How to put out a fire? Don’t give it any air (time). Image by Szilárd Szabó from Pixabay

It’s time the news media and all of us on Twitter used the power of the silent treatment to take back civic speech.

[ . . .] There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A few months ago, I was reading and writing about the people throwing their hats into the ring for nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, and I happened upon Michael Tauberg’s analysis of news coverage of the candidates as of mid-April, 2019. The results of his analysis were useful, if not very surprising, with regard to which of the Democratic hopefuls were dominating news-cycles. What I found most striking, however, only because I hadn’t given it much thought before reading Tauberg’s article, was the fact that coverage of POTUS vastly outpaced coverage of anyone else who has declared for 2020.

Well, of course.

You would expect whoever occupied the office of POTUS to be in the news fairly often, right? Naturally. But when you examine that statement of the obvious from another angle, you might also realize that one of the factors that gives an incumbent the advantage in an election is the de facto free media exposure that comes with public office, particularly the most visible office of all. Name recognition is tremendously powerful in itself, as product-marketers have long understood. Personal “branding,” borrowing tactics from product advertising, is de rigueur advice for anyone who wishes to gain clients, customers, or an audience, from bloggers to lawyers. Everyone is being advised to develop personal brands via social media.

The current POTUS has clearly demonstrated that whatever he is not a genius of, he is a brainiac of using the media to advance his personal interests, not only, not even mostly the interests of the nation. He has also demonstrated that he does not care one iota whether his personal advancement comes at the expense of civil civic discourse, racial and social justice, feminism, income equality, or any of a host of other things that many of us continue to hold dear, right down to democracy itself. Furthermore, he relishes his power to command the news-cycle, giddily distracting and detracting from newsworthy developments that might threaten his hold on the pipeline from his bully pulpit to his and his family’s pockets.

Thus, regardless of who gains the Democratic presidential nomination after the primaries, the most formidable obstacle to a changing of the guard in the Oval Office and beyond is the ongoing, gleeful malevolence of POTUS as he is amplified through the megaphone of the media. Really, the better metaphor than “megaphone” at this point is to the PA system Orwell imagined in 1984, which broadcast government propaganda to screens everywhere (with the development of in-home digital voice assistants that “listen,” in addition to the array of trackers, from web-searches to GPS, we’re creepily closer than ever to Orwell’s vision). It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish among different types of content and to gauge the reliability of sources, particularly when the same soundbites and gifs and memes and retweeted tweets bombard us, echoed and amplified with little concern for accuracy, relevance, or repercussions.

I’ve been thinking about this, wishing that there were some way to decrease POTUS’ control over the media, and counting it pretty much a lost cause, because now that social media have become integral to journalism, it’s hard to imagine how to grapple them apart again.

Realistically, there’s no way to turn back the clock, and in general, I reject solutions that involve going back to “the way things were.” You can’t un-live, un-see, un-know. What has happened has shaped the present moment, for good or ill and usually both. What has happened is what we can learn from and, with effort and intent, transform. So how do we transform the shitshow of American politics, now that that kind of language — and far, far worse — is routine in the daily jeremiads of the Bloviator-in-Chief? Stop listening, I thought, back when I read Tauberg’s analysis. Stop giving him an easy forum.

And then, finally, yesterday, I opened a news-feed to see this article from Vox: “The Media Amplifies T****’s Racism. Should It Stop?” I read it. You should read it! Immediately, I wanted to be able to share it with everyone, but especially with people who write news and people who read it. As writer Ezra Klein put it,

What if the right answer here isn’t to meet Trump’s worst invective with round-the-clock coverage but to deny him the thing he wants most when he makes those comments: attention?

I think Klein is absolutely on target in this piece. What he suggests brings us back to that tenet of marketing — name-recognition, or branding. Not only does the flurry of coverage of POTUS’ every incendiary tweet bring the man himself into mind again and again and again, but each flurry acts as an amplifier of the racism, sexism, classism, cronyism, and corruption that POTUS wears proudly on his sleeve. It’s his brand. He might as well be gloating, several times a day, “ROFLMAO made ya look!”

Meanwhile, as Klein notes, the visibility of fringe ideologies through media amplification seems to have emboldened people to express and act on their bigotries publicly, further fracturing an already-fractious populace. What he calls for is “raising the bar” on journalistic coverage of POTUS, challenging serious news outlets to refuse him the service of amplification for his trashiest stunts of self-promoting villainy and to cover only the actions and statements that are in keeping with what we (ought to) expect and demand from our First Citizen.

I sincerely hope that Klein’s call to journalists is heard, and that something like a community of the “mission-driven” news outlets to which he refers will form and take action. But journalists aren’t the only ones with a hand in the amplification of this administration’s vile chauvinisms.

We readers can choose to click or not; we can choose to share or not.

We can choose to fuel Twitter’s amplification of vileness and malarkey, piling on with our own attempts to one-up each other with clever one-liners, such that the game itself overshadows the originating bit of barbarity or viciousness. Or we can use the power of social media against those who would abuse us through it.

This morning, I was happy to find Melissa Blake’s article, “What If We All Unfollowed Trump on Twitter?” on CNN.com. Blake takes a cue from CT Senator Chris Murphy, who tweeted this:

Murphy and Blake, like Klein, wrestle with the sense of responsibility that journalists — and concerned citizens — rightly feel about paying attention to and weighing in on the doings of elected officials. But Blake suggests that refusing to follow POTUS on Twitter could have great grassroots power:

Millions of us could be sending the message that racism, homophobia, misogyny and ableism have no place in 2019. Not in our communities. Not in our government. And not in our social media feeds.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that a man who was elected president in part on the strength of a brand built on his success as a reality-TV star is vulnerable to the mass withdrawal of a chunk of his audience, when that attention is what, to him, equates to endorsement.

Dropping his Twitterfeed like a hot potato won’t solve all our problems; it won’t even shut him up, not right away.

Being snubbed by such news outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, and so forth, repeatedly, won’t cure POTUS of himself. But let’s say those vacancies in our feeds were taken up by serious, substantive discussions of the messages that other candidates have been putting out there, for starters. Let’s say we start, each in our own small way, to hold both ourselves and our journalists accountable to a higher standard of discourse.

It’s like voting: although it is difficult to believe in the power of the individual vote, because so often we don’t see direct results, it is essential that we continue to believe in and to act on the franchise, because in aggregate, voting or not voting has very real consequences. By the same token, it might be hard to believe that our little tweets and retweets contribute much to the feeding frenzy, or that our clicking the “unfollow” button can mean anything to a person who has millions of followers, especially since bots could quickly fill in where real humans have opted out. But the combination of news organizations and individuals choosing to return radio silence for POTUS’ most offensive gambits? It would be sort of like if we had, en masse, decided not to keep watching The Apprentice. Let that go on long enough, and any show would get canceled.

It’s time to take the high road and stop watching the spectacle. Let’s get this show canceled in its first season.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.