Everything is other people’s fault

MEDIA / Where advertising gives a feeling of well-being, desire and pleasure, new media consumption gives one of paranoia, anger and mistrust. Hate sells. Even on Capitol Hill.

Hate Inc. – Why Today’s Media Makes us Despise One Another
Author: Matt Taibbi
Publisher: OR Books, USA

The content of mass media is controlled by the advertising market and has changed American journalism, writes Matt Taibbi (b. 1970), the co-editor and journalist for Rolling Stone. Taibbi’s latest book, Hate Inc., is a critical examination of the condition in American media. The time of publication was well-chosen, ahead of an expected hate-oriented American election campaign.

Taibbi grew up in Boston, where his father was a TV star, not unlike the film Anchorman (2004). He has extensive journalistic experience in Russia, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. Taibbi was deported from Uzbekistan after criticizing President Karimov.

Capitol Hill and Fox News

«The US needs a new media system», wrote Taibbi on January 11, 2021, on his blog (republished in the National Post) – a week after the storming of Capitol Hill.

Hate Inc. warned about the situation in American society almost prophetically. News journalism in the United States is not objective but market-driven news factories with profit and high ratings as a guideline. Taibbi writes that Rupert Murdoch sacrificed the already paper-thin pseudo-respect the TV channel Fox News had and reinvented a platform for Donald Trump’s conspiracy-building brand of cartoon-like populism in a «more-Fox-than-Fox» narrative. Trump is a symptom of America’s problems but not the cause of them. CNN and MSNBC eventually opted for a Fox-like approach. «News can be sold as character-driven episodic TV in the manner of soap operas», writes Taibbi.

The Fox technique was as follows: During the Bush era, they had learned that viewer polls went through the roof if the audience got the impression that the liberal neighbours were terrorists and traitors. In terms of ratings, this was more effective than news about Al Qaeda since the enemy was closer, and it made the hatred more real.

Matt Taibbi
Matt Taibbi

A credible news institution is needed

The media works as a backwards news agency. They first ask: «How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?» Then they find words and angles that fit the market research. Fox News, for example, refers to the storming of Capitol Hill as «Pro-Trump protesters», while The New York Times and The Atlantic called it an «insurrection.» The conservative media also emphasizes how Apple, Google and Amazon shut Trump out, while the mass media hinted at the possibility of a new round of armed protests – probably on 19 or 20 January, 2021.

Taibbi further writes: «Drifting apart into two separate tribes, with a separate set of facts, and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each there and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.” He continues: «What we saw explode last week is a paradox. A political and informational system that profits from division and conflict and uses a factory-style process to stimulate it – but professes shock and horror when real conflict happens. […] You can not sell hatred and seriously expect it to end. »

What is desperately needed in the United States is an institutionally credible news institution, Taibbi writes. In Taibi’s perspective, the country’s new media system should be independent of political parties, with objective, credible journalism – independent of Apple, Google or Amazon.

Manufacturing Consent

While travelling in Mongolia and Uzbekistan, Taibbi brought three books with him: Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson («a great work of journalism») and Scoop by Evelyn Waugh («the perfect parody of journalism”). But when Taibbi read book number three, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), written by linguist, philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky and economics professor Edward Herman, his understanding of media’s role in American society changed fundamentally.

Hate Inc. is a continuation of Chomsky’s and Herman’s 1988 media critique. When truths are for sale in feedback loops, hate rhetoric and polarization increases. Chomsky and Herman revealed that the American mass media were powerful ideological institutions in an effective and systemic propaganda apparatus. A key idea – a continuation of the American journalist Walter Lippmann’s media criticism from Public Opinion (1922) – was that censorship in the United States was subtle and dependent on market forces.

Chomsky and Herman discuss propaganda and obstacles to journalistic freedom in the American press. Much of this comes from Herman’s earlier book, Corporate Control, Corporate Power (1981), but was already carefully discussed in Herman and Chomsky’s book The Political Economy of Human Rights, published two years earlier (1979). In addition, the work was based on an earlier Chomsky / Herman book: Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (1973). This shows that the mass media coverage of significant American economic and political interests – and relations with friendly or hostile states – acts as agency agencies for state propaganda.

Chomsky and Herman sort out the criticism of the American press’ inadequate coverage of reprehensible matters in US foreign policy, human rights protocols and role in the Vietnam War. This falls into categories such as friendly publicity, participatory criminal reporting (incomplete or incorrect), and myth-forming information.

Advertising revenue is most important

The propaganda model in Manufacturing Consent has five points:

1) Advertising is a more important source of revenue than single sales and subscriptions, and advertisers’ political prejudices and demands challenge editorial freedom.

2) Powerful and resourceful social actors financially subsidize the mass media; in return, they receive privileged dissemination of «their» news.

3) The media favours the authorities and resourceful people in their opinion-forming and economic sphere.

4) The editorial staff avoids controversial topics and facts that give negative feedback, which in turn affects advertising revenues.

5) The last point of the propaganda model is the news about anti-communism, which filled newspaper readers with fear from the end of the Cold War (1945-91). After 1991, Chomsky replaced it with the news of the «war on terror» as the primary social control mechanism.

The main conclusion in Manufacturing Consent was that the free press in «The Land of Freedom» was not independent. Instead, it cut like a chainsaw through the American deception, writes Taibbi.

Chomsky’s and Herman’s book received few reviews. Warner Publishing closed up the publishing department that published Manufacturing Consent. Only 500 copies of the first edition of 20 were sold at launch.

Manufacturing Discontent

Hate rhetoric is far stronger today than when Manufacturing Consent was published. Taibbi’s book was initially intended to be published with the paraphrasing title Manufacturing Discontent since Chomsky and Herman continued the media-critical-political perspective of the previously mentioned Lippmann. Taibbi’s book has, however, received good reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, among others.

Hate Inc. was first published as a series of e-mail newsletters (via Substack). In addition to a review of the Russiagate / Müller report, an interview with Chomsky was published. Chomsky’s book had the unforeseen consequence that it created distrust of the media.

The media creates the illusion that being informed is a social act in itself.

Hate seller

Long before the establishment of the hate rhetoric that characterizes Fox and CNN, and long before Trump taught his followers that CNN conveyed «fake news», the TV audience learned to despise and be hostile to their opponents via 24-hour-a-day TV sports channel ESPN. The new news consumer «was already reading the sports page.» As a result, news coverage went from relatively neutral to «cheerleading.» «The flip side of cheering is hating», Taibbi writes.

The rules of hatred are simple. There are only two teams, and two political ideas. The two are in permanent conflict. The hate is personal. Everything is the fault of others. The visions on both sides are on a subtle level:

  • Find your peers («Root. Do not think»).
  • Be loyal to the team («No switching teams»).
  • Be aware of your superiority over the others («Feel superior»).

The enemy is literally Hitler, and in the fight against him, everything is allowed.

Where advertising gave a feeling of well-being, desire and pleasure, new media consumption gives the feeling of paranoia, anger and mistrust. The discovery that hatred sells transformed the news into a commodity or identity marker—an entirely new type of news image where knowledge interest is cynically exploited for sale.

Facebook Inc.

In his review of social media, Taibbi writes: «The notion that you are reading the truth, and not consuming a product, is the first deception of commercial media.» Neither Facebook nor Google states that this «door to the truth […] was built just for you”.

Facebook conveys content that strengthens your own prejudices in «short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops”. After your personal consumption pattern has been analyzed (controlled by «the little dopamine hit» you get from likes and rewards), it is matched with advertisers with demographically adapted products. What you get, completely free, is personalized truth-telling according to your online activity. Facebook’s and Google’s function is to resell the activity information.

Taibbi continues: «All the commercial actors make more money the more you read or watch. The business, therefore, is geared toward keeping you glued to the screen. «The fields of hatred are easily recognizable, from energy to medicine to pollution to science to nuclear weapons.»

The feeling that the world is disintegrating is part of the strategy to get readers to continue consuming news and looking for more knowledge online. The result is more ads, and more sales for marketing departments, in a mutually dependent relationship.

According to Taibbi, the media creates the illusion that being informed is a social act in itself. But being up to date makes no change.

Hate Inc. nevertheless tries to restore media trust by pointing to the credibility of most newspapers, such as the New York Times, but emphasizes that trade-offs and nuances do not traditionally sell newspapers: «The news media are in crisis.» Nevertheless, hope is a growing market for politically neutral journalism.

Marianne Solberg
Marianne Solberg
Regular contributor to our sister publication NY TID in Norway.

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