So a while back, this tweet caught my eye.
"On the Sunday shows, Scaramucci says he'll overhaul WH comms. One idea he's already floated: State-run TV."
It prompted a bit of a rant at the time. I'm going to revisit the topic. Buckle up, folks.
For the sake of discussion, the tweet above was in reference to the following quote.
Speaking at former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s private retreat in Deer Valley, Utah, [in June], Scaramucci said that he believed the White House was faltering in part because the communications director job was empty and that communicating directly with the public was the key imperative of this White House, according to one attendee.
"If he were in the role, Scaramucci continued, he would consider starting a daily administration “television” broadcast at 7 a.m., complete with a desk on the White House lawn and guests that included Democratic leaders.
“I like Anthony, but Pelosi and Schumer aren’t going on his state-run morning show,” the attendee said, referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).1
It's still one of the most disturbing ideas the administration has floated. The fact that Scaramucci imploded so spectacularly does not mitigate that pronouncement. There is, at present, no “official” daily broadcast. Additionally, the administration's inability to stay on message persists.
Those concessions aside, the impulse itself is troubling. Trump's continued maligning of the mainstream news media highlights his desire to shape, direct, and even control the media coverage he and his administration receive. This is not the same as a press briefing.
Press briefings communicate administration views to the press, but the press draws their own conclusions. An administration broadcast would mean control of the views, the questions, the dialogue, the conclusions, the editing, and the entire narrative. That is not journalism. That isn't how the press works. That's not even infotainment.
That is pure, unadulterated propaganda. It's not hard to imagine that an administration approved morning show wouldn't be enough for long. Among myriad other concerns, who would carry it? Fox News? It wouldn't stop there, of course.
Every cable news channel that did't carry it would, no doubt, dissect it. The complaints about misrepresenting the administration's message are the easiest to foresee. Followed by a demand to broadcast its entirety, to “let the viewers judge for themselves,” so to speak.
And then what? Maybe it becomes mandatory, or nearly so. Then perhaps it creeps onto the broadcast stations, “supplementing” the local morning programming, for those who don't have cable. Eventually becoming a de facto replacement, or even displacing them outright.
And then, of course, you have to consider the folks who miss the morning shows. Perhaps a rehash at the noon hour. Followed by a review of the day in the evening. And, while we're here, let's tell you about the “official” news items of the day, too.
At some point, it'd be enough to cover an entire day of programming. And there's really no better way for people to find the official news than to centralize everything on a single channel. Then it's just a matter of whittling away at all the “fake news” out there.
Sounds ridiculous, laid out like that, doesn't it? Paranoid, hysterical, an exaggeration, carrying the thought experiment too far. Thing is, we've seen this happen before. In other countries. It's not paranoia when it's following the strategy of kleptocrats, totalitarians, and dictators. As Caroline O. pointed out in her thread on censorship, this is a page from Putin's playbook.
We've already seen the “media as enemy of the people” gambit in play. That's what all the “fake news” and “lying press” was about. Pointing at the press as a National Security threat is just another tool in the bag to undermine the press.
And it's not the only tactic he's copied. Trump's incessant deflection to the supposed misdeeds of others, his 'whataboutism' as it's frequently called, is one of Russia's favorite propaganda tools. It's one of the easiest ways to shrug off criticism, responsibility, and demands for policy specifics while pointing your base to a common enemy.2
When the Congressional Budget Office estimated that GopCare would leave 24 million uninsured, he blasted the ACA. When the spotlight was on Sessions-Kislyak contacts, he accused Democrats of the same. When O'Reilly called Putin a killer, he famously responded with “What, you think our country is so innocent?” And who can forget his recent hits, “I think there's blame on both sides,” “What about the alt-left?,” and “Is George Washington next?”3
Part of the problem is the media ecosystem we inhabit. And the truth is, Trump didn't create this on his own. The creep of fact-adjacent media has been an ongoing trend since the mid 1980s.
“Other than Rush Limbaugh….almost nothing here existed before Fox was created in 1996. None of this existed when Ronald Reagan was elected, none of this existed when Bill Clinton was elected, it’s all brand new. It starts with AM talk radio after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in ‘85, moves on in ‘96 when cable comes to enough households that the market strategy of aiming narrowly to a politically committed audience becomes viable. Then most of what we’re seeing here, other than Breitbart, which is in 2007, emerges after Obama as the foundation of the Tea Party.”4
Thus we can see that the polarization of the right has been a work in progress and Trump was merely the best able to capitalize on it. The left has its own version of fact-adjacent media, though it appears to be newer and less far afield. Do not take this as an excuse to gloat, however, but as a preview of the dangers that lie ahead.
So how do we fight this? Glad you asked!
We must exercise our best judgment in choosing the media we follow and the stories we share. We cannot expect the media to rebuild a fact-based consensus by itself. We must hold not only the media, but in effect ourselves as well, to the standards of professional journalism. As has been pointed out, this is accomplished not by chasing an ever evolving clickbait ideal to win over the social media market, but by acknowledging the disinformation campaign for what it is.5
The importance of this cannot be overstated. In a discussion of his study on the Russian propaganda model, Christopher Paul suggested that Russia is “focused more on sowing confusion, distrust, division, and discontent among adversaries than on any immediate economic gain for Russia. [...] If most sources of information available deserve to be treated with skepticism and distrust, he pointed out, the few trustworthy sources that remain are likely to be discounted, too.”6 The sheer volume of lies are meant to exhaust and disillusion.
Soviet dissidents dealt with propaganda masquerading as news for 70 years.7 They fought with ruthless, relentless truth. They chose to communicate their message dispassionately, clinically, objectively.
The dissidents had created an expectation that a different kind of language was possible, one that expressed a reality not filtered through Soviet imperatives. They craved honesty and transparency in a country where even the suicide rate was considered a state secret. Samizdat provided the outlet. And facts, relentlessly stacked one on top of the other, became the dissidents' way of building the different Russia they hoped might one day emerge and overcome all the lying.8
We can disagree on matters of policy. We can disagree on which direction we should go & what we want to achieve. Disagreement is inevitable. But we, individually and culturally, cannot afford to lose ourselves in hyperbole. Always begin from facts, ground every discussion in reality. Demand verifiable evidence and think with your head.
One way to do this is to consider the source material. The most recent chart from Vanessa Otero is an excellent guide to keep handy.9 It is not exhaustive, of course, but offers an easily reconciled visual.
You'll note that, as previously mentioned, the right is not alone in the bottom third or so of the graph. We on the left have our purveyors of noise and nonsense as well. Don't let confirmation bias, the desire to verify what you already believe, blind you to fact-adjacent statements (much less “alternative facts”!) and shoddy reasoning.
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions created an infographic, available in over 30 languages, based on FactCheck.org's article on fake news. It covers eight points to keep in mind, particularly when reading the latest “viral” stories. Taken together with the Key Characteristics of Bogusness (another piece on those email chains that clog your inbox and never die), it provides a solid base of critical thinking for your media intake.
Keep these tools close to hand, on as many devices as you use to view the news and social media. Use them frequently and without apology when you consider your position on matters of politics and policy. More importantly, hold them firmly in your mind whenever someone tries to convince you of their viewpoint.
Paying attention is a political act. Pay attention. Be political. Stay frosty out there.
2 For a deeper look at this topic, read here: http://www.npr.org/2017/03/17/520435073/trump-embraces-one-of-russias-favorite-propaganda-tactics-whataboutism
3 For the record, here's a debunking of the alt-left line. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/us/politics/trump-alt-left-fact-check.html?mcubz=0
5 Consider reading the entire piece for a serious look at what went on during the election season. “Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda.” Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman. Columbia Journalism Review. 3 March 2017. http://pllqt.it/ielWgS