Lost in all the media hysteria about comedian Michelle Wolf’s appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a wonderful joke about the media:
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.
The joke is wonderful because, like Steven Colbert and others, she takes the opportunity to point out through humor how the media really works.
What we don’t realize is that corporate propaganda takes advantage of people not understanding how the media works to create a different frame about the media that can sound credible to people, especially people who identify as conservatives. Here’s how corporate propaganda undermines the media, and how to make this propaganda look ridiculous by telling a better story.
The corporate special interest group narrative
The corporate special interest group story about the media is that everything is right or left. This originated back in the 1960s/70s when corporate special interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt like they were getting beat up in the media. At that time, they felt that an objective media was treating them unfairly.
What they wanted was an alternative story: one that portrayed corporate special interests as heroes and one that portrayed the protesters and hippies as villains. This was the birth of the idea about the “liberal” media.
Liberal media was the traditional media. The new media that corporate special interests developed was a counterbalance to this perceived bias. To justify this radical new media that fought for corporate special interests and might be perceived as propaganda or advertising, corporate special interests developed the idea that traditional media was not fair to the businessmen of America.
You hear this in the Fox News slogan, “Fair and balanced.” The idea of fair is a counterbalance to a perceived bias. Fair is no longer objective or in the public interest, the more traditional definitions of fair.
By screaming loudly enough, corporate special interests are able to get their representatives and pundits onto all of the corporate for-profit networks. More corporate special interest pundits equals greater “fairness” in the media.
This is the corporate special interest narrative.
Why does this matter when it comes to Trump?
This framing matters when it comes to Trump because one of the standard narratives on the right is that Trump is being treated unfairly by the media.
When the media covers him extensively, especially when negatively, Trump supporters see it as biased.
That is, what the media is doing confirms the corporate special interest left/right view of the media to conservatives. I hear this all the time from my conservative friends: “The liberal media is unfair to Trump.”
In the absence of a better reason for this coverage, the corporate special interest group narrative sounds credible.
The media loves a train wreck
So how do you fight this framing?
The Huffington Post once tried to fight this by not covering Trump at all. This only fueled the narrative that the media is liberal. See how easy it is to fall into the left/right framing about the media?
A much better approach is to have a better story about the media that doesn’t fit corporate special interest group framing.
This story is that the media, as primarily for-profit entities, loves a train wreck. As they say in the newspaper business, “If it bleeds, it ledes” (or leads. to use the vernacular). The train wrecks are the front-page stories and headlines.
If you’re a TV or radio station, you’re worried about ratings. If you’re a newspaper, you have to sell papers. To grab attention, you put the train wrecks front and center.
If you reframe the media in this manner, you can then ask questions like:
- Are all of these corporate outlets really coordinating in some kind of “liberal” attack on Donald Trump? Or do all his antics get views for the networks?
- Is a billionaire president really a “victim” of a liberal media? Isn’t it more likely that the media is profiting off the popcorn eaters?
This is the truth at the heart of Michelle Wolf’s joke about the media. She gets that the media loves Trump because he sells papers and commercials. Journalism takes a back seat in for-profit entities.
When used correctly, this better story about the media makes corporate right/left framing look ridiculous.