I’ve been following presidential elections closely since 1976 when I was a high school sophomore. As the first post-Watergate national election, the 1976 contest sparked our still intense infatuation with outsider candidates ready to clean up Washington. Affable peanut farmer and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter cultivated the outsider persona perfectly against incumbent President Gerald Ford. Ford was a 13-term congressman, the only man ever to serve as Vice President and President without receiving any popular or Electoral College votes, and pardoned Richard Nixon; Ford was about as ‘insider’ as a candidate could get.
The outsider/insider dialectic has framed every presidential election since, especially in the primary and caucus season. Today, every Republican seeking the White House is running as a Washington outsider, charged up to take on Hillary “the ultimate insider” Clinton. Even the Democratic challenger’s to the former first lady tout themselves as outsiders.
For most of the summer, the presidential political scene has been dominated by two self-described outsiders: billionaire Donald Trump on the Republican side and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democrats. In different ways, both campaigns have exposed the moral bankruptcy of the mainstream media.
The Donalds’ “Trump-a-palooza” campaign tour is like legendary American Idol contestant William Hung’s music: so awful that it actually becomes entertaining in its awfulness. Or for those old enough to remember the generous and kind kid Richie Rich comic book character, Trump is like what would happen if that kid grew up and became a total asshole. Often he’s like an unfiltered Nixon, as in his conversation with Maureen Dowd: The nice thing about Twitter, in the old days when I got attacked it would take me years to get even with somebody, now when I’m attacked I can do it instantaneously, and it has a lot of power. How’s that for a great role model for the youth of America?
Trump’s been in the mainstream media spotlight for a long time, but the fact that he can be taken seriously as a political candidate is unquestionably because of Fox News. His brand of highly personalized, black or white babbling, delivered in a slash and burn rhetorical style, generates great ratings for a news network that prides itself on being a platform for over-the-top wing nut characters. And that’s why Trump’s public spat with Fox after Megyn Kelly’s reasonable question to him about his history of misogyny and sexism was so amusing: without such a vulgar history, would Trump even be in the media spotlight to begin with? Not surprisingly, Fox viewership largely sided with Trump in the spat.
Donald Trump is Fox’s Frankenstein. Yes, Fox has historically served as a forum for many monsters, but usually they’re content to go after single mothers, African-American teens, liberal Democrats, and undocumented immigrants. The Trumpenstein monster on the other hand, appears poised to wreck the entire Republican establishment. Sure, it’s hilarious to watch Trumpenstein smack down Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and others in the GOP’s motley candidate crew of empty suits, lame brains, and lightweights; but as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi argues, the end result is that candidates have had to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics in order to win press attention. It’s not pretty, yet there’s not one network news anchor with the moral authority to call out the nonsense.
So what about the Democrats? When Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren declined to run, and with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley failing to spark enthusiasm, it looked like Hillary Clinton might make it through the caucus and primary season unscathed except for the predictable GOP trolling about Benghazi, emails, etc.
But then…Enter Sandman. Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old Senator from Vermont who represents the democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and articulates a vision of an America of, by and for the people instead of the one-percent, met record crowds in city after city. Rocker Neil Young threatened to sue Trump for using “Rockin’ in the Free World” at rallies, but had no problem lending the tune to Bernie.
Actually, I’d like to see Sanders come to the stage with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as his intro music. The song’s theme of childhood nightmares works well with Sander’s harsh wake up call for the 99 percent, many of whom accept our economic nightmare as normal.
The mainstream media response (or more accurately non-response) to Sanders is really a prime example of how bogus is the claim that there is some kind of liberal bias in political news coverage. If 500 people show up at a Tea Party rally, it’s treated as the birth of a new American revolution and often gets space on the network evening news. Sanders in contrast, can pack sports arenas with a message of redistributing wealth to Main Street instead of Wall Street, yet the events barely register a blip on the media radar.
Does this mean there’s a conservative bias in media? No. The bias is toward the corporate, which means the Trump-a-palooza clown show’s that drive ratings will get 24/7 attention.
I hope there’s a high school sophomore following the campaigns. In 40 years people will want to know what it was like to watch corporate media obsess over Fox’s Frankenstein, while the Sandman filled the stadiums.
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.