President Trump is back to tweeting incendiary attacks on the media, from accusing MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski of “bleeding badly from a face-lift” to posting a fake video of him giving CNN a wrestling beatdown.
Savaging the media is a surefire way to rile up the Republican base. But in reality, they’re the ones who are out of touch, as 50 percent of Americans trust CNN more than Trump, with only 43 percent in his corner. And independents decisively split 55-40 percent in favor of CNN.
Of course, the convenient way to dismiss facts you don’t like nowadays is to scream out “#Fake News!” at the top of your lungs like a toddler. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Critical thinking is, indeed, a burden.
But this debate is actually far less interesting than new developments in the media marketplace that haven’t garnered much attention. And this is all taking place as Trump enjoys what Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls “state media” level coverage from Fox News. The echo chamber extends to other right-wing outlets like Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Newsmax (now on the DirectTV lineup), not to mention conspiracy theory wonderland Infowars, which is run by Trump confidante Alex Jones.
Partisan media is nothing new in America — just ask the Founding Fathers. There’s no shortage of liberal and conservative outlets. But now we’re seeing the emergence of media that explicitly are cheerleading a single politician, not an ideology or political party. This is a new weapon at President Trump’s disposal and it’s startling how few people seem aware of it.
Let’s start with local media. Sinclair Broadcast Group has bought the Tribune Media Co. for $3.7 billion, creating a “TV goliath,” per Bloomberg. (This was made possible by more lax Federal Communication Commission rules under a new GOP majority).
Sinclair already owns 173 stations in 81 markets — local NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates — which reaches 24 percent of U.S. TV homes, Bloomberg reports. Tribune Co. owns 42 stations, reaching 26 percent of homes.
In Michigan, Sinclair owns eight stations in the greater Kalamazoo, Flint and Traverse City areas. It would acquire another Kalamazoo-area station with the Tribune merger.
This isn’t just a typical media conglomeration story, however. The (not-so) surprise twist is that Sinclair now has “must-run” editorials by Boris Epshteyn, which often come off as North Korea-style “Dear Leader” paeans to Trump.
If the name sounds familiar, it should. Epshteyn is a former Trump campaign aide who briefly served in the White House press office. Now he’s being questioned as part of the congressional Russia probe, which is always a good sign.
And yet the conservative crowd that shrieks about “biased” media at every turn seems remarkably unfazed about Sinclair’s blatant bias, since it’s the correct kind.
It’s true that a lot of people don’t pay attention to local news. Many don’t particularly follow politics. That’s why it’s significant to watch what’s happening to entertainment news and tabloids.
You don’t think of TMZ when you think politics. It’s the guilty pleasure you tune into to discover who had a nip slip or who Kylie Jenner is dating now. But the celeb gossip site and TV show slips in some aggressively pro-Trump propaganda, thanks to creator Harvey Levin, a pal of the president who’s been entertained in the Oval Office.
TMZ, which boasts a much younger and more diverse audience than Fox News, routinely airs puff pieces on all the Trumps and White House staff like Kellyanne Conway. And TMZ also blasts Trump’s foes, like women who accused him of sexual harassment, and creates new ones, like a Jetblue passenger who was allegedly rude to Ivanka Trump.
Meanwhile, the grandaddy of all tabloids, the National Enquirer, is basically a Trump house organ (“Exclusive Report! President Trump: His Secret Plan for World Peace” is a recent fave headline). In his feud with Brzezinski, the president bragged that he had the power to get stories killed at the supermarket tabloid.
Another longtime Trump buddy, David Pecker, just happens to own the Enquirer and he has a brutal assessment of his audience: “These are people that live their life failing, so they want to read negative things about people who have gone up and then come down.”
Other Enquirer publications include OK, The Globe, Star, Radar Online and Us Weekly (which abruptly stopped running critical Trump stories). Pecker is also interested in buying Time Magazine, which has been an odd obsession of Trump, who was just caught hanging fake Time covers of himself at various properties. The Mercers, the hedge-fund billionaires who dumped millions into Trump’s campaign, are also interested in acquiring Time.
It would certainly be jarring for one of America’s most venerable news magazines — a symbol of the sometimes stodgy conventional wisdom journalism of old — to metamorphose into a loud, pro-Trump mouthpiece.
What the president and his right-wing allies are counting on is that you aren’t paying attention to stories about the burgeoning pro-Trump media industry (or that you’ve bought into the outrage over the “librul media” so you don’t care).
But when enough media are weaponized in the service of a single politician, that can create hazards for anyone who crosses him — and not just liberals. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will find themselves on the receiving end of more Brzezinski-style attacks. Eventually, those who don’t agree with Trump on everything (even when he inexplicably changes his positions) will be excoriated for not being true patriots.
That’s how cults of personality work. Any conservative who believes this fight is about ideas, not ego, is about to get a rude awakening.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.