All the world's a stage- and its politicians players

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SCENE. U.S. Department of Justice

Reporters frantically flip through the pages of a report. TV crews focus their cameras. Enter Rod Rosenstein.

Rod: To indict, or not to indict? That is the question.

PAUSE!

At what point did we start watching government press conferences like Broadway productions of Hamlet? Why did we all flip to C-SPAN on a warm summer day last month to follow live an announcement by the Deputy Attorney General? Surely, our politics has not become so histrionic that we could actually be excited about a couple indictments?

Or maybe it has.

Think about it. Nowadays, elected officials recite well-practiced soliloquies during public hearings (their remarks sometimes eliciting comedic responses from other characters). Some television hosts begin their programs with an “opening monologue,” while other primetime shows are structured around a familiar cast whose beliefs are well-known to the audience. Debates between candidates are attended by hundreds of spectators and, like every good pantomime, often feature members of the audience. Politics, in its present form, is more Shakespeare than Socrates.

With regards to media, the slow theatricalization of our government through mass communications can be traced back to the mid-20th century, when it was television, not radio (which would not find its niche until the 1980s) that pioneered opinionated news coverage. Edward R. Murrow was the first of many to provide direct commentary on our government and society through television news. His famous show See It Now often addressed controversial topics like the Korean War and the emerging Civil Rights movement. In fact, Murrow's most famous broadcast in 1954 is credited with taking down Joseph McCarthy.

Sixty-four years later, the landscape has widened and the presentation has evolved. We look to the forceful voices of Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow for guidance through the day’s headlines. We cringe and laugh at the antics of hosts and guests on shows like The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher. We nauseate ourselves by hate watching anchors on partisan networks and pontificate our disgust with their views on social media.

The result?

“The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” said Jeff Zucker to the New York Times Magazine on the subject of CNN’s coverage of the Trump presidential campaign. Jonathan Mahler wrote in 2017, “CNN’s Last-Supper-size panels have become a hallmark of its political coverage. Many of the network’s most memorable moments during the campaign were protracted emotional face-offs among paid partisans...As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN’s daytime talk shows like ‘First Take,’ which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day.”

But don’t be fooled: the transformation of news coverage into theatrics has extended to almost every corner of media. Fox News’ anchors regularly launch attacks at other mainstream outlets and hold them “accountable” for their coverage of the President. Late-night television hosts have joined in the fray, some profiting off of Twitter-wars with their cable-news counterparts and turning political chatter into satire. During the Spicer-era, one GOP strategist remarked that Americans watched the White House press briefings for  “the same reason that people watch YouTube videos of car crashes”, like a horrifying form of entertainment.

Politicians have certainly leveraged the opportunity provided by the hot-take environment of mass media to increase their popularity. Look no further than the Democratic Party, who has actually created a competition amongst its legislators to reward those with the savviest social media. Representative Ted Lieu (CA-33), whose Twitter following increased 50-fold in 2017 alone due to his outspoken criticism of the president, won the competition’s “Most Viral Post Award” that year. Can you guess what tweet earned him the honor?

Yes, politics in America has always been a nasty affair- surrogates of Thomas Jefferson once said John Adams was of “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” to which Adam’s own men responded by labeling the 3rd president “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Maybe a tad too extreme.

But what complicates the usual squabbling on Capitol Hill in 2018 is the increasingly toxic relationship between politicians and the media. On social media, it pays to be partisan, according to a Pew study last year that found a positive correlation between Congress Members’ partisan lean and their Facebook following:

 

 

Much of this correlation, in my view, is influenced by the tendency of politicians to promote news that aligns closest with their constituents’ ideology. From another 2017 Pew study: “Between January 2015 and July 2017, nearly half (48%) of the links to national news outlets that members of Congress shared on Facebook were to outlets predominantly linked to by members of just one party...What’s more, 5% of these news links pointed to outlets that were exclusively linked to by members of one political party.”

To complicate matters further, Trump’s tweeting has made it painfully obvious that the president swears by the opinions of his greatest allies in the media. A paper written for the Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications found, “Trump praised news outlets that offered more favorable coverage of his administration... He retweeted Fox and Friends, a conservative morning talk show, 45 times...Trump retweeted Fox News nine times, the Drudge Report seven times...He retweeted family members and Fox News programs/anchors more than all other users combined. Of the 135 total retweets, 66 came from Fox-related accounts, eight came from Trump family members, and 61 came from all other accounts.”

The president’s promotion of conservative opinion as fact is especially dangerous in today’s polarized, tribe-based political environment. According to Gallup, in 2017, 12% more Americans expressed having no trust in the Executive Branch than those that did in the twilight months of the Nixon administration. 9% more Americans, however, expressed having a “great deal” of confidence when compared to 1974.

In other words, the president’s detractors are more distrustful of him than Nixon’s opponents were just before he resigned; his supporters, quite the opposite. Or, more simply, one group of people have grown extremely distrustful of the president’s words, while another has become fiercely loyal. This dangerous dichotomy is further amplified by the relationship between the White House and Fox News that allows both organizations to coordinate their messaging and create a unified narrative (which Matthew Gertz has spectacularly analyzed here).

The mounting evidence of an increasingly pernicious relationship between politicians and the media is cause for alarm, and we, the American public, must examine how complicit we are in the continuing entanglement of our government and our free press, lest they both die wrapped around one another like Baucis and Philemon.

Yes, the forces of technology and re-shaping of the media environment often fall out of our control, and even the most trusted pillar of media, local news, is falling victim to Orwellian-esque partisanship. Furthermore, ideologically-slanted shows like “Fox & Friends” cater to the most satisfying elements of our psychology, which makes it difficult to change the channel.

But we can still seek out news sources that focus solely on reporting and fact-checking (as one of our contributors explains here). It also pays to turn off the cell-phone and unplug from social media, whereby we withhold our “retweets” and “likes” from Twitter hot-takes and instead focus on reading and supporting accurate journalism.

Most of all, we must internalize the distinction between fact and sloganeering. That’s not easy in 2018, but it is essential to the survival of our democracy.