarization that has a strong effect on our mental wellness. The disregard and hostility shown towards writers, journalists, and media personalities who dare step out of line is shielding the public from truth and creating echo chambers that many will not be able to free themselves from.
When someone does stand in the way of an imposed narrative, we get a case like Phil Donahue. Someone with such little polarization such as Donahue (25 year host of his namesake show, The Phil Donahue Show) is pressured into leaving the media all throughout the 90’s until he resigned in the early 2000’s because he refused to conform to network standards and voiced unpopular criticism. When asked about his opinion on where news and television were headed his response was “We have more [TV] outlets now, but most of them just sell the Bowflex machine. The rest of them are Jesus and jewelry. There really isn’t much diversity in the media anymore. Dissent? Forget about it.” As you can see with the graphics below, he was spot on.
Here are the six, and their subsidiaries:
We no longer have the luxury of turning on the news for differentiating opinions, let alone facts. Before turning on the television I could tell you what each of the following individuals stance on any controversial issue would be: Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc. I’m not suggesting that these aren’t intellectually bright, quick-witted, charismatic people (and they certainly are ever so convincing with their use of their artful dialect) but I am suggesting they will never, and I mean never oppose their own political side on any issues. If there is any video of them going against their orthodox party affiliation on just one topic within the last 15 years – send it my way, I’ll be impressed with your dutiful research.
If I haven’t made it apparent by now, I believe that we have serious reasons (such as the graphs below) to look at the current state of American media, politics, and journalism, and see if there are any changes or tweaks to the system that would lead to more a more positive outlook for our country.
An argument I feel the need to address, is the most common rebuttal I’ve heard in conversation. “We should keep things the same because our governing set of ideas and policies have worked well for this long and we’ve invested so much time and money, why should we change it?” The [It’s been that way forever] argument lacks any real foundation and frankly is a lazy way to approach any idea or problem. Also known as the “Sunk-Cost Fallacy” this mindset limits any progress while ensuring there will be no searching for ways improve current situations and surely will limit growth. “You’ll never own a house because my father didn’t and neither did his.” To conclude that something is correct simply because it is old, removes our incredible ability to innovate and move forward as a persons and species. Had Alexander Graham Bell been content with sending mail and using morse code because that’s how things have been done historically, who is to say that we would be holding devices in our hands today with access to the largest collection of knowledge that the world has ever seen?
However, there is hope. Hundreds of shows similar to “Krystal and Saagar” (below) are gaining popularity on YouTube and Podcasting apps (Apple and Spotify). The question becomes whether such mild-mannered and respectful discussions will ever be able to gain the attention of the masses as the entertainment of the mainstream sources can do is yet to be seen.
With these new platforms, long form – real conversation between two people with opposing viewpoints are now available to the public. This new form of distribution allows for a person to listen, process, think, and respond. It is not not limited by time nor alignment with network ideology, it is allowing us to once again process information in a ‘clean’ manner. Anyone with a camera (yes, your iPhone counts) and/or microphone now has the ability to upload videos or audio without the traditional gatekeepers we have seen in the past.
Having a phone or computer today, means that you have the potential to connect with millions of people across the world, effectively for free. The distribution of information and knowledge we are watching unfold at a global scale is a large reason to be optimistic towards our future. By reducing fixed costs, not only does it allow for any publisher to reach the masses, it also means that anyone can become a publisher. In an address from Mark Zuckerberg on free speech and expression, he goes so far as calling this ‘revolution’ a “Fifth Estate”
People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.
The original Three Estates are in reference to the traditional realm of Europe: the king, the clergy, and the commoners. A more recent addition to the concept of Estates in society was adding the press as the Fourth Estate (relatively recent – the printing press was invented in the 1400’s which quite literally paved the way for journalism). Traditionally the press has provided great value in the distribution of information and in turn also keeping the government in check with investigative journalism. For this reason of providing an authority to keep the king honest, the press was coined as the Fourth Estate. The majority of information consumed by the public today is distributed via the Fourth Estate, but my question is: does the press still do their job which we have so heavily depended on in the past for checks and balances?
“Journalists see the First Amendment as an amulet, and with good reason. It has long protected the Fourth Estate—an independent institutional press—in its exercise of editorial discretion to check government power. This protection helped the Fourth Estate flourish in the second half of the twentieth century and ably perform its constitutional watchdog role.
But in the last two decades, the media ecology has changed. The Fourth Estate has been subsumed by a Networked Press in which journalists are joined by engineers, algorithms, audience, and other human and non-human actors in creating and distributing news…Their norms and values, including personalization and speed, stymie watchdog reporting.” – Erin Carroll
If we truly are entering a new epoch in media, what the future holds is largely uncertain. The only thing that we can be sure of, is that this new era will be different. Will this shift allow for the open discussion of reform or improvements in a healthy conversation? Will it allow for an independent minded individuals who don’t conform to a mold to be a serious contender for The Presidency? Will it be able to draw our country back from the left and right extremes we are edging catastrophically close to? I hope that is the case.
Thinking for Yourself
Bias is an integral part of being a human, and we will all continue to be guilty of possessing bias in some way or another for our entire lives. Throughout the entirety of this lengthy two part blog, I’ve been guilty of pointing fingers at people and groups around me, just as I have accused the left and right of being guilty of. We’re all human, and that seemed very natural to do so. While it would be much simpler for me to conclude that politicians are the true problem, or that if cable news never existed there would be no left vs. right issues. But playing the blame game is the easy way out, and I certainly have my own filters in which I have presented ideas and context to our current situation without so much as prescribing a fix all solution.
To create any substantial change towards progress, I believe that I need to fault myself as a part of the problem as well. In order to make any change we wish to be seen, we must first change ourselves – and by doing so I am attempting to create accountability for myself. Bringing my own bias to the forefront (a dislike for: two-party system/orthodox reporting/cable news/TikTok and a love for: reading/running/Nebraska Football/etc.), I hope to reason with other points of view and create opportunities for open-minded conversations in a Non-Zero Sum fashion.
While thinking for ourselves is certainly more work and effort than identifying our entire person with a particular cause and blindly following it into an abyss, but it is work that I believe is worth it. In perfect irony, I’ll steal a Paul Graham quote, to surmise the notion of identification and the ability to think more clearly without it.
“Topics [which] engage people’s identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn’t. No one would know what side to be on. So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people’s identities. More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.“
In admitting my own bias, I am attempting to remove personal identification that may hinder my ability to think clearly about any given topic, as well as in my approach towards the exchange of ideas with others. By taking such action, I hope that this is a small step towards a better solution to our current problem of Primitive Politics.