Friday, December 16, 2016

Christopher Moltisanti And Our Political Media

A few weeks ago I tried to grapple with the election of President Game Show Host with cultural artifacts from the Clinton years and I think it sort of worked. So inspired by Trump's political theory of just-doing-the-same-crazy-shit-over-and-over-again-and-hoping-it-works (it did!) I'll give it another go. But this time I'm going to talk about The Sopranos.

I think it's pretty obvious that much of our political media's behavior during the 2016 election cycle was pretty terrible. Sure there were many brave voices against the madness of EMAILS! (as we called it on Twitter) but much of the political media, especially "mainstream" outlets like The New York Times, cable news, the networks, and The Washington Post, chose to focus almost obsessively about things like email servers. All the while largely eliding bigger questions like, "what are the major differences between these two candidates' plans for the country?"

Matt Yglesias summed it up recently in an article aptly entitled "Fake news is a convenient scapegoat, but the big 2016 problem was the real news" where he points out that:
This coverage [of emails], though extremely extensive, did an extraordinarily poor job of explaining the actual legal issue at stake in the server matter. Network television newscasts from ABC, NBC, and CBS chose to devote three times as much airtime to Clinton’s email server as they gave to all policy issues combined. The Associated Press ran a major investigative story into Clinton Foundation influence peddling that treated a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as evidence of an insidious pay-to-play scheme. The New York Times did a Clinton Foundation investigation that treated Bill Clinton successfully rescuing American hostages from North Korea as scandalous. The fact that public health experts believe the Clinton Foundation saved millions of lives, by contrast, played extremely little role in 2016 campaign coverage. 
Which means that:
The sum total of this media coverage — real stories based on editorial decisions about how to weight and present real facts — was to give the public the impression that two similarly ethically flawed candidates were running against each other in an election with low policy stakes. The reporters and editors responsible for that coverage can reasonably (if a bit absurdly) consider themselves proud of the work that led the public to that conclusion, or they can consider themselves ashamed of it. But the idea that voters were moved by fake stories about the pope rather than all-too-real ones about email servers is a preposterous evasion. 
When many journalists are confronted with this complaint, they tend to just abruptly change the subject. Generally to why Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, or something about Bill. As in most things linking pathological Clinton hatred, destructive "leftier than thou" politics, and bad journalism Glenn Greenwald is the Platonic Archetype here, but other people like Andrew Sullivan have fired off some similar takes.

You can also see this going on 24/7 on Twitter as well.

The reality is that this sort of topic switching just simply won't do. Scott Lemieux put it this way when riffing off a similar column by Paul Krugman:
The effect of yadda-yaddaying the media’s malpractice, Wikileaks, and a rogue FBI is both to normalize Trump and to make Trumps more likely in the future. That Clinton’s campaign, like all campaigns, made mistakes is worthy of discussion but is also entirely immaterial to this question. 
For some reason Scott's point really reminded me a classic scene from The Sopranos. I'm not a huge fan of the show for a variety of reasons, but I will acknowledge that it certainly belongs in any list of "Great TV Shows" and I think it's really helpful here.

The scene in question is the one depicting Christopher "Chris" Moltisanti's intervention. Chris is an up and coming younger mobster with some profound substance abuse problems and (I assume) narcissistic personality disorder, who is also the protege (to the degree that they have those in the Mafia) of Tony Soprano played by the late great James Gandolfini.

It's a great scene that really shows The Sopranos at it's best. From mixing humor with very serious subjects to highlighting the themes of some of the shows best characters. From the fundamental tragedy of Adriana's life, to Carmela's willful blindness to the truth that's all around her, to Tony's almost desperate need for control, to the fact that Paulie Walnuts really is crazy and really believes in the whole "Cosa Nostra Code" bullshit, this scene has it all.

Chris responds to being confronted about his raging addictions by changing the subject and pointing out everyone else's problems. Silvio is a misogynistic womanizer! Tony is fat! Fuck you too mom! Then the Mafia guys beat him up. Good stuff.

So why does this scene remind me of so much of the aftermath of the political media's coverage of the 2016 election? Well it's not just because of the tactic of responding to your own crisis with rampant topic switching and going on the offensive against people who are pointing out inconvenient truths about you, although those parallels are pretty obvious. But also because of the great insight the scene provides into Chris' own psychology.

Chris is a vicious, murdering little shit, but he's pretty smart. Probably the smartest of all of Tony's henchmen, which is a big reason why Tony tries so hard to groom him for leadership despite his massive other failings. As I see it Chris is smart enough to have figured out how bad he really did screw up by going into the Mafia lifestyle and in no small part uses booze and drugs as away to try and escape this hard reality. Just consider his position. Sure he's in a crime family and has the boss's ear, but that really just means that he's chosen a career where there isn't any way to get out, other than cooperating with the government, going to prison, or dying (probably in a really horrible way). Meanwhile his "family" is filled with stone killers almost as narcissistic as him who he can never really trust. Meanwhile the organization he's chosen to dedicate his life to serving is getting weaker and more dysfunctional day by day. Meaning that even if he is able to succeed Tony, which is a big if, he'll end up being the boss of a dying organization with no way out.

Thus why Chris gets so angry, and begins attacking anyone who points out the obvious. He screwed up big time, he's stuck with it, and the top person to blame is himself.

Which strikes me as being similar to the thought process of a lot of people contemplating what "covering" the era of Trump is going to be like in DC. Like Chris the political media "won", in this case by finally driving the Clintons from the stage after an epic 25 year death struggle. But that's been rewarded with something much worse than Hillary's dissembling or legalizing which so many journalists found so annoying for so many years. Instead they've gotten Trump whose already claimed his first scalp of members of their profession.

Meanwhile nothing his administration says can be trusted because they lie all the time. No source is worth developing because they might turn on you at any time. And there's no way to write about him without pissing off huge sections of the country.

The political media screwed up big time, and they're stuck with it, and one of the biggest actors to blame is themselves.

When us angry liberals shout like Tony that, "We're here to talk about you screwing up the country by how you chose to cover this election, not Hillary Clinton's fucking personality!" it seems to me that far to many political journalists act like Chris and come back with really witty answers. She's terrible! Not enough events in Michigan! Neera Tanden should never email! And fuck you too liberal subscribers!

The problem of course is we're all about to suffer the beat down for the next four (or maybe more) years. I wish that more people could come to grips with this, or at least acknowledge the validity of our complaints. But some people aren't very good at self improvement, instead they decide to just kill their friends for no good reason.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

What the Downfall of World Championship Wrestling Says About Trump.

The attempts to explain what Donald Trump being elected president of the United States of America remains one of the big themes of what I've been reading about lately. Theories of course abound, so much so that it's hard to keep track of them. If you want a refresher check out David Robert's great piece at Vox for a great rundown of the most popular ones, as well as some valuable insights of his own as well.

Which one's are right and which ones are wrong? I honestly really just don't know, although I have a few pet favorites. But while we're trying to sort things out please let me outline an idea that's been kicking around my head about Trump's shocking success. And to do it I'm going to have to talk about the rise and fall of World Championship Wrestling.

First a brief history. The thing we now know as professional wrestling was invented largely as a carnival attraction back in the 19th and early 20th century. After World War Two it gradually rose in prominence as a wealthier society with more free time and increasing access to television looked for new hobbies. By the 70's it was something of a cottage industry controlled by regional promoters who agreed informally not to directly compete with or poach each others talent.

This all changed in the 80's when a guy named Vince McMahon owner of the New York area World Wrestling Federation (or WWF, later to become World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) through a combination of media savvy, ruthless business tactics, and luck was able to eliminate most of his competition.

Except for a few hold outs, including one southern promotion named Jim Crockett Promotions which having over extended itself trying to compete with the WWF was bought out by yet another egotistical rich dude with things to prove named Ted Turner. He renamed the company World Championship Wrestling (or WCW) and decided to take on the WWF head to head.

(I know this all sounds very boring but I am going somewhere with it I promise.)

The upshot of all this was that the world of professional wrestling in the 90's was dominated by two rival companies, backed by two egotistical gazillionaires, with powerful TV networks in tow, wanting nothing more than to trample their enemy into the dust. There was a phrase for it, The Monday Night Wars, named after the two companies' flagship Monday night cable shows.

The story of the Monday Night Wars is a long an epic saga, Wikipedia summed it up pretty well:
In the mid-1990s, WCW dramatically improved its economic performance, largely due to the promotion of Eric Bischoff to Executive Producer (to guide the overall direction of the on-screen product); the strategy of hiring former WWF main eventers; the introduction of the Monday Nitro series on cable TV, and the resultant Monday Night Wars with the WWF's Monday Night Raw; the successful creative and marketing execution of the New World Order (nWo) brand/stable of wrestlers; and other innovative concepts...
...WCW eclipsed the WWF in popularity throughout the United States for much of the latter-1990s. However, numerous financial and creative missteps led to the company losing its lead over the WWF.
At the core of these "creative missteps" was a man named Vince Russo who by the late 90's had been put in charge of "booking" (deciding who wins and loses matches and how) and writing creative story lines for the whole company. Russo was obsessed with a theory of television he called "Crash TV." That is the key to keeping wrestling fans, or anyone watching really, was to just do more of everything, because more is more is more is more is more. (Russo's many critics inside the weird world of wrestling fandom have long said he based most of his "theories" of television entertainment on The Jerry Springer Show.)

Wikipedia sums the results up well:
"...only at an accelerated pace, including edgier storylines, more lengthy non-wrestling segments, constant heel [bad guy]/face[good guy] turns [changes in character], an increased amount of sexuality on the show, fake retirements, more backstage vignettes, expanded storyline depth..."
This strategy of hyper stimulating the audience can work for a time, not unlike how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire came to dominate television in 1999 and 2000. But pretty quickly the audience will start demanding ever more and if you can't provide it you're finished.

That's basically what happened to WCW which began losing tens of millions of dollars, lost it's TV deals, and was bought up by WWF for a pittance in 2001 after Ted Turner himself got tired of bankrolling the whole thing.

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, Trump's no stranger to professional wrestling, in fact he was featured in a major story line in 2007 where his chosen wrestler beat Vince McMahon's champion in "The Battle of the Billionaires", allowing Donald to both win owners of the WWE's RAW show and get to shave Vince's head.

This might seem totally idiotic and irrelevant to you (and it sort of is) but I still think there's something to be learned here. In many ways Trump has been running a political version of "Crash TV" which has allowed him to beat 18 other rivals for the GOP nomination and win a close election in which the Republican nominee was slight favorite. In no small way it's turned him into the WCW of the political world: whatever anyone actually thinks about it, it can only be expressed by talking about him. "What Trump Doesn't Tell Us About American Politics" is a story nobody is writing. Indeed his inauguration will probably be a bit like a nWo promo from WCW's heyday: even if you think it's stupid you agree its a bit fascinating to watch, at least once.

WCW of course didn't last forever. Russo's constant attempts to escalate his
"Crash TV" style of programming led very weird things like B movie actor David Arquette being crowned World Champion among other poorly thought out stunts. It didn't take long until the company was bankrupt.

Trump has been following a WCW "Crash TV" style of politics for a long time now. He's dominated the conversation stem to stern whether you are talking about grabbing women by the their genitals, or chants of "lock her up", or threatening to "spill the beans" about Ted Cruz's wife. Indeed this weekend's news has been heavily dominated by Trump flying to Indiana to save 2,000 (actually 850) jobs from being sent to Mexico and radically altering American foreign policy by arranging for a call with the president of Taiwan.

Does trying to bully every single factory in America one by one make sense? Does changing a decades long American policy towards China  via a phone call you didn't bother to run past the State Department make sense either? Who cares! It's  political "Crash TV", the point is to grab the spotlight. And since most political journalists don't really cover policy issues at all anymore you're unlikely to get push back.

Trump's strategy obviously paid of for him electorally. Political scientist Matt Dickinson did a great job of explaining how Trump used the "Crash TV" style of politics to his advantage during the GOP primaries. Read his whole piece but it could be summed as pointing out the media covered Trump overwhelmingly from the beginning and in a very positive light that focused on that he was "winning". Since most voters (even in primaries) don't follow what's going on very much, really good press about how your wining can carry you to 40% of the vote which makes you win under the GOP's byzantine delegate allocation system.

Dickinson (and I) thought at the time that this strategy wouldn't work in the general election. But then again the cycle favored the GOP nominee, add in a political press that in many ways doesn't care about issues other than email servers and if you're Trump you're on your way...

One of the reasons I got this election so wrong is that I assumed there was some sort of inflection point that would make Trump's media strategy run out of gas. I kept thinking that losing some states, or narrowing the field, or GOP rival deciding to go after him could be that inflection point during the primaries. But even after he won the primaries "fun is fun, but now this is serious" was the line that seemed to sum up my thinking through out the summer and fall. Surely his corruption and double-talk would sink him. Surely boasting about sexually assaulting women on tape would sink him. Surely Hillary whipping his ass in no less three debates would count for something.

But no. Like "Crash TV" each outrage and failure seemed to make him stronger. Like terrible booking and creative decision that are rewarded with more viewership.

I still think that inflection point is out there. I still think most white people will stop thinking he's funny and cool once the economy goes into recession or President Game Show Host blunders us into a shooting war with China for no good reason. But I could be wrong.

World Championship Wrestling's business model worked for a while, but not forever. My fear is that we the American people will have to pick up the tab once all the fun and games are over. Ted Turner seems to have washed his hands of this whole business a long time ago.