In the early 2000s, congruent with the rise of the Internet, I began to notice a similar phenomenon at either end of the political spectrum in America.
The phenomenon, even more pronounced today, involved an essential critique of “the mainstream media” for failing to cover stories appropriately.
Although today the debate has devolved into an argument over the factual details of many stories, in the early 2000s the argument centered mostly on the editorial choices being made — about what the mainstream media covered and what they didn’t, about the perspective or angle taken by the reporters, about the overall tone.
Both the right and the left were not satisfied with what they were hearing and reading and seeing because the mainstream media did not appear to transmit their point of view as they themselves wished it to be transmitted, which they apparently believed was their democratic right.
What was most curious, though, was the extent to which each side of the political spectrum seemed blind to the critique of the other side.
Indeed, an essential part of the critique often invoked a conspiracy to suppress their point of view — while conservatives railed against the “liberal media” that seemed to enthusiastically endorse all manner of counter-cultural activities, liberals criticized the media for being too capitalist, too protective of government and Wall Street and the defense industry.
One of them must be wrong, I remember thinking to myself. The media can’t be controlled simultaneously by liberal Hollywood Jews and “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” can it?
As with many analytical challenges, the answer to the puzzle turns out to hinge on how the question is asked.
When you ask the question differently — when you ask, if both sides have encountered the same phenomenon, then what is it? —today it becomes clear that both liberals and conservatives have been raging against the same elite network of centrist capitalists who hold a deep influence over the mainstream media.
It’s a network that attempts to protect power while simultaneously elevating spectacle and courting controversy.
It’s a network that recognizes there is value in permitting free speech and expression while tacitly acknowledging that money is the only speech that truly matters.
It’s a network that eroded slowly throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, faster during the 2000s, and has now approached the point of collapse.
What happens next?
Will Americans across the political spectrum continue to cheerlead the collapse of this elite conspiracy?
Or like the lyrics of the song “Cups,” will it turn out we’re going to miss them when they’re gone?
The Rise of the Gatekeepers
As chronicled extensively by researchers in the communications and media fields, there is — and has been throughout most of the 20th century — a conspiracy of news-masters who filter and moderate the content of mainstream news in a process known as gatekeeping.
In gatekeeping, the elite white men whose privilege allows them to move fluidly through the intersection of American big business, politics, and high society have been responsible for winnowing down the news and selecting from among themselves those elite few who are entitled to create and report it.
The idea was, and still is, to provide a cohesive narrative that tells the story of American public life — who are the American heroes, who are the enemies, and what are the boundaries of each domestic debate.
As I wrote about elsewhere, this “gatekeeper” phenomenon meant that while Americans were provided with a range of information and perspectives throughout much of the 20th century — and especially during the heyday of the Baby Boom in the 1950s and 1960s — this range was not exceedingly broad and it generally fit into overarching narratives about domestic issues and international events in a way that favored the elite.
The rise of the gatekeepers began with radio broadcasts at the turn of the century and continued throughout the early 20th century, when consolidation in the newspaper industry and improved distribution methods allowed big-city regional newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times to put local newspapers out of business and dominate the flow of information.
With the increasing adoption of television and its power to blanket the entire country with the same information simultaneously, a consolidated platform for the elite to tell their story in real time continued to advance even more powerfully.
Using coordinated techniques of framing and messaging developed in the crucible of World War II, the gatekeepers learned how to carefully select events that fit their desired narrative for America — i.e., the story of the American elite — and then elevate those stories to public prominence.
For example, throughout the Cold War the American news media framed the Soviet Union as our adversary, and American military interventions in Korea and Vietnam were described as necessary in order to stop communism from taking over the world. This generally helped support the capitalist policy of “containment” that was for decades pursued by American big business and supported by the U.S. government.
But in February 1968, TV anchorman Walter Cronkite ended a broadcast segment on the Vietnam War by admitting what many in the elite had been saying privately for months, if not years — that the war could not be won.
“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion,” Cronkite said during his sign-off.
The sense of betrayal among other elite gatekeepers who had been insisting that the war could be won had a long-lasting impact on both Cronkite’s reputation and the reputation of the mainstream media as a trusted vehicle for elite messaging.
Though it seems completely natural today for opinions to fly around fast and furious on a television news show, in those days it was verboten for an anchorman to damage the elite narrative with his personal perspective.
Hurtling Toward the Brink of Collapse
While many observers were shocked by Walter Cronkite’s 1968 “betrayal” of the elite narrative, it turned out to be only a little jolt compared to what came next.
Throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, the gatekeepers in the mainstream media suffered one crushing blow after another.
Although they successfully adapted to these attacks in many ways, fundamentally the gatekeepers faced a losing battle against technological advances that provided increasingly quick and easy ways for the public to access unfiltered information.
What’s important to remember here is that during most of the 20th century, Americans received the news very differently than they do today.
The news was delivered at specific times in specific ways — a morning newspaper, a radio broadcast at the noon hour, the television news at nine o’clock.
In almost all cases, and with slight variations, it was the same news for everyone.
The same sort of energetic white male voice on the radio.
The same sort of writing style and layout in the newspaper.
The same sort of white man sitting behind a desk delivering the news on television.
But this consistency started breaking down in the 1980s with the rise of talk radio and, in particular, the conservative Rush Limbaugh Show.
The Rush Limbaugh Show was a daily event, a daily alternative to the mainstream media.
Indeed, Limbaugh’s main criticisms were against the media itself — and he found plenty to criticize on a daily basis, reframing the stories of the day to fit his conservative viewpoint.
The idea that the news could be reframed was surprising, refreshing, and politically effective. Listeners rejected mainstream news outlets and flocked to Limbaugh because he provided an alternative narrative to that of the gatekeepers.
Then, in the 1990s, the invention of 24-hour cable news programming shattered the power of the gatekeepers even further.
When President George H.W. Bush ordered air strikes on Iraq and Kuwait in January 1991, CNN was already broadcasting live footage of Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries lighting up the night sky as American airplanes roared overhead.
Nobody wanted to wait until the morning newspaper arrived to find out what was happening.
And suddenly, just like that, the news was no longer something you read in the morning, listened to on your lunch break at noon, or watched on TV at a pre-set time at night. It was something that was always happening.
Politicians put TVs in their offices.
Businessmen put TVs in their boardrooms.
Nobody wanted to miss BREAKING NEWS that could affect them.
The elite gatekeepers who once enjoyed nearly complete control over the distribution of information across the United States had lost the ability to sit on stories while they coordinated among themselves.
And yet it was still merely a shadow of what was to come.
The Little Blue Bird That Almost Broke the System
YouTube. Facebook. Reddit. Twitter.
By the 2010s, a proliferation of alternative real-time news sources in the brand-new business of social media converged brutally with the relentless criticism of the mainstream media transmitted by icons like Rush Limbaugh on the right and Jon Stewart on the left.
The elite gatekeepers in the mainstream media staggered, close to financial collapse as their subscribers began to flee in droves and a new generation failed to mirror the habits of their elders.
Scrambling to keep up with the massive popularity of social media, the gatekeepers attempted to co-opt these powerful new platforms by beginning to source their material from social media.
While this provided reporters and editors almost unlimited access to free story ideas and content, it also meant that the gatekeeping function the mainstream media had always served — that of controlling and shaping the narrative — was effectively short-circuited.
Now, the buzz of the masses rather than the buzz of the elite shaped the news cycle.
Although President Obama took advantage of social media to further his Administration’s message, it was then-candidate Donald Trump and his enablers who saw a gaping vulnerability in the hollowed-out system. And they moved swiftly to exploit it.
If candidate Trump’s campaign was a three-ring circus of scandal and outrage, the fourth, fifth, and sixth rings of the circus began to appear, one after another, as soon as he became President of the United States.
His staff and his allies in the Republican Party leveraged the gravitas that came with controlling two out of three branches of government to shamelessly spread disinformation and scandal, and the gatekeepers in the mainstream media lacked the coordination and power to offer a viable counter-narrative.
Very serious, intelligent journalists were forced to analyze and discuss the President’s ridiculous statements and policy moves in the same objective, journalistic tone they’d used since the heyday of the gatekeepers in the 20th century.
The President’s Tweets were plopped down into online news articles by harried, underpaid writers and editors or splashed on the TV screen by frantic technicians who just had to “get something up there.” The fact-checking didn’t happen until later. And Trump’s statements were often left to stand uncontested, for who among the elite now dared to rile up the thumbs of the most powerful man in the world?
As the 2020 election approached, terrific convulsions of fear and outrage shook the American left with each revolution of the news cycle.
Even with all the scandals and his Administration’s criminally negligent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump still seemed to be in control.
If the liberal media conspiracy that supposedly existed hadn’t been able to stop Donald Trump from becoming President, if it had failed to take him down before he ran for re-election and received the blessing of the GOP at its annual convention, then who in the world could do it?
Return of the Gatekeepers
The late-October, early-November period of 2020 was the most anxiety-ridden span of days that many Americans have ever known.
Certainly for me it was comparable, if not greater, than the stress I felt in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Though much difficulty still lay ahead, the days leading up to the 2020 election and immediately afterward seemed fraught with peril.
The entire world waited for the results.
As one wry online blogger put it, future students of American history might find themselves specializing in single days— the events of October 31st, the events of November 3rd — in order to give our posterity a full accounting of what the Biden campaign called the “battle for the soul of the nation.”
Come election night and the close of polls across America, things were looking rocky for Biden and the Democrats.
But once the elite gatekeepers in the mainstream media were satisfied that Biden had won the electoral vote, something miraculous happened — the gatekeepers rose to accept their long-standing responsibility of providing Americans with a cohesive narrative about their nation despite the compelling (and false) counter-narrative being pumped out by the most powerful man in America and his loyalists.
There was a shift.
We all felt it.
After years of permitting the absurd statements of President Trump to stand uncontested, supposedly in the name of journalistic objectivity, the mainstream media began to exercise an overwhelming consensus judgement against the soon-to-be ex-President.
Suddenly, everything Trump said about the 2020 election was a “claim without evidence.”
Everywhere you heard it, read it, saw it.
Clinging to notions of widespread vote rigging that his own attorney general has disputed…
Trump recycles unsubstantiated voter fraud claims…
President Trump, without evidence, claimed the presidential election was corrupt and fraudulent…
And yet even though this consistent push-back from the mainstream media continued through November, December, and into early January, it still wasn’t good enough to discourage the would-be dictator who had spent the last four years attacking political, social, and legal norms.
Indeed, after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — a shameful episode in American history whereby President Trump tried to remain in power by violent force — the gatekeepers kicked their campaign to remove the outlaw President into overdrive, taking him off Twitter and refusing to broadcast his voice to the masses.
I was listening to Shepard Smith on CNBC on the afternoon of January 6, and was both surprised and elated to hear the former Fox News host actually instruct his studio staff in angry terms — live, on the air — to stop playing a pre-recorded message from President Trump because it attempted to frame the insurrection as a justified act based on his claims of voter fraud.
I remember thinking with relief: They got it. They finally fucking got it.
The gatekeepers, the centrist elite who had for so long stood at the intersection of American business, politics, and social life, had recognized the existential threat Donald Trump posed to our democracy and they were back in the game.
But for how long?
A New Hope
Today we can look at many of the most urgent culture-war topics — police violence against people of color, illegal immigration, climate change — and see all the anti-gatekeeping trends that began in the 1980s still in play.
Radicals on both sides of the political spectrum have seized on the failure of the gatekeepers, adopting talking points that flat-out deny the existence of evidence they would prefer to ignore and then kicking back while social media boosts these messages far and wide until they reach the mainstream.
On the rare occasion that extreme messages aren’t spread as fast or as far as their originators would like, they don’t try to rethink their messages but instead accuse the media of lacking objectivity. Why? Because the mainstream media has failed to regurgitate their talking points word for word.
My intent here is not to opine on whether the mainstream media should attempt to reassert its gatekeeping role over every national debate in the same way they shut down Trump and his loyalists after the 2020 election.
Rather, I want to point out the decisively different tone taken by the mainstream media toward Trump pre- and post-election and suggest that Trump’s failure as an American dictator could have only come about through a decisive intervention of the elite gatekeepers who so dominated our media throughout the 20th century.
Was this a last gasp of the gatekeepers, their final act of frame-building before being drowned in a social-media deluge of gossip, rumor, entertainment masquerading as news, and state-sponsored disinformation?
Will their influence continue to decline, leaving America even more vulnerable to another attack on its political system in the form of Donald Trump 2.0?
I hope not.
Although I know many will disagree with me, I would like to see a return of the elite gatekeepers in a more limited way.
I would like the elite conspiracy of political moderates who still control the mainstream media to learn their lesson from America’s lurch toward fascism and focus their future gatekeeping efforts on specific existential threats faced by our nation — climate change, foreign election interference — and frame these as nonpartisan challenges that require informed debate within certain boundaries of acceptable discourse.
I would like to see some version of that “claimed without evidence” moniker slapped onto the statements made by climate change deniers and Russian apologists.
I would like to see the gatekeepers provide an accurate, true accounting of American history between 2016 and 2021 — that in 2016 our country was attacked by a cyber-espionage operation ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin; that our country remained under attack for four years while President Trump occupied the White House; and that when President Trump lost his bid for re-election in 2020, he authorized a terrorist attack against the U.S. Congress in a desperate attempt to remain in power.
For many decades, the mainstream media as controlled by the elite gatekeepers has functioned adequately to protect America from external threats and guide our democratic experiment forward.
Without a healthy middle to moderate the national debate and allow competing political factions to strike nonviolent compromises, dissidents on both the left and right tend to start shooting wars.
This is what happened at Fort Sumpter in April 1861.
This is what almost happened in Washington, D.C., in January 2021.
And it could happen again — when and if the elite gatekeepers who moderate the national discourse become so weak that they are unable to convince a sufficient number of Americans that another civil war runs contrary to the national interest.