How We Got Here—Media Edition

It this era of Trump, oft time I would read a Facebook post in bewilderment of how we got here — got to this Styx River level of meanness and hatred.

Media commentary (especially in mainstream media) is often couched in both-sides-ism or equivocation and the infamous “some say,” at least until the advent of Trump. Then, even as the media grew increasingly wary and shocked, Trump was still good copy and ratings — speak into the microphone. Even today many political pundits and Op-Ed scribers call on both sides to stem the rhetoric, apparently hopeful that a Kumbaya moment is just around the corner. Memo to whom it may concern — not gonna happen.

My initial reaction to this brawl is that we (Democrats) did not light this fire. We did not.

Oh sure, there are plenty on the Left who are perfectly capable of returning fire. What? You expect us to keep saying, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”

It did not take very long for Democrats to begin demonizing Trump and painting him fifty shades of “What the hell did he say today?” We were not wrong to vilify him and his words, as four long years have proven.

I am not a trained political scientist, social scientist, or any sort of scientist, though I do believe in science. I have an above average IQ, both the intelligence kind and the emotional kind. As Al Pacino said in “Scent of a Woman,” “I’ve been around, you know.” I have lived more than seventy trips around the sun. As such, if one has been paying attention, you notice.

Today, there are three major threads contributing to the discourse, and lack there of. One is the politicization of the Christian Church, especially evangelicals. Two is the demagoguery and nastiness Newt Gingrich launched against liberals and Democrats in 1990. Three is the politicization of the media.

This blog is not about race per se, but there is an ugly underbelly of racism that still permeates where we are, whether discussing the media, religion or political discourse impact on our bottom feeding.

I will write about the first two in later blogs. This is about the politicization of the media.

Anyone remember the Fairness Doctrine? From Wikipedia — “The fairness doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.”

Whether you trust Wikipedia or not, this sounds about right.

There were many examples of this fairness, even into the late 20th Century. Who is old enough to remember The Advocates on PBS? On the Right was William Rusher, publisher of the conservative National Review. On the Left was Howard Miller, a University of Southern California law professor.

Filmed in Los Angeles, my wife and I were once part of an audience during a filming of The Advocates. One of the participants that night (for the Left) was Jack Anderson, muckraking columnist for the Washington Post. We chatted with him briefly after the show and I mentioned my interest in journalism. He told me, “be an advocate,” not intending any reference to the show. I never became a journalist.

Who remembers the Today Show with a weekly segment on politics hosted by Bryant Gumbel? Can you name the person on the Right? It was Rodger Ailes. I do not recall the name of the person who spoke on behalf of the Left.

Devotees of PBS’s NewsHour will know the name Mark Shields. NewsHour had a weekly segment for at least thirty years. Mark was on the Left and the various people filling in on the Right included William Safire, Paul Gigot, David Gergen and David Brooks. By today’s Republican Party standards William Safire, David Gergen and David Brooks would be turncoat liberals. Paul Gigot is still editor of the editorial page at the Wall Street Journal and would be considered a moderate Republican. I think there are only 25 moderate Republicans left in the party. That may be high.

Remember CNN’s Crossfire? Remember The McLaughlin Report?

All are examples of opinions representing both sides. Even William Buckley’s show on PBS, Firing Line, was a half-hearted attempt at balance.

Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1987, President Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine.

Katie bar the door.

Rush Limbaugh became a syndicated national talk show a year later, in 1988, and has averaged over fifteen million listeners ever since. From 1992–1996 he hosted a late night TV show, produced by Rodger Ailes. Over the thirty years following Rush’s debut it was estimated that conservative talk radio controlled 95% of the talk radio market. In 2008, Clear Channel inked a $50 million a year contract for eight years with Limbaugh. Clear Channel also has Sean Hannity and others under contract.

The list of right-wing talk show hosts is lengthy, the audiences are in the millions, and are very loyal.

Liberal media’s feeble attempt at Air America lasted only a few years. The lineup, including Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartman, Al Franken, and even for a time, Rachel Maddow, never gained much traction.

Fox News launched in 1996, under the rule of Rodger Ailes, and dominated the cable news market heretofore dominated by CNN. Remember how conservatives called CNN the Clinton News Network?

I can recall around 2008 renting a car in my home state of Indiana and driving south to Kentucky, then east to West Virginia and then down into Virginia, doing research for a book. The radio station line up included an oldies station, and all news station, a couple of country and western stations, a sports station, a couple of religious stations and right-wing talk radio on several stations.

A few years later I was driving in northwestern Oregon. I decided to give Limbaugh a listen. I nearly drove off the road.

What we have had since the 1990s is a steady drumbeat of right-wing media, pounding and pounding everyday, 24/7. And minimally, rural and small town American has been watching and listening and captivated. Mainstream media (MSM) was no longer the media for mainstreet. Devotees were being told ad nauseam that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and eventually MSNBC were liberal outlets bordering on socialism. Many did not stop at Socialism. Long gone was the most trusted newsperson in America, Walter Cronkite, plus Huntley-Brinkley, John Chancellor and Howard K. Smith. On PBS it was the Macneil-Lehner Hour.

But only Fox News was “fair and balanced” for the past twenty-five years.

It worked.

Now layer in multiple platforms of social media hosted even by foreign players and with posts by Putin puppets and bots. The sheer volume of it sucked the air of our country (we can’t breathe) while inciting most of Red State America into a frothy frenzy.

(Certainly, social media would have been exempt from the Fairness Doctrine even if it still existed today.)

Next, layer in eight years of Barrack Obama. They had an enemy in the White House — a Black enemy. The Styx River began overflowing its banks and rotting our culture.

The alternate media morphed into even more extremes during and since Obama, spurring a younger, more militant crowd. They were the ones assaulting the Capitol, the Fox News and Limbaugh devotees being now much older.

Richard Nixon went after the Press during most of his public life. But no one else made a campaign out of it — until Donald Trump.

Trump, with his 88 million Twitter followers began calling the Press “fake media” and the “enemy of the people.”

Facts became alternative facts. Senator Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts.” Trump said, “Hold my beer.”

We are in the Post-Truth Era.

Colin Powell said in 2019, “We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies and on things that just aren’t true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered.”

On January 6th, thousands upon thousands of deranged people felt empowered enough to storm the Bastille (our Capitol) to try to overturn a Constitutionally democratic election, and keep Trump on the throne.

Thank you, Ronald Reagan. He lit the fuse.

What follows Post-Truth? Pre-Fascism.