Almost 60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a new force that fed off and profited from Cold War paranoia: the military-industrial complex.
Over the past couple of years, with Russia reappearing on the airwaves, a new corporate sector profiting from induced anxiety poses just as big a threat: Let’s call it the political-infotainment-media complex.
On March 22, Robert Mueller delivered his sealed report on the narrowly defined charge of “collusion” to Attorney General William Barr. After 22 months of hype – a period in which it was the most covered story in America – “Russiagate” seemed to end with a whimper. Neither reporters nor the public have read the Mueller report, but that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation over what’s in the report, who “lost” and who “won.”
None of this analysis, however, explores the larger structural problems in today’s media environment. Why was this story covered to the extent it was? What does it say about the incentive model in place for corporate media outlets?
As a media scholar trying to understand today’s rapidly changing media landscape, I view the Mueller investigation coverage as a direct symptom of a political-infotainment-media complex that has blurred the lines between tabloid soap operas and respectable journalism.
Infotainment is the hook
To understand what happened with coverage of the Mueller investigation – and is already happening again in its second act – it’s important to understand the incentives of media networks, old and new.
In his seminal work “Television: Technology and Cultural Form,” media critic Raymond Williams explained how, in the early days of television, people would often tune in for a single program and then turn off the TV.
But television networks soon figured out they could maximize advertising revenue if people watched all of a network’s shows, one after the other. TV producers, using commercials and promotions for other shows as a connective glue, strove to create a “flow” from one show to the next.
This cultivation technique is still on full display – we see it when cable news hosts pass the baton from one show to the next.
But there is also something new going on. Stories like the Mueller investigation transcend individual networks and play out across all outlets, with each adapting the storyline for its particular audience. Sustaining itself beyond a particular news cycle, the investigation has played out like one epic television series – a perfect example of how the political infotainment sector profits from serial stories with long narrative arcs, cliff hangers and periodic revelations.
The more convoluted the story, the more audiences are drawn to preferred networks to confirm their biases. The more outlets tease the “bombshell,” the more it feeds interest.
Speculation pays off
For much of the past century, journalism was grounded in restrained realism, with dispassionate objectivity tied to professional norms.
But many of today’s mainstream media outlets follow something like the profit-minded business model of the original purveyor of “fake news,” William Randolph Hearst. Hearst sought to “fournish” a war that he could serialize and monetize, and he famously goaded the American public into war against Spain with disinformation dressed up as news.
“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” Hearst once advised. “Your readers might like it.”
Today’s media business model doesn’t reward patience and scrupulous fact-checking. To do so is to risk missing out on clicks, eyeballs and ad revenue.
Furthermore, today’s outlets can easily profit from misinformation and speculation.
Each mistake – say, a front-page story about how the Russians hacked America’s electrical grid – might require a retraction or an apology. But during its lifespan, that same mistake can boost profits, ratings and advertising revenue.
Once speculating about news is no longer seen as a problem and becomes a normal part of production, a whole new line of infotainment becomes available.
The Mueller investigation, which featured a tight-lipped investigator, created an enormous vacuum for speculation – for hundreds of round tables and panels featuring lawyers, politicians, political consultants and intelligence officers to theorize over the next twist, the latest clues and possible outcomes. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the story involved espionage, sex, celebrity, corruption and betrayal.