As an institution, the media no longer reflects, it shapes. NYTimes columnist Ezra Klein recently spoke with President Barack Obama about how the United States transitioned from “Yes We Can to MAGA.” Thoughtful questions and deeply reflective answers. Here I extrapolate President Obama’s comments about the media and his worried concerns about how the narrative is shaped through social media and far-right ‘news’ sources. -dayle
“What you just identified, in part because of the media infrastructure I described, and the siloing of media, in part because of, then, the Trump presidency and the way both sides went to their respective fortresses, absolutely. I think it’s real. I think it’s worse.
The decline of other mediating institutions that provided us a sense of place and who we are, whether it was the church, or union, or neighborhood, those used to be part of a multiple set of building blocks to how we thought about ourselves.
It spills over into everyday life and even small issues, what previously were not considered even political issues.
But some of it is a media infrastructure that persuaded a large portion of that base that they had something to fear and fed on that fear and resentment, that politics of fear resentment, in a way that, ironically, ended up being a straitjacket for the Republican officials themselves. And some of them got gobbled up by the monster that had been created and suddenly found themselves retiring. And they couldn’t function, because they weren’t angry or resentful enough for the base they had stoked.
It taught somebody like a Mitch McConnell that there is no downside for misstating facts, making stuff up, engaging in out and out obstruction, reversing positions that you held just a few minutes ago. Because now, it’s politically expedient to do so. That never reached the public in a way where the public could make a judgment about who’s acting responsibly and who isn’t.
And that, I think, was not driven by the politics of the moment. I mean, I think that the media was complicit in creating that dynamic in a way that is difficult. Because as we discovered during the Trump administration, if an administration is just misstating facts all the time, it starts looking like, gosh, the media’s anti-Trump. And this becomes more evidence of a left wing conspiracy, and liberal elites trying to gang up on the guy.
Ezra: I will say, in the media, one of our central biases is towards exciting candidates. You were an exciting candidate in 2008, but later on, that’s also something that Donald Trump activates.
President Obama: In a different way. You have a big set piece at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where “The Washington Post” invites Donald Trump after a year of birtherism to sit at their table.
But even in a broader sense, exciting candidates are usually, one, they shape perceptions of parties. But two, on the right, they tend to be quite extreme. They definitely tend to be in both directions, either more liberal or more conservative. But part of the dynamic, I think, you’re talking about — and then the media is pressured by social media, where —
You look out there, and you look around, like who’s up there on Facebook and on Reddit. And conflict sells.
But I have to tell you that there’s a difference between the issue of excitement, charisma, versus rewarding people for saying the most outrageous things.
So I don’t agree that that’s the only way that you can get people to read newspapers or click on a site. It requires more imagination and maybe more effort. And it requires some restraint to not feed the outrage, inflammatory approach to politics. And I think that folks didn’t do it.
And look, as I note towards the end of the book, the birther thing, which was just a taste of things to come, started in the right wing media ecosystem. But a whole bunch of mainstream folks, who later got very exercised about Donald Trump, they booked him all the time. Because he boosted ratings. But that wasn’t something that was compelled.
It was convenient for them to do. Because it was a lot easier to book Donald Trump to let him claim that I wasn’t born in this country than it was to how do I actually create an interesting story that people will want to watch about income inequality. That’s a harder thing to come up with.
My entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space. The analogy I always used to use when we were going through tough political times, and I’d try to cheer my staff up, then I’d tell them a statistic that John Holdren, my science advisor, told me, which was that there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on the planet Earth.
I guess, that my politics has always been premised on the notion that the differences we have on this planet are real. They’re profound, and they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion
We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better, because we’re all we got. And I would hope that the knowledge that there were aliens out there would solidify people’s sense that what we have in common is a little more important.
Three books, a book I just read, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, it’s about trees and the relationship of humans to trees. And it’s not something I would have immediately thought of, but a friend gave it to me. And I started reading it, and it changed how I thought about the earth. And it changed how I see things, and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.
“Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey, it’s a memoir, just a tragic story. Her mother’s former husband, or her former stepfather, murders her mother. And it’s a meditation on race, and class, and grief, uplifting surprisingly, at the end of it but just wrenching.
And then this one is easier to remember. I actually caught up on some past readings of Mark Twain. There’s something about Twain that I wanted to revisit, because he speaks a little bit of — he’s that most essential of American writers. And there’s his satiric eye and his actual outrage that sometimes gets buried under the comedy I thought was useful to revisit.”
Mark Twain considered his best book to be one he spent 12 years writing. Excellent.
Very few people know that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a major work on Joan of Arc. Still fewer know that he considered it not only his most important but also his best work. He spent twelve years in research and many months in France doing archival work and then made several attempts until he felt he finally had the story he wanted to tell. He reached his conclusion about Joan’s unique place in history only after studying in detail accounts written by both sides, the French and the English. Because of Mark Twain’s antipathy to institutional religion, one might expect an anti-Catholic bias toward Joan or at least toward the bishops and theologians who condemned her. Instead one finds a remarkably accurate biography of the life and mission of Joan of Arc told by one of this country’s greatest storytellers. The very fact that Mark Twain wrote this book and wrote it the way he did is a powerful testimony to the attractive power of the Catholic Church’s saints. This is a book that really will inform and inspire.