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Media Stupidity Is Uniting Left and Right

After CNN’s debate ambush and MSNBC’s body-language analysis, loathing of media is becoming a crossover phenomenon

CNN's Democratic debate stage

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Just a few elections ago, the national press policed the boundaries of both Democrat and Republican politics. You couldn’t sniff either party’s nomination without media assent.

After more high-profile crackups, including a few over the weekend, the press might be months from being pushed all the way to the outside of a general election campaign. Having declared war on Donald Trump and his voters years ago, news outlets are committing to a similar pile-on of Bernie Sanders.

Maybe this will end as an inspirational unity story, like Independence Day, when an invasion of gross aliens brought America together. At present, it just seems short-sighted.

The low point came Saturday, when Joy Reid on MSNBC’s AM Joy show had on a “body language expert” named Janine Driver to declare Sanders a liar, because his posture reminds her of a turtle. There’s not much to say about this except it’s the same combo of junk forensics and yellow journalism that Bill O’Reilly made infamous.

Times columnist David Brooks, meanwhile, blew up the Internet last Friday comparing Sanders to Trump. The onetime author of a book about the superior taste of America’s urban rich took aim against the politics of class resentment, ostensibly as practiced by both:

This is a golden age for “Theyism.” This is the belief that there is some malevolent, elite “they” out there and “they” are destroying life for the rest of us.

Brooks self-identifies as “they.” In Bobos in Paradise, he wrote that the term “establishment” too often comes across as sinister. “I’m a member of this class… we’re not so bad,” he said, adding: “All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older ones.”

The Times has been trafficking in the Trump-Sanders comparison for a while, most explicitly in a bizarre interview with Sanders on January 13th.

That piece was part of a series in which candidates “interview” for the Times endorsement with a panel of “opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate, and certain longstanding values.” Drawing upon his “certain longstanding values,” Times panelist Nick Fox asked Sanders about plans to keep his “revolution” going after election:

Given what we’ve gone through over the last three years when Democrats hear about the president flying around the country holding rallies, they might cringe. And I’m wondering how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing?

Because Bernie Sanders threatens to use airplanes and draw big crowds, he is Trump.

(The Times humorously ended up endorsing an Amy Klobuchar-Elizabeth Warren parlay for the Democratic nomination.)

Brooks meanwhile says Republicans are already “swallowed up” by Trump’s brand of “they-ism,” a culture war targeting coastal elites. He worries Democrats are “rushing” to sign up for a similar campaign against “billionaires who have rigged the economy to benefit themselves and impoverish everyone else”:

Each of these stories takes a genuine tension in society and blows it up into an all-explaining cartoon in which one part of America is trying to destroy the other part.

When prominent media voices compare the Trump and Sanders movements, it’s always the same insult: Trump sucks and is evil/wrong, and Sanders is like Trump. The establishment fantasy is that both are illegitimate opportunists.

The diagnosis of Trump is that he rode to power appealing to a collection of humanity’s darkest impulses, in particular racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Few other explanations, importantly even negative ones (like that Trump took cynical advantage of both racism and legitimate economic grievances), are accepted.

The explanation for Sanders is naiveté. Neither the politician nor his followers understand how the world works. They want expensive things for free and blame billionaires when their actual gripe is with reality. Oh, and theirs is also a movement for sexists and anti-Semites and people who refuse to accept the unique role of racism in America.

Dating to 2016, we were told the chief commonalities between Trump and Sanders were ambition and strategy. They were “populists” who played on voters’ emotions because they had to, being denied normal avenues to power: connections, donors, endorsements. As a Harvard professor put it in the Washington Post, “both are self-described political outsiders, the most likely actors to use anti-elite language.”

Brooks argues that “capitalism is doing what it’s supposed to do,” i.e. “rewarding productivity with pay, and some people and companies are more productive.” He insists the gap in America is between “superstar companies and everybody else,” i.e. if you’re on the wrong end of the curve, you aren’t bringing the right skills to bear in an economy that is still fundamentally meritocratic.

The reason people are abandoning traditional political solutions on both sides of the political aisle is that most people can see how easy it is to put a thumb on the scale of such rosy Adam Smith market theory. They know companies buy regulatory and tax relief through political donations, offshore profits, export labor to unfree political zones like China, use central banking mechanisms to obtain heavily subsidized capital, and dominate debate through investment in media.

About that last point: One of the areas where systematic unfairness is most visible is through the aggressive suckage of the establishment press.

If inequality – not just in income but in influence as well as regulatory and criminal accountability – is a problem, the average media consumer knows by instinct what side of that problem the owners of major media companies represent. The average person, who is probably an illness away from bankruptcy, sees that Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos makes the median Amazon salary every nine seconds, the CEO of Disney makes 1,424 times what his line worker earns, Google has been parking profits in Ireland, and CNN busts its unions.

When a politician rises by talking about ending the rigged game, only to get a uniformly negative response in media outlets owned by some of the riggers, people make that obvious connection, even when the rhetoric is coming from someone like Donald Trump.

When Trump jumped into the presidential race in 2015, it would have been easy enough for members of the media to decry his ignorance, personal and professional venality, and racism.

But they couldn’t help themselves, declaring every word out of his mouth a Satanic lie. This made the occasional things that he said that were true, like that Jeb Bush was a puppet for corporate donors or NATO was a bloated and outdated organization, pack significantly more punch.

The transparent full-of-shitness of the corporate press reaction to Trump was probably the leading argument for his credibility. Trump wrongly pushed voters to blame minorities and foreigners, and when he did identify correct targets for public opprobrium, like Goldman Sachs, it wasn’t believable that he would oppose them in office. But media figures gave his “drain the swamp” message a huge boost by scoffing at it with their inimical obnoxiousness.

They then spent years doubling down, backing conspiracy theories about espionage with Russia, mis-predicting the end of the Trump presidency, and, yes, employing tactics like bodylanguage analysis to say all sorts of silly things (“What is Donald Trump hiding? His body language says it all,” wrote Newsweek, interviewing an analyst who’d made “interesting observations about Hitler’s salutes”).

People in the media business underestimate, by a lot, the damage the last three years have done to their ability to reach not just Trump fans but non-Trump Republicans, independents, libertarians, Greens, and other groups. The latest fiascoes with Sanders double as confirmation for these people of their worst conclusions about media, and an additional insult that such goofball messaging is only now attracting the notice of some on the “other side. “

Sanders now looks poised to receive the same kind of bump Trump got in 2016 from media stupidity. As was the case this past summer when the Bezos-owned Washington Post went so far as to put the term “corporate media” in quotation marks while denouncing Bernie’s “bogus media beef,” the institutional dismissal has been so over-the-top that it’s likely to earn him sympathy even with disinterested parties. Is there a word for propaganda in reverse?