How Television, Twitter and Trump Created a Post-Smart America
I remember the first time I saw a fake bookshelf. It was the spring of 1973, and I was setting out to cover the Watergate story for the Village Voice, where I worked as a staff writer. I had already attended the first day of the hearings on May 17, having driven down from New York with my friend Ed Sanders, the beatnik poet and lead singer of The Fugs. Lacking press credentials, we got in line at something like 3 a.m., early enough to get seats and be there when Senator Baker famously asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” I decided I would cover the story full time, so I called the Senate Press Gallery, which issued credentials for the hearings, but the Village Voice wasn’t a publication recognized in the august halls of the Congress of the United States, and they turned me down.
A friend of mine from the Washington Post said he could help me get credentialed, so I walked over to the Capitol and found the Senate Press Gallery, a compact room, maybe 20 by 20 feet, with a few chairs, one of them occupied by Bill Greider, with whom I had covered the trial of Lieutenant Calley two years before. He was the very picture of a veteran D.C. reporter: his suit was rumpled, his tie was askew, his shoes were scuffed, and his hair was thinning. He took my NYPD press pass and disappeared into a nearby office. While I was waiting, I walked over to a bookshelf to check out what books they made available to the Capitol Hill reporters who used the place as a kind of satellite office. Instead of books, I found spines glued to a dark background with strips of veneer for “shelves.” I was standing there looking in amazement at the fake bookshelf when Greider returned from the office and handed me a Senate press pass.
“How’d you pull that off?” I asked. “I told them if they didn’t give you a pass, I’d write a story in the Post on how freedom of the press wasn’t being respected by the United States Senate,” Greider replied. I pocketed my new press pass and pointed to the fake bookshelf. “What the hell is this?” Greider chuckled. “It’s the background the Senators use when they’re being interviewed on TV.” He pointed to a small carpeted stage I hadn’t noticed just in front of the bookshelf. Across the room was a riser where TV cameras were set up. “But they’re fakes!” I said. “The camera doesn’t pick up enough detail to show that,” Greider explained. “All you see on TV is a Senator looking smart and studious in front of all of his books. They think it gives them gravitas.”
It turned out that covering Watergate was a sure-fire way to get on TV. Watergate was the ratings gold, and the networks took every opportunity they could to get the story on the air. I covered Nixon’s pal Bebe Rebozo as my little corner of the story, and because nobody else was on the Rebozo beat, every time I wrote a story, one of the shows would call. I did Maury Povich, David Susskind, the local New York morning news shows; I even did a segment on the CBS evening news. I was interviewed in studios, hotel rooms, on the street in Miami across from the County Courthouse where an investigation of Rebozo was ongoing. But I didn’t see any bookshelves used as backgrounds, fake or otherwise.
Then, like magic, “terrorism experts” sprang up like weeds on TV commenting on terror attacks around the world. There was the Rome airport attack by Black September, killing 34; the TWA Flight bombing, killing 88; the massacre at the Bologna train station, killing 85; the Air India Flight 182 bombing, killing 329. With so many dying in attacks by terrorists, TV news shows needed somebody to interview. All of a sudden, you began seeing these guys — they were all men — sitting in front of, yes, bookshelves, with something like, “Schmuckazoid Smith: Princeton Terrorism Expert” IDing them. Who were they? How did they get to be “experts?” I never figured that out. All I knew was, some very serious looking guys were on TV sitting in front of some very serious looking bookshelves, and they were saying some very serious sounding shit about terrorism. And the world listened.
I did a lot more TV as the years wore on. A show like “Frontline” would send a crew out to my house to interview me about my role in taking the Hemings family to Monticello, or my opinions about gays in the military. Where did they set up the cameras? You guessed it: in front of my bookshelves. When I did shows in a studio, I was often plonked down in the corner of a big room with lights overhead, and yes, a bookshelf in the background. At first, they were real. Then they were fake.
The last time I did a show was “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” I was driven in a big black SUV over to a small studio in Southampton where I sat down in a chair with a large flat-screen projection TV behind me. They flashed a few backgrounds up there — a city skyline at night, a stone wall — and then they put up a slightly out-of-focus fake bookshelf. That’s what we went with. I was on Lawrence’s show talking about Trump’s generals, and they wanted me to look like I was a serious guy, and I knew what I was talking about. So. . . Books!
You see where I’m going with this? The “news” I was delivering on TV in those interviews wasn’t fake, but the goddamned bookshelves were. Why? Why did we need bookshelves in the first place? Why not just turn the camera on, ask me some questions, I have my say, and be done with it?
Because simply putting on an interview wasn’t good enough. They had to make me out to be what passed for an “expert” with that bookshelf behind my head, just like they delivered the wisdom of those “terrorism experts” in front of bookshelves. They probably didn’t know as much about terrorism as I did — I covered the war of terror Palestinians waged against Israel back in 1974-75 and wrote thousands of words about it. But when the masterminds of TV news were finished with them, they were “experts” for sure, because . . . books! Whole shelves full of them! They had read those books! They knew what was in them! They actually knew stuff! And so did I on MSNBC! Because . . . books!
Who were they fooling back in the ’70s and ’80s when they came up with this gimmick? The same people the senators were fooling up there in the Senate Press Gallery with their fake bookshelf, that’s who. The same people the Lawrence O’Donnell show was fooling when they put me in front of a goddamned rear-projection bookshelf. Voters. TV viewers. You and me. And all of the other you and me’s out there watching talking heads on TV, whether they’re elected officials or “experts.”
Why weren’t the words we spoke good enough? Why did they need juicing with fake books? Because the TV wizards don’t trust the people they’re putting on the news for, that’s why. Turn on MSNBC or CNN or Fox News tonight and have a look at what they’re doing when they’re not pitching you with fake books. Last night, I was watching “All In with Chris Hayes” and they had a shot of Paul Manafort up on the screen, showing him walking into the courthouse the other day. They were making the point that our boy Manafort has gotten himself in some deep shit, I guess.
So how did they do it? They had the shot of Manafort in a box in the middle of the screen, and all around it were these arcs of colors, red and blue, moving across the screen disappearing behind the left of the Manafort box, reappearing on the right, disappearing into the edge of the screen and then reappearing from the right edge and arcing across again. Meanwhile, the bottom quarter of the screen was a screaming nightmare of “new” chyrons yapping about the tax bill, Trump’s latest tweet, Donna Brazile’s new book blowing up the DNC -- everything non-Manafort was down there adding to the action.
You know what it looked like? It looked like the trailers I saw at a movie theater a couple of weeks ago for several superhero movies that are upcoming. The screen was jammed with movement and color, these huge pick-up trucks morphing into robots, or one brand of superhero or another firing arcs of light at each other, the entire screen taken up with utterly context-less, meaningless movement, action, light, color! It didn’t matter what the advertised movie was actually about. All that mattered was movement and blazes of color meant to attract and hold your attention. Very much like all that movement and color behind, and under, and above the little screen showing Manafort on Chris Hayes’ show. It’s not meant to inform you. It’s meant to attract you. It’s meant to hold your attention. And they’ll do anything from putting my sorry ass in front of a fake bookshelf to throwing blue and red arcs across the screen to do it.
This is why Trump is winning with his base when he points his finger or twiddles his thumbs and screams “fake news.” Remember what “fake news” really was? The phrase was meant to portray actual false stories posted on bullshit sites like Breitbart and then broadcasted on talk radio or Fox News in order to divert attention away from whatever lies Trump was pushing on the campaign trail, and then from the White House. Trump was able to take the phenomenon of actual false news stories and turn it into “fake news” not just because people support him, but because they have been inured to real news by the fakery that surrounds it.
What did he do when he was campaigning? He went from auditorium to stadium to airplane hanger and stood in front of a row of American flags and fed his audiences with lies and false hope. The flags were his bookshelves — fake patriotism instead of fake books. What did the news shows do? They trained cameras on him and “covered” the whole fake spectacle because they didn’t know how else to do it. They were addicted to the idea that during this speech, or the next one, or the next one, he would “step in it” again. He’d call McCain a coward. He’d accuse Cruz’s father of killing JFK. He’d brag about the size of his goddamned dick. Reporters at his rallies were like those weathermen standing on a beach thigh-deep in waves with high winds blowing their rain jackets waiting for the storm to arrive. See those bending palm trees? It’ll be here in just a minute and then we’ll have ourselves a real storm. See that sea of red hats? Somebody’s going to pound a black guy in just a minute, and then we’ll have ourselves a real story.
Trump’s media genius didn’t stop when the campaign ended. Realizing in the White House that the reporters covering him weren’t the sheep from the campaign trail, Trump took to Twitter to be nice to Nazis and mean to widows of black soldiers. And what have the cable shows done? They actually train their cameras on his infuriating tweets and put them up there on the screen just like they appear on your laptop or your phone, with the little “@realDonaldTrump” above 140 characters of whatever blather he’s pitching this morning.
All around his tweets are those arcs of blue and red and bands of yellow, always going somewhere, moving left to right, disappearing and reappearing magically, holding your attention like blazes from a superhero’s enormous super-future submachine gun, shooting across the screen, never hitting anything, making just enough of a visual racket they can depend on you not to change the channel until they put up that shot of Manafort’s volunteer perp-walk, or Sessions’ lying little rodent-face, or Eddie Munster Ryan dissembling about how many bucks are going to be missing from your wallet when he and his band of pirates are finished with you.
Did you ever take a look at Trump’s website during the campaign? You know what he had up there? For months and months, there were just two things: the dates and locations for his next two rallies, and a box you could click on for “tickets” that popped up in a PDF you could print out. You didn’t really need the tickets. You could get into his rallies if you just showed up. But getting a “ticket” made you feel like you belonged. You could show them to your friends like they were Springsteen tickets. In Trumpworld, they were cool. Eventually, under pressure from the press and the Clinton campaign, Trump posted seven “policy papers” on his campaign website totaling about 9,000 words. Did anybody read them? I doubt it.
Hillary’s campaign website was just the opposite. It was a jumble of Important Information. On the left was a list of dates and locations of campaign appearances — most of them by Persons Other Than Hillary, because she didn’t do much campaigning. Most of them were fundraisers you had to pay to get into, not free rallies like Trump’s. Then there was a section where you could access her “issues” page, consisting of 38 white papers totaling some 113,000 words. By November, the Clinton campaign bragged that they had released 65 policy papers. Did anybody read them? I doubt it.
Trump saw the future in a post-smart America and embraced it like a pageant contestant. People in this country were so distracted and dulled by their disassociated lives that even liberal cable shows didn’t trust their viewers to pay attention, so they presented news like it was a video game. Trump realized all he had to do was wave a flag and shout some nonsense about Muslims and a great big beautiful wall. He could brand any news he didn’t like as fake news because he knew that facts didn’t matter anymore, because even when the liberal media presented facts, they didn’t trust them all by themselves, so they surrounded them with so many bells and whistles, facts were nearly crowded off the screen. And if he could dominate the news with 140 characters, who cared about all those columns of newsprint?
See? It’s not about Trump. It’s about us. We’re the ones who have looked at those pundits and talking heads posed in front of their bookshelves for years and years and invested them with wisdom that wasn’t wise, with gravitas that wasn’t grave. Trump’s voters looked at the same fake bookshelves and realized they were intended to fool them. They weren’t expected to understand the “wisdom” spewing forth but merely to be impressed by it.