The Echo Chamber: How and Why the Media Stretches the Truth

11 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

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“Good morning, it’s Monday and I’m here…,”
“Hello friends, it’s Monday and I’m on the floor of the Republican National Convention.”

Momentarily rattled, I checked my watch to confirm that it was still just Sunday afternoon. It seemed to be a theme that would pop up again and again: changing the narrative for convenience, both out of choice and necessity.  Even when this convention was no longer brokered, the hype surrounding Cleveland was tremendous, from rebellious delegates to violence fueled by local open carry laws.  While there were stories in each, the narrative was far off what actually happened on the ground.  As a new member of the media covering the RNC, I spent the entirety of my trip dedicated to trying to understand the difference in perspectives between the political story the media presents each day compared to the truth of experiencing it firsthand.

At times, the media experts seem to be out of touch with the general populace, and my trip to the convention showed that the media is treated far differently than their readers and other followers of the campaign process.  With press credentials swinging from my neck, I had to reconcile the contradictory air of self-importance surrounding the media professionals while they were herded through a maze of security gates and in my case, tucked away in the top rafters with the foreign press.  Admittedly, it is better than the Trump rallies, where reporters are literally put in a cage and violently handled if they try to leave.  One man in my row was asked on the phone how his seat was, and he replied, “Good, but the air’s a little thin up here.”  The distance from the details let me observe several things the news cameras could not see; it also gave me an emotional distance from the story.

Members of the press whom I interacted with were overwhelmingly cynical and focused on status, in the form of what studio or publication they worked for. However, I think such attitudes are primarily a defense mechanism.  Journalists, not anchors on television, are frequently ridiculed as an elitist and hyperactive class and assaulted when they are not consistently accurate, even though they have the education and knowledge of the issues.  Such criticisms from the public fuel the reporting that voters and people are dumb and not well informed, as if lashing out at those that critique their work. With long hours and workarounds from the subjects they are trying to cover, a lot of the political coverage is gathered while under duress and abuse.

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Because I was on the rightmost side of the stage, I could not see the full screen or even the face of the speaker; however, I could see in plain view the rolling text of the Teleprompter.  Such a view gave me a different perspective and separated me from the subjects I was observing.  I was devoid of feelings as people and motivations were reduced to politicians reading off a fancy script.  The one person who did not use the teleprompter was the businessman Tom Barrack, who introduced Ivanka and Donald Trump.  Everyone else, while they may have seemed intense and straightforward on screen, seemed wooden and rehearsed in real life.  This juxtaposition gave me a cynical edge to the whole convention and its proceedings. Over time, I could see how reporters on the trail grow disdainful of politicians and the optics surrounding them very quickly.

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As the convention flowed under a tight ship steered by the RNC and the Trump campaign, the media began to take a lot of its cues from the actions of the delegates on the floor, who were under the watchful eye of those wanting a smooth sailing four days.  It started with the floor whips, men in suits and neon yellow and orange baseball caps scattered in an organized pattern on the floor.  These men worked directly for Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman.  Some reports state that they bullied NeverTrump delegates and shut down the roll call vote by targeting states that had enough signatures.  They also worked in tandem (you could see text messages sent out to everyone at once) and started cheers.  With the exceptions of a few spontaneous outbursts during Lt. General Michael Flynn’s speech, and for the non-major speakers like Ted Cruz and the Trump children, the “U-S-A,” and “Lock Her Up” chants were not organic. They were started by these whips and played only to boost the optics of the speakers.  Some news sites and delegates claim these whips knew about Cruz’s speech and intentionally spurred the booing.  One Cruz alternate delegate I spoke to referred to these enforcers as taking orders from George Soros, the liberal billionaire who is a constant target of right wing aggression, such as the rumor spread before the Michigan primary that Soros had donated to John Kasich’s campaign.

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Outside of the convention center, the media had a free run of the place, teeming with reporters who had limited access to the Quicken Loans Arena. Many roamed around with bulky cameras trying to get a shot of protests or people walking in and out of the security gates, desperate for sound bites and groveling for action. There were at least three news cameras in the face of anyone blatantly wearing a Texas flag shirt and cowboy hat or a minority displaying a “Make America Great Again” t-shirt.  To me, it seemed the worst part of the spectacle, as the sky-high expectations of violence and riots were disappointed by reality.  However, the lack of action on the ground did not stop the news cycle from trying to stir up trouble, using buzzwords like “chaos” and asking leading questions on a story about poisoned stickers.  On the first day, I could hear a bullhorn in the distance and saw a mass of people moving.  The police tensed up a bit, but I noticed something odd about the first wave of protestors.  They were sort of stumbling along, and as I saw them looking down at their high tech cameras, I realized that they were mostly members of the press.  In fact, while there were only a couple dozen actual protesters present to air their problems with the RNC, they were flanked on all sides by media, making the protests seem much larger.

The media has a lot to reflect on after this cycle.  A Harvard study showed that Trump’s rise owes a lot to free and positive media coverage, playing a far more important role than leadership endorsements.  While the press loved to see itself as the reason Trump became the nominee and yet simultaneously profess apologies for this being entirely their fault, such duality follows the same flaunting and self-deprecating nature that the media culture fosters. In an era enhanced by instantaneous gratification, the desperate search for ratings with outrageous stories and conflict has spurred the public’s distrust for media. Wendy Day, Cruz’s campaign director in Michigan, told me that Fox News and the Drudge Report, right-wing news sources  she used to follow, have lost her as a viewer and reader because they had been “in the tank” for Trump completely.  That followed with a “media blackout” after Cruz won five states in early April following the Wisconsin primary; all that the media covered that week was Trump in New York.  Even Cruz railed the media, saying that it portrayed him as a “theocrat” and that right wing news sources and the bigger general cable and old media must reevaluate its role in politics.

With such a prominent influence in controlling the narrative, especially in this election cycle when compared to historical indicators like party elite endorsements, media coverage and favorability biases must be reexamined. Most of the time, however, the onus falls on the reader.  We must remember that while the members of the media strive to bring us factual and up-to-date news, they face occupational stresses such as the need for ratings and uncooperative subjects. Beyond the somewhat hyperbolic coverage in the media, neither the world nor our politics are as scary or as chaotic as it may first appear.

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By: Noah Rudnick

(Image Courtesy: Noah Rudnick at the RNC)