Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Nothing funny about the propaganda machine Team Trump is building

You can laugh at Donald Trump’s “Real News” Facebook videos with Kayleigh McEnany and Lara Trump singing the president’s praises like a couple of sock puppets if you want. There’s plenty to mock in their gushing reviews of Trump’s weekly performance.

But I don’t think there’s anything funny about it.

This is serious, and even scary, stuff. I’ve been worrying about the Trump Tower productions since they first debuted on the president’s Facebook page July 30 with his daughter-in-law Lara playing anchorwoman.

Taken with the mandated presence this summer of former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn on all 173 TV stations owned by the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the fervent embrace of White House talking points by Sean Hannity and the president’s Twitter pals at “Fox & Friends,” this is a powerful and dangerous pro-Trump message machine taking shape. Calling it state media doesn’t even do it justice, because it could turn out to be more sophisticated than any government-owned operation in terms of the various levels at which it could simultaneously engage citizens: national cable TV with Fox, local broadcast TV with Sinclair, and social media with Trump’s Facebook and Twitter followings.

It is built on the marriage of social and legacy media in the service of politics, power and propaganda — not news and information. Worse, the propaganda is disguised as news with the intent not only of generating a winning narrative for Trump, but discrediting those very sources of news and information, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, that have most powerfully served democracy over the years.

Like most propaganda operations, TV Trump often relies on disinformation and lies to achieve its ends. Seven months into this presidency, and already it feels as if more propaganda has already been injected into our media ecosystem by Team Trump than at any time since World War II. And the Trump media machine is only starting to flex its muscles.

Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon didn’t invent this game. Richard Nixon plowed some of the ground Trump is now walking when he used his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to try to discredit the same mainstream news outlets in the late 1960s and early ’70s that Trump is going after today. But the attacks by the former governor of Maryland were sporadic and mainly rhetorical.

Agnew would make a speech attacking journalists as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and the mainstream media would howl back in outrage for a few days. And then the issue would be mostly gone from the front burner of public discussion until the next verbal attack.

Nixon also tried to use his power over the Federal Communications Commission in a darker and more dangerous way to privately threaten network owners if their news divisions provided negative coverage of his administration. CBS founder William Paley was told by White House aides he could expect expensive regulatory problems at his network-owned stations in cities like New York if the network continued offering viewers what Nixon saw as biased coverage.

But as troubling as such anti-press actions were by the Nixon administration, they were never as systematic as what’s happening today with Team Trump. Nor did they include as widespread an attempt to convince citizens not to trust any source of mainstream information.

President Barack Obama, who was almost as bent as Trump on bypassing the press, had his own weekly propaganda videos starting in 2010. Team Obama produced webisodes titled “West Wing Week” that were hosted by press secretary Josh Earnest and posted on YouTube.

But there are significant differences between the content and tone of the Obama videos and the Trump videos. Obama’s videos were done by a digital team that gave them the look of a webcast. Of course, it was all pro-Obama news. But it mostly consisted of the president signing a bill, meeting with a group at the White House or traveling.

“On Friday, June 17th, the president met with his management advisory board in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, a group he formed last April to advise him on how to implement best business practices in the federal government,” a webisode from 2011 began. The visual style was single-camera, fly-on-the-wall, which meshed with Earnest’s straightforward narration.

By comparison, Trump’s “Real News” featured Lara Trump in the first week and McEnany in the second, sitting at an anchor desk in front of a backdrop branded with Trump-Pence logos. The videos are produced by Lara Trump and paid for out of re-election funds, according to Donald Trump.

“Hey, everybody, Lara Trump here,” the first video began. “I bet you haven’t heard about all the accomplishments the president had this week because there’s so much fake news out there. We wanted to give a glimpse into his week.”

But instead of going to an event as Obama’s videos usually did, or showing an accomplishment as promised, Trump’s video goes directly to the host praising the president.

“First up this week, let’s talk about the president’s salary,” she said. “Again, the president has donated his salary. His first-quarter salary went to the parks department. His second-quarter salary has been donated to the Department of Education. Again, this is a president who is putting America ahead of himself, and I am so proud of that.”

According to a giant check created for photo-ops, the president’s first-quarter donation was $78,333.32. I wonder how much of a dent that will make in the $1.5 billion cut his budget proposed for the Department of the Interior, which houses the National Park Service. There is no “parks department” in the federal government, Lara.

And I wonder how far his second-quarter donation will go in making up for the more than $9.2 billion in cuts to education the president’s budget proposed.

So far, the video featuring Eric Trump’s wife has been seen by more than 2.3 million viewers on the president’s Facebook page.

McEnany, who resigned as a pro-Trump contributor at CNN on Aug. 5, opened her first “Real News” video on Aug. 6 by thanking viewers for “joining us as we provide you the news of the week here from Trump Tower in New York.”

After touting the economic gains during Trump’s first six months without any of the context of how much of the growth is as a continuation of policies begun by the previous administration, McEnany turned to Trump’s support of the RAISE Act, which seeks to alter the nature of legal immigration.

“For decades, a steady rise in immigration has depressed the wages of the American worker,” she told viewers. “The RAISE Act will increase wages, decrease poverty and save the taxpayers billions. Americans deserve a raise, and President Trump is finally putting the American workers first.”

That’s the kind of false, flim-flam shorthand that propaganda relies on in finding scapegoats for complicated problems. McEnany’s words strongly suggest immigrants are responsible for lost jobs, low wages, poverty and higher taxes. Do you really think immigrants cost the unionized auto workers in Detroit or the steel workers on the South Side of Chicago their jobs?

As of Friday, 1.7 million have viewed this video on Trump’s Facebook page.

Both videos have attempted to link the president to members of the military, veterans and others identified as “heroes” by the hosts, even though he never served in the military. I was struck by the way Epshteyn has also been trying to do this on Sinclair stations. I do not think the synchronicity of messaging is accidental.

“The president has made veterans’ issues a focal point of his campaign,” Epshteyn said in a July 11 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment that all Sinclair stations were forced to carry. “And the administration is now delivering on those campaign promises.”

Here’s McEnany in the Aug. 6 video: “President Trump also honored veterans as a whole with yet another VA reform package that will allow millions of veterans to receive better access to care. President Trump is dedicated to honoring these men and women who fought valiantly for our country and insuring that they receive the care that they deserve.”

McEnany, who was named spokesperson for the Republican National Committee on Monday, closed her video by saying, “That’s the real news.”

The real news here is the wall of propaganda that is being built by Team Trump. The president might not be able to get his wall on the Texas border built, but he looks to be succeeding with this one.

The videos are only one part of it, but they are important part — too important to be laughed away.

I have been writing this summer about a bigger part: the deal that would allow Sinclair to add 42 more stations through its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media.

The overall goal for Team Trump appears to be the creation of a media system that would allow it to craft a message at Trump Tower or the White House and distribute it instantly through this burgeoning media machine via national cable on Fox, Sinclair’s network of local TV stations, the president’s Twitter following, and videos spread throughout social media.

Such an information infrastructure would not only serve as a bulwark against criticism of Trump in the mainstream media today, it could also become a mighty force for right-wing messaging across the board. Conservative politicians and donors have long decried the lack of such a media apparatus beyond Fox News.

Now the president is building it for them. And some of us are too busy laughing at the Sunday morning videos to understand what’s happening right before our eyes.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°