Donald Trump accepted campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s resignation today in the wake of a growing scandal around Manafort’s ties to a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine. The shakeup means that Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive Trump recently hired to be CEO of his campaign, may have even more influence over Trump’s team than initially announced.
There are two ways to look at Bannon’s rise to power within Trump’s campaign. The first is that it’s a natural step for a candidate who effectively dominates the media anyway. The second is that it’s a new and scary chapter in the centuries-long story of media as propaganda.
We’ve already written about that first part. This story’s about the second.
The Propaganda Line
The press and politicians have always had a complex and sordid relationship. Think of media barons like William Randolph Hearst boldly backing political candidates in his day. Or, more recently, one-time journalists like Jay Carney morphing into presidential press secretaries. Journalists have their preferences, and so do publications. You might have noticed the giant endorsement of Hillary Clinton on WIRED’s homepage yesterday.
But there is a line between a single endorsement—which explains a publication’s preference publicly—and a steady flow of propaganda. The latter peddles fallacies and promotes a certain political cause through the use of selective facts over time in order to make it impossible for people to make an informed decision. Throughout this election cycle, Breitbart’s coverage has often crossed that line, even going so far as to censor the experiences of its own journalists in order to protect Trump’s reputation. But those ties to Trump had been implicit. Now they’re explicit, and that, communications researchers say, is wholly unprecedented.
“This is something new,” says Samuel Robert Lichter, a professor of communication at George Mason University who wrote the book The Media Elite. There has always been a “revolving door” between media outlets and the political institutions they cover, he says, but traditionally those hiring decisions occurred after a campaign was over. In Bannon’s case, Breitbart says he’ll take a temporary leave of absence, returning to the media outlet on election day.
Not only does that create an infinite loop of insight between a single political figure and the media, Lichter says, but it obliterates any sense that Breitbart was ever acting independently. “This is another step forward into the dark world of media and propaganda merging,” he says, “and it is something to be worried about.”
Public Awareness of Bias
Of course, Breitbart’s creators would never claim to be “fair and balanced,” in the way Fox News has claimed to be over the years. On Breitbart’s job listings page, the company advertises itself as “an outlet for the new generation of independent and conservative thinkers.” And in an interview with Bloomberg, founder Andrew Breitbart himself once described Bannon as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, referring to the infamous Nazi propagandist.
So while that’s not exactly comforting, it would be fair for Breitbart’s leaders, who did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment, to say they shouldn’t be held to the same journalistic standards.
The problem with that argument, however, is that while Breitbart’s leaders may be self-aware about their viewpoint, it seems the American public is not.
According to a 2014 poll by Pew Research about media consumption habits, Breitbart was one of only a handful of media outlets that “consistently conservative” people said they trust for news. The poll also found that “consistently liberal” people trusted 28 out of 36 media outlets analyzed, including mainstream outlets and clearly partisan ones like ThinkProgress and Mother Jones. But “consistently conservative” people were far less trusting of the media. Out of 36 outlets, they trust just eight, all of which have conservative inclinations: The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, Breitbart, Drudge Report, The Sean Hannity Show, The Glenn Beck Program, and The Rush Limbaugh Show.
The conservative public, in other words, has come to trust conservative media as fair and balanced, whether or not its writers and and editors even mean to be fair and balanced. “What’s taken to be mainstream media is, by definition for conservatives, liberally biased,” Lichter says. “Therefore conservatives tell you the truth that the biased liberal media won’t.”
This misunderstanding can be dangerous when it’s used to prop up a certain political viewpoint. But it’s more dangerous, propaganda researchers say, when it’s used to prop up individuals. And that, says Jason Stanley, a Yale professor and author of the book How Propaganda Works, is the problem with Bannon’s move to Breitbart.
“Now, you have a link between the media outlet and the campaign,” Stanley says, who describes Trump’s campaign strategy as “almost a comically familiar fascist 101 playbook.”
Political campaigns have long been in the business of disseminating propaganda about a candidate. Today, Hillary Clinton’s team has a blog, a YouTube channel, and a podcast all devoted to touting her worldview. President Obama, meanwhile, has been criticized for shutting out the press, even as his staff uses every social media platform available to promote his administration without having to go through a media middleman.
“That is a kind of propaganda,” says Nicco Mele, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. “It’s part of the modern campaign apparatus.”
The difference, however, is that in those cases not only does the audience know that content is coming from the politician, it’s also the politician’s job to build up trust with its audience. Now, we live in a world in which Trump’s original campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, becomes a regular contributor to CNN after getting fired by Trump.
‘Now We Have a Movement’
Breitbart, which was founded in 2007, has already spent nearly a decade building up trust with the far-right. And it’s not such a niche audience, either. A July analysis of web traffic to US media sites ranked Breitbart at number 26, visited more than other publications like The Wall Street Journal and NPR. Now, Stanley says, the concern is that when Bannon returns to Breitbart, the outlet could take that trusting audience and spoon feed it Trump’s message. (The Trump campaign did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment on Bannon.) As a result, Stanley goes so far as to insist that Trump’s relationship with Bannon and Breitbart is similar to the relationship between Hitler and Julius Streicher, founder of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.
“When you read Der Stürmer, there’s a kind of smeariness and mockery,” Stanley says. “That’s what I see in Breitbart.”
It’s obviously a bold claim, and in the era of Godwin’s law, we’re loathe to print it. But Stanley says a refusal to identify leaders as fascist could be the very thing that leads to their rise. “We need to pay much more attention to what fascism is in this country, in our education system, and in our media,” he says. “We can’t do the stuff of having off limits discussions of fascism.”
And Stanley says, all the trappings of fascism are there: from the strongman leader to the violent rhetoric to the vilification of a subgroup. Stanley sees Trump’s ties to the media, in this case Breitbart, as the final puzzle piece.
“A movement has to have a political leader, and it has to have media outlets,” Stanley says. “Now we have a movement.”
Not everyone is willing to go that far. For Lichter, Trump’s ties to Breitbart aren’t so much an indication of fascist inclinations, as a threat to the objectivity of the press.
“It’s kind of scary when an atmosphere is so polarized that you can move back and forth between being a campaign manager and media executive without worrying if it impacts your credibility,” he says. “Your readers think as you do and couldn’t care less.”
Now, with polls (“all of them“) suggesting Trump’s chances of winning the election are slim, some, like media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen have posited that maybe, just maybe, media dominance has been Trump’s aim all along.
There is no Trump campaign competing for president. Concert tour and alt right media organization fighting for mind share with major media.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) August 17, 2016