“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”–Polonius. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.

In an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump once again complained about the Saturday Night Live sketches mocking him:

“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”

People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is.  And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.

SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.

If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.

Why?

I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL,  is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.

Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC.  And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)

It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago.  In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him.  I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.

My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him.  Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.

Read Richard Branson’s account of meeting Trump–it indicates that Trump has personal animosity towards specific individuals. Most of the people Trump personally knows, whether as friends or enemies, are wealthy men like himself. So I’m guessing that when he starts attacking something, it’s usually because it’s owned or managed by some personal foe of his.

I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations.  (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator.  But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.

I’m not sure why they are calling these stories “fake news”–they appear to be similar to the old conspiracy theories that flourished, beginning in the late 1990s.  It’s part and parcel of what Warren Spector, the creator of the great conspiracy-theory video game Deus Ex, called “millennial weirdness”.

People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things.  A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AM for decades now. It’s not new.

I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.

It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature.  Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims.  (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)

But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order of The Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

I’ve always liked Bill O’Reilly–which is weird, because I don’t agree with the majority of his political views at all.  His bombastic style is definitely not “real journalism”, but I’ve always found it entertaining–a lot like John McLaughlin.  People say he’s a bully, and I can’t really disagree, but his manner reminds me of my Irish family members–they’ll yell and swear and browbeat somebody in an argument, and then afterwards shake hands and say “great to see you”.

Yeah, I guess I’m probably in a tiny minority as a liberal who likes O’Reilly and can’t stand Olbermann.  I like to be different.  I once read that Robert Frost said “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Anyway, so O’Reilly has been caught misrepresenting his role in various events–saying he was present in “a war zone” during the Falklands conflict, when in fact he was not; saying he was knocking at George de Mohrenschildt‘s door as de Mohrenschildt committed suicide, when O’Reilly was not even in the state at the time.  Coming so soon on the heels of the Brian Williams scandal, people are calling on Fox News to suspend him, just as NBC suspended Williams. Of course, Fox has not done that.

The reason for this discrepancy is that O’Reilly is an entertainer, whereas Brian Williams is a news reporter.  People who watched Williams expected to get factual information, and when he didn’t deliver, they got mad.  People who watch O’Reilly just want to be entertained.  Some love him, some hate him, but they all just want to see what he’s going to do next.  Whether any of it resembles truth is not relevant. This was proven quite conclusively when O’Reilly totally screwed up the history of the Malmedy massacre, saying the Americans committed the atrocity against the German SS prisoners, when actually it was the Germans committing it against the Americans. That’s a pretty pathetic error to  make.

But who cares if O’Reilly doesn’t know history?  He’s an entertainer.  Hence the comparison to McLaughlin–no one knows what he’s talking about half the time, even the other panelists, but it’s fun to watch, by golly!

That’s why NBC had to punish Williams, but Fox doesn’t need to punish O’Reilly: they’re not really in the same business.  In NBC’s business, credibility matters.

I have friends who don’t get blogging at all.  “What’s the point?” they ask. “Most blogs are not even reporting; they are just people pontificating about things.”

Which is more or less what I do.  And I have to admit, they have a point.  After all, when you are not reporting new information, all you can do is give your take on it.  And let’s face it: when you are giving your take, the three  major reactions are:

  1. I agree.
  2. I disagree.
  3. I don’t care.

If they agree, there was no reason to read it, since they already thought so.  If they disagree–well, this is the internet, so they will probably just insult you and leave.  (I have been fortunate to have intelligent readers who can disagree civilly and with reasoned arguments.)  Or they don’t care, in which case… they don’t care.  That’s probably worst of all, since it means the least traffic.

So, given all that, what’s the point of blogging if you are not going to be a shoe-leather reporter bringing the latest news?

One of my favorite quotes from literature is Lovecraft’s “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  This, as longtime readers will remember, was on the footer of my old blog.

But despite the pessimistic tone, I actually like correlating contents. In my opinion, the best post I have done so far is this one, because it involves correlating a lot of disparate ideas and information.  It’s not like I did any original work, but I like to think it led people to information they might not have been aware of otherwise.

The other thing I like about blogging–and I realize many bloggers do not take advantage of this–is that it can be collaborative.  This poem, which I started and then Thingy and P.M. Prescott completed is a good example, and I’m sure I could find more.

I guess that’s really what I like about it more than anything else: the opportunity to exchange ideas with interesting people.

There’s been a lot of talk this week about how horribly wrong the conservative press got their election predictions, picking Romney  to win in a landslide despite no polls supporting this idea.  They have been roundly criticized for attacking Nate Silver, who had the idea to go look at the polls and predict how people would vote based on them.  (Personally, I think my method is even better: I predicted who would win just by looking at the candidates.  But that’s an aside.)

The conservative press–Fox News, Limbaugh, and that crowd–are, of course, a bunch of liars.  I have no doubt about it, and I didn’t even before this election.  It’s so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on. So I won’t.  No, what I want to talk about is the non-Fox mainstream news media’s coverage of the election, especially election night itself.  It was not quite as bad as Fox, but it wasn’t good. It covered everything as a neck-and-neck horse race, and really only reported states as they came in.  (I will admit up front that I did not watch all of it; I went to bed at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, with total confidence of Obama’s victory.)

 
On my PBS station, I get something called “BBC World News America“.  As you may have guessed, it’s BBC news for Americans.  The difference between this and the regular American news is very striking.  On election night, the BBC did a good job pointing out that if you counted in the electoral votes of the solidly Democratic and Republican states, the President had a sizeable advantage.  Romney was, in short, playing with a handicap.  He was trailing before the competition actually started.

On all the other networks, all they really talk about is the “swing states”. Obviously, these are the most important, but to watch the coverage you would think that the whole affair rested entirely on who won these states.  They didn’t seem to focus so much on the fact that Obama had more margin for error.  It was just a “ooooo, who will win the next state?” sort of show, like a “reality” show of sorts.

Then there were people like David Gregory, who seemed to think he was covering a football game.  He kept talking about Obama’s “defense” and Romney’s “offense”.  That means nothing.  It’s not really that kind of competition.  People vote for and against candidates for lots of reasons.  I mean, the weather can determine the outcome of elections.

All in all, the television political press is pretty lousy, in my opinion.  Fox News is just a Republican P.R. office and the rest of them just like a close race so they can have something exciting to talk about.

Kamilla Berdin mentioned a study by Gerbner on how TV News impacts how people view the world.  Well, I wanted to find out about that, so I searched, and couldn’t find the actual study, but did find the articles on “Mean World Syndrome” and “Cultivation Theory“.  MWS is George Gerbner‘s idea that people who watch television a lot view the world as more hostile than it is.

I can believe it.  I occasionally watch my local news, and the two main takeaways are:

  • There are people all over the place committing heinous crimes
  • Sports.

Crime and sports seem to be the big-ticket items on local news.  The National news, on the other hand, is focused mostly on politics, health issues and foreign relations.  The major points here are:

  • Republicans and Democrats hate one another.
  • There are many diseases and/or foods that will kill you.
  • People in other countries hate one another and, usually, us.

I have been taught from a young age to view everything with a critical eye, so I like to believe that I’m capable of realizing this isn’t an accurate picture of the whole world; just the serious bits of it.  But still, if you had a steady diet of this, you’d think we were living in the world of A Clockwork Orange.  How telling is it that the least angry and life-threatening stories in all are about sport, which is basically a proxy for war?

That’s just the news, which is supposedly what the really well-informed people watch.  Then there are tons of both real and fictional cop shows where people commit bizarre and horrible crimes, just to really drive home the point.  And that’s just the over-the-air television.  I don’t get cable, but I don’t get the impression most of the programming on there is geared more towards thoughtful, civilized thinkers.  I could be wrong.

I remember there was an early “Dilbert” comic where Dogbert starts a “Good News” news network. Ironically, I think this is pretty much what segments like the “Making a Difference” bit on NBC News  are trying to do.  But they come at the end, after we have already been visited by the crime-ridden hellscape that the news presents.

People always ask: “why don’t they report good news”?  Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. It’s almost never urgent  I don’t need to hear about the people who had a nice day,  I need to hear if a gang war is breaking out.
  2. It’s boring.  A part of us is entranced by lurid and violent stuff.
  3. When you factor in the first two reasons, what do you think gets more viewership?

Finally: sometimes, good news does get reported.  The end of wars, for example, tends to get lots of attention, though you could argue that’s not good news, merely the cessation of bad news.

But what about the effect TV has on people?  Does it do what it did to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network?  (Yes, I am aware of the irony in using an analogy from a movie to talk about this.)   But how could you avoid concluding from TV that the world is a horrible place you should minimize contact with? It seems to me that the only options are (a) assume most of what they say on TV is a lie, which is dangerous because you might become a 9/11 truther or something if you do that, OR (b) not watch it, and run the risk of not being “up” on current events.

Lastly, of course, there is the internet; which should allow you to customize your news.  The only problem with that is TV news problem 2, above, which leads us back to where we started.

David Wong, writing in Cracked, lists “5 ways to spot a B.S. Political Story”. He highlights certain words that appear in political headlines, and what they often signify. It would be easy to blame this on lazy journalists; however, it’s really very easy to find yourself repeating the same phrases that are familiar to you. And it’s a huge hindrance to writing about politics. George Orwell famously advised in his essay Politics and the English Language:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Great advice, and so naturally very difficult to heed. I’ve probably fallen back on time-worn phrases countless times in writing this blog. As people acquire language largely through imitation, it’s only natural that we fall easily into imitation when using it.

Wong also laments how stories often couch everything purely in terms of political points scored. He writes of the headline “Slowdown in U.S. jobs growth deals a blow to Obama.”:

How about the millions of people who are out of work? Hey, guys, I don’t know if you realize this, but the world actually exists. Those numbers on the screen represent actual humans who are actually suffering. No, really! It’s not a video game!

The reason the press has to couch everything in this manner is simple: otherwise, they get called for political bias. Wong talks about stories that treat, for example, the healthcare law as merely a political “horse-race” issue, but the poor writers have only two other options:

  1. Write headlines like “Supreme Court to render millions uninsured”–a headline which would cause all the Republicans to gripe even more than usual about “liberal bias”, and whine that this was “value-laden language”.
  2. Capitulate to the Republicans entirely and write headlines like “Supreme Court to free millions from yoke of socialism”.

The first thing will never happen, because hell hath no fury like a Republican who is mad at the press. The second thing is out at every news source that has some interest in the truth. So, all that’s left is the horse-race approach. After all, no one can complain that it’s biased.