American corporate news culture is so boringly predictable that it never ceases to amaze me. To run the same repetitive schtick day in, day out, all year, is a testament to the industry’s limitless capacity for inanity. The financial pay off is obviously worth it though, and they do their jobs remarkably well. Over the years, the news media in America has cynically trained viewers to suppress independent thought and their own innate intelligence and simply tune in to hear news that validates their own prejudices and keeps them watching. Granted, there are distinctions between networks, some are far, far worse than others, and there are gems like Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon who take their roles as journalists seriously. But the aim is generally the same — and it isn’t to inform the public.
In order to sell viewers Coca Cola and garden fertilizer during the ad breaks, the news media has perfected a formula that consists of treating politics like a giant sporting event — the Reds vs the Blues, the Republicans vs the Democrats, Hillary vs Bernie, Hillary vs Donald, etc etc, and covering it as such. Forget policy, forget facts and forget morality. The news cares about who is up and who is down, who gave a great speech and performed “like a president”, and who had chapstick on his mouth etc, etc. If you like the Blues, there are outlets that conform to your own political leanings. If you like the Reds, then there’s a whole echo-chamber of sycophantic outlets that will tell you exactly what you want to hear. This destructive system has existed in America for decades now, and it is getting worse by the day.
One of the people who learned early on how to game this repulsive swamp of competing soundbites and catchphrases is Frank Luntz, a pollster who figured out that grown Americans reacted like children if you fed them the right words. You could sell them whatever horseshit you wanted via the media as long as you used the right branding and terminology. Luntz made millions teaching Republicans how to pollute the environment without political cost by getting them to call destructive lumber policies things like the “Healthy Forests Initiative”, or allowing polluters to pump whatever they wanted into the atmosphere by calling it “Clear Skies Act”. Not exactly a track record to be proud of, but everyone has to make a living, I guess.
Luntz isn’t so much immoral as he is amoral — he is a hired gun who uses his considerable talents to make as much money as he possibly can. You can always count on him to give an honest, professional opinion, but only as it pertains to the optics of a particular event, not the morality of it. So when Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address last night, Luntz wasn’t analyzing it in context — he was analyzing it from the perspective of a branding consultant. I didn’t watch the address for the very obvious reason that we already know what the state of the union is under Trump. A speech written by someone else designed to shore up support from anyone idiotic enough to want to give him a chance is of no interest to me whatsoever. Here was Luntz though, conforming to the very worst corporate news media stereotype imaginable:
Tonight, I owe Donald Trump an apology. Tonight, I was moved and inspired. Tonight, I have hope and faith in America again.
It may go away tomorrow…
But tonight, America is great again. #SOTU
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) January 31, 2018
It was entirely predictable that those who make their living reporting on the never ending horse race of politics would say something as blatantly sycophantic and stupid as this — it is after all in their interest to make the horse race more interesting for those who tune in every day to watch it. Donald Trump gave a great speech! Today he became President of the United States! Forget all the other horrendous shit he did and marvel at his ability to read someone else’s words off a teleprompter. Pass me the sick bucket.
Luntz is correctly catching an inordinate amount of heat on Twitter for his shudderingly awful reaction to Trump’s speech, yet he seems unable to comprehend why:
The people who praise me for my “smart, objective analysis of Trump” when I criticize him are suddenly offended that I gave credit to him for a well-executed speech.#SOTU
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) January 31, 2018
Luntz did a little more than give “credit to him for a well-executed speech,” he actively gushed over the president stating he was “moved and inspired”, and believed that because of his one “well executed speech,” “America is great again.”
No, Frank. You don’t get away with this — not this time. Trump cannot Make America Great Again because he read something off a fucking teleprompter. He cannot restore faith in the country’s greatness after ripping it apart hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. It doesn’t work that way, and Luntz should have the decency to shut up for once and sit this one out. Luntz did not necessarily create the toxic media culture responsible for the rise of Donald Trump, but he has made it infinitely worse. He has profited off of America’s ignorance for decades by manipulating the media, and now is the time for him to reflect upon his contribution to the almighty mess we now find ourselves in.
I sense Luntz is dimly aware of this and has in some ways tried to make amends for his insidious effect on the news industry. He is often critical of Trump, but last night he fucked up badly, and he must own it.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.