A recent blog posting by conservative firebrand and former Republican Speaker of the U.S. House, Newt Gingrich, touted the “Brilliance” of President-Elect Donald Trump’s controversial tweets, which advocated the expansion and strengthening of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Newt’s argument focused on his belief that long-standing U.S. policy – to work toward the reduction of global nuclear stockpiles – has allowed our relative nuclear advantage to stagnate. His message resonates with the long-standing Republican position in favor of expanding our military spending. Although I strongly disagree with expansion of our nuclear arsenal and the global implications that such an action would carry, I do agree with what Newt said next.
The former Speaker, who has been a keen observer of politics and the media for decades, went on to say that the real brilliance of his tweets was in the demonstration of his ability to “steer” the attention of media with his tweets. I don’t often find myself in agreement with Gingrich, but in this case, I must agree – at least in part.
Gingrich was celebrating the President–Elect’s success in bringing media attention to a favorite Republican issue – expanding the military. I happen to believe that his tweets may have had another purpose.
Gingrich failed to mention, perhaps intentionally, that Mr. Trump’s tweets had a second, and perhaps more strategically useful function. Those highly controversial tweets came at a moment in the Trump transition, when a very disturbing narrative was beginning to dominate media attention. During the preceding weeks, numerous stories about President-Elect Trump’s apparent coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin had commanded loads of media attention.
Theories about Russian investments in Trump enterprises and scrutiny of the Russian government’s likely role in hacking into U.S. computer systems to influence our election in favor of Mr. Trump were being reinforced by the well-documented closeness of Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of State, and CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson. The culmination of these issues was the disturbing concern that a new Trump administration might pursue policies, such as the removal of economic sanctions on Russia, which had been imposed following Russian incursions into Crimea and the Ukraine.
If this diversion tactic was indeed the strategic purpose, it was indeed brilliant -and disturbingly effective.
It was truly brilliant in its effectiveness in completely erasing a very bad narrative and replacing it with an alternative that counteracts the former. So, rather than worrying that a President Trump and his appointees might be doing the bidding of a historic adversary, the media is now fixated on the concerns that a President Trump might begin a very contentious nuclear arms race with the Russians. Despite their obvious political utility, Trump’s tweets can be viewed as extremely disturbing for their effectiveness in diverting media attention away from an issue of high importance to national security.
Historically the media has served an enormously important function in bringing transparency to our democracy. Since the Watergate era, however, the “mainstream media” has been used relentlessly as a “punching bag”, alleging a liberal bias, even despite the requirement by the traditional media outlets for multiple source verification. This incident both illustrates the alarming effectiveness of the conservative strategy of relentless criticism, and in some ways, it highlights the justification for well-deserved criticism of many elements of our current American media environment.
Prior to the internet and cable news era, most folks got their news from a small handful of professional media outlets. Those professional news programs held themselves to very high standards for honesty and accuracy. As a result, their news anchors were historically regarded as among the most trusted folks in America.
In recent years, the traditional television news media environment has proliferated into a broad array of 24 hour cable news outlets and an even broader array of internet websites and news blogs, many of which have their own particular political agendas. The consumption of news has become a buffet affair, with dozens or hundreds of internet and broadcast sources available at any given time. Sadly, most of the broadcast news outlets have become more like corporate entertainment outlets, offering a continuous loop of generic news clips followed by a narrow band of commentary reflecting their station’s political orientation. Internet news sources are as varied as the mind can imagine, including a range of “mainstream” websites and a seemingly unlimited range of issue or philosophy-oriented websites that range from anarchists to white Nationalists to conspiracy theorists.
Our nation has an urgent need for credible, reliable news outlets that remain above the clutter of partisan demagoguery. We could regain this status if the handful of mature national broadcast news corporations were to dedicate a serious proportion of their earnings to news programing that would not be required to be profit centers. That is not likely. Barring that, we could rely on publicly-funded broadcast outlets, like the Guardian, Free Speech TV, BBC or even hybrids like PBS.