There was a conversation on Fox and Friends yesterday where the density of bullshit was so high I thought the set might collapse on itself and turn into a black hole. (Once again, please don’t click the link.) I’m going to call the Friends “Thing 1”, “Thing 2”, and “Thing 3”, since they’re practically interchangeable:
Thing 2: Donald Trump already up tweeting, something that is causing us all to think a lot more about what’s going on. He says, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” “Is it legal for a sitting president to be wiretapping a race for president prior to the election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
Thing 1: He also tweeted, “I bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”. So, so, we’re following this like you are, in real time. These tweets just came out in the last 10-15 minutes.
Thing 3: What is he referring to specifically? Has he been briefed on something specific the public doesn’t know about yet?
Thing 1: Yeah.
Thing 3: Or have there been reports suggesting that there are intercepts of some of the conversations General Flynn and others on the whole Russia deal? And so, is he suggesting that the intercepts with information of the conversation — did that come from a wiretap approved by the Obama administration to, though specifically as he says, tap into the phones at Trump Tower?
Thing 1: At Trump Tower, yeah. It’s a level of specificity…
Thing 3: A sitting president going after, essentially, the incoming president, would jack up this story. The current president’s been talking about how the Obama administration’s been setting traps, about the leaks that we see now, this would jack it up, that there was a wiretap before the election. Remarkable!
Thing 1: Mmm-hmm.
Thing 2: This could totally change this entire conversation. I mean, as he said in that tweet, “McCarthyism”! I mean, this, this really jacks it up.
Thing 1: Well, it’s a witch hunt. If you believe the previous administration is doing anything they can to discredit you, to include declassifying intelligence before the election, that if Trump wins, the information is out there to build a case that there’s some sort of collusion with Russia, why would it not then lead you to believe that maybe they did take some steps, some extraordinary steps while still in office, to monitor whether those conversations were going on? And, as we’ve seen before, the president has been pretty astute about getting ahead of the news cycle with more information, because he knows it, he sees it, he’s got intelligence briefings, he looks at it, we don’t…
Thing 3: Sure.
Thing 2: Mmm-hmm.
Thing 1: He tweets it, we speculate about it, and more information comes out to affirm it.
Thing 3: And even before the president raised it to a whole new level this morning, you had Rush Limbaugh yesterday, talking about this very thing, basically saying the Obama administration on the way out the door was trying to spring a trap. Watch:
Rush: “…A silent coup, that was put in place, by Obama and the Democrats, during the transition and before, after the election…What has happening here is a full-fledged effort here to deny Trump the actual control of governing, of the government by leaving so many Obama career people appointed, by going so slowly on confirming Trump’s cabinet appointees. I’m telling you: if you want to find out who’s really working together to sabotage the United States, you find the link between Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian government. THAT’s the story.”
Thing 1: You know, the conservative talkers have been all over this – Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin calling it a “secret coup”, you put it together, what’s being done against this president, it’s discredited…now we’re finding out that it was formalized even before hand
Thing 2: Steve, you’re on President Trump’s tweet watch this morning.
Thing 3: [laughs]
Thing 1: I’m on his Twitter feed right now, just two minutes ago, we can barely keep up right now.
Thing 2: [laughs] What’s the latest?
Thing 1: Just two minutes ago, the President tweeted: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Thing 2: Wow.
Thing 1: I mean, this is a pretty apropos comparison, if this is what happened.
Thing 2: Just to be clear, like, we are getting this news directly from the President, from his Twitter account. When he got these reports, and how this all came about, we don’t have any of those details, or how significant all of this is. But I can’t imagine he’d tweet something like this unless he had some real concrete evidence to back it up.
Thing 1: Yes.
Thing 3: At least suggesting it. And I think it’s interesting that he’s turning that Watergate analogy, did you notice, around on the Democrats? Because remember, about two weeks ago, it was: “This administration is like Water…this is worse than Watergate”, the DNC said…
Thing 1: Yes.
Thing 3: …in terms of the Russia thing. And I had a viewer tweet me last hour, saying, “What were you talking about when you said there was no “there” there?”, saying “Is there evidence? Because that’s the point.” Because Pete has been saying this and Abby has as well, which is, Look, you can have meetings with the Russian ambassador, that doesn’t prove there was criminal action, it doesn’t prove there was a problem
Thing 1: Correct.
Thing 3: …An ethical issue. The key is the content. Is there any evidence there? Is there anything behind it? Because just talking to somebody – obviously Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer [as we] now found out, they met with the Russian ambassadors too!
Thing 1: Sure
Thing 3: So meetings don’t mean that much.
I could probably write an entire thesis about this conversation. But let’s explore one particular angle.
One of the remarkable changes in technology and commerce in the last 20 years is the concept of “disintermediation”. It’s a fancy way of saying that there are fewer “gatekeepers” and “elites” serving as intermediaries between the product and the customer (you). Instead, the company selling the product itself takes on the responsibilities previously borne by the intermediaries. For instance, Tesla is both the car manufacturer and the car dealer. Amazon is both the distributor and the retailer. It’s “vertical integration”, as the economists like to say.
As Charles Pierce discusses, journalism has undergone similar (but not identical) transformations in the last 20-30 years. Let’s remember back to 2002, when the Bush administration was making its case for war in Iraq by essentially playing the mainstream press. Here’s how the bullshit was laundered:
By late summer of 2002, then, Miller had developed a circle of sources who claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Saddam’s continued push for prohibited weapons. And as she and Gordon made the rounds of administration officials, they picked up a dramatic bit of information about Iraq’s nuclear program. During the previous fourteen months, they were told, Iraq had tried to import thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes. The tubes had been intercepted, and specialists sent to examine them had concluded from their diameter, thickness, and other technical properties that they had only one possible use—as casings for rotors in centrifuges to enrich uranium, a key step in producing an atomic bomb.
This was dramatic news. If true, it would represent a rare piece of concrete evidence for Saddam’s nuclear aspirations. And, on Sunday, September 8, 2002, the Times (then under the editorship of Howell Raines) led with the story, written by Miller and Gordon. “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” the headline said. The lead was emphatic:
More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.
Gordon and Miller went on to cite the officials’ claims about the aluminum tubes and their intended use in centrifuges to enrich uranium…
Administration officials were clearly delighted with the story. On that morning’s talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. “It’s now public,” Cheney said on Meet the Press, that Saddam Hussein “has been seeking to acquire” the “kind of tubes” needed to build a centrifuge to produce highly enriched uranium, “which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.”…
In the following months, the tubes would become a key prop in the administration’s case for war, and the Times played a critical part in legitimizing it.”
Note the delicate dance. “Administration officials” (i.e., Cheney and friends) fed faulty intelligence to a mainstream news organization, The New York Times. The New York Times published a story based on this intelligence and kept the identities of their sources anonymous. Dick Cheney then appeared in another mainstream venue, Meet the Press, this time in person. He used the NYT story as mainstream, reputable evidence for his warmongering – the story built on his own (anonymous) claims. It’s a scheme so brilliant you almost have to admire the evil fuck.
What’s changed in the Trump era? The mainstream media still gets played for fools on a regular basis. Just the other day, before the State of the Union, someone in the Trump administration sat down with CNN over lunch, and claimed that Trump was interested in a path towards citizenship for illegal immigrants. If you know anything about what’s driving Trump’s base, you were forced to conclude that this was either sheer nonsense or political suicide. As it turned out, it was the former, and Sara Murray, a CNN White House correspondent later admitted that they had been duped.
Basically they fed us things that they thought these anchors would like, that they thought would give them positive press coverage for the next few hours. A senior administration official admitted that it was a misdirection play. And you will note that when the president was actually out there speaking to the American public, he didn’t talk about a path to legal status.
But there are stories too toxic or dubious or just plain bonkers for the mainstream media to touch directly. The claims about wiretapping discussed on Fox News fall into this category. Trump’s major innovation, if you want to call it that, is unleashing the full power of this alternate conduit of alternative facts. Just look at the provenance of the wiretapping story: it originated with talk radio host Mark Levin, was picked up by Breitbart, was retweeted by Trump, and was “speculated about” by the friends at Fox and Friends. In the past, these stories would have festered in right-wing swamps before slowly bubbling up into mainstream consciousness (as was the case with Vince Foster, birtherism, etc.). There would have been intermediaries, individuals like Larry Nichols or Peter Schweizer or David Brock, or organizations like Fox News and the Weekly Standard, whose sole purpose for existing is to launder garbage. Now, there is no need to wait. With one tweet, Trump can funnel Breitbart’s puke into our mouths.
Here’s what’s truly astounding. Fox’s motto used to be: “We report, you decide”. Now it appears to be “He tweets it, we speculate about it.” Suppose I’m right that there are these two streams of bullshit: the polite bullshit that flows through the mainstream media, and the toxic bullshit that flows through the alt-right media. The right-wing will always need (mainstream) intermediaries for the first stream, but perhaps not for the second.
Where does Fox sit? In an odd place, it seems. It cannot serve as a channel for fake real news, since it’s not credible to mainstream observers. And it cannot serve as the driver of real fake news, since it is being steadily outcompeted by Breitbart and this new right-wing media ecosystem. (Which includes loose social networks like Reddit and 4Chan, which are fascinating in their own right.)
There’s certainly a lot of money to be made breathlessly reporting on Trump’s latest tweets to paranoid white geezers (“I’m on his Twitter feed right now, just two minutes ago, we can barely keep up right now.”), and I don’t doubt that Fox will continue to do well in the near future. But I’m wondering if perhaps its importance has been overstated. They don’t seem to be the drivers of news so much as the echoers of it.
The vertical integration of right-wing media and right-wing politics is proceeding apace, as evidenced by Steve Bannon and Steven Miller’s positions in the Trump administration. And it seems that Fox is increasingly unnecessary if a story promulgated by Rush and Breitbart goes directly to Trump’s ears and is blasted out to America without being filtered through Fox first. I guess what I’m saying is: perhaps Fox is also slowly being disintermediated. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of Friends.