Media & Ethics

Morality Play

Is This Any Way to Vote?

Is this any way to vote?
Media Deals There is a long history of media working with politicians as opposed to reporting about them.

Yes, it’s time for the quadrennial morality play called “Presidential Election.” Like the uplifting thespians of a half millennium ago, today’s actors, called “politicians,” symbolize abstract values—“competency,” “toughness,” “honesty,” “frugality” and more. The actors evoke tragedy and comedy (often unintentional) to enthrall troubled audiences by explaining how society should work. In dramatic soliloquies, the players claim they can right what is wrong.

Act I introduces a fractious horde of players, in two groupings. Each contingent slugs it out among its party, although there is little festivity in the process, until only one contestant per group is left standing. Then, in Act II, the surviving champions hurl vitriolic epithets at their opponent, proclaim ultimate truth, and bombastically tout their own virtues. In Act III, the winner is allowed to repudiate all of the solemn promises he made in Acts I and II.

The moral of this morality play, according to people called voters, is: Some don’t bother. But others do bother, and in passionate displays of emotional states described as patriotism they continue to insist in participating every four years.

Most Americans view the Presidential Election spectacle through the media. Such devices are an interface between reality and the common folk. Very clever people long ago figured out that, as it is colloquially described, if you screw around with the media, you can alter depictions of reality for many people.


“We are diverted by spectacle and pseudo-events,” journalist and author Chris Hedges wrote in his 2009 book Empire of Illusion. “We are fed illusions. We are given comforting myths that exalt our nation and ourselves, even though ours is a time of collapse, and moral and political squalor. We are bombarded with useless trivia and celebrity gossip.”

For example, if your “party” wants to start a war in a ploy to remain in power, all you need to do is convince an ethically impaired journalist from The New York Times to “report” that a particular dictator has “weapons of mass destruction,” gin up a few “official” sources intoning the same frightening “news,” mendacities that are echoed by “responsible” media, and nationwide mass distraction leads to consensus that the tyrant should be obliterated. Quick as you can say “Halliburton,” we have a conflict that goes on for decades, kills hundreds of thousands of people, destabilizes a good chunk of the planet, and, by the way, fattens the quarterly bottom lines for conglomerates run by “donors” to the “party.”

When it comes to the “Presidential Election,” the quid pro quo is often quite blatant. But since the politicians and media moguls don’t want to be exposed, the media make sure the media don’t report what the media are scheming.


Here’s a case study: In 1972, President Richard Nixon was running for re-election. The publishers of most of the large newspaper chains needed a favor from Nixon, passage of a bill that would deter competition by upstart newspapers in cities where the powerful chains had publications.

Hearst Newspapers’ Richard Berlin sent letters to Nixon and the Justice Department. Berlin and his buddies—who in aggregate owned 74 of the most powerful U.S. newspapers—would happily endorse Nixon if he would support legislation that would exempt the chains from anti-monopoly restrictions.

Nixon did as ordered. The newspapers blessed him with their endorsements. The publishers never clued in readers to the deal.

The Watergate scandal started during that election campaign and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation after he was re-elected. More than 90 percent of the newspapers endorsing Nixon in 1972 were among those carrying the least pre-election coverage about Watergate. The publishers buried a story critical to the Republic’s well-being, in exchange for few pieces of silver.

You’ve never heard that story? That’s because newspaper publishers don’t want you to comprehend their corruption. It took a courageous journalism critic, Ben Bagdikian, to unearth Berlin’s letters and recount the story in his 1983 groundbreaking book The Media Monopoly.


Moving on to Circa Now, consider the awful state of the media in covering this year’s morality play. True, there is some thoughtful, in-depth coverage of issues that should—repeat, should—be addressed by Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Most of that incisive journalism is consigned to a few newspapers and magazines, which very, very few Americans pay attention to any longer.

The “news” most people get is from one video screen or another. Networks and cable news have been reduced to repetitive, derivative shallowness, followed by chattering heads screaming at each other. Comedian (and acid-tongued political commentator) John Oliver, on a recent “Last Week Tonight,” nailed it: “It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around.”

It’s not that “media” have disappeared. It’s just that a byproduct of the so-called digital revolution (or, devolution) is really, really stupid media. The dumbing down of citizens has taken decades, and considerable conscious effort.

In 1981, one of America’s most powerful media moguls, Michael Eisner—potentate of Walt Disney, ABC News and more—told his executives, “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Eleven years later, Carl Bernstein—one of the two Washington Post reporters who unearthed the Watergate scandal and toppled Nixon—blistered his own industry in a New Republic commentary. Whether he was thinking of Eisner’s dictum isn’t known, but Bernstein certainly understood what the media bosses had created. “The weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal,” Bernstein wrote. “The consequence is the spectacle and the triumph of the idiot culture.” The journalist contended the media had turned America’s political and social discourse “into a sewer.”

And 14 years after Bernstein’s evisceration of the media, his “idiot culture” depiction took on another dimension. A movie, Idiocracy, a satirical look at future-America by filmmaker Mike Judge, was suppressed by its own distributor, Fox. As the Los Angeles Times noted:

“Did Judge’s film, by sheer happenstance, mirror [Fox/News Corp CEO] Rupert Murdoch’s blueprint for a Fox-fed nation of fat, dumb and happy? … If we’re not getting the truth—even delivered via satire—it might be because leaders think we can’t take it, or they may be afraid of what we might do if we did get it. … Goodness no; don’t confuse us with information.”

The Titans of Media get rich and powerful by degrading citizens with useless infotainment.

Idiot culture
Election 2016 is playing out like a cinematic satire of jingoist American politics misinterpreted as a morality play.

“The weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. The consequence is the spectacle, and the triumph, of the idiot culture.”

Carl Bernstein


Election 2016 is a very complex story. But the media is playing it out like a cinematic satire of American politics misinterpreted as a morality play. This idiocy is all the more exhausting because the media—particularly digital and social media—are always there, with bells on, mics wired and “post” buttons at the ready.

All this is made worse when each side of the political spectrum reviles the other. Someone who has been singed by such hellish politicking, Bill Clinton, told a crowd in North Carolina in September: “We live in a Snapchat-Twitter world. It’s so much easier just to discredit people and call them names.”

Case in point, the “taco bowl tweet.” Surely, you’ve heard about it, and eaten it up entire. In May, Donald Trump posted on Twitter a photo of himself eating a taco bowl, wishing a happy Cinco De Mayo to all and adding, “I love Hispanics!”

The Huffington Post gleefully reported that the tweet “hilariously backfired,” in a story alongside a slide show of “9 Outrageous Things Donald Trump Has Said About Latinos.”

Vox helpfully published, “Donald Trump’s taco bowl, explained.” Mashable offered, “The 19 most offensive things about Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet.” The Verge chimed in, “Everything terrible about Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet.” Business Insider wrote it up. Politico wrote it up. Slate wrote it up. Vanity Fair wrote it up. USA Today wrote it up. Even The Washington Post and The New York Times got in on the action. NPR covered it three times.

CNN ran scrolling captions about Trump’s taco bowl tweet all through the evening of May 5 and into the next day, when, at a White House press briefing on May 6, a reporter raised the issue with President Barack Obama.

His timing could not have been better. Or worse.

The president had just spent several minutes making the case for why the press is the key to an informed electorate, and urging the media to vet all of the presidential candidates and check their promises and policy positions, to inform voters. “I just want to emphasize that we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States,” Obama told the assembled press corps.

In return he got the pressing questions, “Did you see Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet? And what are your thoughts on it?”

“Aye Caramba!” you groan.

There are things people can do. People should not let the merchants of chaos in the media drive them away from the polls. They should study the issues and vote their consciences.

Ever since Federal Communications Chairman Newton Minnow in 1961 described television as a “vast wasteland,” there’s been no lack of incisive analysis of the media. “The media is in rigor mortis,” media scholar and prolific author Robert McChesney told Freedom. “If you’re talking about the coverage of professional basketball or baseball, the media is pretty good. But if you want coverage of politics and power and the great issues that could save the lives of our countries and our species, the news media in the United States is utterly horrendous—a complete flop.”

For more than a century, the media have been locked in a death spiral caused by rapacious corporatism. What’s the alternative? Government subsidies? Ultimately, that’s worse than commercialism; we’ve seen the bitter fruits in totalitarian states.

Trust and nonprofit ownership of media offers promise—indeed, that’s Freedom magazine’s model. In coming months, we will give readers an ongoing series of articles that are the result of investigations of examples of how journalists have used their power in highly unethical ways, and that examine the options for the media, and how the press can be used to solve great problems rather than exacerbate them.

Stay tuned.

John F. Sugg is executive editor of Freedom.