Gatekeepers, whether academics or media puppets, delight in the power to subtly determine boundaries, to let everyone know exactly who is “beyond the pale.” The word “pale” refers to the pointed wooden poles that once were used in fortifications. Think “Fort Apache.” Anyone who threatened the innocent community within the pale risked being impaled on the sharp stakes of irrefutable “argument,” or worse.
Gatekeepers know what is expected of them, and they know each other very well. Here’s one of them (New York Times book reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn) praising another one, Jonathan Kay in 2011:
Inside the World of Conspiracy Theorists – “Among the Truthers” is a remarkable book, not least because its author, Jonathan Kay, appears to have emerged with his sanity intact after immersing himself for several years in the wilder precincts of conspiracy theories…Some of Kay’s most illuminating passages center not on what conspiracy theorists believe — even to dignify it with the word “theory” is probably to grant them more legitimacy than they deserve — but on why they are attracted to such tedious rubbish in the first place. He divides them into different camps, including the “cranks” and the “firebrands.” Cranks are often reacting to male midlife crises — combating conspiracies, Kay says, offers a new sense of mission. Cranks, he adds, are frequently math teachers, computer scientists or investigative journalists…As Kay sees it, the Enlightenment is itself at stake. His verdict could hardly be more categorical: “It is the mark of an intellectually pathologized society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents’ realities.”
Notice how a NYT book reviewer (one of the very top levels of gatekeepers) subtly allowed his subject to do two things. First, to psychologize people, to reduce them to pitiful jokes, easily definable types acting out their midlife crises. And second, to include “investigative journalists” among the “cranks” – years before Trump would describe the Times itself as “failing” because it was so fake. And Kay’s last statement, of course, could not be a more precise description of the gatekeeping process itself. To accuse others of doing what one himself is in fact doing is a perfect example of the psychological process of projection. To do my own psychologizing, one might well wonder about the hidden motives of someone (and his editors) who would so blatantly indict himself.
But the best of the gatekeepers – imagine the vetting process one must go through to reach the level of NYT book reviewer – are not that dumb. They do this, I’m sure, quite deliberately. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels allegedly said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth” (or at least enough writers have repeated that charge for me to assume its veracity). James Tracy, a professor and journalist who himself has been tarred with the “conspiracy theorist” label, writes:
The now-prevalent phenomenon where only the narratives authorized by law enforcement and government authorities are worthy of serious consideration suggests the unmistakable extent to which public discourse has declined…journalists and academics are expected to either fall silent or perform the rearguard action of deflecting criticism from the state…Today’s project of policing the public sphere for unorthodox thoughts is a form of stealth authoritarianism that combines the weight of academic or journalistic expertise with a phony liberalism (or conservatism) to confirm the often unexamined perspectives of a specific political constituency. Such a technique is most readily employed against the apparently irrational ideas, beliefs and practices of a foreign other. In this regard “conspiracy theorists” and “truthers” typically play the “straw man” role.
The state, in its ongoing effort to shore up broken timbers in the pale of American innocence, has long worked directly with the media. By now, we all know – or should know – about government lies and media collusion around the invasion of Iraq, to take just one example. BTW, you might find this 2003 video of Robert Mueller (then FBI Director) testifying about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” disturbing in the context of gatekeeping:
Long before Iraq, in “Operation Mockingbird,” the CIA infiltrated major news organizations, planted stories, thwarted criticism of the Warren Commission Report and labeled its critics as the original “conspiracy theorists.” Of the hundreds of journalists who have colluded with the CIA, wrote Carl Bernstein back in 1977, “By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.” We can certainly assume that this process continues today.
Ultimately, we follow the money, and here is where the idea and myth of equivalency breaks down utterly. We range far beyond notions of “good intentions” and “fair representation” when we hear arguments about the equivalency of access to the airwaves. Even primary gatekeepers such as the NYT (here) and The New Yorker (here) have admitted that long before the “Citizen’s United” Supreme Court decision, the Tea Party was created (in the tens of millions of dollars) by the Koch brothers and the tobacco industry. The “populist uprising” that “spontaneously” developed in 2009 and propelled Donald Trump into the White House would have been nothing but a minor conspirator’s convention without its massive, corporate subsidies.
At the Koch brothers’ level of influence, they can simply buy or create entire gatekeeping institutions, such as a libertarian “think tank” that labeled North Dakota as the “most free” state in the union even as it was attempting to ban abortion. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal and dozens of other gatekeeper media outlets. And Jeff Bezos, who has contracted with the CIA, is now the proud owner of the venerable Washington Post, second only to the NYT as first gatekeeper of the nation.
The only way to argue that “left” and “right” have equal access to media is to set the bar so low as to marginalize any voices to the left of the Democratic National Committee. There is not and never was any equivalency. Still, there is little point in blaming the rich for wanting to maintain control. We mythologists should be far more interested in why so many Americans support people and parties that have never served their interests, even when those interests are defined broadly as “values.”
The good news is that, even with so many of us still willing to consume the dominant mythology of innocence – witness the ongoing, national hagiography of the warmonger John McCain – so many others have always opted out. This fact actually forces people like Sheldon Adelson, Betsy DeVoss, Murdoch and the Kochs to expend their fortunes trying to keep enough of us thinking within the pale – or to abandon the political engagement entirely, which serves the same purposes.
Ironically and unknowingly, these billionaire “libertarians” offer tribute to the opponents that they would destroy. To have their press puppets imply that movements that must organize bake sales to raise the money to educate the public about global warming are “equivalent” to their own slick media barrages and fabricated “mass demonstrations” is, in truth, to admit the power of authentic ideas. It is to admit the power of the people whose respect they can only buy but never earn. It is to admit that the myth of American Innocence, though very old, is also very unstable.
FEs played a major role in 2016. What did the media want – besides marginalizing Bernie Sanders – in an election that for months appeared to be one in which Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in? The media wanted business, and a close election would be good for business. We recall CBS chairman Les Moonves’ appraisal of the Trump phenomenon: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
So from that perspective, it made perfect sense to emphasize equivalences, rather than differences, between Clinton and Trump. Large numbers of Americans, of course, didn’t need to be reminded that the Democratic Party powers had done their own job of marginalizing Sanders, and that Clinton was highly unpopular among progressives, many of whom refused to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils.
What actually turned the tide in the last weeks? Russians? Voter suppression and disenfranchisement? Hacking of voting machines? James Comey’s last-minute revelations about investigating Clinton? The argument goes on. But clearly, the media got the close election that it wanted, and presenting FEs was one of its methods. The great irony is that the media that Trump would come to attack as “fake” had actually created him, built up his image, diminished Clinton, propelled him into office and proceeded to nourish that image through many more months of FE’s
Regardless of what we think of Hillary Clinton, the tapes of Trump bragging of abusive behavior and allegations of sexual assault and the Clinton emails were both legitimate stories, but not equivalent in their import, as the media barrage claimed. The NYT even implied that Clinton supporters were equally responsible for violence at Trump rallies.
Lester Holt and Elaine Quijano used the term “Race Relations” Instead of “White Supremacy” while moderating the presidential and vice presidential debates. Holt spoke of “healing the divide” between the races, implying another simple equivalency. And the Times’ primary gatekeeper David Brooks, the voice of the reasonable center, attacked “political correctness,” casually equating racists and those who fight them:
But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.
Really? Was defining racists as racist equivalent to threatening violence against vulnerable populations?
Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near a campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr.Trump…
Eric Alterman writes:
The only explanation I can muster for this embarrassment is The Times’ unyielding commitment to false-equivalency narratives, the product of decades of conservative efforts to work the refs. The thinking seems to boil down to this: “We’re running an article about Trump supporters’ violence against immigrants, people of color, Muslims and Jews, so shouldn’t we also say something mean about liberals too? We wouldn’t want anyone to accuse us of liberal bias.” This has long been the modus operandi at virtually every establishment media institution, and its cost has been normalizing Trump and his assaults on our free press and democratic norms.
The perspective of the pro-Clinton, reasonable center was that Trump and Sanders were simply two sides of the same coin:
The Atlantic: “What Trump and Sanders Have in Common”
Huffington Post: “How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s Campaigns Are Similar”
Washington Post: “This Is How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Are the Same Person”
And finally, for now, this whopper, again from the WAPO: “The Obvious Trump Running Mate? Bernie Sanders, of Course.”
Read Part Four here.