Politics, media and the politics of media.
It’s been quite a week for racist symbols. It took the murder of nine black churchgoers at the hands of a killer steeped in Confederate and apartheid logos and logic, but politicians have started removing rebel flags and other symbols of Dixie from places we’d thought they were nailed to (like Alabama’s capitol grounds, and South Carolina’s, where the Stars and Bars will need a two-thirds majority vote of both houses to come down).
There is even an “Et tu?” quality to the defenestration, since it has often been Republican politicians and corporations like Walmart who have suddenly realized that these symbols can be hurtful “to some.”
And the Charleston murders have galvanized a US president to publicly say the n-word to explain why not ever saying it in public does not magically end racism—anymore, he might have added, than electing a black president does. As President Obama said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast:
And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to three hundred years prior.
Likewise, racism doesn’t vanish by deleting the Confederate flag or statues of Jefferson Davis from public property. It’s good that government institutions shed them, just as it’s good that white people refrain from casting racial slurs. But the danger, of course, is that we won’t move beyond treating civil rights as an exercise in symbol management.
Clearly, symbols reflect a society’s history, and the Charleston murders changed ours. In fact, you have to ask if Dylann Roof had not been photographed sporting white-supremacist tags and the battle flag of Northern Virginia, would we even be talking about taking down the flags now?
We all think in symbols—they’re fundamental to language—but the right, in its arthritic aversion to progressive political correctness, seems particularly prone to interpret symbols as narrowly as possible. When your favorite media, for instance, train you to wear blinders and to ignore context, you might be able to will yourself to believe that the four little words “established by the State” tell you more about the intent of the Affordable Care Act than the hundreds of thousands of words surrounding them. With so many Republicans denouncing the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Obamacare and vowing to fight on, repeal-and-replace is well on its way to becoming the new Lost Cause.
And so when Obama used a bad word to discuss the complexities of racism, it jostled the conservative mind. The right couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it in context.
“As a white American, my entire life I know that that is an electric word and you stay away from it,” Fox host Bill Hemmer said. “…this is something that we thought was entirely off limits and now you have the president using it.”
Two Fox & Friends hosts wondered if Obama’s going to start saying the word “in a State of the Union, or a more public address.” (A Wonkette headline: “Fox News Race Experts So Mad Obama Allowed To Use N-Word And They Aren’t.”)
On the other hand, it must be pretty annoying for Obama, when talking about racism, to be slammed for using the word that he’s so often been called. Like in this sign from a few years ago, outside the Georgia Peach Oyster Bar in Paulding County, Georgia.
Hauling words out of the woodpile is all part of Obama’s long-term scheme, Fox contributor Deneen Borelli figures: “This is all a distraction, grand distraction to take away from the people uniting and then the president in chief, the rapper in chief, now further dividing our country.”
Most of the distracting and dividing, however, was coming from Fox.
Their focus on Obama’s scandalous word choice diverted attention from stories on the flag, which itself is arguably a distraction from stories on gun violence, Roof’s place in white supremacist history, or institutional racism. That last, by the way, doesn’t exist, or so Monica Crowley and Bill O’Reilly agreed in an explosive yelling match with Kirsten Powers, who had the gall to say, yeah, it does.
Contextless media is hardly limited to the right. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show went looking for centrist word police all this week. He was hilarious, for instance, showing Harold Ford Jr. demurring on Morning Joe that he wouldn’t have used that word to make the point the president made.
“Why?” Wilmore asked. “You’re allowed to use the word. Now thanks to H.R. 18852, The We Can Say It Act of 1968, black people and only black people can say nigger as much as we want…”
But like some others in lefty media, Wilmore pulled out the cooler-than-thou card, this time on CNN’s Don Lemon. At one point this week, Lemon had held up a Confederate flag and then a poster with the n-word spelled out, and asked if either was offensive. Aside from being humorless, how that’s different from the way Wilmore used the word, I don’t know, but it earned Lemon his ridicule.
Gawker was worse, asking readers to vote yes or no on: “Has Don Lemon Lost His Goddamn Mind?”
They posed the question without any backstory, like Lemon’s telling a guest, who said he was encouraging use of a racial epithet, “No, I’m not encouraging people to call people the n-word. I’m using it in historically. If you are—I’m a journalist.…. It’s not our job to sanitize a word.”
But Gawker readers, deprived of context, voted 74 to 26 that he had he had lost his goddamn mind.
Eric Wemple of The Washington Post put the Lemon episode back into context, concluding that “the anti-Lemon faction is attempting to lump the poster thing in with Lemon’s various instances of on-air stupidity. It doesn’t belong. What Lemon did is good TV and good journalism. Tiptoeing around the language of racist hatred helps no one.”
Fox’s response to Obama using the n-word was tinged with a familiar exasperation at having to think. Society’s E-Z rule for how to not be perceived as a racist—don’t ever say the actual n-word out loud—was being challenged, and as a corporate proponent of group-think, the network hates having to communicate a complicated message.
It’s a little like the settled hipster opinion of Don Lemon as a doofus. Or the (suddenly outdated) assumption that the Confederate flag stands for some kind of color-blind Southern heritage.
Now let’s focus beyond the word and the flag, and remove something even more insidious than Confederate paraphernalia—voter-suppression laws. Push to restore the Voting Rights Act.
Many of us on the left have long harbored a fantasy about Fox News, and for a moment this week it seemed it just might come true.
The fantasy goes something like this: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch will one day hand real control of his empire to his somewhat more liberal (or at least not rabidly conservative) sons. Then, for reasons personal and/or political, they will demote, defang, or dump Fox News chief Roger Ailes, master conjurer of right-wing resentment and generalissimo of the Republican Party. Without the brilliant bad boy at the helm, we’ll come to know a kinder, gentler Fox, conservative but conscientious, tabloid but truer to the facts. All that Fox talent, on air and off, will drop their daily rage performances or self-deport.
I know, I know, that’s not going to happen. But with headlines this week, like “Roger Ailes Burned By Murdoch Sons In Fox News Power Shift” or “Fox News as we know it may be screwed,” you couldn’t help but hope.
What triggered such dreams was the announcement last week that, effective July 1, the 84-year-old Rupert will step down as CEO of 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, and hand the reins to his son James, 42. His oldest son, Lachlan, 43, will also be promoted, to executive co-chair of the company, a title he’ll share with Rupert himself. Some sort of succession plan has long been expected, so on its own, none of this was earth shattering.
But then, on June 11, Fox Business Network reported that, the brothers’ ascension notwithstanding, Roger Ailes will be “reporting directly to Rupert Murdoch.”
“This was, apparently, news to Rupert,” veteran Ailes-watcher Gabriel Sherman writes in New York magazine. Because five days later, a 21st Century Fox spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter that no, like everyone else, “Roger will report to Lachlan and James but will continue his unique and long-standing relationship with Rupert.” (In yet another example of how willful thinking shapes Fox fact-checking, the “news” that Ailes would report directly to Rupert was planted by Ailes himself, according to Sherman’s source.)
No doubt Ailes’s unique relationship with Rupert will continue, and word that he’ll have to first run things by James and Lachlan may be a meaningless formality, a way to save the Murdoch clan’s face.
But for Fox News’s parent company to publicly contradict Ailes is a rare humiliation for the 75-year-old former adman for Nixon and GHW Bush. It’s “effectively a demotion,” says Sherman (who wrote the book on Ailes), and possibly worse:
For much of the past 15 years, Roger Ailes has operated with virtual impunity inside Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Nothing, it seemed, could induce Murdoch to rebuke Ailes publicly, even if Ailes forced Murdoch to choose between him and his sons. Such was Ailes’s power that he has been able to run a right-wing political operation under the auspices of a news channel.
This week, for the first time, there are signs that this remarkable era may be entering its twilight.…
According to sources, the fact that Fox’s ratings held steady during Ailes’s leave of absence last year over a health scare has given the Murdochs confidence that Fox could endure in the post-Ailes era. It’s an era that now seems to be closer.
Ailes has often forced Murdoch to choose between him and his sons. When Lachlan worked in New York as deputy COO of the Fox broadcast group, he and Ailes had such vicious power struggles that, in 2005, he stunned his father by quitting and retreating to Australia. Rupert enticed him back into the family business just last year.
The clashes between Ailes and Lachan (who has called himself conservative, though he’s not nearly as partisan as his father) appear to have been more about office politics than the nation’s.
But arguments with James have been, and could be in the future, closer to the kind you’d see on Hannity. James is an environmentalist; he helped lead the campaign to make Murdoch’s News Corporation carbon neutral, even as Fox News has been the earth’s most effective climate change-denier. (News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal, and 21st Century Fox were part of the same company until 2013, when Murdoch split them up.) James has also donated between $1,000,000 and $5,000,000 to the Clinton Foundation, where his wife, Kathryn, once worked. As Media Matters points out, the Clinton Foundation “has been the target of a smear campaign by conservative media figures, including near-constant scandal-mongering on Fox News.”
Never one to hold back, Ailes has called James “Fredo” and, for not being able to contain the company’s phone-hacking scandals in the UK several years ago, a “fucking dope.”
So let’s play out the liberal fantasy: Will any of this make Fox a few shades bluer?
As long as Ailes stays in any capacity, almost certainly not. Ailes boasted recently that his contract, up for renewal in 2016, will sail through, because he holds the key to Rupert’s political ambitions. “‘Rupert is going to need me to elect the next president,’ Ailes is said to have told an associate,” writes Sherman. He’s noted that Ailes is leaning toward Scott Walker. Which makes sense. The Wisconsin governor is highly experienced at union-busting, a skill close to Rupert’s and Roger’s hearts.
But regardless of whom Ailes has to report to, or whether he retires early, or whether the Murdoch boys manage to bruise his ego, it’s safe to say that Fox News will not become a tamer version of itself any time soon. The brand is baked in; Bill Shine and other Ailes enforcers have the formula for changing fear and resentment into money. Fox News is hugely successful—netting $1 billion annually, “nearly 20 percent of 21st Century Fox’s total profits last year”—and it’s populated with enough Obama-, Hillary- and lib-hating true believers to forever thwart my fantasy.
But then, who knows? Maybe James and Lachlan will learn how to transform their own, substantial resentments into billions, too.
Amazingly, although people are killed by police virtually every day in the United States, there is no government agency, no bureaucracy, and no database that counts them all. Nor is there any national prayer wall or shrine where images of the dead and their stories are collected in an effort to portray them as individuals.
Last week, almost simultaneously, The Washington Post and The Guardian US unveiled large-scale journalistic projects that tried to supply a comprehensive, independent accounting of citizens killed by police since the beginning of this year. Same story, similar journalistic standards. So far, The Guardian story, with its interactive database linking to photos and stories of the dead, has come closest to filling the shameful gap.
In what Lee Glendinning, the new editor of The Guardian US, called “the most comprehensive public accounting of deadly force in the US,” the site launched “The Counted,” an interactive database of those killed by police since January 1 that includes the names, locations, background, race, means of death—along with, when possible, photos and stories of the dead.
Combining traditional reporting and “verified crowd sourcing,” Glendinning said the idea was to “build on the work on databases already out there,” most of which, she said, “are largely numbers and statistics. We wanted to build on these by telling the stories of these people’s lives, over a whole year, every day, and update them every day.”
Most Americans probably assume that some agency keeps track of the people who have been killed by police, but no such authoritative clearinghouse exists. There are partial counts by various bureaucracies, as well as by organizations like KilledByPolice.net and Fa
“You could tell me how many people, the absolute number, bought a book on Amazon,” FBI director James Comey himself complained in a speech last month. “It’s ridiculous, I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country last week, last year, the last decade.”
Some of the difficulties in keeping count are due to the reluctance of local police departments to file reports when they kill someone. But, as Tom McCarthy wrote at The Guardian, “The structural and technical challenges to compiling uniform data from the 18,000-plus local law enforcement agencies in the US far exceeds the reporting problem, in some cases.”
Without a true count, there is even less accountability. “A counting is a prerequisite,” Glendinning said, for any kind of “informed public debate about the severity of the problem.”
The Guardian didn’t attempt to determine whether the deaths were justified or unjustified. But they did find some disturbing trends and alarming sloppiness:
In the first five months of 2015, 464 people were killed by law enforcement—that’s twice as many as calculated by the US government’s official public records. (The FBI “counted 461 ‘justifiable homicides’ by law enforcement in all of 2013, the latest year for which official data is available.”)
Of those 464 killed, 102 people were unarmed.
Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people: “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”
Fourteen of the fatalities occurred while the victim was in custody, including the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
The analysis revealed five people killed by police whose names have not been publicly released before.
A day before the Guardian story broke, The Washington Post came out with similar trends and numbers based on its own in-depth investigation of police-caused fatalities. (“We knew they were working on something, and they knew we were,” Glendinning said, but she believes the timing is coincidence.) One big difference between the two projects is that the Post limits its data to death by police shootings, which, it found, have amounted to 385 so far this year. The Guardian’s 464 police-caused deaths in the same period, however, also include those by Taser (27), vehicle, and other means. Hence, Eric Garner’s death while the NYPD held him in a chokehold wouldn’t be included in the Post tally. (Mother Jones compares some of the two publications’ findings here.)
It was probably the one-two punch of the Post and Guardian investigations that led to an uncharacteristically quick political response. Within 48 hours after the pieces appeared, senators Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer proposed a plan to “force all American law enforcement agencies to report killings by their officers” to the Department of Justice.
Another difference between the two projects is that, while both will collect data through the end of the year, the Post’s database—and any photos, stories and interactive bells and whistles that might accompany it—won’t go public, it said, until “a future date.”
And so in terms of emotional impact, The Guardian has the jump. In fact, “The Counted” reminds me of the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times project, “Portraits of Grief,” which ran more than 1,800 capsule biographies, with photos when possible, of those killed on 9/11. “Portraits” was a daily feature, filling one full page, sometimes two, and ran through New Year’s Eve 2001. Like today’s police killings projects, “Portraits” began, the Times wrote, “as an imperfect answer to a journalistic problem, the absence of a definitive list of the dead…”
The portraits, now archived online, were based on a phalanx of reporters’ interviews with families and friends of the dead, and gave more personal snapshots (like “Taking Care of Mozard: Maria Isabel Ramirez”) than either the Post or Guardian have the resources to muster today.
The Guardian stories are presented almost Facebook-style in a photo mosaic of faces. You could find yourself, as I did, clicking on faces to see whether they fit or explode the stereotypes you might have of someone who would be killed by the cops, all the time overwhelmed at the scale of the problem.
Beyond the database, The Guardian is running almost-daily features on how police violence affects various communities, including deaths of the mentally ill, women, Latinos, and the elderly (“about six elderly people a month,” it finds).
By the way, that figure of 464 people killed by police in the first five months of 2015 has climbed, as of today, to 489.
If Carly Fiorina gains any traction from her barbed attacks on Hillary Clinton, the right-wing cartoons will practically draw themselves: Carly and Hillary in a teeth-baring cat fight, Carly’s claws like a tiger’s, HRC’s eyes as red as a Demon Sheep’s, their hair seriously mussed, and Benghazi burning in the background.
As one man tweeted, “Let the Cat Fight begin!! Fiorina will tear Hillary to shreds.”
“Fiorina vs Hillary in 2016,” someone else raved. Why? “Because men love a cat fight.”
It is indeed a male dream, especially males who are Republican presidential candidates (and who isn’t?). If Carly handles the edgy, personal attacks on Hillary, they figure, we won’t get Rick Lazio-ed off the stage.
But at the press conference-ambush that Fiorina held outside a South Carolina hotel where Clinton was speaking, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO bristled at suggestions that she was doing the male Republicans’ dirty work. Fiorina, Maggie Haberman wrote,
quickly grew discomfited when the questions seemed to treat her more as a heckler pulling a stunt than as a formidable candidate making an otherwise significant campaign stop.
One reporter asked if Ms. Fiorina was being used by the men in the Republican field to harass Mrs. Clinton.
Ms. Fiorina insisted she had planned her trip here “many, many weeks ago, so perhaps she’s following me.”
The first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company has had to deny that she’s a tool of the GOP boys—the poisoned-tip of their spear—for a while now. “The party is not leaning on me to do anything, and I didn’t ask the party’s permission,” she said in March.
She’s her own woman, independent, thinks for herself. But in her self-appointed role as Hillary’s foil, there’s a fascinating tension between the politics of cat-fighting and her feminist-tinged complaints about just those sort of stereotypes. “I think the media hold women to different standards,” she said at the same press conference. “[The press] scrutinizes women differently, criticizes women different, caricatures women differently.”
But even as Fiorina wants everyone to know that’s she’s more than Hillary’s would-be bête noir (“the vast majority of my speeches in front of anyone are about a host of issues,” she told reporters), in many ways she is also Hillary’s doppelganger. They have much in common:
1) Most obviously, both are women vying for power in a man’s world. They are considered “demographically symbolic” (as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre sneered about Obama’s entire presidency), and they each have a deck of “gender cards” to draw from. It’s perfectly legit, since women have been largely banned from the card games. But while Hillary is playing pinochle, Fiorina is playing something closer to three-card monte. As Amanda Marcotte writes:
In recent months, Fiorina has shown that the only thing she loves more than deriding those who play the “gender card” is playing the gender card….
“If Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina told reporters in April. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” No she won’t, because I, Carly Fiorina, will play it for her!
2) They are so much alike that Fiorina claims Hillary stole the title of her recent memoir, “Hard Choices,” from Fiorina’s account of her widely criticized tenure at HP, “Tough Choices,” which was published in 2006.
“And last month,” Amy Chozick writes, “after Mrs. Clinton urged 5,000 female tech professionals in Silicon Valley to ‘unlock our full potential,’ Ms. Fiorina again accused Mrs. Clinton of stealing: Her leadership political action committee, an aide to Ms. Fiorina noted, is called the Unlocking Potential Project.”
3) That could be a case of bad-faith borrowing, or it could all be a coincidence. As Jason Linkins points out, “’unlock your potential’ may actually be the most banal phrase these Thought Leader types employ.” Fiorina seems to think she owns this sort of MEGO boilerplate because she comes from big biz, but the truth is that both women are corporatist, business-friendly politicians, supported by industry and Wall Street.
4) Both women have worked very hard to please powerful peers who are almost without exception white males—at HP, Fiorina laid off more than 30,000 people (see CarlyFiorina.org); and Hillary voted for the Iraq War as she was preparing to run in 2008.
Fiorina has to be aggressive, of course, because she’s the newbie—never won an election, while Clinton was a two-term senator from New York, not to mention secretary of state. But one interesting difference between the two is that Hillary has refrained from attacking other women politicians—even, in 2008, Sarah Palin. “You know, I don’t want to be the chick police,” says Nicole Wallace, who famously quit the Palin campaign, but Fiorina’s focus on Hillary, she says, “runs the risk of having it look personal.”
It wouldn’t be Fiorina’s first foray into the too-personal: when she thought she was off mic during her 2010 race against California senator Barbara Boxer, Fiorina said she had seen her opponent on TV and wondered, “God, what is that hair? So yesterday.”
Naturally, the Democratic Clinton and the Republican Fiorina differ on issue after issue—immigration reform, abortion, equal pay, foreign policy. But let me acknowledge that in writing about these two women, I have, like so much of the media, completely stayed away from any mention of any issue.
Because… CAT FIGHT!
Rush Limbaugh has been all over Mad Men this week, and as you might expect with a TV show about the 1960s revolution in pop culture, his ideological take was almost directly opposite to the discussion in all the recap blogs.
Naturally, Rush saw Mad Men’s depiction of the struggles of women to be fairly compensated for their work, represented by characters like Peggy and Joan, as a form of “militant feminism,” which, he says, “totally screwed up human nature.” Because the women’s refusal to be little more than sex objects “made everybody question what they naturally felt like doing,” cads like Roger and Pete could no longer chase them around the office as brazenly. These “natural behavioral roles,” Rush goes on, “were not automatically questioned and doubted and attacked until the late sixties, when this all intensified.” And as we all know, he’s been the prime victim of such attacks ever since.
But Rush’s complaints about the finale, which he feels TV critics have marched in “lockstep” to deem as “brilliant,” were even more revealing. The series ends, of course, with Don Draper chanting Om on a hilltop at Big Sur, finding a measure of peace and enlightenment at last. Then the screen filled with one of the most iconic ads ever, Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop,” in which a young, multicultural cast sing, “I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”
The inspiration that brought Don back to advertising was, in effect, the antithesis of Rush’s many shibboleths—it was racially and ethnically inclusive; it dreamt of peace and harmony; it practically cried, “One Worldism.” And young women (dressed in shapeless hippie garb, like embroidered peasant shirts) led the idealistic anthem. Visually, it was a radical statement of late ’60s hope.
But for Rush, “the so-called brilliance in the finale was gonna be way over everybody’s head” because most of the audience knows nothing “about the real-life McCann Erickson.” Both the fictional Don and the actual adman who created “Hilltop,” Bill Backer, worked for McCann. Backer got his inspiration not by Om-ing out at a peacenik retreat but by watching how people stranded at an airport cafe in Ireland bonded by drinking a river of Coke.
The key is how you understand “Hilltop.” At the time, progressives saw the well-scrubbed blissfulness of the Coke commercial as a corporation co-opting the counterculture, a perversion of idealism that, as we know now, helped to buy the world more Type 2 diabetes. “Hilltop” was the beginning of corporate manipulation of hipness, cool, and anti-corporate rebellion to move product, so much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. As Joan Walsh adds, the ad bowdlerized “the movements of the ’60s–-civil rights, environmentalism, feminism” to valorize “a company routinely criticized for labor abuses, which faced a boycott over its refusal to leave apartheid South Africa.”
Rush Limbaugh, however, sees “Hilltop” as a highpoint of lefty power. He thinks corporations should never have to suck up to hippies or liberals or “femi-Nazis,” or whatever it is he thinks women, gays, and people of color want.
Interestingly, Mad Men ’s creator, Matthew Weiner, takes neither side. Or rather, he takes Coke’s word for it. “I think it’s the best ad ever made,” Weiner told theTimes. “That ad is so much of its time, so beautiful—I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”
Yet, in a striking coincidence, just a half hour before the Mad Men finale ran Sunday night, Showtime’s new Happyish used the same Coca-Cola commercial to make an even snarkier point.
Happyish takes place in a present-day ad agency, where Thom Payne (Steve Coogan)—who says he’s a whore who works “for Satan”—pitches Coca-Cola on a campaign built around “radical happiness.” His partner advises the Coke reps to model their marketing on the über brand of them all, the Nazi Party. The execs eat it up. In one of the series’s many fantasy sequences (which include Payne having sex with a Keebler elf and running his car over the GEICO gecko, who tells Thom to “fuck off”), we see a look-a-like “Hilltop” ad. As the camera pulls back to reveal the film set, a chubby Hitler stomps out and screams at the warbling hippie youth to amp the feel-good. “I told you to be happy!” he shouts in a paroxysm of Führerness. (How the show gets away with all this is another story.)
While advertising arguably helps pull Don out of his own personal hell, it’s crushing Thom’s soul. In a weird coincidence, it’s doing the same thing to Rush Limbaugh right now.
Advertisers have been fleeing Rush’s radio show ever since he began viciously attacking then–law student Sandra Fluke in 2012. As advertisers have dropped Rush, so have radio stations. This week, Boston’s WRKO announced that it’s cutting Limbaugh’s talk show from its line-up. This is “the second major radio station in recent weeks to drop Limbaugh’s program,” Media Matters points out. “Limbaugh’s longtime Indianapolis affiliate WIBC severed ties with him in April. WIBC’s parent company noted that Limbaugh’s absence could actually improve its advertiser prospects.”
It’s gotten so bad that one talk-radio consultant is telling stations that “YES-YOU-CAN Sell Rush Limbaugh”—chiefly by “prospect[ing] local retailers who drink Limbaugh’s Kool-Aid” and “guy-stuff categories” like “golf and gadgets and all the other apolitical things Rush talks about.”
Right. Rush is just a golf-and-gadget guy, and Coke is just a bottle of caffeine and sugar water.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the Verizon-Huffington Post merger
Most of the coverage of Verizon’s planned $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL—and thus of the Huffington Post and other news sites—has been almost giddy about all the moneymaking and technological possibilities. By merging with AOL, Verizon will expand by leaps and bounds into mobile video services and “programmatic ad buying,” bringing America’s largest mobile company “a new kind of energy and talent,” as one venture capitalist enthused. On its end of the pre-nup, AOL will get some much-needed cash and, still crumpled by its disastrous merger with Time-Warner in 2000, some fresh cachet.
And, whether Verizon sells HuffPost (most observers believe it will) or keeps it (AOL CEO Tim Armstrong insists, “AOL’s always going to be an owner of HuffPost”), the deal’s been deemed a win-win for Arianna Huffington. As Lloyd Grove writes, she “sold her digital media company to AOL for an eye-popping $315 million only four years ago, [and] has once again fallen into a giant tub of butter.”
But there hasn’t been nearly as much talk about what this means for the content—you know, the journalism. When a telecom giant at the center of every poli-techno controversy, from net neutrality to NSA spying, owns and is expected to invest millions in one of the world’s most-read news sites, what happens to editorial independence?
Verizon, after all, has its own dedicated page at HuffPost, much of which covers the telecom’s ongoing effort to strangle net neutrality. (Both HuffPost and AOL have been outspoken champions for keeping the web’s playing field level.) And even though the FCC has ruled in favor of the regulations for now, corporate lobbying continues. “Verizon and other major telecom companies have plans to challenge the regs,” Clark Mindock writes at Open Secrets, “But whether or not AOL changes its stance on net neutrality, the fact is that the biggest opponent of net neutrality rules is about to acquire one of the biggest proponents.… And AOL’s D.C. money presence is a drop in the bucket compared to Verizon’s.”
And how free would HuffPost be in the future to report on Verizon’s and other telecom’s involvement in government surveillance of Americans’ phone records? Or on Verizon’s support of the rightwing, Koch-backed policy-maker, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)? Just days before the Verizon/AOL deal was announced, HuffPost ran a post headlined: “Telecom Sleaze: ALEC and Its Communication’s Funders—AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.” I’m just guessing, but that could be the last time we see HuffPost casually refer to Verizon as “sleaze.”
Let’s say Verizon does eventually spin off HuffPost (the most likely buyer now is German conglomerate Axel Springer, according to Re/code’s Kara Swisher); the initial Verizon/AOL merger is pending regulatory approval and is many months away. In the interim, will HuffPost tread anymore lightly on Verizon-volatile issues?
For its part, Verizon says it won’t pressure AOL or its properties. A company spokesman told Open Secrets that editorial independence has been discussed and that AOL’s Armstrong is expected to “continue to manage the media properties the way he does today.”
But based on Verizon’s one foray into news, its record on censorship looks dismal. Last fall, when Verizon Wireless started the short-lived tech-news site SugarString, the new editor e-mailed potential writers that “two verboten topics” are “spying and net neutrality.”
Verizon objected to this characterization, saying, “SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology.” But, as the Daily Dot points out, “The company did not clarify the details of ‘its mission.’”
You can feel the fear of Verizon mission creep at the tech news site Engadget. It and TechCrunch are two of the more prominent AOL properties that could soon be Verizon’s. When the acquisition was announced Tuesday, Engadget editor Terrence O’Brien tweeted:
Nothing like waking up to find out you have new corporate overlords.
— Terrence O’Brien (@TerrenceOBrien) May 12, 2015
To be clear: This changes nothing editorially at @Engadget. We’ll continue to cover Verizon, net neutrality, etc… the way we always have.
— Terrence O’Brien (@TerrenceOBrien) May 12, 2015
Executive editor Christopher Trout was impassioned:
A lot of shit talking going on today. @Engadget is run by humans. Humans with integrity and ethics. Nothing’s changing as long as we’re here
— Christopher Trout (@Mr_Trout) May 12, 2015
By contrast, the response on the editorial side of HuffPost seems, at least on the surface, positively sanguine. “Way too soon to tell, but I’m not worried at all, don’t think this is a story,” one reporter there e-mailed me.
A staff writer (who, like most I contacted, asked to be quoted off the record), e-mailed that he doesn’t know enough to say “What It All Means. But I rather think that the fact that we published this story (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/12/verizon-sprint-fcc_n_7267022.html) soon after news of the deal broke speaks for itself, as does the fact that we very doggedly pursued the story of Tim Armstrong’s decision to alter AOL employee 401(K) plans.”
Why the calm? As another staffer explained to me, whether Verizon keeps or spins off HuffPost, “Either way we’re going to get a lot of money to do what we want, which is analogous to what happened when AOL bought us, only amplified: more editors, big-name hires…and the opportunity to rev the engines a little bit. If Verizon holds on to us, that can be done exponentially. I’m not talking like a corporate cheerleader, I’m just talking objectively.”
Indeed, Lloyd Grove estimates that if Verizon retains HuffPost, there could be “an infusion of a couple of hundred million dollars, which would be good because AOL couldn’t invest anything because they were basically out of cash.”
AOL CEO Armstrong is certainly bullish on HuffPost. He says his goal is to make the site “the largest single media brand in the world,” and he’s already talking about how “the deal may mean better wages and benefits for AOL employees.”
Employees is a key word. When AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million, Arianna Huffington didn’t pass a cent onto the thousands of freelance writers who blog for the site for free—as in unpaid, gratis, pro bono. Getting “exposure” was its own paycheck. And regardless of how any Verizon windfall is spent, it’s as unlikely that she’ll start paying bloggers as it is that the politically committed telecom will start giving its journalists 100 percent, total, no-holds-barred editorial freedom. That’s a word for nothing left to lose.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the “invasion” of Texas
All week long we’ve been having a good laugh over Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s ordering the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm 15, a military exercise planned by the Pentagon to simulate “covert military operations” in Texas and seven other Western states. The conspiracy theory on the right is that the operation is designed to “take over” Texas, which is funny because the state is actually already part of the United States. The speculation that abandoned Walmart stores are being prepped to hold gun-lovers and patriots makes it only more hilarious because, well, don’t Walmarts already do that?
We on the left can laugh all we want at the right-wing nut jobs, but don’t think for a moment that liberals are the only ones enjoying the comedy. A lot of Republicans who know better are laughing up their sleeves about the hysteria the media coverage is generating. Texas Representative Louie Gohmert feeds the alarm, warning that “patriotic Americans have reason to be concerned” about the exercise. “I have a great deal of faith and confidence in Governor Abbott,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz says, letting the fantasy fly. “You know, I understand a lot of the concerns raised by a lot of citizens about Jade Helm. It’s a question I’m getting a lot.”
But as Jon Stewart points out, these military exercises have been going on in Texas for years, and the Lone Star State has always welcomed them. Hmmm, what’s different now, he wonders, under a photo of our black president.
This is how ginning up the base works. If there’s a near-time analog, it would be the 24/7 coverage before the 2014 midterm elections about Ebola and the crazies’ theory that the feds were encouraging an epidemic in America by not quarantining anyone who set foot in West Africa. That was a bad joke, too, since, after all, nobody who had not been in West Africa or treated someone with Ebola had ever caught the disease. And the media coverage stopped on a dime when the election was over.
But, boy, did that coverage help drive racially biased voters to the polls.
Whether or not rank-and-file Texans really believe that US generals are threatening to put them under martial law, there’s a sense of pleasure in punking the national media and forcing them to discuss black helicopters. Check out this video, from the Austin American-Statesman and played this week on Hardball, that shows a US Army spokesman trying to calm fears at a town hall in Bastrop County, Texas. After the 4:30 mark, you can see a young woman smiling and hooting in delight as the spokesman tries to make his point, only to be confronted by folks shouting that they don’t believe a word he says.
The Texas takeover is like Obamacare death panels, or Sharia law coming to a court near you, or fluoride in the water supply. It doesn’t matter if the particular charge is proven to be completely false. Just getting the larger idea (don’t trust Obama’s feds, they want to un-cling you from your guns and religion) into the mainstream media is a victory. It validates the paranoia.
And just because Clive Bundy is paranoid does not mean the federal government isn’t actually out to get him. Right-wingers perceive their power waning and so proactively taunt the powers that be to expend resources and convince them they’re wrong. Many conservatives are sane enough to know that these conspiracy theories are a crock. But they see that Mitt Romney tried to win the presidency two years ago with a supermajority of white voters and lost convincingly. They want conservatives to win elections, and it is increasingly apparent that their ability to do so in national contests is diminishing rapidly. Defying or degrading the institutions that enforce the will of popular majorities is actually a logical way to delay their expression.
We’re going to have a long, hot summer of this sad joke: Jade Helm 15 lasts from July 15 through September 15. There’ll be lots of laughs, but it’s not clear who’ll get the last one.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on right wing media’s political spin of the Baltimore Riots
Bill Kristol threw out the main right-wing line on the Baltimore riots, and in his tweet you could hear a plaintive nostalgia for the days when violence in a major city meant an instant, measurable political bounce for his party:
Winning GOP message: Against anarchy & chaos, at home & abroad. Cheney-Giuliani 2016 probably too much to hope for…But if not them, who?
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) April 28, 2015
Who, indeed? Kristol’s dream ticket is so monstrous that anything short of it would seem moderate by comparison.
Predictably, the right-wing media are throwing blame on black people and Democrats for the riots, and as usual Fox News is leading the way. So much so that the sanest voice on Fox, Shep Smith, had to tamp down a virtual blame riot on The Five on Monday.
“I haven’t heard anything from any civil-rights leaders. Have you?” co-host Eric Bolling asked coyly. Smith said he had, and “on our air.” Then co-host Greg Gutfeld, somehow sensing that the collective guilt wasn’t being shared enough, tried to pin the violence on the protesters’ parents, to which Smith responded:
…if we want to sit here and indict the civil-rights community and indict the parents for what we’re watching right now, instead of, for now, just covering what happens and then later talk about whose fault it is, because we don’t know whose fault it is.
But acting like you know who’s to blame is second nature to true demagogues. Fox News’s resident psychologist Keith Ablow blames Obama for the riots, saying protesters are taking their cues “from a president who has given the appearance that there is every justification for any level of anger at our country because we’re such despicable people.” Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh tweeted that the Democrats “have purposely turned blacks into uneducated government slaves.”
What conservatives are hoping for is a repeat of 1968, when the combination of riots in more than 100 cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and a police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer helped associate the Democrats with violent civil disorder and helped Richard Nixon narrowly win the White House. Baltimore’s riots in ’68 were so bad they actually changed history—if you’ve got a long memory, you’ll recall that former Baltimore mayor and then–Maryland governor Spiro Agnew was chosen as Nixon’s vice president because of his nattering nastiness toward Maryland protesters.
That election almost half a century ago was incredibly important: Nixon’s victory ended the long era of progressive political dominance in the United States. In comparison to the media’s shock over the post-MLK violence, the often overwrought coverage in 2014 of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri—and their adjunct in blackness, the Ebola scare—seems almost sedate.
The burning buildings in Baltimore this week definitely present a challenge to Democratic candidates, most obviously to Martin O’Malley, another former mayor of Baltimore turned Maryland governor. O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” policy on crime during his time in office was, Ed Kilgore writes, “more Michael Bloomberg than Bill de Blasio”: “[O’Malley] will immediately face claims that ‘zero-tolerance’ policies he put into place as mayor contributed to the deterioration of police-community relations, thanks to a rising tide of arrests for minor offenses that ruined the employment prospects of many young black men (also a major factor in some of the 1960s ‘race riots’).”
It will be difficult to convince Democratic primary voters that O’Malley is the progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton if his record on this issue becomes well-known and poorly defended.
But Hillary, too, is threatened by her handling of Baltimore. She needs to maintain Barack Obama’s margin in the black community, while at the same time reaching out to the whites she’ll need to make up for the inevitable loss of the young progressive voters Obama attracted. Today, she addressed the Baltimore violence in a speech at Columbia University by name-checking recent victims of police brutality (Walter Scott, Tamar Rice, Eric Garner and now Freddie Gray), and saying, “Everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law.”
“We have to find our balance again.”
She used the word “balance” repeatedly, trying to position herself as “the balance candidate”—the steady fulcrum between left and right, between black grievances and white fears.
That sort of caution might seem nostalgic itself, for a time when Democratic politicians had to plead with Reagan Democrats to return to the fold. But this is not the same America as the one that went through the riots in 1968—for one thing, whites are demographically much less dominant now than they were then. As with same-sex marriage, some GOP wedge issues are close to flipping on their users.
That said, the likelihood that these riots could dull the income inequality issues that were cutting deeply by confusing them with racial tensions is great. As long as the debate is framed around the question of redistributing wealth via government policy, the Democrats were standing to gain electorally. But, if conservatives have their way, Baltimore will leave us debating how the electorate is divided racially, not economically.
Remember, the demographics are close to flipping. Probably the best response is something like Larry Wilmore’s last night on The Nightly Show. “If anything explains America,” Wilmore said over video of the riots, “it’s those pictures: oppression-riot, oppression-riot is exactly the pattern that built this country. Starting with the tax oppression that led to the tea-party riot, the party that you all seem so in love with.”
At some point using racial slurs to marginalize people is going to backfire. Among the gangs in Baltimore is one named the Black Guerrilla Family. “Hmmm,” Wilmore said, “between the Bloods, Crypts and the Black Guerrillas, which one of these gang names do you think Fox likes to say the most?” He showed a montage of Fox voices repeating the name, a good ten times.
“Fuck you, motherfuckers,” he said. “That’s rolling off your tongues a little too gleefully.”
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the increasing irrelevance of “personality coverage” in elections
“We are horrible,” a TV producer covering Hillary’s first day of campaigning, at a community college in Iowa, said after watching a version of the clip above, according to Slate. “Why do we do this?”
The usual explanation is simple competition: ratings and advertising dollars and keeping your increasingly scarce media job demand it.
There’s always been a certain amount of media fear and self-loathing on the campaign trail. From the press complaining about suffering from “Clinton fatigue”—which it acquired from obsessing over Hillary’s every pore—to Maureen Dowd’s vampire-like columns that feed on Clinton blood, the Beltway media herd has always been pretty horrible, especially to Bill and Hill (and I say this not as one of their fans).
As much as the media would like the 2016 elections to turn on Hillary’s authenticity or Jeb’s brotherly love or Marco’s youth, the 2016 presidential contest may actually depend on ideology and practical concerns.
This week a video slugged “This Tea Party Patriot May Vote For Hillary” hinted at how little personality and cultural wedge issues may matter anymore. James Webb, who runs a YouTube gun channel (Hot Lead retired), told his followers that the Democrats, and specifically Obamacare, have helped him in a very personal way.
Hello, YouTube. I’m kinda having a difficult decision…. I don’t know whether to go for a Republican or a Democrat—and I’m serious. Because I asked myself, I said, “Which party has helped me out the most in the last, I don’t know, 15 years? Twenty?” And it was the Repub-, err, Democrat Party. The Democrats….
The Republican Party, they ain’t done nothing for me, man. Nothing. So, I’m leaning toward voting for Hillary. Unless something major comes up. I don’t trust the Republicans anymore. They’re wanting to repeal the Obamacare. And, I don’t want them to do that, man, ‘cause then I’ll have to go to work again.
Sure, some commenters on Webb’s channel slam him for retiring at only 50 and call him a welfare cheat. But Obamacare has been doing exactly what the Congressional Budget Office said it would: It’s allowing people to quit jobs they stuck with only for the health benefits and to do something more fulfilling.
Even as the MSM went on a chipotle break over Hillary’s “listening tour” of Iowa, other pundits—including Krugman and Chait—turned up evidence that the polarization of the two parties had begun to tilt the field permanently to the Democrats’ advantage in presidential elections. Economic issues and the trend towards voting against the other party rather than in support of any party leadership have made personality coverage seem increasingly irrelevant.
Recent polls confirm these shifts. The job-approval numbers for Indiana Governor Mike Pence, hailed for his regular “Hoosier sensibility” when he won in 2012, have dropped almost twenty points since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act fiasco. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, the GOP presidential favorite just a month ago, has seen his job approval ratings drop sharply at home and is running 12 points behind Hillary Clinton in the state; the same Marquette University Law School poll finds that in a possible 2016 Senate rematch, former senator Russ Feingold (D) would beat current Senator Ron Johnson (R) 54 to 38.
Drawing conclusions from polls this early is itself a media horribleness, and I’m part of that. And of course analyzing the personalities of politicians can tell us a lot about their politics and character, and it’s enormous fun.
But as Clinton’s campaign takes shape, I find myself wondering whether 2016 is already baked in. When both parties were filled with a swinging mix of liberals and conservatives, you could give a pol a wedgie and bring him down. But in a Haves vs. Have-nots contest, actually accomplishing something for the most people is a real advantage.
So here’s an idea for the political paparazzi press: Take some of that energy you put into literally chasing pols and put it into investigating them on the issues that affect people’s lives.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on Fox News and the killing of Walter Scott
The video that Feidin Santana took of Michael Slager, a white North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, allegedly shooting and killing Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, is Fox-proof.
The three-minute-plus video shut up the inevitable police apologists who’d always find a way to blame the black guy for his own death by saying he acted in a threatening manner. But now, even Fox News folks are saying it’s right and just that Slager has been charged with murder.
“This is not Ferguson,” Andrew Napolitano said on Fox & Friends on Wednesday. “In Ferguson, there was a bona fide fight over the officer’s gun and the officer won the fight. This is [sic] two disparate cases. This is a victim running away from the police, shot in the back. This is what some people said Ferguson was, but it turned out it wasn’t.”
Dr. Ben Carson, Fox's favorite black GOP presidential candidate, called it “an execution.”
(UPDATE: You might think that the dash-cam video released last night showing the traffic stop and Scott running away would trigger a Fox instinct to reverse course and blame the victim. But, so far, that hasn’t happened. Sean Hannity said last night that Scott “was not a threat to anybody” and that it’s “irrelevant what happened leading up to” Slager shooting him. And this morning on Fox, conservative radio host Lars Larson said he still believes “the officer committed murder.”)
No, the Fox line seems to be that now that Slager is sitting in jail without bail, justice has been served, the system works. So let’s move on, folks. And, oh yeah, it’s not a race thing. Greg Gutfeld on Fox’s The Five claimed, as if channeling the “color-blind” Stephen Colbert, “I didn’t see a black man killed by a white cop. I saw a man shoot another man in the back.”
That’s funny, because the video is incredibly detailed and definitive. Arguably more definitive than the videos showing the death-by-chokehold of Eric Garner in New York, or the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland shot by police for playing with what turned out to be a toy gun, or the unprovoked shooting of an unarmed man, Levar Jones, by a South Carolina state trooper, or the brutal beating of Rodney King that set off the Los Angeles riots in 1991 after the officers were acquitted. They are all shocking videos, and they led to various degrees of punishment—or not—for the police involved. But the Walter Scott video is the most overwhelmingly convincing of them all.
While it’s always possible for video to be misleading or confusing, Santana’s isn’t. We don’t have to wonder what’s not in the picture.
First of all, it’s long. It’s true, the video doesn’t show the very beginning, when Slager stops Scott for a broken tail-light and Scott reportedly runs into a nearby grassy field. That’s where Slager used a taser on Scott and claims that the motorist tried to wrestle it from him; the officer told authorities he “feared for his life.”
It’s at that point that Feidin Santana, a young man walking his regular route to his job at a barbershop, began recording the incident on his cell phone. As Scott runs away from him, Slager is seen firing at Scott’s back eight times until he falls to the ground. After cuffing Scott, who is possibly dead at this point, Slager goes back to pick up what appears to be the stun gun and drops it near Scott’s body, as if to frame Scott as a very dangerous man. (The video also appears to show that none of the police who soon arrived administered any life-saving measures.)
Secondly, the video is shot in the middle distance—not so far that people look like blurry dots, nor so close or narrowly framed that vital information is missing. (The too-close classic: footage of people tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after the American invasion. They looked like a passionate, American-welcoming mob—until later footage zoomed out to reveal they were a small group of people who needed help from an American military vehicle to actually take the statue down.)
Santana’s video is choppy and shaky, surely because he was nervous, but also because he was moving with the action. “I witnessed it with my eyes and let the video do the recording,” he said in one of his several MSNBC and NBC interviews. Toward the end of the video, Santana still more bravely walks closer to the officer and Scott’s body. Widely called a hero, Santana said that early on he considered erasing the video because he feared for his life. But after reading the police report that made it seem that Scott was the aggressor, Santana gave the video to the Scott family.
The worst thing about the video is that it surfaced by pure chance. “A gift from god,” the Scott family lawyer, Chris Stewart, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “A person happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see this incident, and be quick enough to pull out that phone and record it. And not only that, that probably happens all the time. Right now somebody is probably filming an incident that if they stepped forward it would help that person, but they’re going to keep driving or keep walking or say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get involved,’ or feel threatened or scared.”
Walter Scott’s younger brother, Anthony, put it best. “I hate that it had to be a video to prove to take it to this level. Because we have fallen brothers all the time, and they just fall for different reasons in different parts of the country, and they’re just not investigated or taken to this level. And I think it should be looked in deeper.” He’s hoping for justice, he said, but “I won’t be satisfied till I hear a guilty verdict.”
Indeed, this video might be Fox-proof but it’s not foolproof. Nor are the increasing number of body cams and dashboard cams used by police departments throughout the country. They can absolutely help—North Charleston has them on order, and if Slager had been using one, it’s reasonable to wager that Scott would still be alive.
Cameras, however, whether wielded by bystanders or police (or with the help of apps that film and upload to YouTube with one push of a button), don’t get to the root of police corruption and systemic racism.
But video is now a matter of life and death, crime and punishment, and all too often it’s the only way that white people and white media will believe what black people have to say.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on Monica Lewinsky, Justine Sacco, John Oliver, and the circle of shaming