Almost 60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a new force that fed off and profited from Cold War paranoia: the military-industrial complex.
Over the past couple of years, with Russia reappearing on the airwaves, a new corporate sector profiting from induced anxiety poses just as big a threat: Let’s call it the political-infotainment-media complex.
On March 22, Robert Mueller delivered his sealed report on the narrowly defined charge of “collusion” to Attorney General William Barr. After 22 months of hype – a period in which it was the most covered story in America – “Russiagate” seemed to end with a whimper. Neither reporters nor the public have read the Mueller report, but that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation over what’s in the report, who “lost” and who “won.”
None of this analysis, however, explores the larger structural problems in today’s media environment. Why was this story covered to the extent it was? What does it say about the incentive model in place for corporate media outlets?
As a media scholar trying to understand today’s rapidly changing media landscape, I view the Mueller investigation coverage as a direct symptom of a political-infotainment-media complex that has blurred the lines between tabloid soap operas and respectable journalism.
Infotainment is the hook
To understand what happened with coverage of the Mueller investigation – and is already happening again in its second act – it’s important to understand the incentives of media networks, old and new.
In his seminal work “Television: Technology and Cultural Form,” media critic Raymond Williams explained how, in the early days of television, people would often tune in for a single program and then turn off the TV.
But television networks soon figured out they could maximize advertising revenue if people watched all of a network’s shows, one after the other. TV producers, using commercials and promotions for other shows as a connective glue, strove to create a “flow” from one show to the next.
This cultivation technique is still on full display – we see it when cable news hosts pass the baton from one show to the next.
But there is also something new going on. Stories like the Mueller investigation transcend individual networks and play out across all outlets, with each adapting the storyline for its particular audience. Sustaining itself beyond a particular news cycle, the investigation has played out like one epic television series – a perfect example of how the political infotainment sector profits from serial stories with long narrative arcs, cliff hangers and periodic revelations.
The more convoluted the story, the more audiences are drawn to preferred networks to confirm their biases. The more outlets tease the “bombshell,” the more it feeds interest.
Speculation pays off
For much of the past century, journalism was grounded in restrained realism, with dispassionate objectivity tied to professional norms.
But many of today’s mainstream media outlets follow something like the profit-minded business model of the original purveyor of “fake news,” William Randolph Hearst. Hearst sought to “fournish” a war that he could serialize and monetize, and he famously goaded the American public into war against Spain with disinformation dressed up as news.
“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” Hearst once advised. “Your readers might like it.”
Today’s media business model doesn’t reward patience and scrupulous fact-checking. To do so is to risk missing out on clicks, eyeballs and ad revenue.
Furthermore, today’s outlets can easily profit from misinformation and speculation.
Each mistake – say, a front-page story about how the Russians hacked America’s electrical grid – might require a retraction or an apology. But during its lifespan, that same mistake can boost profits, ratings and advertising revenue.
Once speculating about news is no longer seen as a problem and becomes a normal part of production, a whole new line of infotainment becomes available.
The Mueller investigation, which featured a tight-lipped investigator, created an enormous vacuum for speculation – for hundreds of round tables and panels featuring lawyers, politicians, political consultants and intelligence officers to theorize over the next twist, the latest clues and possible outcomes. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the story involved espionage, sex, celebrity, corruption and betrayal.
Trolling for dollars
With every subpoena, indictment or denial related to Trump’s connection to Russia, the dollars rolled in.
In the first year of Russiagate, total profits from cable news’ big three – Fox News, MSNBC and CNN – increased by 13 percent.
In 2018, during peak Mueller investigation coverage, MSNBC’s ratings rose by 10 percent during prime-time hours. “The Rachel Maddow Show” rode the serial story to the top ranking among the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic. During one six-week period in July and August 2017, Maddow covered the story more than all other news topics combined.
For 22 months, networks like CNN and MSNBC sold hope that a white knight would save the country from a corrupt villain, and that the looming event Twitter users dubbed “#MuellerTime” would lead to catharsis and relief. Ratings soared, so the network had no incentive to change its tune.
Hundreds of subsidiary media outlets emerged to meet the emotional needs of like-minded consumers with new content and repurposed bites that circulated through social media. Views and clicks increased. It didn’t matter whether media producers were agreeing with or inveighing against the Mueller-will-save-us storyline. The incentives guaranteed serial repetition.
Meanwhile, #Resistance Twitter stars like Seth Abramson fed followers open-sourced reports and pulled together various strands to create coherent narratives that he eventually spun into gold with his best-selling book “Proof of Conspiracy.” Fans waited with baited breath for Abramson’s lengthy threads and responded with popcorn-eating gifs as they ate up his analysis in real time.
Across the spectacular chasm dividing American politics, Fox News has also profited from Russiagate by pushing an epic defense narrative. Beginning each day with “Fox and Friends,” which Trump often live-tweets to his 59.5 million followers, the network has stoked audience rage with disinformation about villainous “deranged” Democrats besieging their celebrity savior to try to reverse the results of the 2016 election.
A pro-Trump audience has made Sean Hannity’s nightly show number one in overall viewership across cable news networks. These intensely loyal viewers managed their hopes and fears by scouring the internet to confirm Fox’s narrative, joining like-minded media fans to rage against the investigation using hashtags like #WitchHunt or #RussiaHoax.
Striking digital gold
Media scholars are only beginning to come to term with the significance of this new mode of passionate engagement with politics through social media.
One thing is clear: Pro-Trump and pro-Mueller audiences have been a gold mine for social media outlets like Twitter.
In 2017, market analysis revealed that roughly one-fifth of Twitter’s value was generated by Trump-related traffic. “Russiagate” made Trump’s Twitter finger particularly itchy – he has tweeted the words “Witch Hunt” 185 times, “Mueller” 96 times and “collusion” 185 times.
The increased engagement pushed profits from its digital licensing division to $108 million as the company sold data-driven predictions of users’ future behavior to would-be advertisers and political campaigns.
Perhaps the instant gratification and additional revenue stream of social media has pushed more traditional cable news outlets and newspapers into frothier, melodramatic territory to maximize their market potential.
But the political infotainment media complex doesn’t see speculation and melodrama as a journalistic problem that needs to be fixed; it’s a business model that’s becoming ingrained.
Until there can be a public model for producing slower, less sensational and more careful journalism – one that aims to separate truth from speculation and is inoculated from the quick lure of scooping-for-profit – Americans will be vulnerable to its unwarranted influence over political life.
For when the political-infotainment-media complex latches on to a serial story that feeds its profit centers, the stories that need to be covered for our democracy to properly function get left on the cutting room floor.
No matter what surprises or twists next season delivers, we’ll continue to miss the bigger picture.