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Practicing Journalism In The Orange Era

It's time to rethink how White House coverage is handled, beginning with the briefing room, because under Trump the real news is happening elsewhere, and is hidden.
Practicing Journalism In The Orange Era

By this point in our experience of Orange 45 - before, during, and since his Inauguration - it’s indisputable that he needs constant attention reinforcing his personal and political legitimacy. He hungers constantly for that attention and absolutely depends on it, even at 3 a.m. Legitimacy - i.e., social acceptance and approval - is food, water, and oxygen to him.

For example, in his recent remarks on Twitter and at the CIA, the Attention-Craver-in-Chief lost his temper about the media’s estimates of the size of the crowds at his Inauguration. He then sent out his Press Secretary, in his first official public interaction with the White House press corps, to berate the press about crowd size with fabricated statistics.

Crowd sizes - about which His Royal Neediness crowed throughout the campaign - implicate his interconnected compulsions to seek attention and legitimacy: he’s obsessed with who’s watching him and approving him. As others have noted, it's interesting how often his self-esteem is tied up with “size.” His acute insecure narcissism is, at some level, so sad - even pitiable - that I can only imagine how horrible his parents must have been to him.

But that’s not my point here. I want to talk about how his needs for attention and legitimacy - and, more broadly, Republican messaging strategy and tactics - should affect how the press should report the new administration’s conduct. These are interconnected matters. Moreover, how the press covers the Orangerie can coincidentally benefit progressive political interests.

Republican Presidential administrations since Nixon - hat-tip, H.R. Haldeman - have mastered messaging and message discipline. For almost 50 years, Republicans have used political messaging and sloganeering artfully - brilliantly - to motivate their audiences (Republican voters and contributors) and demonize their adversaries and the press. Remember “the Silent Majority”?

Republicans have three audiences for their messaging: (1) their relatively homogenous voter base (mostly white and mostly older and mostly higher income); (2) their contributor base (same); and (3) pivoting undecided middle-ground voters, like those who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Mr. Needful in 2016. Although Republicans lost the popular presidential vote, they succeeded with all three groups where it ultimately mattered - in the Electoral College. (Sigh…).


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The goals of the Republican messaging strategy to these audiences have been described concisely by someone who is, unfortunately, anonymous:

If you are puzzled by the bizarre "press conference" put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump's inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes:

  1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of "negging," the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of horrible person (e.g., Donald Trump).
  2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance).
  3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is a taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic). A third of the population will say "clearly the White House is lying," a third will say "if Trump says it, it must be true," and the remaining third will say "gosh, I guess this is unknowable." The idea isn't to convince these people of untrue things, it's to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine.

So... allowing the administration on the mainstream media gives the administration a platform to (1) feed and, therefore, control the press, which continuously needs new content; (2) train the administration’s base-voters to reject fact-based reporting from conventional media; and (3) alienate the undecided - and pivotal - middle third from engaging in political activity.

Additionally - and this is where the media’s bread is buttered - this messaging strategy aims to cause the Republican base and the undecided middle third to turn off the mainstream media: the former because they reject it and the latter because it’s too tiring to figure out what’s true. For the mainstream media, this could presage continuing declines in viewers, subscriptions, clicks, and, therefore, advertising dollars.

The mainstream media are apparently trying to stop these declines by hosting and hiring more and more of the Right’s fabricators. MSNBC seems to be trying to bring in more of its adversaries to draw their audience. As a business plan, it’s unclear whether tilting content more to the right will work for mainstream media.

Regardless, here’s my simple two-part strategy for the media to get content the public needs while ensuring a measure of journalistic integrity (if they care as an industry about integrity). Coincidentally, this changed strategy would align with advancing progressive interests:

The press must and should report in detail on governance by the Orange Emperor.
The press, however, should not give him and his minions a live venue for any “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway called them Sunday on Meet the Press.

How should this approach change press coverage of our 45th President and his administration? Here’s a specific example: CNN decided not to cover live the Press Secretary’s Day One attack on the media’s reporting on Inauguration crowd-size.

That’s the way it should be done, up to and including keeping this administration’s spokespeople entirely off live mainstream media. Cover and report in depth what this administration says and does, but don’t give it the real-time electronic platform/megaphone to shout, interrupt, fabricate, bully, and demonize adversaries and the press. They already have FOX and talk-radio for that.

This strategy might weaken the ability of the new administration to arouse its base to hate the MSM and to turn off the pivotal middle. Maybe the media lose a little gapers’-delay-theatre in the bargain, but the alternative helps the administration advance its reactionary interests.

Finally, this strategy can benefit the progressive opposition by making the Attention-Craver-in-Chief more insecure and angry for want of legitimizing attention, potentially causing him to make more unforced errors and ordering his staff to carry out more of his unpopular mistakes. The least popular new administration in recent U.S. political history can still get even more unpopular, and be tied like a can to the tail of the Congressional Republicans. I can tolerate seeing Congressional Rs on the news and talk shows defending the indefensible if the trade-off is that I don’t have to see any of Steve Bannon’s meat puppets.

And, yes, this is a “modest proposal” only in the sense that Jonathan Swift used the term. It’s not modest. It’s radical.

However, radical surgery is necessary sometimes to save gravely vulnerable patients - which, right now, are our free press, and, perhaps, democracy itself. And the idea of marginalizing the administration’s spin doctors is getting support in mainstream media circles.

Plus, if the media shut out the administration’s fabricators, we get the benefit of watching Sad!45 ranting and begging for more attention on a daily basis, providing endless opportunities for satire and irony. In these hilarious and terrifying times, we will need all the laughs we can find, wherever we find them.

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