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Taibbi writes: "The craziest part of Donald Trump's 77-minute loon-a-thon in Phoenix earlier this week came when he rehashed his shtick about the networks turning off live coverage of his speech."

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Blame the Media for Creating a World Dumb Enough for Trump

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

26 August 17

Yet another TV executive says Trump is "good for business." Is sudden good fortune of news media by accident or design?

he craziest part of Donald Trump's 77-minute loon-a-thon in Phoenix earlier this week came when he rehashed his shtick about the networks turning off live coverage of his speech. Trump seemed to really believe they were shutting the cameras off because "the very dishonest media" was so terrified of his powerful words.

"They're turning those lights off so fast!" he said. "CNN doesn't want its failing viewership to see this!"

Trump is wrong about a lot of things, but it's hard to be more wrong about any one thing than he was about this particular point.

No news director would turn off the feed in the middle of a Trump-meltdown. This presidency has become the ultimate ratings bonanza. Trump couldn't do better numbers if he jumped off Mount Kilimanjaro carrying a Kardashian.

This was confirmed this week by yet another shruggingly honest TV executive – in this case Tony Maddox, head of CNN International. Maddox said CNN is doing business at "record levels." He hinted also that the monster ratings they're getting have taken the sting out of being accused of promoting fake news.

"[Trump] is good for business," Maddox said. "It's a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period." Maddox, speaking at the Edinburgh TV festival, added that most of the outlets that have been singled out by Trump are doing a swimming business. "If you look at the groups that Trump has primarily targeted: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert," he said, "every single one of those has seen a quite remarkable growth in their viewing figures, in their sales figures."

Everyone hisses whenever they hear quotes like these. They recall the infamous line from last year by CBS chief Les Moonves, about how Trump "may not be good for America, but he's damn good for CBS." Moonves was even cheekier than Maddox. He laughed and added, "The money's rolling in, and this is fun. They're not even talking about issues, they're throwing bombs at each other, and I think the advertising reflects that."

For more than two years now, it's been obvious that Donald Trump is a disaster on almost every level except one – he's great for the media business. Most of us who do this work have already gone through the process of working out just how guilty we should or should not feel about this.

Many execs and editors – and Maddox seems to fall into this category – have convinced themselves that the ratings and the money are a kind of cosmic reward for covering Trump responsibly. But deep down, most of us know that's a lie. Donald Trump gets awesome ratings for the same reason Fear Factor made money feeding people rat-hair tortilla chips: nothing sells like a freak show. If a meteor crashes into jello night at the Playboy mansion, it doesn't matter if you send Edward R. Murrow to do the standup. Some things sell themselves.

The Trump presidency is like a diabolical combination of every schlock eyeball-grabbing formula the networks have ever deployed. It's Battle of the Network Stars meets Wrestlemania meets Survivor meets the Kursk disaster. It's got the immediacy of a breaking news crash, with themes of impending doom, conflict, celebrity meltdown, anger, racism, gender war, everything.

Trump even sells on the level of those Outbrain click-addicting photos of plastic surgery failures. With his mystery comb-over and his great rolls of restrained blubber and the infamous tales of violent fights with his ex over a failed scalp-reduction procedure, Trump on top of being Hitler and Hulk Hogan from a ratings perspective is also a physical monster, the world's very own bearded-lady tent.

Trump's monstrousness is ironic, since the image of Trump as the media's very own Frankenstein's monster has been used and re-used in the last years. Many in the business are of the opinion that, having created Trump and let him loose in the village, we in the press now have a responsibility to hunt him down with aggressive investigative reporting, to make the world safe again.

That might indeed be a good idea. But that take also implies that slaying the monster will fix the problem. Are we sure that's true?

Reporters seem to think so, and keep trying to find the magic formula. Just this week, staffers at the Wall Street Journal rebelled against editor-in-chief Gerard Baker. Baker, who has long been accused of being too soft on Trump, blasted his people for going too negative on the president in their coverage of the Arizona speech. He sent around a letter asking staff to "stick to reporting what [Trump] said," rather than "packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism."

Reporters fought back by (apparently) leaking the memo to the rival New York Times. This followed an incident in which a transcript of Baker's recent interview with Trump was leaked to Politico earlier this month. In it, Baker mentions being glad to have seen Ivanka Trump in Southampton, and small-talks with Trump about travel and golf. The implication here is that it's improper or unseemly for a newspaper editor to have a chummy relationship with this kind of a president.

And it is, sometimes. Reporters who should be challenging presidents and candidates are pretty much always cheating the public when they turn interviews into mutual back rub sessions.

But these intramural ethical wars within our business may just be deflections that keep us from facing bigger problems – like, for instance, the fact that we have been systematically making the entire country more stupid for decades.

We learned long ago in this business that dumber and more alarmist always beats complex and nuanced. Big headlines, cartoonish morality, scary criminals at home and foreign menaces abroad, they all sell. We decimated attention spans, rewarded hot-takers over thinkers, and created in audiences powerful addictions to conflict, vitriol, fear, self-righteousness, and race and gender resentment.

There isn't a news executive alive low enough to deny that we use xenophobia and racism to sell ads. Black people on TV for decades were almost always shirtless and chased by cops, and the "rock-throwing Arab" photo was a staple of international news sections even before 9/11. And when all else fails in the media world, just show more cleavage somewhere, and ratings go up, every time.

Donald Trump didn't just take advantage of these conditions. He was created in part by them. What's left of Trump's mind is like a parody of the average American media consumer: credulous, self-centered, manic, sex-obsessed, unfocused, and glued to stories that appeal to his sense of outrage and victimhood.

We've created a generation of people like this: anger addicts who can't read past the first page of a book. This is why the howls of outrage from within the ranks of the news media about Trump's election ring a little bit false. What the hell did we expect would happen? Who did we think would rise to prominence in our rage-filled, hyper-stimulated media environment? Sensitive geniuses?

We spent years selling the lowest common denominator. Now the lowest common denominator is president. How can it be anything but self-deception to pretend this is an innocent coincidence? your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+66 # BobboMax 2017-08-26 09:54
I pretty much agree with everything Taibbi has said- he's like my own personal echo chamber.

He didn't specifically address the advertising side of modern media. I think the advertisers have spent years training the American public to accept anything they see on TV as the truth.

Drinking Coke won't make you instantly popular, using the right make-up won't instantly get you a husband, driving the right pick-up won't make you a stud, but you'd never know that from watching commercials.

"I know it's true because I saw it on the internet." always gets a laugh, but I think we unconsciously act is if we "know it's true because we saw it on TV."

Part of the problem is human nature- before TV, what our eyes and brains reported was reality- there weren't any artificial images- there was just the real world- so we tend to accept what we see and hear as the truth. Advertisers have become adept at using that human failing to sell us cars, Cokes and clothes. And these days, politicians.
-3 # Jacob Freeze 2017-08-27 01:17
"I pretty much agree with everything Taibbi has said- he's like my own personal echo chamber," and that's what it's all about here on RSN!

So maybe Matt Taibbi should include the liberal/progres sive echo chamber the next time he makes a list of what made us all so fucking stupid in our pitiful dying Republic.
+51 # Michaeljohn 2017-08-26 10:16
Yup, the President Trump show is selling much better than his WWE appearances or The Apprentice ever did; this time he can actually hurt people and spill blood; the former television identities couldn't inflict the damage and provoke the violence his present status enables and the jaded audience wants real red meat. Wanna bet that the media covers the first nuke drop from start to finish, including the fireball and rad damaged survivors in their final throes?
I gave up TV 50 years ago and haven't looked back.
+50 # munza1 2017-08-26 10:28
Brilliant as always and with his characteristic wit.
+36 # danireland46 2017-08-26 10:58
People seek out sources of information that clarifies the truth they seek. For those of us crushed by the "truth" of the Trump era, the tendency to escape the madness by seeking fluff stories supporting the idea that all this has happened before and will happen again. Self deception is temporarily soothing and this is where many of us are now living. The real news are available primarily in sites like RSN, Bill Moyers Journal, Truth Dig ,Smirking Chimp etc. KEEP IT COMING RSN, et al.
+38 # goodsensecynic 2017-08-26 11:09
Yes, it's all true!

But it seems that upwards of 66% of the American people are not "pro-Trump." They range from the "skeptical" to the "hostile."

I have no doubt that, if they were given coherent and convincing argument to vote for people at all levels of government who displayed distinctly different qualities of mind and heart and who proposed substantially different policies, they would enthusiasticall y support the party and the individual candidate making them.

The trouble in 2018 and in 2020 is that the Democratic Party - itself torn between plutocratic insiders and progressive outsiders - seems incapable of presenting a genuine alternative.

If the madness is to stop (short of ecological, economic or catastrophic international conflict - never mind run-of-the-mill abuses of power and degrading of civil rights) some common ground among Democrats and dissenting resisters must be found. The prospect of a dissociated DNC warring against the passionate embrace of decency and reason represented by Senator Sanders and many like-minded people (Tulsi Gabbard, Tammy Duckworth, Al Franken, etc.) is disgusting and self-defeating.
+9 # lfeuille 2017-08-26 17:40
Not self defeating because the establishment dems and the dissenters are not of the same philosophy to begin with. The differences are real and cannot be papered over just to defeat Trump. Some of us just can't go back to hoping the dems will get around to realizing they are ignoring the needs of too many of their former supporters. There are not just 2 sides here, as far as Dems and former Dem supporters go, there are 3. We are fighting a 2 pronged war against Trumpism AND against corporate Democrats and we won't disarm and allow the establish Dems to marginalize us any more. There is a similar split on the Republican side apparently, but I don't pay much attention to it since neither Republican/cons ervative faction has anything to offer.
+5 # librarian1984 2017-08-27 10:05
Exactly. We are fighting a war on two fronts. It would be so much easier if we were united -- behind Sanders. But instead, our own party is a major obstacle to progress, and has been for 40 years.
+30 # PABLO DIABLO 2017-08-26 11:20
Trump didn't "win". More like Hillary "lost".
+53 # ligonlaw 2017-08-26 11:30
Trump is the train wreck we can't stop watching. Unfortunately, the train he is wrecking is America.
+39 # Sir Morien 2017-08-26 11:49
I was expecting sarcasm and found a focused faulting of financially-ins pired media for collusion with Trump's crazed chaos! The fact of the matter is that there actually is no longer a "lowest common denominator" beneath the most primary of Maslowian needs and primal instincts left to define the U.S. This is the end of amount of assembling the broken pieces will put Humpty back together. Nothing short of visionary transformation, totally unhinged from prior traditions and absolutely focused upon humane, dignity-affrimi ng principles will serve as an appropriate plumb line.

This all began when reporters started interviewing one another as "the news" and left aside public opinion and on-the-spot interviews. It was followed by military prescriptions for war coverage on site. Next came the "famous" journalists screaming at one another in each of their own little quadrant boxes on screen like "Hollywood Stars".

Principle-centered investigative journalism has all but died now because it doesn't sell! Matt is correct in assigning blame, but the ultimate final question for any such article is "where do we go from here". As MLK queried, "chaos or community?"
+1 # RLF 2017-09-01 05:41
The laziness of the media taking credentials as evidence...cred entials from the Ivy League, from think tanks, and perhaps from other reporters...ins tead of actually thinking about things. The Talking Head with not a thought in it has become our ideal etty and pretty vacant.
+41 # desertprogressive 2017-08-26 12:56
In Phoenix, all major stations were preempted with full coverage of Trump's white supremacy rally "Trump Visits the Valley", then hours of coverage of "Phoenix, Protests Turn Violent". Other than a couple of minor scuffles, the only violence was the police spraying chemicals on peaceful protesters. Yes, we really have "Fake News", and it's biased toward the Faker In Chief.
+6 # Harvard72 2017-08-26 14:21
The one thing I really want to know: Is it actually true in any way that "the red lights" were going out when Trump said they were. Since he has used that line before, I just presumed it was a LIE like everything else. That is, we know CNN did not turn off its coverage (as I watched the whole event straight through on CNN), but did ANY TV broadcaster actually turn off the camera at the time Trump claimed that they were doing so? There never is any photo or TV view or subsequent report from a member of the press presumably standing in the Press area to state whether any camera went off, or the whole thing is just a made up story by the moron in chief.
0 # Dudu101 2017-08-27 21:55
"the red lights" may not have been used. Tally lights on cameras are optional. They are on by default, but can be turned off. Trump may have noticed that some camera tally lights were not on, and assumed that the cameras were not recording.
+7 # Harvard72 2017-08-26 14:53
To RSS Editor:
Why is it that my comments do not get put up? I have written 3 different comments over the last few weeks, and they do not get put up. Nothing is hatespeech or anything out of bounds. What is going on?
+1 # NGB 2017-08-26 19:58
There is a problem with Trump supporters and their comments. They forget to hit 'enter' after typing the comment.
+18 # Wise woman 2017-08-26 15:29
Forty or so years ago, the last of "good" TV went by the wayside. Gone were the days of All in the Family, the Smothers Brothers, the Ed Sullivan Show, Carl Sagan, Dick Cavat and countless others that kept people thinking. That and or laughing both of which contribute to a healthy questioning mind. The dumbing down of America began shortly thereafter. People who are glued to network television are not capable of rational, deep thought. That part of their brains has shut down. I've watched it happen to close friends and family members. There's nothing left in them to have a stimulating, thoughtful conversation. Sad!!
+12 # backwards_cinderella 2017-08-26 16:52
I stopped watching network news well over two years ago. & I cancelled my cable this past month. So no more TV news at all.
0 # davehaze 2017-08-27 09:07
Two full years of election coverage had Matt Tiabi waste almost all his talent on Trump like every other journalist and media outlet. As an afterthought or to assuage a bad conscience did Tiabi cover CLinton and Sanders and the broader political financial world.

Well, If that's overstated, it sure seems that way.
0 # mentor 2017-08-27 09:21
Well-written article. I have just one question: How on earth did Barack Obama get elected?
+1 # wrknight 2017-08-29 00:19
Quoting mentor:
Well-written article. I have just one question: How on earth did Barack Obama get elected?

Obama had charisma and a vision, and that's what it takes to be a leader. Unfortunately, he lacked the courage of his convictions and caved in to the opposition.

Clinton lacked charisma and most people distrusted her vision.
-7 # Depressionborn 2017-08-27 10:23
News not on the news that rsn could use? (Trump surrenders?)

Outside of the Washington swamp, President Trump invoked the spirit of Ronald Reagan in a stirring speech that advanced the tenets of his MAGA platform: rebuild the economy, defend our country, defeat ISIS and build the wall.

Once again, the “Fake News Industrial Complex” became seriously apoplectic, traumatized by the very thought of the unapologetic presentation of American exceptionalism, the embodiment of Judeo-Christian values and a true Jacksonian policy agenda over a failed Eurocentric Globalist nightmare.

Chocking on their own legacy of losses, they were unable to admit the gains already made in a mere 200 days of Donald Trump as President. The revitalization of NATO, the actual victories against ISIS, the unwavering alliance with Israel, and slowing illegal immigration by 73% since Donald Trump became President are like daylight to the vampires of the “Destroy Trump Media.”
+8 # wrknight 2017-08-29 00:15
Quoting Depressionborn:
Chocking on their own legacy of losses, they were unable to admit the gains already made in a mere 200 days of Donald Trump as President. The revitalization of NATO, the actual victories against ISIS, the unwavering alliance with Israel, and slowing illegal immigration by 73% since Donald Trump became President are like daylight to the vampires of the “Destroy Trump Media.”

1) NATO didn't need revitalizing as the threat of Communism died with the USSR. The only accomplishment of the re-vitalized NATO was to make an enemy of Russia which is the last thing we needed.

2) The destruction of ISIS came about largely due to Russian assistance without which ISIS would have defeated Assad.

3) Our unwavering alliance with Israel is like our unwavering alliance with Saudi Arabia both of which, together with the U.S., are the greatest cause of unrest in the Middle East.

4) Illegal immigration has slowed since the recession largely due to lack of employment opportunities which has caused many illegals to return south.

So much for your daylight.
+2 # kyzipster 2017-08-29 13:16
"the embodiment of Judeo-Christian values"

I don't think many Evangelicals could say this with a straight face, even if they did vote for him.

I think you're right, Trump does represent the values of the Christian-right /GOP cult.
+3 # pernsey 2017-08-27 11:57
I think Fox news started is the major propaganda netweork. Trump calling out CNN as fake news is ridiculous, if there is any fake news its Trump and Fox. Opinion news isnt reality its opinion. Fox keeps all the righties afraid with their skewed views and they should be accountable for creating an atomosphere of fear and maximizing what should be minimized.
+2 # maindrains 2017-08-27 14:42
Amen to all of that. This is why its worth supporting RSN with your dollars; do it people so we can evade the mainstraem media that is everything that Taibbi says it is.
+11 # Buddha 2017-08-28 09:07
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists." - Hanna Arendt

Historically, the most important step to autocracy is seizing the media and using it to turn the masses into party-identity- locked bobbleheads who can't tell fact from fiction and will swallow the propaganda hook, line and sinker.
+1 # trimegestus 2017-08-29 20:50
Thanks for that profound quote from Hannah Arendt. RSN readers a smart crew.
0 # chapdrum 2017-08-28 15:41
Taibbi may be right about this, but then again, he believes the official line about WTC so he may not be the ideal judge of what's dumb.
+4 # PABLO DIABLO 2017-08-28 17:33
It is "divide and conquer" at its finest. WAKE UP AMERICA, we have BIG problems to solve and blaming each other is not doing the job. Meanwhile the pigs are feeding at the trough.

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