Monday, April 02, 2018

Dystopia Realized

It seems like this really got going with Sarah Palin talking about the "lamestream media," and conservatives found there was a lot of power in attacking journalists. The problem was that they would say or do something stupid and then the newspapers would publish it, which was embarrassing. Trump picked up this anti-media theme and developed it to the point where his followers have given up believing that objective truth exists. The news media cannot be counted on to publish the kind of news the rightwingers want, for instance they are occasionally sympathetic to the victim when the cops kill an unarmed black guy, or when a well-respected, loving immigrant family is broken up by ICE in the middle of the night, or when the President lies sometimes the news will point out the incongruity between what he said and reality. These lapses of gullibility must be denounced as bias. Fake news.

I have often written on this blog that the history of our time will be a history of the media and how they have influenced public opinion. Journalists are human beings who have to depend on their perceptions, and have to transform what they learn into words for their audience. Whatever they say is necessarily a human communication, not a mathematical formula, these are stories and will have some interpretative aspect to them. The result is that we get news with the rough edges whittled off and the shadows deepened, so the bad guys and good guys stand simplified and a little more starkly contrasted. A sophisticated media consumer reads sceptically and reviews multiple sources when the news matters.

The authoritarian point of view does not accommodate the concept of objective truth, and sees facts as opinions that are for or against itself. If a young protester tears up a shooting-range target in order to make the point that children should not be targets of firearms, the authoritarian right will photoshop that image and show her tearing up the Constitution (as if they themselves supported the Constitution). It does not matter that she tore up a target, they want to see her tearing up the Constitution, and so that is what they circulate among themselves, with henhouse clucks of outrage and indignity.

This week we saw one of the most bizarre instances of this. It still makes my skin crawl.

Sinclair Communications is a huge conservative media company that has been quietly buying up local television outlets. With no fanfare their central office has been sending out pro-Trump news propaganda scripts, and forcing news anchors to read these things verbatim on the air. You as the local viewer do not realize that your familiar news-team has been taken over, these look like any other news story. There are rumors that some of the anchors are resentful or have a negative attitude about this, but they read it obediently, beaming the official party message into millions of unwary American households.

That's bad, right? We can all agree on that, some central corporate office putting words in journalists' mouths, having them parrot the party line. The polite word for this is "dystopian;" nightmare works, too.

But wait. There's more.

This week an amazing video came out -- actually two similar videos -- showing a lot of these Sinclair-backed news people reading the same script, all over the country. Each has their characteristic gestures and intonations, each one projects their well-disciplined charisma as they read this stupid thing about "fake news" and how bad it is.



That is creepy. But it gets even worse.

To you and me, this is an indictment of a rightwing propaganda campaign that is poisoning American democracy by presenting political messaging as news. Sinclair is the largest owner of television stations in the U.S. -- in the DC area if you are watching WJLA ABC7 or NewsChannel 8 you are watching Sinclair programming.

The message among the rightwing Internet has been entirely different. They do not see this as "their side" taking over local news and destroying it. They see this as an indictment of all media. For instance, the unreliable but reliably-conservative Gateway Pundit reports that "Paul Joseph Watson has created another incredible video showing mainstream media outlets talking about fake news in a concerted fake news report." Their takeaway: "Fake news talking about how they are not fake news is fake news."

And this is something else -- Paul Joseph Watson is an Infowars blogger, embedded deeply in the conspiracy-theory world of the delusional right. There is no evidence at all that he created this video -- these guys will just say anything.

Most writers agree the video first appeared on a blog at Deadspin, which is a Univision-owned sports site that, if anything, leans in the liberal direction. The original post from 3:45PM on March 31st gives no source for the video, or explanation.

ThinkProgress posted a similar video the day before, at 3:16PM on March 30th. Both these are based on a script that Sinclair gave its affiliates, and which was run in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Wonkette doesn't think Watson produced it, but does screenshot a lot of crazy reactions to this video, which obviously proves that George Soros is manipulating the media.

The New York Times, says Deadspin made the video:
Timothy Burke, the video director at Deadspin, had read a report last month from CNN, which quoted local station anchors who were uncomfortable with the speech.

Mr. Burke tracked down the Sinclair affiliates and found when they had aired what he called a “forced read.”

Then he stitched together the various broadcasts to create a supercut of anchors from Seattle to Phoenix to Washington eerily echoing the same lines...

You have to watch this thing, it is unbelievable, it has been taken up by both those who believe in objective truth and those who do not believe objective truth exists, to support their own point of view.

The liberal side sees that the rightwing propaganda machine, in the form of Sinclair Broadcast Group, has taken over hundreds of television channels and is brainwashing the public with conservative garbage. The conservative side sees proof that the media are being run by some central cabal that is putting fake news into news anchors' mouths so the sheeple will obediently fall in line and obey their overlords.

Of course, not that it matters, but the President weighed in on the matter this morning on Twitter -- he l-u-u-r-r-r-ves Sinclair. He tweeted: "So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke." Of course, Sinclair owns a lot of NBC channels, but ...

The Post added some details:
The controversy comes at a critical time for Sinclair. The company is awaiting federal approval for its proposed $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media, a deal that would add Tribune’s 42 TV stations to Sinclair’s portfolio. The deal requires the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, both of which are dominated by Trump loyalists. Opponents of the deal say it would give Sinclair too much power over local broadcast markets.

The question is whether a huge rightwing coroporation can execute a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy by undermining the free press to the point where none of us can believe any of it any more. I don't think they can exterminate truth entirely or erase it from our political discourse, but certainly this kind of subtle and sophisticated propaganda machine is going to affect a lot of people who are sitting in their living rooms innocently watching the television, and make it hard to rationally discuss anything with them.