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Media Perception and Successful Bullies

The bully’s success is seen as evidence of being worthy of news coverage.

There are a few things going on when looking at why bullies get media coverage. One is that the media needs content, and whether Joseph McCarthy or Donald John Trump, it is willing to publicize a bully who is good at attracting eyes. The media may hate the bully, find the bully unworthy of publishing, but they will cover the bully because the pressure is there and they are competing with others who will also publish the bully.

But there’s also a kind of expectation of success. There are, sadly, successful bullies (for both damnable and reasonable definitions of success). If someone is seen as successful, whatever their merits, they deserve coverage, the thinking goes. Media will happily spread the myth of success even before checking if it exists, if they check at all. And if a bully is actually successful, all the more reason to give them coverage. People need to know about success in all its forms, don’t they? The media asks: “Who are we to act as Darwin in the face of a degenerate’s survival?”

Politicians learn quickly that being a bully has a number of important qualities:

  1. You don’t have to be an actual success.
  2. You don’t have to promote policies with any chance of enactment or success.
  3. You won’t be held accountable for lying.

This kind of alternative to honest politicking is surely enticing to anyone who’s tried to craft policy, negotiate it into law, and maintain programs through hard work. Bullying is cheap and easy, like junk food. And the media has plenty of room in its daily gut for ding-dongs like Donald John Trump and Joseph McCarthy.

The media is built on running its trial balloons, finding out if a vein of reporting, however horrible and wretched and worthless, will attract eyes, and then milking it. For every lie, you can report the lie itself, the reaction to the lie, the doubling-down, and the people who believe or applaud the lie. You get a lot of mileage off of a little bullshit.

It’s not only political bullies. Business bullies get plenty of coverage.

If anything is clear from the past five years, it’s that many in our media learned the wrong lessons and still does not have a better set of practices to offer us. They will gladly amplify bullshit if the bullshit draws an audience. They will continue to give aid and comfort to enemies of democracy, even as they chronicle its throes. They do the same with things like climate change or opioids or the crisis in policing.

Perceived success is a badge that lets bad behavior skate, and bullying is a boon to media storytelling. Take airports as a key example. Air travel is hell on our climate, and yet the industry gets all sorts of special treatment by media and government by virtue of the fact that both fly around a lot. Airports, as key transportation hubs, are one of the few remaining examples of architectural pride in some cities, and they are often named for important leaders of the past. Airports, and airlines in general, are bullies of a sort. Yet the media provides them ample coverage and cover even as the climate suffers.

The success of air travel is a peculiar kind of success, when one factors in the climate effects, and yet even those who wholly support environmentalism often fly about as though it weren’t a problem, perhaps buying some indulgences—carbon offsets—if they do anything at all. But their choices are limited. They could try to travel by ground as much as possible, but ground transportation is itself mismanaged and slow. They could not travel, but they are accustomed to their own personal and professional expectations. They are, in effect, bullied into flying even if they know better.

Conservative Insecurity and Media

Cultural insecurity weakens conservatives’ cultural role, creating a feedback loop.

Not all media pleases us. A statement that is true for all. I don’t follow sports, for example. The conservative view of media is different. To some extent they may even believe the mainstream media is meant to attack them for who they are rather than attacking their political positions. Even when they don’t, they often see mainstream media and culture as nothing but a middle-finger to them. It’s a cultural issue, but also one of how conservative tastes seem to run.

If you spend some time in the history of media (say, 1800–present), one fact stands out: for a long time and continuing to today there has always been an element of pandering, of coddling the readership. If you read about how southern newspapers treated the civil rights movement, for example, it was often to spare the feelings big and small of the White southerner and to be vicious and remorseless toward the Black population. At other points in history and in various contexts, similar behavior against various out-groups.

And that is what conservative media reminds most of. It is that warm, soft blanket wrapped around the shoulders of the poor victim of the big bad world, the conservative reader or viewer. That seems to be key to their taste in media. At times and places the mainstream media retains that tendency toward its new audience. It’s not as constant or obvious, partly because of the diversity of the mainstream audience, but it does still exist. And at other times the target of affection remains the conservatives, particularly when they cry outrage, convince the mainstream that an issue is important or controversial, that reversion to the old media comes out: poor downtrodden conservatives, oh huddled mass of conservative Christians being set upon by the evils of diversity or common sense.

The loss of local and regional publishing likely has made the media world all the harsher for conservatives, as they no longer have their woobie. While conservative media is successful at pandering and peddling bullshit to sell bullshit, they do not have the same local touch that the bygone papers did. The biggest factor in local and regional publishing was that it was the paper of record, being required for all business-types, and therefore a privileged publication whose pandering was seen as part of the very fabric of society, business, and culture. The modern talk radio or right-wing websites have no such honor or distinction.

But as lame as it all is, yes, there is still sympathy in my heart for their frustration. I don’t want to subscribe to Fox News, particularly as it becomes more racist and extreme (partly in response to other, even worse conservative media), but good luck finding a streaming service or cable service that lets you opt out. Hell, I don’t necessarily want to subscribe to MSNBC or CNN, either. I avoid cable news, and I only watch local news when there’s bad weather.

Not subscribing is one thing, but trying to avoid the general mainstream viewpoints about the world would be about as easy as avoiding plastic. So, damn tough for conservatives who genuinely feel affronted by the media. It’s usually not media bias—the world is the world—but it’s still uncomfortable for them.

Even things as wholesome as children’s media has problems for conservatives. Their kid’s friends all like some wizard orphan thing, and oh God! are they inviting that devilry into their home? It’s tough to think your values are pitted against letting your kid seem normal to their peers.

The setting-apart of conservatives, whether in conservative media or conservative Christian media, results in a kind of feedback loop. They are a smaller portion of the mainstream audience and their political policies are unpalatable (except for some business policies), so they get a harsher treatment by the media and culture. That makes them even less likely to engage in mainstream media, and they cut themselves off even more.

Longstanding issues that have taken on new outrage, like cancel culture, must be looked at in terms of the overall conservative relationship with the media. Conservatives often try to organize boycotts and other retaliation for particular media targets they find offensive, and their actions must be understood in terms of defensiveness and insecurity, rather than as noble exercises in protecting family values. Meanwhile, their exceptions to cancel culture are mostly virtue-signaling about their general distaste in the mainstream culture.

The value of families and cultures is that ultimately we get to decide what’s appropriate, mediated through our communities. While one hopes there’s broad agreement that economic structures that prevent, for example, unsubscribing from media outlets we despise, and while we do suffer some loss of beloved media, there’s no question it’s a valid expression of the public to make their voice heard.

Any attempt to reform conservativism needs culture-policy reform. That’s especially apparent when seen in terms of the media issues. More moderate conservatives likely already don’t care that much about the mainstream media, except when it rails on conservatives per se. They count themselves in that group, even as they aren’t particularly insecure or down for the more extreme conservative media. Having some kind of moderate-conservative movement would allow the mainstream media and culture to create a distinction: mod-cons and the rest. That would spare the moderates from the shame and bother that is put upon the far-right, while giving those farther to the right a real path back toward the mainstream.

Citations Needed

A brief rant about the failure of most mainstream purveyors of news to ever cite anything they are discussing, leading to the inability of readers to follow up and get more information without extra effort (sometimes excessive) on their part.

I read news from many sources, and the mainstream media stands out in a reluctance to cite sources.  I’m not talking about their anonymous source for a leak, but common public information like polls and laws and press releases.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter—you can dig it up anyway.  Other times, though, the amount of digging to uncover it (if you ever can) is beyond reasonable.

It’s so easy to cite on the internet, but one supposes the mainstream journalists are from a time when space was too precious to include such important details as bill names or bill numbers or poll sources.  Indeed, sometimes they report on a proposed bill before the legislator in question has even published it or registered it with their house.  But even then, the courtesy of a followup with the concrete details, when available, is not beyond reasonable.

Of the many reasons I dislike and distrust the mainstream media, this is minor, but it is indicative of the unprofessional manner they tend to follow.