A review of Hate Inc.
(Author: Matt Taibbi)
Journalist Matt Taibbi’s explanations for the ever-ascending roar of political media are mostly not new. Media fragmentation over the decades has led to silos and echo chambers, and the desperation of news companies for elusive profits has led to a maniacal focus on grabbing eyeballs and holding them. Social media was designed to addict users, it culls and promotes the most extreme voices and events, and it amplifies propaganda and misinformation.
Journalists themselves—and, more obviously, their corporate overlords—do have some culpability. Hate, Inc. is part confessional, part diatribe, and part an insider view of the business.
Over the years I became increasingly uneasy about feeding readers’ hate reflexes. I tried to get around this by only picking stories about things that were genuinely outrageous, but eventually you start to feel the tail wagging the dog.
…The problem we all have is the commercial structure of the business. To make money, we’ve had to train audiences to consume news in a certain way. We need you anxious, pre-pissed, addicted to conflict. Moreover we need you to bring a series of assumptions every time you open a paper or turn on your phone, TV, or car radio. Without them, most of what we produce will seem illogical and offensive.
Left vs. Right
A particularly enjoyable chapter is Taibbi’s “Ten Rules of Hate,” a description of the mentality encouraged by the media. It resonates strongly. The rules are (synopses mine):
1. There are only two ideas. Left and right. Binary. Drilled into us at a young age.
2. The two ideas are in permanent conflict. Think Crossfire, the early CNN debate show.
3. Hate people, not institutions. Weekly public debates are merely referendums on big political actors, not policy. Real investigative journalism is boring and attracts lawsuits.
4. Everything is someone else’s fault. We like easy stories that find a way to castigate or blame the other side. Taibbi: “The overwhelming majority of ‘controversial news stories’ involves simple partisan narratives cleaved quickly into hot-button talking points.”
5. Nothing is Everyone’s fault. Stories about big, real social problems without a partisan angle? Nah…
6. Root, don’t think. Politics is covered as a sport—a proven profitable format.
7. No switching teams. Never venture into the middle, never give the other side something they can use.
8. The other side is literally Hitler. Basically, They want to destroy America.
9. In the fight against Hitler, everything is permitted. With the stakes this high, how can we place limits on our aggression?
10. Feel superior. (The best part!) How can they be so stupid?
People need to start understanding the news not as “the news,” but as just such an individualized consumer experience—anger just for you. This is not reporting. It’s a marketing process designed to create rhetorical addictions and shut any non-consumerist doors in your mind.
The press is first and foremost a business, as commercial as selling cheeseburgers or underpants. We sell content, and what we don’t sell is far more important than what we do.
Cable news is, of course, the worst of the worst, and Taibbi’s poster-children are Fox News’ Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Taibbi draws earnest parallels to the story formulas of WWE. Of Hannity, Taibbi sneers:
The Sean Hannity Show is an uncomplicated gruel of resentment, vituperation and doomsaying. The plot never changes: The Democrats are always up to no good, and Captain Sean is there every night to point you toward the secret truth about the huge short-sighted political mistake the Democrats just made! (This is one of his favorite segment themes). He’ll show you how the mainstream media elite is laughing at you, and trying to force a Leninist program of wealth redistribution, gun confiscation, forced abortion and anti-Christian cultural hegemony down your throat.
He also accuses Maddow of having eased into a parallel approach, and he has harsh words for her extended Russiagate campaign. Taibbi leans liberal personally, but gives a scornful account of the liberal media’s complicity in Trump’s 2016 election. For years, elite journalists had appointed themselves as beauty contest judges wherein they publicly assessed the electability of various potential candidates, approving of candidates who were, Taibbi says, “‘likable’ and ‘nuanced’ but also not too ‘left’ or ‘weak on defense’ or espousing of ‘fringe’ politics…” The elite media never took Trump seriously. When he won, they decided that they had made a mistake, and it was their duty now to relentlessly antagonize Trump—which has only strengthened the bitterness and rage of the disaffected citizens who voted for him towards the media.
The talking points from the left and from the right are superficially ideological, and the platitudes are experienced as both noble and self-evident. But let’s not kid ourselves that any of it has anything whatsoever to do with Rawls or Hayek; it is primarily an emotional kind of liberalism and conservativism. It is about believing one knows what should change, on the one hand; and on the other, fearing and wanting to prevent change.
I believe almost no one is immune from the rhetoric. Including moderates. Human beings cannot function without stereotypes and metaphors; and with modern media, we are constantly barraged by good-versus-evil narratives that activate such stereotypes. Conscientious citizens frequently are irritated by the rhetorical excesses, and yet at the same time are influenced by the rumblings deep in their psyches.
The News Agenda
Taibbi reveres Noam Chomsky and his 1988 work Manufacturing Consent. He echoes some of Chomsky’s themes:
Manufacturing Consent explains that the debate you’re watching is choreographed. The range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it. …People who are questioners by nature, prodders, pains in the ass—all good qualities in reporting, incidentally—get weeded out by bosses, especially in the bigger companies. Advancement is meanwhile strongly encouraged among the credulous, the intellectually unadventurous, and the obedient.
As background: Herman and Chomsky’s influential “propaganda model” posited systematic biases in corporate media that filter out most potential news, based on five factors:
- Ownership – Media corporations are driven by profit and other financial conflicts of interest.
- Advertising – Stories that conflict with the “buying mood” of affluent customers don’t get published.
- Sourcing – Journalists’ inside sources are scarce and valuable, and must never be offended.
- Flak – Interest groups can and do vigorously harass news organizations for unfavorable stories.
- Anti-communism – Any non-antagonistic coverage of an “existential threat” (so designated by elite interests) is verboten.
Unfortunately, Taibbi fails to further develop this line of thinking much himself, aside from an updated theory about the “organizing religion” that anti-communism once supplied.
After the communist threat receded, Chomsky suggested that the War on Terror took its place. That threat itself has by now receded significantly. Today, many politicians and most defense specialists speak excitedly about China as the new enemy; and, indeed, few media outlets are willing to publish any stories putting China in a favorable light.
In contrast, Taibbi advances a theory that today’s principal enemy is internal: that, in our era of escalated polarization, the new organizing religion is hate and fear of The Other Side. This at least superficially has some plausibility, since biased media organizations sideline (as much as feasible) all stories that are favorable to the other side. The fact that this systematic bias is directly in the interests of corporate media profitability complicates Taibbi’s hypothesis, but it is true that affective polarization has taken on some of the features of a religion. Taibbi also suggests that social media amplifies the “flak” factor which accelerates conformity and groupthink.
I believe the larger question, however, is this: what, really, are the important stories that get excluded?
On the one hand, the answers may be hopelessly subjective. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky argued the atrocities in East Timor should have gotten greater coverage. He has a point; and yet, how many people, when informed about that episode, could muster any outrage at the media over it? Human nature is what it is, and so it is a given that the media always has and only ever will cover stuff that will sell papers or grab eyeballs.
And, on the other hand, what do we mean by “excluded,” anyway? Any dissident can publish a blog. There are treasure troves of publicly-available documents about US government operations that almost no one looks at. There are fountains of books about everything. The obvious meaning, of course, is: excluded from the national center stage. As though every “important” or “deserving” story can be on center stage.
The only truly unassailable prioritization of the news agenda would base itself on some kind of societal benefit. For example: promotion of what kinds of potential, currently-excluded news stories would maximize the likelihood of effective governance? Policy analysis stories? Political science? Academic comparisons of the US to other countries?
But the ridiculousness of the proposition is obvious. The news is not capable of educating the public about any of this. And with the ever-increasing noise level of public spectacle and vitriol, it is only going to get worse and worse. The news merely distracts us and keeps us in a pseudo-environment.
Almost everyone—Taibbi most of the time included—assumes that the function of the Fourth Estate is to educate and inform the citizenry so that we may have an effective democracy. But this was never a true picture of reality, and is even less so today. In a reflective moment, Taibbi acknowledges it:
If we in the press were being honest with audiences, we would tell them: the world is so complex, you cannot ever hope to be truly informed. We can tell you a few broad strokes, but that’s it. Or, if we were truly acting out of concern, we would make educating audiences about the basics of complex fields urgent priorities. But we could never make that stuff sell. So we find other material.
The political media complex has its own iron logic which does not serve the interests of our country. All it really does is cherry-pick the information and stories which are the most entertaining and flattering to consumers.