The Trouble with the “Liberal” Media

Donald Trump’s breathtaking attack on Ghazala Khan sparked predictable outrage, followed by an equally predictable flurry of charges, defenses and counter-charges. Virtually all the coverage of and elite replies to this latest in an impossibly long string of Trump’s controversial pronouncements have included dutiful reminders that the Khans are exemplary citizens; that “Mr. Khan’s speech at the convention in Philadelphia was one of the most powerful given there;” and that the candidate’s criticisms of the Khans are both morally and factually wrong.

A basic assumption shared by both the public figures and the commentariat hastening to rebuke Trump is that exposing his errors and lies, together with demonstrations of his moral depravity, will somehow convince his supporters that they have erred in choosing him as their champion. The assumption warrants, and is reaffirmed by, the corollary supposition that, to the extent that mounting evidence of Trump’s coarse racism fail to stem the tide of support, such support can only be explained by the white supremacism of his voters. If he is indifferent to the norms of “political correctness” that render overt expressions of ethno-nationalism taboo, and if his repeated violations of this taboo gain rather than cost him votes, it must be the case that Trumpism is fundamentally a racist movement.

Which of course it is, even if the racism is indissociable from legitimate economic anxiety and the systematic disempowerment of the working class. These twin pillars, the theory goes, link material and symbolic humiliation that feeds voter identification with Trump. And it would seem to follow that exposing the fissures in his persona as an able champion of the white working class should undermine him with that demographic. If he is a hypocrite on trade and jobs, he should lose support from those who worry about jobs lost to “free” trade deals. If he is impudent toward hallowed symbols of the nation, such as US soldiers killed in battle, he should lose support among America-first voters. If he is wrong about why a Muslim woman stands silently next to her husband as he gives a patriotic speech, he should lose credibility in his effort to play feminism against “radical Islam.”

It would be easy to show that this strategy is mistaken, based as it is on a simplistic view of human psychology. Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, “gut feelings,” the economy of jouissance, the process of identification, filter bubbles, and much besides can be marshaled to account for the recalcitrance of Trump’s supporters in the face of mounting evidence of his depravity.

But there is something else at work, too—something that is not only irreducible to psychology but is a sense orthogonal to it. I’m thinking here of certain systemic features of the news media, many of which have been explicated by scholars but remain unaccounted for in public handwringing about the Trump phenomenon.

Genre (soap opera) meets Luhmann’s observation that systems work not by producing a required effect but by finding the next feasible operation.

Niklas Luhmann stressed that a fundamental feature of social systems is their operational closure. This means at least two interrelated and salient things. First, social systems (such as the law, or the mass media as Luhmann broadly imagined it at the time) constitute and operate on their own internal elements and by way of their own constitutive distinctions (e.g., legal/illegal). Second, they maintain and adapt themselves by finding within their given state a “move” consistent with their functional capacities. For example, while the legal system is constrained by the distinction legal/illegal, it does not aim at producing the outcomes for which this distinction has been established (e.g., justice, fairness, efficiency, etc.); rather, it reproduces itself by finding in each case a way forward consistent with this distinction. It will adapt when it confronts ambiguous cases, adjusting its internal resources accordingly. This is why we routinely see systems produce outcomes we regard as perversions—results that facilitate the operation of the system and the reinscription of its fundamental distinctions that fly in the face of the aims those distinctions were initially meant to facilitate (see Kafka).

The point not to be missed is that a system needs to be able to carry out the next operation, and that this requirement necessarily overrides the goals for which the system was established. In the case of the news media, it is generally assumed that its social function is to inform the public concerning the operation of other social systems, especially the political and economic ones. But insofar as the news media is itself an autonomous system, its rudimentary requirement is to reproduce the conditions of its own continuous operation.

One of the overlooked implications of all this is that there may be an elective affinity between the systemic requirement to generate the next operation and certain media genres. If print tends to converge with narrative, broadcast media may converge with soap opera. (Rather than, as John Ellis has provocatively suggested, with the inherently segmental structure of the commercial spot.) From this perspective, it would be no accident that radio gained commercial traction by means of soaps. Nor would so much “trash” daytime television be merely filler until “prime time.” On the contrary, the distinguishing feature of soaps—present, as Ellis emphasizes, in series and serial formats—is the abdication of narrative development in favor of an endlessly extensible series of twists, turns and repetitions. Here, broadcast media establish the freedom to find the next operation without being significantly restricted by the preceding one.

And with this, we can begin to discern the distinctive contribution of Trump, especially in his obsessive use of Twitter. While the received wisdom of political strategists is predicated on the narrative logic of news cycles, Trump has taken note of the contingency of this relationship. It turns out that narrative form is imposed on the news media by a certain formal (that is, aesthetic or rhetorical) ideology embedded in journalism. But the “native” structure of news much more closely resembles that of the soap. Hence Trump’s approach is to feed the system’s most fundamental needs directly. Rather than craft and manage a narrative, he provides an endless barrage of tweets, each of which serves as fodder for formulaic coverage that, over time, does not cohere into a narrative at all—yet moment to moment, ensures that the news media are not only discussing Trump but doing so in accordance with their own self-imposed genre conventions. Each bit of “news,” each scandalous or bizarre statement, each apparent faux pas or blunder is taken up as an object of expert commentary that accords it more weight and invests it with more meaning than it otherwise possesses. Rather than dismiss or disparage Trump’s tweets as the absurdities they are (or could be seen to be), the standard protocols of news production transform them into genuine political discourse—only to move on to the next item the next day.

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