The U.S. media landscape is about to get a lot weirder
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Hollywood Reporter published a profile of Stephen K. Bannon on Nov. 18 that set off a minor Internet shit storm. “Darkness is good,” Bannon, the chief strategist for president-elect Donald Trump told the world.
“Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
The quote from the ex-Breitbart chief caught everyone’s attention and, as of this writing, is still making the rounds in various blogs and news agencies.
For many on the left, Bannon is evil, but the quotes reveals that’s what he wants you to think. He knows that the press and the public can’t resist an avowed villain, so he gladly gives it to them. As he said, it gives him power.
For his detractors, this transforms a shrewd political operative into a boogeyman — a caricature to be feared and vanquished rather than as a person to be understood and fought as one. To those on the fence and Bannon’s supporters, the villainous narrative reinforces the idea that the media no longer has a handle on the truth.
Bannon is not Darth Vader, but he is a master of a new kind of media manipulation — one pioneered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, now Americanized by Trump, Bannon and Breitbart.
A more telling quote from Bannon comes at the very end of The Hollywood Reporter article — “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.”
The media outlets who picked up on this pointed out that Cromwell died a convicted traitor, his head spiked on London Bridge. That’s true, but it ignores the decades Cromwell wielded vast power and changed Britain forever.
In Russia, the media looks like the media of the West but operates differently. RT, formerly Russia Today, is the most visible example of this as the Kremlin’s network for foreign audiences. The famed news source is state funded, state directed and incredibly bizarre.
The Kremlin has a point of view and spreads it across the globe via RT. Here’s the thing though — the network doesn’t hide that it’s state controlled and funded. It is also ideologically flexible and a purveyor of conspiracy theories, which often contradict each other. “Every single day we’re lying and finder sexier ways to do it,” said Sara Firth, a former RT correspondent who resigned in 2014.
This is part of an elaborate system where the Kremlin has kept its opponents off balance by undermining truth. Vladislav Surkov, a personal adviser to Vladimir Putin, is the architect of this system. In various positions in Putin’s government over the past two decades, Surkov would fund human rights organizations then give money to skinheads and ask them to protest those same groups.
Surkov helped found the Nashi — an “anti-fascist” Russian youth movement that plagiarized Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. He’d write lyrics for anti-authoritarian rock bands. He’d give performance artists a place to perform then tip off ultra-orthodox militants about the horrors of the art he’d just endorsed, urging them to protest.
What makes this so pernicious, and turns it from trolling on a grand scale to something far more sinister, is that Surkov told everyone what he was doing.
Dissidents and loyalists, young and old, liberal and conservative all danced in Surkov’s elaborate web. Worse, they knew the Kremlin paid for all of it, and an atmosphere of tension and unease moved across Russia’s cities. When the people in power have a hand in everything — and cynically endorse all sides of every argument — the truth becomes impossible to know.
Stephen Bannon is Trump’s Vladislav Surkov.
“Just got a call from my friend Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford, who advised me that he will be keeping the Lincoln plant in Kentucky — no Mexico,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 17.
Several news outlets, conservative and otherwise, spread the news that Trump had saved American jobs by keeping a Ford Motor plant in the United States. The truth was more nuanced. Ford never planned to close the plant, but it did plan to move production of a Lincoln sport utility vehicle, the MKC.
Sometime on Nov. 17, Bill Ford and Trump had a conversation where Ford disclosed it wouldn’t move MKC production to Mexico. We don’t know if Ford changed its plans at Trump’s urging or if it simply came up in conversation.
But in any case, moving MKC production would not have changed the number of jobs at the factory, as it would have allowed Ford Motor to boost production of the better-selling Ford Escape. But the truth doesn’t matter.
“I worked hard with Bill Ford to keep the Lincoln plant in Kentucky. I owed it to the great State of Kentucky for their confidence in me!” Trump added in a follow up tweet, taking credit for the decision.
The media jumped on the story, fact checked Trump and claimed he had lied, or at the very least, spun the truth. People who dislike Trump agreed and spread the stories to their friends. People who like Trump said reporters were taking his statements out of context or lying themselves.
It’s a win for Trump — and Bannon — either way.
Because — what happened? Everyone is talking about Trump. His enemies have made him a villain and imbued him with power beyond his scope, or he’s a champion of the working man bringing CEOs to heel and dodging media libel. As Trump’s former mentor Roy Cohn taught him, negative publicity is still publicity.
Throughout all this, Breitbart News — Bannon’s former news outlet — will spout unabashed pro-Trump rhetoric. As it grows, it will become the American answer to RT but without the explicit state control.
According to existing White House ethics rules, Bannon can no longer interact with Breitbart News. To do so would be a conflict of interest — as it would mean Trump has control of a news agency through a surrogate.
Pundits on all sides fear that these ethics rules won’t stop Bannon from steering the news site from afar and turning it into a kind of Pravda for Trump. But this misses the point.
Bannon is smart, and he doesn’t need to run the site from the White House or the top floors of Trump Tower. His personality and philosophy shaped the site, and Breitbart no longer needs Bannon’s direct influence to be in the bag for the administration and its former boss.
“I am a gay Jew and Steve Bannon made me a star,” crowed one recent Breitbart headline. “Bannon vows economic nationalist movement from White House,” screamed another.
His spirit animates the site, and his will is writ large across its headlines.
We are at the beginning of something new — a kind of ruling system that exploits the technologies which utopians thought would free us. It’s a post-truth world, and victory belongs to those who understand that reality belongs to the person with the best stagecraft.
Bannon is playing a different game, one the old media doesn’t understand even as it plays into his hands. It cries in outrage about a truth people no longer believe in. He is Cromwell in the court of the Tudors and his reforms have just begun.