Embedded in Taibbi’s lively reportage, the message of Hate Inc. is that U.S. mainstream media have evolved from maintaining a more or less calm and unified take on what stories are publishable and what are not, in service to power to be sure, to frenetic, partisan coverage with a point of view aimed at a particular demographic. Taibbi uses Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, to describe this shift, a shift he fears has accentuated polarization and created a loss of media credibility among the electorate that is irrecoverable and very bad news for democracy. The chief culprit is “left” media’s irresponsible, journalistically sloppy commitment to the Russian Collusion story.
Published just before the shift, Taibbi describes how Manufacturing Consent applies to the two periods. In the pre-shift phase the media had a lock on a profitable segment of advertising which the digital age unlocked, lowering profits and sending the industry into a panicked search for audience share to deliver to its advertisers. Fox News hit on it first. Following the sports model of picking a side and rallying the fans to rabid loyalty and emotional investment. CNN, MSNBC etc; soon followed, all using the same tactics: aim for a certain demographic, build loyalty, keep them pissed-off at the other side and sitting on the edge of their seat with “breaking news” and purchasing their advertisers’ products.
The pre-shift media kept what Chomsky called the “parameters of discussion” to a narrow range, usually called conservative to liberal. This reflected the range of opinion among the owners who carefully hired people with the appropriate beliefs to run their business. So vigorous-appearing debates were actually quite constrained. Search that media in vain for socialist commentators, that point of view being outside polite discourse. I was aware of Manufacturing Consent and pretty much, for that reason, avoided mainstream news for a long time. The book didn’t actually recommend this but rather an eyes-open critical reading. So I was taken aback, even delighted, when encountering Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews etc; on MSNBC mocking “wingnuts”. It took me awhile to realize that though things had stretched some, those same basic parameters were still there. Socialism could actually be mentioned now and then without hysterical demonizing, but not too often. The main thrust was going after those crazy lying right wingers on Fox, Republicans in the congress and administration, cheering for “our side”, the reasonable moderate liberals. Fox of course was the mirror image. The networks tried various mixes, CNN attempting sometimes to outfox Fox, even hire away its commentators, MSNBC fairly strictly sticking to the anti-right. The strategies were the same for both “sides”, just different targets. The big mistake, according to Taibbi, was bringing that strategy to the Russian Collusion story.
Taibbi condemns this shift as NOT journalism but entertainment. Previously news could be more like a book seller’s prestige publications, not necessarily profitable but enhancing the brand. Now you had to hold your audience at all costs, with desperate measures and journalistic standards be damned. If a journalist was on a “team”, it was journalism, not a political party. This effort has been very profitable. The “product” comes from, is selected from, the same old sources, reporters, but of an ever-shrinking pool.
The author confesses that he is actually fairly non-political, more interested in his family than politics but “If tortured…” he’d confess to being progressive, voting, being lightly activist, giving a little money here and there but mostly he sees the world from an absurdist position. Humanity is the three stooges he says, we try our best but mostly fail. Taibbi confesses to having worked his audience from a niche called the vitriolic essay, a take-down artist but with always the right people being taken down. I remember sensing this reading him, being entertained as he “took down” the people I loved to hate but sensing something off. Especially if he included people I respected, like Bernie. He seems to recognize the urgency of climate change or the threat of nuclear holocaust, the obscenity of military spending, rule of the 1% etc; in one sentence then slip into, it’s not all that important or the flippant statement that we used to hire people to do our vitriol, meaning elected officials. Taibbi does not mention that Hillary took the popular vote, by 2-3 million, when critiquing her campaign. Nor does he mention the obstruction of justice offenses in the Mueller report (and why didn’t the dems include these in the impeachment?!). But I have to buy his take, that if you’re looking for corruption you do it without partisan protection, you call a spade a spade. Without that objectivity there is a credibility loss that makes it easier to believe tRump’s wild accusations of fake news.
Taibbi’s book includes a section explaining why Rachel Maddow is paired with Hannity on the cover, the claim that both use the same partisan strategies to make money for their network (and selves). A second section is an interview with Noam Chomsky, discussing he and Ed Herman’s book in today’s context.