Monday, August 01, 2016

Getting Played For Fools: Media Coverage of Trump and the Gold Star Parents

As everyone should now know, last week Kzir Khan, a Virginia attorney who happens to be Muslim--and happens to be the Gold Star father of an Army captain killed in Iraq--gave a brief but eloquent speech at the Democratic National Convention.

In it, he charged that Donald Trump "consistently smears the character of Muslims," adding that Trump also "disrespects other minorities; women; judges; even his own party leadership."  This, Khan continued, was un-American and contrary to the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution.  Taking a copy of the Constitution from his coat pocket, he held it aloft and asked Trump rhetorically if Trump had ever bothered to read it.

The speech made plenty of headlines at the time.  But over the weekend media coverage of the speech exploded because of the response to it by Donald Trump, who suggested, among other things, that Khan's speech had been written by the Clinton campaign and that the silence of Khan’s wife Ghazala might have been mandated by her Muslim faith.  It's a big story and rightly so.  But there's another story that is even bigger but largely uncovered, and that is the way the media is packaging the story.

I will concede at the outset that the main reason the story is uncovered is because we take its premise for granted.  We expect dogs to bite people, not the other way around.  And we have come to expect the media to slant the news.

Conservatives expect it from the so-called "mainstream media," aka the MSM, which within the echo chamber of right wing talk radio and TV is as pejorative as Rush Limbaugh's name for mainstream media journalists:  the "drive-by media," an allusion to the drive-by spraying of gunfire by gang members in automobiles.

Liberals expect it from right wing talk radio and TV, particularly Fox News, which is by design the propaganda arm of the political right (a role MSNBC has increasingly adopted on behalf of the political left).

Both are correct.

The reason I am devoting a post to this phenomenon is simple.  First, the impact of the Trump-Khan affair on the election is going to be the result of how all this coverage influences the electorate, not the affair itself.  Second, it will have that impact because we the people welcome being manipulated if we are being manipulated by the side we like.
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me? 

Those are the opening lines of a famous poem by Carl Sandburg.  In it, Sandburg extols the common people and laments their consistent forgetfulness of the wrongs done to them by politicians.
I  am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
 Sandburg closes with a warning:
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
That hasn't happened yet.  It may well never happen.  But when Sandburg says "speaker" he frames the term so that he means the politician.  And it does.  But we ought to read it as also referring to the pundit, who for a brief shining moment was confined to the editorial page but has now regained the ground he lost in the early 20th century:  he is everywhere.

I spent much of the weekend systematically examining media coverage of the Trump-Khan affair across the political spectrum.

The story emerged from the mainstream media's coverage of advance excerpts from ABC of Trump's interview by George Stephanopoulous.  The most important news outlets reporting the story were the left-leaning New York Times and the Washington Post.  (Unless I missed something, their conservative counterpart, the Wall Street Journal, did not begin to report the story until Sunday afternoon.)

The coverage first appeared on Saturday.  The public did not get to see the interview until the next day, on This Week, ABC's Sunday morning news program.

Initially Fox News barely covered the story.  It went unmentioned on "Media Buzz," a Fox news program that tried to point out the disingenuous way in which the MSM had covered the Democratic convention and in the process re-framed the convention story in its own disingenuous way.  The single item I found on the Fox News web site focused on MSM and social media reaction more than Trump's remarks themselves.

On Meet the Press and Face the Nation, the NBC and CBS counterparts of This Week, Trump campaign director Paul Manafort tried to re-package Trump's message.  I didn't see how well he fared on the former but on the latter he really struggled.  Asked to comment on what Trump actually said, Manafort dismissed the question as "Clinton talking points," asserting that what Trump had really emphasized was the danger of Islamic radicalism.

Manafort may initially have struggled, but by afternoon the Trump campaign had figured out what Trump should have said when questioned about Mr. Khan's speech and begun to put its solution before the American public.  Trump essentially repeated his apparent blunder (I would argue that it reflected his deliberate campaign strategy) in a Twitter tweet.  After initially tweeting the conventional solution--"Captain Khan, killed 12 years ago, was a hero, but this is about RADICAL ISLAMIC TERROR and the weakness of our 'leaders' to eradicate it!"--Trump issued a tweet that got far more attention: "I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!"

The MSM has interpreted the second tweet as further evidence of Trump's political tone deafness:  I was viciously attacked by a Gold Star father.  Maybe.  But it's part and parcel of Trump's habitual portrayal of himself as under attack by the MSM, which is exactly the way Trump's supporters view the MSM.

By this morning, on "Fox and Friends," Fox News was smoothly offering up the perfected talking point:  Trump's remarks in the interview had really focused on radical Islam, but the MSM was unfairly trying to portray them as an attack on the Gold Star parents.

Also by this morning, the MSNBC counterpart, "Morning Joe," was serving up the Democratic talking point, which never needed perfecting because it was so screamingly obvious from the get-go, that Trump's remarks were reprehensible and further evidence that Trump was temperamentally unsuited to be president (precisely what Hillary Clinton has said, both on the campaign trail and in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace that aired last evening).

I do not say that the initial reporting of the interview was manipulative:  to write is to judge.  The facts never speak for themselves, and I don't fault the New York Times or Washington Post for interpreting the significance of Trump's comments on Kzir and Ghazala Khan.  But here's the thing:

That's exactly the way most Americans who lean to the right are going to view it, because that is the way the conservative media has quickly learned to portray it.

And what was news on Saturday has now become a liberal talking point.  That is to say, the original story has been repeated endlessly without adding new content.

In other words, we are getting played by both sides.

And we like it when we get played by our side.

Ultimately, the critical story here is which attempt to play us gets the most traction.

I've now spent over two hours writing this post, on top of hours spent yesterday digesting as much coverage as I could.  I can afford the luxury of undertaking this fool's errand.  Even if most Americans had the inclination to do this, few would have the time.  But we don't have the inclination.  We don't mind being manipulated.

If we minded being played for fools then the political media would cease to play us for fools.  The mob, the crowd, the mass, would arrive then.

Where would it arrive?  It would simply arrive at taking seriously what it already possesses:  the privilege and responsibility of citizenship in a democracy.

Don't hold your breath.

If by chance you yourself want to take the time to watch the full interview, however, here it is:

(If you lack 20 minutes, you can skim the transcript.)