The Media and the Demagogue

Author: Gary Hart

Conscience-striken political journalists are now falling over each other with mea culpas for helping create Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president.  Unquestionably, Mr. Trump has received far more unpaid media attention than any of his several rivals.  This is particularly true in the realm of cable political talk programs.

It was virtually inevitable with the amount of time these programs have to kill (and they more often kill time than not), that a flamboyant, over-the-top product of those same show business networks would appear at or near the top of the political pyramid.

What else can a cable television producer do, when confronted with the need to fill empty hours of mostly empty talk, than turn repeatedly to the most controversial, least constrained, most bombastic figure in the litter.  He does what most true entertainers and few traditional politicians do.  He draws eyeballs to the screen.

In case there is any confusion about this, television is all about ratings and ratings are simply the measure of total eyeballs.  Despite repeated protestations that the First Amendment provides the media the protection to inform the public about its business–government, all media outlets, electronic and print, (except for public broadcasting, thank God) are commercial enterprises.  Ratings trump (ooops) the First Amendment obligation to inform.  The First Amendment was not enacted so that television networks could make money.

So the latter-day anguish about all-Trump, all the time, much more from print than electronic journalists, is quaint.  Whatever chance there might have been years ago, and even then it was a slim chance, that substance would triumph over circus, the age of twitter, tweet, and sound bite has eliminated.  Even the policy speeches of the more thoughtful Democratic candidates receive short shrift given the insistence on recycling Hillary’s emails and Bernie’s socialism. (My own experience quite a long time ago: my opponent and I were trading charges about media spots in the Illinois primary and the Chicago Tribune gave lead story treatment to this controversy ending with this sentence: “Hart was in Chicago to give a major economic address.”)

For all the current bout of media hand-wringing about “creating Trump”, nothing will change.  There is the equivalent of Gresham’s Law in politics: bad candidates drive out good ones.  The caliber and quality of today’s candidates for office, with a few important exceptions, does not match that of saner times.  Have there been chaotic periods in American politics in the past?  Of course.  But they were not sustained by a demented need by television producers and commentators to highlight, repeatedly, the zany and destructive antics of fear peddlers, nativist demagogues, and know-nothings.

Mass media are the propellant for mass movements.  The wackier the movement, the more attention the camera gives it.  They need each other.  All Jeffersonians are weeping for their country.

[For a prediction regarding all this some thirty years ago:]


5 Responses to “The Media and the Demagogue”

  1. Neil McCarthy Says:


    Everything you say is correct. And also informed by your own personal experience.

    That said, this is not the first time in American history when Jefferson has weeped. In the 19th century, print journalism on politics was largely a matter of praising those who your broadsheet favored and skewering those it opposed. So much so that, when historians sought to re-create a transcript of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, they were forced to consult pro-Douglas papers for anything approaching an accurate account of what he said, and pro-Lincoln papers for the same as to Lincoln. Otherwwise, the newspapers made the other guy look stupid. This only began to end when Ochs and Sulzberger started to bring some professionalism to the craft of journalism. (And even then, William Randolph Hearst was still able to create the Spanish-American war.)

    Where we are now is in a largely de-centralized universe where editorial guidance is absent on the internet and eye-balls uber alles is the governing norm on cable. Coupled with the rise of so-called reality shows — where TMI seems to be the guiding principle, no scandal or insult is deemed too prurient or harsh, and a sort of adolescent voyeurism has taken over — it is not surprising that a Trump (of Celebrity Apprentice fame) would float to the top of at least a narrow slice (the GOP slice) of the American political spectrum.

    The only cause for (tempered) optimism is to realize that the 19th century — amidst all the available dross — still produced Lincoln and TR.

    And ours produced Obama, an accomplishment that cannot be gainsaid given its historic significance.

    Lots of folks today reject the shallow voyeurism of cable and the unleashed ad hominems that regularly show up on the anonymity-plagued internet. And those folks are voters too.

    So, at the risk of being trite, or blindly imitative, I too still believe in a place called hope.

    All the best.

  2. Brian C McCarthy Says:


    There is so much here to respond to.

    The right wing, and even the Establishment, of the GOP created this Trump monster by condoning, or at least not condemning, the Tea Party, the Birther Movement, and every other far-right sect that has refused to recognize the legitimacy of elections, proven fact, science, and fair democratic processes for the past 8 years, right up to and including the refusal to consider the Supreme Court nominee of a sitting president with almost a quarter of his term of office remaining. Of course that kind of banana republic bollocks is going to produce candidates who take the political conversation into the gutter and, unfortunately for the GOP, one of those candidates, when he emerged, turned out to be a billionaire who could finance an entire presidential campaign by himself. Bigger surprise yet for establishment Republicans: all the stonewalling and poison rhetoric of the last several years has produced a class of voters who won’t fall in line with traditional Republican candidates when it comes to election time.

    I note your inclusion of a link to your 1987 withdrawal speech. It remains a very well said indictment of the media’s insistence on creating drama and salaciousness when they can’t think of anything substantive to say on the matters of the day and I particularly still appreciate your magnanimous call to public service to those who supported you to involve themselves in national and public service.

    Ironically, the explosion of information that the internet age has brought us has lead not to an increase in people being informed, but rather to an increase in the ability of demagogues to spread misinformation and poisoned rhetoric.

    This blog is one of my few “safe places” where I can read reason and sense. Please continue sharing your insights – they are much treasured among those of us who wish for a return of civility and decency to US politics.

    Very truly yours,

  3. Bill Pruden Says:

    Senator Hart,
    You have again offered us an insightful assessment of an important but (not surprisingly) under reported aspect of the current presidential campaign. But if we really think about it, what more should we expect. Between a failure to remember that their First Amendment protected freedoms are intended to be balanced by some self imposed element of responsibility, and a national culture that has put the civic responsibility that should accompany their own freedoms on the back burner, our distinctive democratic experiment is imperiled.

    But should we be surprised? When those elected to govern (the Republican Congressional majority) don’t, but then wonder why people (Trump supporters) are angry, the press should be holding them to account. Rather they help encourage the spectacle. After a week Donald Trump should have no longer been news. Rather in the spirit of “Man bites dog” is news, but “Dog bites man” is not, after the first week of outrageous comments the media should have dispatched of his daily diatribe with at most, “Donald Trump uttered his daily dose of outrage today and now on to the news.”

    As you rightly observe aspects of this are not new. Indeed, no one knows that better than you, but when news became less about news than profits, when politics became less about governing than about photo ops and posturing, when education became less about teaching and ideas than about advancing institutional reputations and interests, our system begins to break down. Whether it is irretrievable is hard to say, but this campaign has certainly done little to get us back on the right track.
    We need to get back to the shared principles embodied in the phrase “we the people” and we need leaders who will appeal to the best of us–in the tradition of those who risked it all at our beginnings–rather than stoking our fears.

    None of this has ever been easy. Politics has rightly been called a contact sport and I know from my own experience as an aide on Capitol Hill and a candidate for local office that idealism can have a price, but we can be better than what we are seeing from the current candidates. However, to do so we must hold fast to the principles like equality, union freedom and justice upon which this nation was built. Blithely tossed around by many, they remarks a central part of what makes America great, but without a responsible adherence to to them, their continued existence is not guaranteed.


    Senator Hart

    You know more than many about such things , for you have seen at close quarter , the media desructiveness in the process of the obliteration of quality in favour of the advancement of mendacity .

    Media is a moneymaking game .Until the print journalist mirrors the online blogger and the television pundit does the same with the local campaigner , politics writ large is a race to the bottom of the barrel .The bad apples , few though they are , infest the rest .Devoid of principle , that is the principle result .

    Trump is a bad apple indeed.

  5. Paul G Says:

    Happy TJ Day to our honorable host and former presidential candidate whom US Wire Services (media) described on April 13, 1987, as “a complex personality about whom there’s no question of his credentials and ability to govern the country!

    Can we truly say the same about today’s “complex” candidates? “You betcha!” … Not.

    Three decades and many unnecessary wars, tax cuts and $Trillions debt later, the lack of serious debate on the then-CIA opponent’s seemingly coincidental MB owners’ role in disconnecting Hart’s candidacy from the people remains sadly out of sight, out of mind.

    Only recently – in 2014 – two reporters from two major media corporations admitted their coincidental role in changing the rules and perpetuating the false “media challenge” myth that became central to the complex self-destruct narrative.

    But as we contemplate whether today’s presidential candidates can even chew gum and think at the same time, a sobering reflection on how we got to here is long overdue.

    In May 1987, NY Times columnist, Anthony Lewis, questioned the remaining seven candidates on what their Persian Gulf policy might be in the aftermath of the USS Stark attack. In contrast to Hart he found them ‘bumbling at best’ in their response while Hart outlined what our US policy should be “to help preclude future wars in the Gulf.”

    Who, among today’s presidential candidates, even thinks of returning to school as an adult? Senator Hart wrote his doctoral thesis, Restoration of the Republic, and did so after age 60, while also chairing the pre-9/11 US Commission on National Security!

    If 1988 was the entrenchment of 30 years’ hunger games war on 99% of wage earners, college students and rapidly growing minority populations and even war veterans, today is the ever-growing pinnacle of greed by the top 1%

    But imagine the kind of republic our millennials may now inherit if the “complex personality about whom there’s no question of his credentials and ability to govern the country” was allowed – without changing the rules of the game – to compete for the presidency? Winner of 25 states – without PAC money – in his first run, we’d learn, at a minimum, from this proven teacher, how to adapt and succeed in a changing world.

    Instead, we have private party corporations deciding what crumbs to allow those of us still empowered to vote for the conflicted survivors of their plutocratic hunger games.

    All TJ’s weep today not only for what our media referees allowed to be stolen from US but for what they continue to profit from: entertainingly complex webs of deceit.

    Do we get the leaders we deserve? “You betcha!” Just ask Sarah or Don or Ted or …

    Happy TJ Day!

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