Over the recent days it's become apparent to me that while GOP candidate Donald Trump has achieved his success by exploiting the news media, Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, in contrast and by necessity, has found his by going around it, relying upon a bottom-up and tech-savvy voter mobilization and outreach campaign.
Both of these media strategies say something about the normal operating terrain of the corporate news media, especially the cable news networks.
This space might best be thought of as one of transactional public relations, not journalism. The candidates and members of the press best suited for it operate in an implicit and mutual understanding of acceptability and competence. In a typical exchange, the outermost limit placed on pursuit of truth is the refutation of a question's premise, and the most rigorous of replies conveys substance only on the level of talking points. For both journalist and politician, an interview's standard script enables evasion, and its most routine accomplishment is to underscore status. It is neither persuasive nor illuminating, except to those predisposed to find it so.
Trump has turned the predictability of these largely pro forma encounters to his advantage. In contrast to every other politician, he makes himself accessible to the news media on a near-constant basis. But in his appearances he does more than merely satisfy their hunger for superficial content; he makes news, at least according to the degenerate standards of cable news coverage. By tucking in some salacious comment or personable aside (sometimes both, at the same time) in almost every media appearance, Trump makes the encounter "newsworthy" in the eyes of infotainment or rewarding for viewers in search of spontaneity. Most politicians enter an interview hoping to avoid making a headline; Trump seems only to struggle with which among his several outrages he will select to lead the next news cycle.
Recently he took this strategy to the next level when he converted the typical primary night victory speech into a news conference, taking questions from the assembled reporters, and introducing an element of drama into what all other candidates regard as a moment to give a truncated form of their stump speech. On Tuesday night, after Trump added primary victories in both Michigan and Mississippi to his list of triumphs, all three cable news networks covered his appearance before the cameras live for forty-five minutes. Seizing the opportunity, Trump hawked some of his own product lines--Trump wine, Trump water, and Trump steaks--a blunt and discomfiting punctuation mark to the reality of what the news media has become. Trump is the nouveaux riche upstart exposing the pretension of old money.
Where the news media would prefer to retain the veneer of respectability, Trump lays bear its shallow conceits. In doing so, he dominates the genre. He is like a magician--a hoaxster with a gift for captivating the audience with his tricks, like Thomas Mann's megalomaniac Cipolla, who drones on to his audiences about his greatness while incorporating their insecurities into his own power and casting his spell. Mann's famous allegory compels us to understand that fascist demagoguery is, among other things, a performance, and responsibility for it includes those who extend the magician a stage.
To date, this culpability has only been indirectly acknowledged by the news media. Tuesday night, after CNN broadcasted Trump's salesmanship from start to finish, the network's commentators denounced the appearance as "infotainment"--an observation that served more to indict than excuse those making it. Disparaging Trump, members of the news media hope to take the metaphorical shower after sex "to feel clean" once again.
If Trump has turned the prime time drama of news media coverage into reality television, the Sanders campaign has retreated from this space almost entirely, perhaps not by choice, but ultimately to their benefit. As the GOP frontrunner vends a steady stream of seductive lies, Sanders has shown a willingness to articulate painful realities unacknowledged by both establishment media and politics. Corporate media has proved unable to resist the one, and is deeply inhospitable to the other. On camera, as the Senator draws breath and pronounces the letters "TPP," cable news coverage invariably cuts away.
As a result, the Sanders campaign has developed their own tools to deliver their message. There is no "app" for democracy, and one can make too much of the bells and whistles. Along those lines, even as I applaud the campaign's ingenuity, I think it's imperative to realize that the success of their approach is made possible by the acres of content, and the countless voices, corporate media abandoned long ago.
To my mind, as I've written before, the Sanders campaign's most important contribution has been to organize a consensus around the disconnect between conventional wisdom and the lived experience of most Americans. Another more common way of saying this is, he is building a campaign to speak truth to power. Even to the most cynical among us, it is startling the extent to which the country's most prominent news outlets present themselves not just as indifferent, but actively hostile to this project.
This is more than just unfortunate; it is precarious. Recently I read that a single, college-educated white person in his or her twenties now has a one in five chance of becoming impoverished in the next ten years. This country is now failing even the well-situated and privileged. Change will most certainly come, and the only remaining question is how much the Democratic Party and corporate media will embarrass themselves in the process, and how long the news conversation will, like wealth itself, remain siloed in a fortress of its own making.