The media coverage of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign has had a one-thing-after-another feel. A flood of bigotry, misogyny, Islamophobia, and a discussion, albeit in coded langauge, about the size of the would-be presidential ding-a-ling; more recent, revelations regarding Trump’s tax situation and his bragging about putting the moves on women.
The experience of taking it all in has been dizzying, like being stuck on an islet, watching a twister blow around and around the land for months on end. We have seen the result: noise and murky water.
However, from the pattern of the sediment that has settled, quietly, on the shore, I discern a plan for something more sinister than a rash of chauvinism and boorishness. There are strong signs that if Trump wins, he will establish state-run medium – in other words, an administration-run propaganda organ.
This is not far-fetched, so don't touch that dial.
For starters, in May, Vanity Fair reported that Trump may consider starting a cable outlet. The magazine quoted an anonymous source close to the campaign as saying that Trump’s thinking is
``(W)in or lose, we are onto something here. We’ve triggered a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.’’1
(The source does not answer the question of whether Trump would wait until his presidency is finished before setting up his cable network. It also does not say what kind of content it would broadcast. A Trump spokeswoman said the Trump circle has given ``not a thought’’ of going into media.)
If current trends continue, a Trump Administration outlet could come to pass.
· The administration of President George W. Bush provided fake news segments to TV outlets. Some of these were broadcast, with no disclaimer that they were the product of the administration.
· In early 2015, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, initiated ``Just IN,’’ which would have provided local news outlets with prepared stories, but scrapped the project after public outcry.
· Roger Ailes, the Fox News founder who works for Trump, proposed to President Nixon the idea of setting up a GOP TV channel. Nixon rejected the idea.
The fact that none of those enterprises took, at least not for long, may not discourage Trump from trying. It is less likely that negative public feedback would kill a Trump Administration media initiative. Trump is stubborn; he doesn’t like to be seen as a quitter.
Most people know that Trump hates what some call the``mainstream'' media. He claims that election coverage has been rigged against him. He has described reporters as ``the lowest form of life.’’
Further, his antipathy and his actions show that he will do business only with journalists who agree with him all the time. It follows that as president he would establish a media channel that would transmit only the information he wants the public to know.
Trump has hired Ailes, who had been fired from Fox News amidst charges of sexual harassment, to be a consultant to the campaign. The campaign hired as its CEO Stephen Bannon of Bretibart News, a right-wing Internet news site. Bannon and Ailes are aligned ideologically with Trump; they could provide him with with considerable business and technical expertise.
Ailes’ "A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News,’’ according to Gawker reporter John Cook, who broke the story five years ago, was ``a plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the `prejudices of network news’ and deliver `pro-administration’ stories to heartland television viewers.’’
The memo is not signed, but Cook, who examined hundreds of pages attributed to Ailes, said the copy that the Nixon Library provided to him ``literally has Ailes' handwriting all over it.’’
The memo states: ``Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.’’
In a piece that appeared August 17 in the conservative journal, The Weekly Standard, Stephen F. Hayes wrote that by taking on Bannon, Trump has chosen to live in Breitbart’s ``alternative reality.’’ Hayes writes: ``When Trump can't explain his own words, Breitbart faults the journalists who have asked the questions.’’
Armed with a state-run news outlet, Trump would not have to explain his words. Broadcast anchors or reporters would speak for him – no questions, please.
The platform would allow the administration to broadcast, with a straight face, assertions as staggering as Trump’s remark that Ted Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before Oswald was shot, or that African-Americans are living in the worst time of their history, ``ever, ever, ever.'' Skeptics would not be allowed airtime.
After a while, the members of an audience loyal to Trump media would start to see the world through a prism of deceptions and of propaganda. They would come to live in a reality alternative to those who got their information from other sources. And even though myriad other news outlets exist, a state-run channel could have a large, loyal following. Witness the adherence to Fox and Breitbart.
The idea of a media-generated alternative reality reminds me of ``1984,’’ George Orwell’s tale of a dystopia in which the only public information is generated by the government.
Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, wrestles with his work. Orwell writes:
Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ``If I wished,’’ O’Brien had said, ``I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’’ Winston worked it out. If he thinks he can float off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’’ Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind. ``It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.’’ He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ``real’’ world where ``real’’ things happened.
Winston Smith is tasked with planting in the public mind the slogan ``two plus two make five.’’
The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as `two plus two make five’… needed… a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.
Under those circumstances, it would become hard to think straight.
During the 1930s, ``2 + 2=5’’ was the slogan of the Five Year industrialization plan of the Soviet Union, headed by Josef Stalin. The idea was that the Soviets would achieve their goals in four years instead of five. From Eugene Lyons, an American journalist working in Moscow at the time:
``It seemed to me at once bold and preposterous. The daring and the paradox and the tragic absurdity of the Soviet scene… 2 + 2 = 5: in electric lights on Moscow housefronts, in foot-high letters on billboards, spelled planned error, hyperbole, perverse optimism. ’’3
A concept central to ``1984’’ is the Memory Hole, which the Ministry of Truth uses to destroy information the government no longer wants its citizens to have. Once placed in a Memory Hole, things that had happened or said no longer exist, and no one remembers them ever existing. Of course, the Memory Hole is a metaphor; today the world has YouTube and is loaded down with cell phones and security cameras. The disappearance of any piece of public information would impossible.
This is not to say that Trump hasn't tried. In March, he said Japan and South Korea should have nuclear-weapons arsenals to defend themselves against North Korea, China, Pakistan and Iran. In May, he denied making those remarks even though they had been recorded. And during the September 27 presidential debate, Trump denied ever saying that global warming was hoax perpetrated by China, even though he had posted the statement on Twitter in 2012.
If he could, Trump would immobilize reporters.
Seeking to limit coverage from press organizations that have run stories that Trump found disagreeable, he barred about a dozen of them access to himself and the inside of his campaign airplane. Those banned included BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. In early September, he lifted the ban.
Trump has also stated that he would revise libel law to make it easier for him to sue media organizations that disenchant him. ``We're going to open up libel laws and we're going to have people sue you like you've never got sued before,’’ he told a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.
Libel protection is intended to safeguard the reputations of private citizens so that they can continue to earn a living and, in general, stay in their neighbors’ good graces. News outlets may report ``provably true’’ damaging material about private persons without legal consequences. But libel protections do not apply to public figures; among these are politicians and eminent people in business. Trump is one of each.
Yet this month Trump threatened to sue The New York Times after the paper ran a story that quoted two women as saying that Trump had touched them inappropriately. Trump’s attorney said the timing of the article was politically motivated. The paper’s lawyer said the Times ``welcome(s) the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
A final signal that Trump sympathizes with state-owned media is his tacit support of those in Russia and North Korea. Both nations, by way of their media organs, have endorsed Trump. He has not disowned the endorsements.
In September, Trump granted an interview with RT America, which is owned by the Russian government. In it, he said American media will ``take a statement that you make which is perfect and they’ll cut it up and chop it up and shorten it or lengthen it or do something with it.”
This month, the Obama Administration confirmed that last year hackers who work for the Kremlin knocked France’s TV5Monde off the air.
How can we know that Russia would not, at Trump's request, do the same thing to a station in the United States?
Recall that Trump said Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear arsenals to defend themselves from North Korea. If North Korea is so bad, why has Trump not repudiated its endorsement?
Because the man finds it hard to think straight. Stay tuned.
1 Although Vanity Fair does not identify the speaker, I trust the editorial staff of the magazine to have vetted the source and found it credible.
2 Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1949.
3Lyons, Eugene. Assignment in Utopia. London: Harrap, 1938, in Tzouliadis, Tim. The Forsaken. New York: Penguin Press. 2008.