In December 2016 I hosted a Forum, “Anthropologists on the Trump Election” that ran into April 2017.  It was a lively discussion, and encouraged me to continue trying to frame an anthropological account of the phenomenon of Trump.  The result, now completed, is a 60,000-word essay, “Ontology and Orange Hair: Reality and Reelity in Donald Trump’s America.” A section of that essay, dealing with a major issue in pre- and post-election America, “fake news” is posted here. 

Fake News 

 

Words, Words, Words

 

"I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy." 

         — Peter Thiel speaking before the National Press Club, October 31, 2016

   (nine days before the election)

 

    What is truth?  Pilate’s question has resounded through the millennia in Western culture.  Pilate dismissed Jesus before he could respond, but later, in Gethsemane, Jesus gave his disciplines the answer still accepted by millions around the world: truth is the word of God.  Official sanction for that answer was supplied by the Catholic Church, toward the end enforced by torture and the stake, until the flowering of the Renaissance.  From that time through the present, the career of Truth has been a complicated and contested affair.  Revival of the classics meant reviving the irreconcilable differences between the philosophies of Plato, the dialectician, and Aristotle, the typologist.  Then during the Enlightenment Man definitively replaced God, and we have been squabbling over the truthfulness of words ever since. 

    Some decades ago that debate took the form of a confrontation between positivism and postmodernism.  Positivists embraced some version of the general idea that reality (“truth”) consists of a material world that can be known through observation – a set of objective facts.  Postmodernists, choosing to fly closer to the black sun of nihilism, claimed that reality (and here “truth” is its first casualty) is an assemblage of intersubjective texts, each text an interpretation of other texts that together form an ideational collage without boundaries, direction, or authority.  In academic circles the debate, now waged in the teapots of the philosophy of science and comparative literature, continues to consume ink or, increasingly, electrons in journals and books of minuscule circulation. 

    Mercifully, the great majority of Americans live their lives without knowing about that arcane debate, much less wondering how things are going or picking a side.  For someone interested in the history of ideas, however, that ignorance itself poses a problem: because people don’t conceive their beliefs and interpret their actions in terms of explicitly recognized philosophical positions does not mean that those have no influence in their lives.  I suggest that crucial aspects of the debate, although jumbled almost beyond recognition, play an important part in shaping the furor over fake news now underway following Trump’s election. 

    It is as though Trump and his antagonists in the pro-Hillary media want to have things both ways where that philosophical debate is concerned.  They start out as positivists, claiming that reports of events are either objective and accurate, i.e., true, or subjective, biased distortions of what is really going on, i.e., false or fake.  But, and here is the bizarre quality of the whole controversy, the truth or falsity of statements rests, not on occurrences in the physical or social world, but on interpretations of those statements.  One text feeds into, off of, another text, and that text … Does this phenomenon possibly resemble something?  Oh, yes, it is the program of the postmodernists, for whom the engaging immediacy of life disappears in a blizzard of texts.  It is the rejection of life as it is lived, the privileging of words over experiences.  Announcing his candidacy following that famous escalator ride in his golden tower, Trump said that illegal Mexican immigrants are racists and murderers.  Oh, no.  What are we to say about what he said?  And what will others, liberal and conservative, say about what we said?  And following on that, what will other commentators say about what was said about what was said?  Is there an actual event somewhere, buried beneath these layers of texts?  Did Trump murder someone?  Did he have someone murdered?  Did he reference evidence of a murder?  Did he single out particular Mexicans or groups of Mexicans in his announcement?  Did anything at all happen to set off this cascade of words, of interpretations? 

    Trump makes outrageous remarks; in just two years his tweets have become the stuff of legend (they will no doubt be collected, if they aren’t already, into edited volumes): Obama was born in Kenya; three million illegal votes were cast against him; his phones in Trump Tower were tapped (well, as it turns out, perhaps that one is not so outrageous).  His opponents, though they lack his flair with 140 characters, make claims just as unsubstantiated and distant from what any rigorous positivist would call objective or factual.  Take the flap over collusion with the Russians, which has been going on for more than a year.  The underlying assertion here is that Hillary obviously would have won the election had the Russians not meddled in our sacred democratic ritual.  After a year of multiple congressional investigations and the appointment of a special counsel who promptly hired a battery of D.C. lawyers, what has come of that charge?  Has this army of investigators found evidence that voting machines were tampered with, ballot boxes stuffed, voters intimidated from going to the polls by KGB (now FSS) thugs?  No.  In fact, it has proven impossible to demonstrate that a single vote was changed through Russian “collusion.”  As I write (December 2017) cable news is buzzing with the story that Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s National Security Advisor for twenty-four days at the beginning of the administration, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russians during the transition period.  Note that the crime here consists entirely in saying something about saying something.  Evidently Flynn did not arrange with the Russians to do anything; those voting machines and ballot boxes remained inviolate.  As with criticism of Trump’s tweets, the matter consists of words about words, sayings about sayings.  There is a crucial difference here, however, for Flynn’s words may send him to prison and impose a huge fine on him, may destroy his life after decades of military service to his country.  Such is the power of the FBI (as we will see, that power casts a long shadow over the theme of this essay and American society as a whole).   

    On the other side, reporters who publish false reports are punished by paycheck rather than prison.  To wit:    

 

“At CNN, Retracted Story Leaves an Elite Reporting Team Bruised”

New York Times, September 5, 2017

 "Late on a Monday afternoon in June, members of CNN’s elite investigations team were summoned to a fourth-floor room in the network’s glassy headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.

A top CNN executive, Terence Burke, had startling news: three of their colleagues, including the team’s executive editor, were leaving the network in the wake of a retracted article about Russia and a close ally of President Trump. Effective immediately, Mr. Burke said, the team would stop publishing stories while managers reviewed what had gone wrong.

It was a chilling moment for a unit that boasted Pulitzer Prize winners and superstar internet sleuths and had been introduced at the beginning of the year as the vanguard of CNN’s original, high-impact reporting. Its mission statement — “Seek truth. Break news. Hold the powerful accountable.” — invoked the sort of exhaustive reporting that has become an increasingly coveted skill for news organizations in the Trump era.

But within months of its introduction, the unit, CNN Investigates, had been rocked by damaging reporting errors — including another flawed story about Mr. Trump and Russia earlier in June — and its mistakes had disturbed network executives who were already embroiled in a public feud with the White House."

 

Note the mission statement of this elite team, whose first objective was to “seek truth.”  We are back to Pilate’s unanswered question. 

 

    True to form, Trump immediately pounced on this serious misstep:      

 

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Wow, CNN had to retract big story on "Russia," with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!

2:33 AM - Jun 27, 2017

 

The search for truth across the mindfield of contemporary political debate is strewn with so many blunders that CNN and the Washington Post, stalwartly anti-Trump, have taken extraordinary steps to defend themselves against Trump’s relentless tweets.  In October 2017 CNN took to broadcasting its direct rejoinder to those tweets:

 

 “This is an apple [large picture of an apple in center of screen]. Some people might try and tell you that it’s a banana.  They might scream banana, banana, banana over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple.” 

 

Desperate stuff for a major news organization that should not have to justify its existence. 

     For its part, the Washington Post chose a more ominous message in its self-conscious struggle with its reporting errors.  In February 2017 as the shock of Trump’s election sank in, the paper adopted a new banner slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” 

 

 

 Cryptic, arrogant, and, again, ominous.  The Post insinuates that it is a beacon of liberty, shining in the gloom and approaching darkness of a Trump-engineered totalitarian regime that will suppress all objective reporting as the long night of fascism falls across the land.  The truth – that word again – is that some dying is indeed being done, but by the Post itself.  Well before Trump appeared on the national political scene, the newspaper’s print circulation dropped from around 633,000 in 2009 to 395,000 in 2015.  If anything, editors and publisher should breathe a sigh of relief at the Trump phenomenon, since the attendant polarization of the American public gave it new life.  If by “darkness” Post editors mean the end of open communication, they might do well to consider that compared with the paper’s meager circulation there are an estimated 224,000,000 smartphones in the U.S.  That number is fairly close to the number of American adults: approximately 245,000,000.  Of course, many of those smartphones are in the back pocket of skinny jeans worn by middle school and high school students across the land, kids who could care less about Russian collusion or the latest headlines (true or, very possibly, fake) in the Washington Post.  Democracy?  The power of the people to share experiences, ideas, images—isn’t that a pretty good working definition of the word?  Take the millions of those kids busily working their thumbs into pre-arthritic seizures on Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, Twitter (forget Facebook, that’s for geezers) and multiple them by the ten or hundred posts each one does every day, now that’s the very definition of a community at once interwoven and indescribably diverse.  In a phrase, a community “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Or, in a word, democracy.  Of course, this is a democracy unimagined in the stuffy boardrooms of the Post and New York Times, whose aging luminaries hail from another century, another world, another reality.  The Post’s pompous new banner slogan, “democracy dies in darkness,” got at least one thing right with its strained alliteration: the next “d” word to be supplied is “dinosaur.” 

    Intractable as it is, the question, “What is truth?”, feeds into and is now largely dependent on another intractable question, if one without such a distinguished pedigree: “What is news?”.  This is the other shoe to drop in examining the prominence of the phenomenon/charge “fake news” in our national dialogue.  If anything, the muddling of positivism and postmodernism is even more extreme here, for both sides claim, with equal stridency, that their statements are objective, factual descriptions of the world out there while ignoring the situation that their “news” is just more saying about saying about saying.    

 

“CNN Succumbs to Its Own Comey Hype”

Washington Post, June 8, 2017

 "In a preview of James Comey’s congressional testimony on Thursday morning, CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto said that the former FBI director’s words could have a resounding impact, even though a lot of his disclosures may seem a bit stale. “It will have import, it will have impact because as credible as we are, hearing it from our mouths vs. hearing it from his mouth for the American population is going to be significant,” said Sciutto." 

Bolding added to highlight a point that a great number of people are challenging. On Wednesday afternoon, CNN issued a correction to a story predicting that Comey, who was fired by Trump, would refute Trump’s contention that Comey told him on three occasions that he himself wasn’t under investigation. Speaking on CNN air on Tuesday night, analyst Gloria Borger said, “Comey is going to dispute the president on this point if he’s asked about it by senators, and we have to assume that he will be. He will say he never assured Donald Trump that he was not under investigation, that that would have been improper for him to do so.”

Then, on Wednesday, Comey released his prepared testimony. Among the many newsworthy nuggets in the document was the fact that Comey did indeed provide an assurance to Trump that he wasn’t being investigated personally. CNN promptly issued a correction, which reads, in part, “The article and headline have been corrected to reflect that Comey does not directly dispute that Trump was told multiple times he was not under investigation in his prepared testimony released after this story was published.”

 

It should be noted that Trump’s initial statement – firing Comey – was indeed doing something; the President’s words had consequences in the real world.  But things immediately get foggy after that.  Saying what Comey was going to say was paraded by CNN as having a “resounding impact” on the investigation of possible obstruction of justice by the White House and Trump himself. 

    Pursuing the question, “What is news?” runs squarely up against the explosive phenomenon of social media.  The contents of cable television to a great extent and of newspapers completely are premised on the concept that “news” is relayed in the form of bounded, focused, precise, and, above all, authoritative images or texts – stories told either in a few minutes of voice-over images or a composed and edited written article.  Both have a discrete, identifiable source and a unique perspective in the form of anchorperson, cameraman and on-the-scene reporter (in the case of print journalism, a story’s authoritativeness is implicit in that it has an author).  All that has changed in a world populated by hundreds of millions of smartphones constantly taking hundreds of millions of pictures or video clips and spewing out even more text messages.  When terrorists strike, victims involved in the event as well as bystanders immediately begin posting those messages, producing a massive and gruesome kinetic collage of the event.  This happens so fast and communicates so much of what is going on (i.e., the “news”) that the anchorperson back in the high-rise studio has his crew scrambling through all those on-the-scene accounts, trying frantically to assemble something resembling what he did in a former life, that is, report the “news” with a singular authority. 

    Donald Trump is the poster boy for this social media phenomenon.  In his brief online career, he has posted over 36,000 tweets and has amassed a following of some 45,000,000.  Adding in his Facebook likes and followers, YouTube subscribers and viewers, and Instagram followers and Trump’s communicative reach extends, by some estimates, to around 87,000,000 people.  True to form, Trump hypes the numbers and claims 100,000,000 followers.  Note that these figures are more than two hundred times the print circulation of the Washington Post.  The enormous disparity is more than a matter of scale, it is so great that it indicates a fundamental change in perspective, in how “true” and “false” or “fake” are understood to be properties of words, of sayings. 

 

 Beyond Words: Choreographing the Carnivalesque

 

    Except for one extremely important exception we have already noted – the consequences of lying to the FBI – the construction and dissemination of fake news as discussed above is largely a matter of inconclusive statements, sayings about sayings: he said, she said, or more accurately, considering the political polarization and gender fluidity of the country, of we said, they said.  The individual is left to fill in that we/they dichotomy as he or she sees fit.   But it would be a crippling mistake, committed daily by both Trump and the networks, to confine the issue to mere words.  As the ascendancy of social media demonstrates, the “news” is much more than strings of words, it is a bewildering torrent of images and accompanying texts.  Many of those images and texts, the great majority, are spontaneously generated: you’re walking along, smartphone in pocket, something happens that catches your attention, perhaps nothing more than a cute puppy trick, perhaps an event as momentous as a terrorist attack, you reflexively click, perhaps comment, then post.  That post joins billions of others in a roiling sea of images whose only meaning or significance is a function of others’ attention, of how many clicks a video clip receives, of whether it goes viral.

    Cable news is another sea of images and texts, but unlike social media sites it is highly organized.  In a word, staged.  In perhaps a more accurate word, choreographed.  Since the advent of cable, news is not simply delivered; it is produced in the manner of a theatrical performance.  This feature of the news gets ignored in the sharply polarized environment of today’s politics, where sayings are bounced off sayings in one controversial issue after another.  Here one needs to regard television news as anthropologists do prominent rituals in societies they study as ethnographers.  In these the layout of the site, the costumes, the actions of performers, the musical accompaniment, and the paraphernalia take precedence over whatever information may be conveyed through speech.  And taken as ritual, the choreography of news in the United States has changed tremendously over the past half-century or so.  Consider Walter Cronkite’s broadcasts on the CBS Evening News in the mid-sixties and Shepard Smith’s Shepard Smith Reporting on the Fox network today. 

  

 Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News

 

Shepard Smith, Shepard Smith Reporting, Fox News

 

How things have changed.  Note the contrasts:

  • Cronkite presents himself as a busy reporter on the news desk of a large paper. Working hard at his job, he has removed his jacket and wears a rumpled shirt. Heavy-framed eyeglasses and a neat moustache lend him an air of knowledgeable authority.  Signs of that authority as a busy and important executive are everywhere:  four clunky rotary phones take up most of his desk, alongside metal in/out trays which cannot contain all the paper strewn around the office; a large microphone is positioned directly in front of him; a state of the art IBM Selectric typewriter sits ready to hand; he holds up for inspection the only graphic on the set, a black and white photograph the size of a page of typing paper.  Behind him an assistant bends over what may be a teletype machine, emblem of the newsroom’s cutting- edge technology.  Over Cronkite’s shoulder is a large wall map, probably paper or cardboard, of the world. 
  • Smith stands. This anchor person is no longer anchored to a desk but presides over technicians operating a battery of giant flat screen monitors, themselves bracketed by a frieze of more flat screens, each displaying a different image.  The reporter’s desk itself has disappeared; Smith stands on what Fox calls its “news deck.”  Deck, as in the command level of a ship or building.  And he lacks the workaday, rumpled look Cronkite’s persona manifests.  Instead, Smith is impeccably dressed in a suit he obviously did not take off the rack at Men’s Wearhouse.  Gone is the clutter of microphone, phones, and paper of Cronkite’s office, replaced by a tiny clip-on mike affixed to Smith’s expensive lapel, an invisible ear bug mike that keeps him in constant touch with his producers, and a couple of pieces of paper he holds – the only print medium visible in the shot.  Contrary to the traditional slogan of the New York Times, the news, whether fit or not, is no longer even printed. 

 

    From its plain beginnings a half-century ago, American television news has evolved into a dazzling kaleidoscope of color and movement.  Both the sets and the dazzling “Breaking News!” announcements that pepper every show are kinetic imagery run amok.  Ever-changing blocks and swirls of red, white, and blue – always red, white, and blue – dominate the screen, overwhelming whatever accompanying semantic content may be delivered by anchor and reporters. 

            CNN set for a 2016 Republican presidential primary debate

 

    Just how this evolution has occurred is addressed below, but for now it is important to place cable news in its contemporary setting.  In a world bombarded with kinetic images, three categories, in addition to cable TV, stand out as influences: advertising; video games; and casino slot machines.  Of these, only one, advertising, is involved with presenting discursive information purporting to be factual.  But as everyone recognizes, the “truth” of commercials is not true at all; they are carefully crafted to convince us of something, to get us to buy something.  In a sense, they are the original “fake news.”  Video games and slot machines differ from TV commercials in two ways: the individual becomes an active participant in the action, not just a passive viewer; and his involvement is fateful, he can score points, win or lose money.  But all three immerse the individual in a dazzling display of sound and motion – shouts, beeps, whistles, explosions, a kaleidoscopic succession of scenes and colors – until he is incorporated in what has become a single phenomenon, a unified construct of human and machine.  Observe the frantic, driven actions of a player at a video game console, joystick chattering in his hand, eyes welded to the monitor by the excitement of the chase or combat.  Observe the little blue-haired old lady seated at a slot machine, her oxygen tank on the floor beside her, a breathing tube inserted in her nostrils, a casino player’s card suspended from around her neck by a lanyard and plugged into the machine so that her play is recorded, perhaps good for a future brunch, the whole effect being that of an umbilical cord that connects her to the machine, that gives her life just as the oxygen tube does. Both players may sit there for hours (but the odds are that the old lady will outlast the gamer).  These are common scenes in America today, exemplars of a lived experience far more pervasive than one in which people sit quietly reading newspapers or magazines (never mind books) or frequent bookstores, libraries, lecture halls. 

    Diverse as they are, what all three – TV commercials, video games, casino slot machines – share is an unwavering commitment to spectacle.  They are modes of the fabulous, of a fabulary that has come to dominate American experience, that is at once real and as real as fake news (after all, if millions of Americans have their way that may lead to a president’s impeachment).  The fabulary has become ascendant in just a few decades, the Cronkite – Shepard Smith contrast being one prominent case in point.  Here are a couple of others: 

  Pong, early 1970s 

   Video game graphic (Playstation: Battlezone) 

early slot machine 

 Themed slot machine 

    To the hyped imagery of TV news in particular it is necessary to add that the purveyors of that news are themselves, in their very personae, ongoing imaginary constructs, fabrications of surgical procedures and chemical concoctions, of nips, tucks, facial sculpting (cheekbones, chin, and, of course, the ever-offending nose), collagen, and botox. 

 Plastic surgery demonstration on NBC “Today” show featuring anchors Carson Daly and Savannah Guthrie, overseen by Matt Lauer of recent sexual harassment infamy

 

Between intermittent trips to the studio chop shop, there is, of course, the daily visit to the hair and makeup salon that puts a fine finish on the surgical redoes prior to every on-camera appearance.  The result is that the individuals reporting the news are just as staged, homogenized, and surface-deep as the superficial “investigative journalism” they pretend to communicate.  In the great American fabulary, we are served up fake news by fake people, ventriloquist’s dummies instructed by network executives to convey one bias or another, bias presented as “fact” for the passive viewers, themselves already polarized all to hell as Trumpers or anti-Trumpers, conservatives or progressives.  Pilate would have been amused (and Jesus may well have asked himself, “Why am I doing this shit?”).   

    To wit: 

Marilyn Monroe

 Megyn Kelly, Fox News (now ABC)

                                 An icon of the American fabulary, the Barbie doll

A bevy of beauties, n’est pas? 

George Clooney, A-List Celebrity

Jim Acosta, CNN White House correspondent

and wannabe moral tutor to the nation

Ken, Barbie's faithful companion

through the ages of American pop culture 

A handsome trio, don’cha think?

Anyone recall that scary old sci-fi movie, Looker?  In the cascade of ironies that is television news, two stand out here.  First, news personalities project the most conventional, sharply drawn sexual stereotypes (groomed men in tailored suits, coiffed and painted women in fashionable dresses) while they agonize over the perils of misgendering five- year-olds and the lack of transgender bathrooms.  Second, as I write this (December 2017) the networks are on fire with lurid tales of sexual harassment and violence in Hollywood, DC, and their very own bastion of journalistic truth, Manhattan studios, while neglecting – or, considering the dismal level of their analytic skills, never seeing – the inherently sexist nature of their own self-images.   

    The overarching question here is, why do we have to suffer through 24/7 exposure to these marionettes, these mindless mediocrities (to let alliteration run wild)?  Even assuming we are old enough for cable TV demographics (that is, having attained geezerhood) and lazy enough (poised to click the TV remote rather than surf the Web), couldn’t we at least demand from the networks that they purvey their version of “news” through anchor persons we’re more prepared to identify with?  Who don’t look for all the world like come-on ads for an escort service?  Hey, we’ve never been to the chop shop, never had our cheekbones sculpted and chins reconfigured, never checked in to the studio hair and makeup salon for some expert brushing and filling before going on air.  And don’t even mention the perfect teeth every last soul and body on TV boasts, from the godly anchor person right down to the lowly weather stringer, out there knee-deep in the toxic flood sludge of Houston and New Orleans, but boasting, when they speak, absolute pearls, not of wisdom but of teeth, so white, so perfectly aligned, that we cannot doubt for a minute the authority with which they speak.  Oh, ye of the immaculate dentures.  Sudden flash to an episode of Law and Order: our hero homicide dicks are standing over a vic found in his Manhattan penthouse, and one dick says to the other, “Damn, this guy’s teeth cost more than my house.”  Income inequality, anyone?  A mere aside.  But we, that is, the great American collective We, are just, yes, Us, that great American absence from polished D.C. political discourse, the great unwashed, the “basket of deplorables” that helped to a great extent to sink Shrillary’s perennial bid for the presidency.  In short, why can’t we get our “news,” however flawed or fake it may be, served up to us by figures we can begin to relate to, not network stooges whose multimillion dollar contracts apparently include unlimited refurbishings at the chop shops and makeup salons?  Why can’t we at least grasp at the hope of avoiding “fake news” by getting the goods, not from the networks’ fake people, but from down-home, honest-to-goodness folks?  Why don’t our news anchors look more like us, more like these folks:  

 Shelby, the Swamp Man (not D.C.)

 

 

 Attention Walmart Shoppers 

 

That is to say, why can’t we get our news of the world from folks who are more or less of our world, not sculpted mouthpieces in Manhattan or D.C. studios but people telling it like they see it?  Don’t worry, we can follow them, understand what they say.  Even if they lack the modulated accents of White House correspondents, they are perfectly able to, ah yes, talk turkey.  Shouldn’t we demand at least an occasional anchor person who is not fresh from the studio chop shop and the makeup salon, but who instead has, well, been out back plucking chickens or trying to get a junker engine to start?  Just for starters, shouldn’t a few anchors be fat (no, not large or calorically challenged), homely, with bad grammar and missing teeth?  Would that move hurt the networks’ cherished ratings?  Hey, it actually might improve them, if audiences perceive that people they are more or less willing to count as “real” are on screen delivering the news.  After all, the Jerry Springer Show has lasted for decades by parading Americans as, what should we say, their most basic selves. 

    There are, however, notable differences in choreography between networks, depending on whether they lean toward or away from Trump.  The extremes here are MSNBC, staunchly anti-Trump, and Fox News, consistently pro-Trump.  On these networks it is telling that the two shows with the top ratings are actually opinion pieces, sounding boards for everything that is bad or good about the president: MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Fox News’s Hannity.  Their personalities are also polar opposites, with Maddow the lesbian, cropped hair, jacket and pants of funereal black, witty and sarcastic, and Hannity, macho to the core, bombastic in his views, forever boasting of his black belt in martial arts and proficiency as a marksman.   Even Maddow’s set proclaims that she is not your red, white, and blue American gal, for the studio has departed ever so slightly from those formulaic colors required of every news show: the red is more a burgundy, the blue is muted, and the white more a cream or parchment. 

The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC 

Another revealing point is that Maddow’s set is not at all revealing.  In keeping with her puritanical zeal, she sits behind a desk, pen in hand, like Cronkite of old, all business, no funny business, only her head and torso presented to the viewing audience.  Fox News, in contrast, is notorious for staging its foxy ladies in more revealing ways, a favorite being the bevy of burnished female legs offset by a suited male on Outnumbered.  

 

 The foxy ladies of Fox News (note to camera man: shoot at pelvic level) 

   

A Google Images search for Maddow yields a noteworthy observation: there are scarcely any full-body photos of this major media celebrity.  It is as though her persona is all above the waist, in keeping with her brainy, aseptic image on camera.  Contrast her presentation of self with that of one of the Fox ladies.

 Rachel Maddow, MSNBC

                      Kimberly Guilfoyle, Fox News

 

In this world of exquisitely choreographed “fact” in which we find ourselves, how is it even possible, barring the most odious and transparent hypocrisy, to criticize a particular narrative as “fake news”?  The ultimate question remains: What is truth?

    Immersed as we are in that world of sound bites, of pundits railing at each other, of constant snark, it is difficult to recall a time when much of our news was brought to us by journalists who were also among our best writers.  Here one might conjure a ratio: video spectacles are to our experience of the world as the teleprompter recitations of news anchors are to serious print journalism.  From early days American literature and journalism – the reporting of events – have been intertwined.  A key figure here is Mark Twain, arguably the first American novelist to escape the gravity of New England with its dark visions and write stories of a young, vibrant, restless America full of grits and gumption.  Twain began his career in journalism at the age of thirteen, writing articles while working as a typesetter for his uncle’s Hannibal Journal and continued publishing newspaper stories for decades while finding time for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  Following Twain, writers whose works are at once literature and journalism include Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John dos Passos.  For the past half-century, the figure who has moved between literature and journalism most easily and with unequalled mastery is Tom Wolfe.  Fittingly for this inquiry into fake news, Wolfe’s novella Ambush at Fort Bragg is a scathing, barely fictional exposé of a crew of investigative journalists who “ambush” three soldiers who had been involved in an act of gay-bashing.  This righteous exercise goes horribly wrong when the posturing journalist is herself ambushed: While being secretly videotaped the soldiers launch into a bloodcurdling account of their involvement in the infamous firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia (Black Hawk Down).  The men are war heroes, gravely injured in battle.   They barely escaped with their lives, and the riveting story they have to tell totally eclipses the little morality play being spun (yes, choreographed) for the Manhattan studio.  Of course, that section of the interview had to be edited out before screening, so that the noble crusader-journalists could present their politically correct message uncontaminated by real horror, real news.  Fake news?  Wolfe has penned its definition. 

 

 

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Lee,

I think this is a great exploration of Trumpianism. There is one feature that stands out, that I found particularly interesting--the naturalisation of the differences between Libl and Con. Con news personalities are pneumatic, Lib newspeople are etherial. There is a reminder of Australian totemic systems where one phratry/.moiety is red, the other black, or one has flat faces the other round etc. In that system intra-moiety incest is forbidden, exogamy rules. In your case mating between a pneumatic and an etherial would be  breaking a taboo. Are we witnessing the emergence of a LED lit caste system?

 

Trump and the Horror of Incest

Huon,

    Thanks for the kind words.  Your remark about the “naturalisation” of political differences following the election goes to the heart of the matter.  The visceral repulsion half of America feels toward Donald Trump is something I don’t think we’ve seen in the political arena, perhaps since the Civil War, if then.  The anti-war movement during the Viet Nam war generated intense feelings, but its focus was not, could not be, on a single individual.  Begun by Eisenhower and fanned by Kennedy’s adventurism (those brave men of the Green Beret), the conflict turned into all out war with LBJ’s staged Gulf of Tonkin incident and became an indisputable war crime with Nixon’s covert invasion of Cambodia.  So, there was no one president to rage against.  With Trump it was an entirely different matter.  Election night and the next morning precipitated a tsunami effect throughout American society.  Since the election came just two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, a time for celebrating family values, the impact could not have been more dramatic. 

Thanksgiving Dinner, 1943, Norman Rockwell 

 Thanksgiving Dinner, 2016

 (keep Dad away from that carving knife!)

 

Unlike those aboriginal groups with their exogamous moieties, however, Americans have now formed themselves into endogamous moieties – Trump supporter or Trump hater – in which the horror of incest has been replaced by an equally powerful horror of marriage / relationships with a member of the other moiety.  Here that naturalisation you describe is in full force: contamination through intermarriage is on the same deeply emotional level as violation of an important dietary restriction (Jews or Muslims eating pork, for example) or a religious prohibition against worshipping false gods.  I think that dating sites now routinely screen members for their political affiliation; it would be interesting to know how much weight they attach to the answers (my guess: a lot). 

    The sound bite format of cable news is no more able to deal with the phenomenon of Trump than with the ancient conflict between Arab and Jew or the intensity of feelings associated with the abortion issue.  Hence, the networks’ only recourse is Fake News. 

 

I can't help thinking of H.G. Wells Time Machine in which the traveller comes across a completely polarised social structure made up of graceful and enlightened Eloi but also disgusting subterranean Morlocks. Parallels with the class system in imperial Britain abound except there is a sting in the tail -- the troglodytic Morlocks are effectively farming the oh-so-sophisticated Eloi for food. 'We are all cannibals' as Levi-Strauss says.

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