Picture: Alex Edelman / AFP / Taken on January 6, 2021 – Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification.
By Thom Hartmann
For voters to make intelligent decisions about candidates, they must be well-informed. Sadly, that is very much not what is happening today in America. If we don’t confront this crisis, democracy itself will pay the price.
Over at his excellent Substack newsletter, former Labour Secretary Robert Reich asks the question that’s probably on the minds of many: “Why are so many people prepared to vote for Trump?”
After all, there have been at least seven national polls conducted by reputable organisations in the past few weeks and not a single one shows Biden beating Trump in a 2024 matchup.
Reich cites the many crimes, lies, and outright fascistic statements attributed to Trump, followed by the considerable list of Biden’s accomplishments, and then offers a poll asking if people say they’re voting for America’s first true wannabee dictator because of ignorance, anger/fear, racism/xenophobia, or Biden’s age.
All are no doubt significant factors, but I believe the largest variable in Americans’ willingness to say they’ll vote for Trump is far simpler: the consequence of yellow journalism.
I’m not talking about a simple left/right bias, a political preference held by reporters or publishers and editors of the nation’s major media outlets. While there’s a strong case to be made for billion-dollar corporations and multimillionaire media personalities having a preference for low taxes and deregulation, for example, the bias I’m referencing has to do with spectacle.
Generations ago, we referred to newspapers that emphasised scandal and celebrity intrigue as “yellow journalism”. The phrase dates back to the 1890s when William Randolph Hearst bought, in 1895, the Journal, a New York newspaper that he used to successfully compete with Joseph Pulitzer’s then-dominant New York World.
Hearst hired away from Pulitzer’s papers a number of famous writers along with Richard Outcault, then arguably the nation’s most famous cartoonist, who penned the wildly popular series called The Yellow Kid. Between Outcault’s draw and Hearst’s emphasis on celebrity and sensationalism, from the 1890s until the WWII era, “yellow journalism” dominated the American media scene.
It quite literally took World War II to push public demand for real news and serious reporting — and a new emphasis on fact-based reporting and substance over flash — back into media dominance. It birthed what became the era of Walter Cronkite and Catherine Graham, with honest, credible reporting on everything from Nixon’s Watergate crimes to the horrors of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War.
Cronkite competed with Huntley and Brinkley based on the quality of their reporting and the credibility of their sources, as did the nation’s major and even regional newspapers and radio news networks.
I trace the modern era of yellow journalism to the 1990s, when the nation was transfixed by Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr’s relentless and pornographic pursuit of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After Reagan ended enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, radio and TV stations were no longer burdened by the requirement to “programme in the public interest” to maintain their broadcast licences; all three major TV networks moved their news divisions — which had universally been losing money because of the requirement for “real news” — under the arm of their entertainment divisions, where they remain to this day and have now become significant profit centres.
Rush Limbaugh’s 1988 national syndication and Rupert Murdoch’s 1996 Fox “News” set the tone for this era’s new yellow journalism, frontloading — as did Hearst back in the day — personality, celebrity, and scandal over the boring details of policy, debate, and the consequence of congressional and presidential decisions.
The “yellow” of this era’s “yellow journalism”; I’d argue, more accurately means “cowardly”, now that nobody remembers the cartoon of the 1890s. And, unlike the 1890s when there were still papers engaging in serious journalism, today’s yellow journalism is ubiquitous across the media consumed by most Americans.
As a consequence, a September Wall Street Journal poll found that 52 percent of voters today claim that Trump “has a strong record of accomplishments” but only 40 percent say the same for Biden.
And now the researchers are beginning to weigh in, documenting how 21st century yellow journalism has altered our political landscape and led to the rise of the ultimate scandal/celebrity/personality spectacle: Donald Trump and his fascist cult followers.
The Columbia Journalism Review, arguably the premiere watchdog of American news reporting, just published a scathing indictment of political coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Because these newspapers are so widely read and respected, they tend to set the agenda and tone for most other reporting in the United States, and what the Review found was shocking:
“Both emphasised the horse race and campaign palace intrigue, stories that functioned more to entertain readers than to educate them on essential differences between political parties. …
“By the numbers, of four hundred and eight articles on the front page of the Times during the period we analysed, about half — two hundred nineteen — were about domestic politics. A generous interpretation found that just ten of those stories explained domestic public policy in any detail; only one front-page article in the lead-up to the midterms really leaned into discussion about a policy matter in Congress: Republican efforts to shrink Social Security.
“Of three hundred and ninety-three front-page articles in the Post, two hundred fifteen were about domestic politics; our research found only four stories that discussed any form of policy. The Post had no front-page stories in the months ahead of the midterms on policies that candidates aimed to bring to the fore or legislation they intended to pursue. Instead, articles speculated about candidates and discussed where voter bases were leaning.”
This is the exact same type of yellow journalism “reporting” that led up to the 2016 election and brought us Donald Trump as president and is a clear echo of the days of Hearst’s New York Journal.
But it’s not just selective reporting of the news of the day with a heavy tilt toward the GOP (or, more correctly, a steady refusal to report on the accomplishments of Biden and Democrats).
Another factor that Hearst played on heavily and has come to dominate what passes today for journalism is the inversion of expectation.
As any comedian can tell you, an involuntary laugh response comes when a person thinks they know what’s coming next and is then, instead, surprised by the unexpected.
“I just flew in from New York,” Red Skelton used to famously say, deadpan. “Boy, are my arms tired!”
In his 1941 book American Journalism. A History of Newspapers in the United States through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940, Frank Luther Mott famously noted the hallmark of Hearst’s time:
“When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
In today’s yellow journalism era, reporters are far more interested in “man bites dog” stories than in examining the factors and history that may have provoked that bite, or even covering in any detail the frequency of dogs biting people.
The latest example comes from an in-depth analysis done by Media Matters comparing Hillary Clinton’s private comment about Trump’s followers being “a basket of deplorables” and Trump’s very public proclamation, literally echoing Hitler, that some of us are “vermin” who he intends to “root out” and eliminate from American society.
Clinton is a reasonable and thoughtful politician and former diplomat, so her “deplorables” comment was seen by our yellow press as “man bites dog”.
Trump, on the other hand, is a sadistic fascist whose call for the extermination of his political opponents could reasonably be expected: “dog bites man”.
The data proves the thesis, as Media Matters notes:
“Media Matters reviewed the nationally syndicated broadcast news shows — ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press — in the first week after each remark.
“We found that those programmes aired 54 minutes of coverage of Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ comment but just three minutes regarding Trump’s ‘vermin’ remark.
“ABC News aired 20 minutes of ‘deplorables’ coverage across 13 segments and three teasers, but devoted only a single minute of coverage to the ‘vermin’ comment, during an interview with the network’s chief Washington correspondent, Jonathan Karl, about his new book.
“CBS News provided 13 minutes of ‘deplorables’ coverage across 11 segments and three teasers, compared to one passing mention of the ‘vermin’ remark on Face the Nation that comprised less than 30 seconds.
“And NBC News spent 21 minutes of airtime on the ‘deplorables’ comment across 11 segments, compared to two minutes on ‘vermin’ — one a passing mention, the other an interview in which Meet the Press moderator Kristen Welker read the comment to Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and asked her, ‘Are you comfortable with this language coming from the GOP front-runner?’ (McDaniel declined to comment.)”
Cable news (CNN, Fox “News,” and MSNBC) wasn’t much different:
“On CNN, there were 553 mentions of ‘deplorable’ compared to 70 for ‘vermin.’
“On Fox News, there were 513 mentions of ‘deplorable’ compared to only nine of ‘vermin.’
“And on MSNBC, there were 596 mentions of ‘deplorables’ compared to only 112 of ‘vermin’.
The reporters at Media Matters then turned their attention to the nation’s five largest newspapers by circulation: “the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post — in the first week following each remark.”
Here, they found the pattern repeated.
The LA Times published three articles about Clintons “deplorables” comment, two on the front page. But not even one single article during the week after Trump mentioned “vermin” made any reference whatsoever about his remark.
The New York Times had seven articles about Clinton’s comment, four on the front page; like the LA Times, there wasn’t a single news story mentioning Trump’s ‘vermin’ comment during that period.
The Wall Street Journal similarly ignored Trump’s comment altogether, but ran eight articles about Clinton’s faux pax, four of them on the front page.
The Washington Post at least mentioned Trump’s comment once, on page A2 (including it in the headline), but gave Clinton’s remark nine stories, one on the front page, with five using the word “deplorables” in the headline.
USA Today covered Clinton’s comment in two news articles but, like three of the other four papers completely ignored Trump’s.
So far as I can tell there’s been no similar analysis of Obama’s leaked comment about Pennsylvania voters in areas that had been deindustrialised by Reagan’s neoliberal free trade policies and the GOP’s destruction of the trade union movement.
“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter,” Obama told a closed-door group of donors, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”.
The coverage at the time almost completely ignored the context of Obama’s remarks and, instead, focused on the “man bites dog” of a Black politician criticising rural white voters.
This Tuesday, Trump demanded “the government” must “come down hard” and “punish” MSNBC because Lawrence O’Donnell criticised him on-air.
In any other democratic nation, a leading politician calling for the censorship or punishment of a media outlet would be front page news. Here in America, it was only covered by Deadline, a newspaper that covers Hollywood, and on Lawrence’s own show.
At the same time, while our economy in many ways is doing better than it has since the 1960s, there’s virtually no mention of that in the media, either. It doesn’t bleed, so it doesn’t lead.
As a result, The Wall Street Journal reported last week:
“Only 36 percent of voters in a new Wall Street Journal/NORC survey said the American dream still holds true, substantially fewer than the 53 percent who said so in 2012 and 48 percent in 2016 in similar surveys of adults by another pollster.”
Not only has this era’s yellow journalism facilitated the rise of a fascist demagogue and his cult; it has altogether warped Americans’ view of objective reality.
To paraphrase Clinton’s 1992 campaign, the answer to Reich’s plaintive question about why more voters are going for Trump than Biden regardless of the realities in the fact-based world: “It’s the media, stupid.” (With the highest respect for Reich.)
It’s almost a cliche these days to complain about the “infotainment” we see in TV and radio “news” reporting that has come about in the wake of Reagan ending enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine, but to see this same type of horserace coverage passing as news on the front pages of the nation’s largest newspapers is, frankly, a crime against our democracy.
For voters to make intelligent decisions about candidates, they must be well-informed. Sadly, that is very much not what is happening today in America, and our era’s yellow journalism bodes ill for the 2024 elections and the future of our democratic republic.
What can be done about this?
In 1983, President Reagan directed the DOJ, FTC, and SEC to essentially stop enforcing our nation’s antitrust laws. As a result, our media has been massively consolidated and is more driven by corporate boardrooms’ profit considerations than any thought about the future of our nation.
For example, today more than half of all our country’s local newspapers are owned by a handful of New York-based hedge funds.
Nonetheless, America’s media is not immune to pressure and demands from the public. Most media organisations allow for comments on their articles, letters to the editor, or simply private, typically email, feedback from readers.
Both Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Toqueville famously highlighted the critical importance to our democracy of a free and independent press.
Now that our nation’s massive media corporations have failed so tragically in their obligation to inform the public and hold power to account, that job falls to us.
Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of “The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream” (2020); “The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America” (2019); and more than 25 other books in print.