This is a week of surprises. Bernie Sanders has renounced his revolution and endorsed Joe Biden. Boris Johnson has discovered humility. And now it appears that CNN host Chris Cuomo, still struggling with the coronavirus known as COVID-19, may be carrying water for Donald Trump, as he has implicitly accused his own network of producing fake news.
What Happens When We Don’t Know the Truth?
Some have called it an epiphany caused by the experience of suffering from a disease that reminds us all of our mortality. On his SiriusXM radio show, Cuomo announced that he was disgusted with his work on television. He confessed that he could no longer “value indulging irrationality, hyper-partisanship” or “trafficking in things that I think are ridiculous.” He denounced not only the hypocritical role he was expected to play, but also the vacuous discourse of his political guests. Or, as CBS News framed it, “he doesn’t want to spend time talking to either Democrats or Republicans who are spouting things they don’t really mean.’”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The dominant form of lying on the air during a news broadcast in the United States
What better characterization of CNN as a purveyor of fake news could Trump have hoped for? Nevertheless, to counter the impression that his criticism somehow reflected a judgment of CNN similar to Trump’s and to prevent the US president from exploiting it, Cuomo was careful to describe Trump as a personality “we all know is full of shit by design.” So, is CNN a source of fake news or is Trump full of shit? One doesn’t preclude the other.
Cuomo’s diatribe sounded sincere while it lasted, but of course, unlike his viral condition that has lingered for more than two weeks, his professional and ethical awakening endured for barely 24 hours. The following day he rectified his appreciation, boldly declaring: “It’s not true. I never said it. I never meant it.” Of course, it is true, but in the hyperreal world he belongs to, the same thing can be true or false at the same time. That may in fact be the best definition of “fake news.”
The repentant Cuomo in the role of Dr. Jekyll denied the reality of Mr. Hyde: “I love where I am. I love the position that I’ve been given. And I love who I’m doing it with.” And despite his earlier claim that abandoning his TV career “matters to me more than making millions of dollars a year … because I’ve saved my money and I don’t need it anymore,” Cuomo explained that he has “never been in a better position professionally than I am in right now,” while affirming that he recently signed a new long-term contract with the AT&T-controlled cable-news outlet.
Cuomo offered what he and CNN hope will be perceived as a reasonable explanation of his about-face. The coronavirus made him do it. “It is causing people depression. And it’s creating brain fog.” He added: “It messes with your head, this virus. And I don’t know where it leaves you afterwards.”
Cuomo’s tirade on April 13 contained serious accusations concerning the reliability of CNN’s news. This could have incited his employer to tear up his new contract. But wars with truth-tellers are risky. A more likely scenario is that CNN helped him to script his rectification and act of contrition. That, in any case, is how the hyperreal world of television news usually deals with those rare moments when reality pierces a hole in the screen to show its menacing face.
There is a famous cultural precedent for Chris Cuomo’s rant. In the 1976 movie, “Network,” the television anchor Howard Beale begins to fold under the pressure of his job. He first confesses on the air saying, “I just ran out of bullshit,” shocking the media world. In a later scene, in which he seems diabolically possessed, Beale uses his evening news broadcast to incite television viewers across the country to lean out of their windows and cry, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And very much like modern city dwellers who lean out their windows to applaud the medical workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the citizens in the film lean out of their apartments to repeat Beale’s mantra.
Most people familiar with the film remember those memorable scenes. But Beale provided some complementary analysis in another monologue: “Right now there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel — the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime minister … This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world and woe is us, if it ever falls in the hands of the wrong people.”
Television became the obligatory box for entertainment and news in all American households in the early 1950s. By the time “Network” was released, “an entire generation,” as Beale claimed, knew nothing that wasn’t sourced on TV. The author of the screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky, intended his satirical script to draw attention to the effect television had on an entire generation’s brains and the media’s capacity to build boundaries around their culture and understanding of the world. Of course, more than 40 years later, television is still there, though it comes in two varieties: network and cable. It does have a rival, the internet, but in some sense the two mediums have merged as more generations absorb most of what they know or think they know from flat screens (instead of tubes).
Cuomo’s critique goes further than Beale’s. In some sense, it confirms the movie newscaster’s prediction about possibly getting in the wrong hands. In the decades following the Second World War, television news was seeking its way. It slowly realized that news wasn’t so much a feature of television programming as a form of entertainment that could be managed the same way popular fiction is managed. Beale saw it coming: “And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?”
What does this episode of the Chris Cuomo story tell us about this critical moment of history we are now living through? For some time, the trust Americans have in the media has been well below 50%. According to Gallup, “Democrats have consistently been more trusting of the media than Republicans but rallied around the press and became even more trusting when Trump took office in 2017.” The result is that channels such as CNN and MSNBC that cultivate a Democratic anti-Trump audience have gone overboard to broadcast news designed to the target audience’s liking. They conform to the news as entertainment logic pioneered by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, an outlet that set out from the beginning to broadcast content for Republicans. More recently, Fox News has focused particularly on pro-Trump Republicans, even while allowing itself a modicum of heterodoxy to keep “Never Trumpers” in the fold.
For a brief moment this week, Cuomo reacted to the pantomime world he professionally belongs to. In a few words, he summed up its hyperreality. It could be compared to a sound stage that combines the superficiality of entertainment and the hyper-partisanship of political illusion as the means of consolidating and reinforcing the power of an oligarchic system. It isn’t even political theater, a dying art form that traditionally sought to maintain at least a tenuous link with reality. It’s little more than pure entertainment crafted by marketers and designed as an escape from reality, while presenting itself as the vector through which the public can relate to reality. What this ultimately means is that the public is disconnected from reality by a wall of entertainment.
Cuomo’s role, night after night, is to shape the public’s perception of reality along the lines of his media’s editorial vision, a vision shaped by ratings rather than politics. It ends up as a kind of ideological movie set, a facade designed to simulate political reality with nothing behind it. It is equipped with the lighting effects and noise of a sports arena. It invites audiences to experience their political system as spectators of a tag team wrestling match.
For a fleeting instant, Cuomo stepped out of the hyperreal role assigned to him to talk about his work. It consists of conducting a nightly ritual as the man with the microphone who gets the wrestlers to simulate scripted emotions. It aims at heightening the drama that plays out in competing election campaign themes, real or media-made scandals, culture wars, celebrity spats and invented controversies.
Chris Cuomo earns a good living from it, much better than that of his older brother, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, whom most Democrats apparently would like to see in the White House instead of Joe Biden. Cuomo has a new, long-term contract that should ensure his playing the role full-time. But an unexpected flareup of fever at a depressing moment when he perhaps felt he had vanquished a fairly severe coronavirus infection, combined with hours of isolation in which he could ponder his professional identity, pushed him over the edge.
At that particular moment, when he happened to be sitting in front of a microphone, Cuomo poked a hole in the elaborate backdrop of his media’s hyperreality and gave us a glimpse of his own personal reality. But all is well again and normalcy will soon have the upper hand. This only proves that like any totalitarian system, hyperreality maintains the capacity to lose an occasional battle knowing it has the monetary means and the psychological clout to win the war.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. UPDATED on April 20, 2020, at 14:30 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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