Media Manipulated: A Memoir

The little pink pony in happier times

I started my first newspaper when I was in 4th grade, sometime in late 1972, and it was badly written and horribly illustrated and full of stories that were either badly reported, based entirely on gossip or made up on the spot. That publication was short-lived (d. 1973) but its spirit lives on in the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report and virtually every American cable news outlet.

In a related story: Fox News’s Glenn Beck, whose willingness to say or do anything for attention has swiftly made him a hugely influential TV pundit, asserts that his media empire, which grosses north of $30 million US a year, asserted recently that it’s really all just entertainment. That all of his super-nationalist patriotism, with its 9 theses and 12 assertions, plus also its tear-stained recriminations and spit-flecked denunciations, much of which now resides at the heart of the Tea Party movement, is merely showbiz posturing. Which maybe isn’t a surprise, because the even-more-successful Rush Limbaugh tends to say precisely the same thing — that he’s really just an entertainer —  which is also probably what Keith Olbermann thinks every time he thunders through another Special Comment and/or Worst Person in the World segment. Then you realize how Beck, et. al, influence the T.P. types, whose protestations influence the political process, which influences the American gov’t, which holds a certain amount of sway over the entire free world. At which point, well, shit.

Last night I was summoned to a hotel bar to meet a source for a story I’m writing, a feature story, nothing all that important, and at the appointed time I was greeted not by my source (name and identity still unknown, btw) but by a confused woman who had been paid $10 by a stranger on the street, who asked her to hand me a small box that contained the head of a Lil’ Pink Pony (or whatever it’s called) and a note instructing me to email a single question, which would be answered via some mp3 message. So okay, fine, I’m up for this kind of antic. I realize this is an absurd game, that it suits the quirky personal and/or commercial and/or media interests of my subject. But what else is new? I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years, writing celebrity profiles, TV reviews, investigative pieces, medical stories, political stories, on and on and on. And I think all of them involved some measure of attempted/successful fibbing, distorting and obvious manipulation on the part of the subjects. In other words: there is very little separating a decapitated toy pony from the text of your average press release. Or White House briefing, for that matter.

Follow the jump for more on Glenn Beck, the big sex story I just wrote and more…

Sometimes the purpose of all of this, particularly when it comes to my own participation, seems elusive. To put it mildly. Are there other ways to earn a living? And if I’m going to be part of a vast fun-and-illusion factory, maybe I should get myself a top hat (with spangles. I’d want spangles on mine) and jump right into the ring.

The rewarding part comes when it seems like you’ve put your finger on some real thing, a split second of clarity, a moment of transcendence, and you manage to put it into words that may actually reach your friends and neighbors and give them something to think about. It’s an elusive target, and always, maddeningly, subject to the subjective judgments of others. For instance, I think there’s something sick and wrong about Glenn Beck’s 3 card monte version of moral fire and brimstone. As if it could ever be cool to play at matters of national/global policy — to actively screw with processes that affect the lives and sometimes deaths of the most vulnerable among us — because it’s fun and profitable. But even Richard Nixon had soul, to paraphrase Neil Young, and if Beck’s hokum makes his fans feel and think something, no matter how absurd, I guess that IS his job. And maybe it’s not his fault that our government is full of desperate, gullible and easily-led types whose commitment to the public interest takes a poor second to their own need for power and fame. That, I’m sorry to say, is pretty much our fault.

Now it’s time for me to get back to my job(s). I’m still waiting on the mp3 from the pink pony guys, and I’ve got a major investigative thing on sex set to appear in the Sunday Oregonian (you’ll want to check that out), plus also a handful of other newspaper stories in the works (celebrities, trends, the usual) and an endless procession of tasks related to the book I’m working on…..which also turns out to be about celebrities, the media, American culture, politics and image.

Sometimes I think I should just toss it all and go back to my first journalistic love, that fourth grade newspaper. We wrote it directly onto a ditto master that would imprint our scrawled words in fresh blue ink on the opposite side of the page. We’d clip that to the big metal roller in the middle of the ditto machine, turn the crank and see our work published on clean, white paper, right before our eyes. The stack of freshly run-off sheets emerged warm and redolent of ink and industry, then deliver them ourselves, walking around the classroom and handing them to our classmates, and to our teachers (Mr. Brooks, Ms. King). We could watch them read, see them respond, hear them talk about it all, right in front of us. Sometimes professional journalism, circa 2010, can feel that rewarding. Just not very often.

Assassination Incitations – the cult of the killer story.

So distressing, and yet true: A lot of people want to harm, or kill, the President of the United States.

And maybe that’s always true, no matter who the president is. Maybe it’s natural that the most powerful, famous man in the world will also be the natural target for anger, hatred and the murderous intent of crazy people. We are a flawed species, particularly clever in finding new ways to leverage our imperfections into more efficient ways to harm ourselves, and others.

So why is the American media so intent on goading the hatred?

Not everyone in the media, perhaps. But certainly the political commentariat. And not just the far right, either. Think of the breathless, scandal-rich narrative heard every day on CNN’s “Situation Room.” Fair and balanced, I suppose: any pol with a hot story to tell, or be told upon, gets their moment in the klieg lights.

But the further right you go, the worse it gets. At least, that’s how it been for the last, oh I don’t know, nine and a half months, or so.

You know who we’re talking about. And the vocabulary they use.

I give you Rush Limbaugh:

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? “He’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He’s an angry racist.”

Sonja Sotomayor? “She’s a bigot. She’s a racist. How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.”

President Obama? He’s “the biggest reverse racist in history.” On another occasion: “Just as he is ACORN, just as he is Van Jones, he is racism.”On a third: “How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people.” So implicitly Mr. Limbaugh is labeling multiple figures within the administration as racists too.

Democrats generally? “The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign.”

Liberals? “You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left.”

All that from this Daily Beast analysis on the same guy who proclaimed last week that his failed attempt to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams was a result of a high-tech lynching, ala Clarence Thomas.

follow the jump, and the hate, for more…

So incendiary language. What else is new? Not enough. Until you get to the ever-increasing hysteria. And the apocalyptic overtones. And what seems frighteningly like a media-borne incitement to McVeigh-style violence.

Not that anyone on the bright side of the camera is going to admit it. Glenn Beck, by his own assertion, is little more than a “rodeo clown.” When pressed Limbaugh dismisses himself as an entertainer, a broadcaster whose sole mission is to fill airtime and sell ads.

Which would be fine if he (they, and not just the far right) weren’t so obviously playing at leadership. And aiming themselves squarely at the most feverish, and possibly dangerous, segments of society.

It’s all fever talk. Fire and brimstone. Flames and locusts. The world is exploding. The other side is satanic. They are criminal, murderous, evil to the core.

It’s great for ratings. So black-and-white (literally, when the Limbaughs of the world are talking). So visceral and real. Catch me on a bad day and I talk that way about my various antagonists, too. Only I’m not imagining anyone’s death. And as we keep hearing, a lot of people seem to be doing just that.

Every day has its own aspiring John Wilkes Booth. Only the 19th century didn’t have the constant blazing commentary flowing through the media 24/7. Or maybe it did, only a penny newspaper could never pack the punch of the 21st century’s constantly moving pictures, blaring soundtrack, and more.

Nothing new. Except for the obvious, which I hardly ever seem to hear: That an unregulated, profit-starved media operates with the same guiding principle of a great white shark: all appetite, no conscience. You expect the spotlight-dazed, gratification-obsessed, attention whores like Rush, Beck (and Olbermann, to be fair) to say and do whatever it takes to get attention. What you don’t expect, or deserve, is how the corporate sector will serve to amplify them, and juice the craziness as high and hard as it’ll go.

JFK, RFK, MLK, Oklahoma City, the WTC. What they have in common is large-scale craziness. Seething hatred. Sharkish appetite. And damn, they were all great stories, too.

It’s that last part that makes them so, you know, killer.

All The President's Men, 2009: "You're missing the overall! Follow the money!"

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: Glenn Beck says Barack Obama is a racist. Rush Limbaugh says white kids are now fair game for angry black kids “in Barack Obama’s America.” Keith Olbermann says any number of people are the Worst Person In the World. Rep. Joe Wilson calls the POTUS a liar in the midst of an official presidential address to Congress; health care reform opponents equate proposed changes with socialism, communism, Nazism and worse; Nancy Pelosi says all this outrage over health care is veering dangerously toward political violence.

And the only thing I know for an absolute fact is that most of the major news outlets in America are run by entertainment executives whose MBA-wielding bosses are way more Adam Smith than they are Edward Murrow.

Remember “All The President’s Men,” and those midnight parking garage meetings between Bob Woodward and Deep Throat? “You’re missing the overall! Follow the money!” The super-secret Watergate informant was one Nielsens overnights reference away from nailing the secret to the corruption of the political discourse in the 21st century, too.

Follow the jump (and the money) for more…

Follow the money: Rampant deregulation of the broadcast medium — both in ownership rules and public service guidelines — leads to unrestricted profiteering. The primacy of profits over content steers news programs away from think-y, wonk-y issues like policy and cost/benefit analyses to hot-blooded subjects like lies and the lying liars who tell them. And really now, when you’re flipping through the cable after dinner what catches your eye: a weighty white paper report on the tertiary economic impact of a publicly run health care system, or a heated argument about whether Joe WIlson is, in fact, a secret member of the KKK?

Me, I’m with the Klan conversation.

But I’m a media observer. It’s my professional obligation to watch the stupidest stuff imaginable, and then tell you why you’re such a loser for doing it, too.

Just remember: there’s a reason why PBS’s News Hour isn’t on a for-profit network. There’s a reason why borderline personality cases have come to define the political discourse. Not because some of our forebears were pilgrims in search of righteousness and freedom. But because the rest of them were savvy empire builders who knew why the sun turns the western horizon gold. Go west, young man. Grow with the country. Follow the money. And don’t worry about what it takes to get there.