Wednesday, September 16, 2020

On The Slapping of the Tsar, 10 Years Later

In today's Atlantic magazine, James Fallows pens a typically thoughtful but charitably misguided critique of the mainstream media.  See if you can spot his error with only this much of a clue to go on:
The Media Learned Nothing From 2016 
The press hasn’t broken its most destructive habits when it comes to covering Donald Trump.
The error -- plain and clear in the headline itself -- is the assumption that the media didn't learn the lesson of 2016.

This is not so.

The media has learned -- or, rather, re-learned -- the most important lessons of all from 2016, which is the same lessons they learned in 2017 and 2019 and 2002 and 1994 and 2007 and, let's face it, pretty much every news cycle for the last 30 years.   That there are zero professional consequences to being terrible at the job of political journalism. That, in fact, relentlessly lying about the condition and trajectory of the Republican Party on network teevee and in respectable print publications will win tangible rewards from your employer and the plaudits of your peers, while telling the truth about the GOP will get you cancelled and permanently exiled to the Phantom Zone of the Liberal blogosphere.

All of the failings Mr. Fallow identifies as lessons-not-learned by the press from 2016 about the dangers of False Equivalence reportage -- of the media's unbreakable addiction to head-in-the-sand Both Siderism -- are not new at all.  They are, in fact, a longstanding pre-existing condition which has allowed the Republican Party and its media enablers to get away with murder for decades.

From the installation of Newt Gingrich as Speaker to the anointing of Rush Limbaugh as party king-maker, to the impeachment of Bill Clinton over trivia, to "catapulting to propaganda" catastrophe that was the Dubya Administration, to the outright vandalism and sedition of the GOP during the Obama years, each time the Right has taken another, jaw-dropping step over the line, the media has collectively cowered and whined and rolled over for it with a flurry of "Both Sides Do It" and "Why Won't Obama Lead?"


Like the clear and present danger the rise of Hitler in Germany, the mainstream media should never have let things get this far.  They should have stopped it at the beginning -- deprived the metastasizing rage, racism and paranoia on the Right of the oxygen of publicity and legitimacy early on.  But despite what you learned in social studies, the American media is not in the democracy business.  They are in the ratings and advertising business.  And you don't grow your ratings and revenue by calling out the fascists in your audience for being fascist, or the cowards in your audience for refusing to see the threat growing all around them.

Instead they chose to pander to the fascists and the cowards with a Big Lie.  A lie big enough to, like grandma's nightgown, cover everything.  The Big Lie of Both Siderism, or, if you prefer "Both Sides Do It", or (as Mr. Fallows calls it to avoid paying royalties to the Liberal blogosphere) Both Sides-ism.

But whatever you call it, tt all comes to the same thing: telling the fascists on the Right that they don't need to feel icky about following a racist lunatic off the cliff and dragging the rest of us along with them because the Left is just as bad...

...while at the same time comforting the cowards in the Center by reassuring them that picking either side is pointless because Both Sides are equally terrible.

And that is the irresistible seduction of the Both Siderist lie.  Because it's such an easy lie to tell that dozens of the laziest hacks in American journalism have built entire careers out of doing little more than cranking out one shitty Both Sides Do It column after another, year after year.  And it's such an efficient lie that it can feed the ego-needs to two, entirely different audience segments -- Republican fascists and Centrist cowards -- simultaneously.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph Heller, this has got to be the best lie ever!  Huge professional upsides for even the most talentless drone, and zero professional risk as long as everyone goes along with it.  Sure, it paved the way for the Republican Party to come within a hair's breadth of killing the country, but the ratings were spectacular!

Mr Fallows agrees:
Networks ran Trump’s rally speeches endlessly from mid-2015 onward, giving him free airtime valued at some $2 billion. Why his speeches, and not Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’s? Because they were deemed great TV, and the channels’ own ratings went up when the rallies were on. As the race continued, cable channels demonstrated their supposed balance by stocking political discussion panels not with representatives of conservative viewpoints but rather with tribalists and die-hard team members, people who would defend whatever Trump had done or said. (One of these people is now the White House press secretary, and her press briefings are like her old cable hits.) The choice of panelists did not reflect a range of policy viewpoints; it was sitcom casting, with people playing their predictable, recognizable parts.
As I've already said, where he and I part company is on the subject of the media's unwillingness to learn the lesson of 2016.  Because the soul-bludgeoning inability of the press to rise to this most dangerous of occasions is not because they failed to learn the lessons of 2016, but because they  thoroughly internalized those lessons long ago.

In fact, with almost no effort at all I can find in the archives of at least one disreputable Liberal blogger literally decades of posts documenting in real time the collapse of the American political press.

I'll leave you with one such post from a decade ago.

You Struck The Tsar!




This is a metaphor.

There is a moment near the end of "Nicholas & Alexandra" when -- if you didn't know how the story ends -- you finally realize the Romanovs are truly doomed: the moment when a guard slaps the tsar (link here.)

The slap itself is nothing -- far worse violence has unfolded both on and off screen during most of the preceding 14-hour movie run-time -- but, like Rick's little nod to the band in "Casablanca", what it represents in terms of a radical change to the trajectory of the protagonists cannot be understated. During all that has gone before, the royal family and their retainers had been protected by an invisible shield which no one dared penetrate -- the accumulated weight of hundreds of years of political and religious mythos.

However much his circle of protection constricted and however much of his liberty and property was stripped, centuries of sermons and cossacks had flogged this fact into the Russian soul: if you screwed with the tsar, something Very Very Bad would happen. The royal family was all that stood between order and Universal chaos, so the least you could expect was that Almighty God would drop a bomb on your head.

Absolutely. Positively. Automatically.

Ah, but when a guard finally slaps the tsar...nothing happens.

And when no wrath from On High is forthcoming -- when the tsar is shown to be merely a man -- the last, thin protective shield around his family collapses. In that giant moment, the previously unthinkable became suddenly thinkable...and history -- at least as it was represented cinematically -- changed.

On the Left, I would argue that history just changed in an equally big way, although you can be forgiven if you didn't notice. In America, reporting on what Left actually thinks is virtually nonexistent due to the Left's long and intolerably embarrassing record of being right about almost every big issue to come down the pike for the last 30-40 years. Instead, all we hear about are the sinister antics and motives of the whatever is plopping off the assembly line at the Straw Man Factory today: for the brainwashed slugs on the Right, the Left is forever a fictional cabal of "committed Marxists" whose dark conspiracies are responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong since Eden; for the spineless pussies in the Center, the Left is a fictional bunch of "unreasonable fringe-types" against whom they have been trained to automatically heap gratuitous opprobrium every time the Right fucks them over again.

For, y'know, "balance".

The truth is, despite mainstream press attempts to sledgehammer this debate back into the same, suffocating Sister-Soulja-Base-versus-the-Reasonable-President straight-jacket (Bernie Sanders who?), this last bit of "hostage taking" over tax cuts for billionaires has changed things on the Left the same way that the Presidential election of 2004 changed things.

What happened this week was that the GOP finally dropped its last fig-leaf and with it, any pretense of a conscience.

In 2004, the Cheney Administration offered the imbeciles, cowards and bigots who despised this country enough to re-elect the worst president in American history an ample supply of flags and bibles and "Boot in their ass"-themed country music behind which they could hide when called upon to justify their truly spectacular desecration of every American value they purported to admire.

Granted the rationalizations that the Party of Personal Responsibility offered up were patently ridiculous, but as always they Right found that if they just backed their phony excuses up by screaming "Why do you hate America?!" loud enough, the sheer decibel level of their lies could blot out any reasonable attempt to rebut them.

This time, the Party of God has left them nothing. Not a shred of ideological camouflage. Not a single economic entrenching tool with which to dig themselves a plausible spider hole. Nothing.

And this is what changed. 2010 will go down as the year that the lies which have sustained the Right for 40 years finally got too ridiculous and top-heavy to be maintained, and the GOP just gave up pretending that it is anything other than a cesspit of thieves and fascists and lunatics.

And the media shrugged.

After two years of constant lying and intractable, public, reactionary opposition to everything in the name of nothing but clawing their way back to power over the corpse of the American Dream, 2010 became the year the Right got tired of half measures, pulled out a gun, jammed it right in the face of national security, the United States military, the poor, 9/11 first responders, the families of those blown to bits by BP, and the unemployed and shrieked "Gimme the money! "Gimme the money! Just gimme the fucking money!"

And the media smirked.

This was year the Right finally stepped its depravity fully and nakedly out of the cage and into the spotlight (video no longer available)  sending the media and the White House scurrying away in a frenzied search for... cranky Liberal purity sluts to blame it on.

This was the year when the Right unapologetically reached out and slapped the American people hard and publicly across the mouth just because they fucking well could.

And nothing happened.

Nobody stood up and yelled "Liar!" during one of Boehner's speeches. No rallies featuring grifting mama grizzlies or people in funny hats packing assault rifles were held to denounce the GOP. None of the Very Serious People who are supposed to stand steadfastly on the side of the American people against such nakedly anti-American rapaciousness could rouse themselves to do a fucking thing but whine about what sanctimonious pricks Liberals are.

And the last, thin protective shield around the fantasy that we can coexist with the monsters on the Right and the cowards in the Center finally collapsed and died.

No Half Measures


dinthebeast said...

The way I see it, the problem (well, A problem) is that they DID learn the lesson from 2016: that giving Fergus everything he wants is wildly profitable.

-Doug in Sugar Pine

Unknown said...

"And it's such an efficient lie that it can feed the ego-needs to two, entirely different audience segments -- Republican fascists and Centrist cowards -- simultaneously."

Add a third audience to this: overly-cynical anti-corporate (alleged) lefties who are willing to watch things burn rather than suck up a little griftin' grief to help kill the larger monster. Apparently they don't know that the wholesale value of that marginal shrink is built into the overhead, but that's the hill they choose to die on and they're happy to take us down with them. Green Party purity trolls come to mind...

The other thing that makes me crazy is when any criticism of the Big Lie filters up to where they actually have to respond to it, they act SO goddamn aggrieved that anyone should call out their "fair and balanced" bullshit. It's infuriating; there are many things in this life that are gray areas. Political reporting on the Republican party in 2020 (and the four decades prior) is not one of them.

Jason said...

Great post. I know history repeats itself (or hell, just continues on in perpetuity apparently) but I'm wondering what exactly are specific examples that demonstrate your point DG. Why in 2010 as opposed to 2009 or 2004? What happened in 2010 where any pretense of the Right to represent a credible perspective for America fell away and exposed the naked moral turpitude of establishment Republicans? It was the Obama presidency obviously but I don't remember the tenor of the politics of the time other than McConnell and the Republicans twisting law and breaking norms (or was it breaking laws and twisting norms). You know, the usual.

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