Salon’s Rachel Leah aptly referred to Dan Rather as a legendary journalist in her piece on Rather’s attack on President Donald Trump.
However, Rather seems poised to outlive his legend. He has covered multiple wars, assassinations, occupations, coups and scandals — and yet he has somehow fallen prey to the myopia besetting so many journalists, pundits and those whose lives their spin has spun.
President Trump apparently lacks the “noble approach to the office” taken by his predecessors. According to Rather, the 45th president lacks George W. Bush’s nobility — the kind of nobility that won for America a perpetual war (that Rather’s CBS helped sell). Trump lacks Barack Obama’s nobility — the kind that wins Nobel Peace Prize while destabilizing North African countries, arming jihadists and paying off America’s enemies. Trump lacks Bill Clinton’s nobility — the kind which involved cigars and interns.
These criticisms of past American presidents are not defenses of Trump. No, they are part of a larger argument: When Dan Rather says “it’s never been this bad,” he — and we all — ought to consider why now is worse than any other time in American history.
The history of the United States is replete with slavery, genocide, oppression and inequality. Why is Trump, though crass, any less noble than his predecessors who waged criminal wars, installed dictators in sovereign nations, established agencies that spied on Americans and sterilized undesirables?
On account of the fact that Rather may still be a legend, I will not chalk up his hyperbole to a deference to Washington’s establishment politicians or subservience to the warehoused Clinton throne. Instead, Rather is merely a victim of a worsening trend of overreaction, ironically kick-started by news media that shored him up.
When everyone and everything is perpetually turned up to eleven, it is difficult to crank out a meaningful response. Obnoxious Halloween costumes draw as much ire as a terrorist attack at a Christmas market. The promise of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is less likely to trend than millionaires kneeling during the American anthem at a ball game. The election of a quasi-isolationist moderate president is treated as apocalyptic while the death of 65,000 Americans on account of drug overdoses in 2016 barely found room on CNN’s teleprompters. Relativism, hyperbole and partisan hackery have combined to kill any promise of a measured response to crisis and have left people with a kind of compassion fatigue — Dan Rather included.
The 24-hour news cycle — given a tickertape post 9/11, then ported online in earnest soon thereafter — requires constant eyeballs to pay the bills. This is precisely why the adage, “if it bleeds, it leads” is as relevant as ever. This adage is arguably the mandate for news media’s incumbent grief pornographers. However, the difference now is that if Wolf Blitzer, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann don’t have blood to sell. They are now in the habit of making something bleed.
On bloodless days, national news outlets generate furor over the banal and the ultra-personal, turning the screws until someone gives a damn or a dram. Vampires on social media then go to work, tweeting and tumbling until everyone has an opinion on the latest sacrifice. Advertisers get the clicks they need on account of a black Santa. Jack Dorsey cashes in on the resultant manufactured indignation. After all, if there is one thing journos and their social media pimps can count on, it is that the professionally offended on both the left and the right will predictably take the bait they are given.
We’re all full and choking on chum — so much so that when an actually meaty worm is on the hook, our appetite can be lacking. Thankfully, just as Facebook eliminated the need to remember friends’ birthdays, it and other social media platforms have similarly routinized and codified our responses to real news. On goes the profile filter featuring the flag of the country rocked by the latest worm, and after a period of digestion, it’s back to the chum.
While certainly it has much to do with the frequency and seeming inevitability of such tragedies, the constant onslaught of emotional appeals in and by the news — mostly manipulative and insincere — makes it difficult to react to real tragedy in a way that is any different from the way we are conditioned to react to the trivial.
Dan Rather may be using inflammatory rhetoric to sell some new book, but in so doing he is participating in the culture of overreaction that undermines sincere, honest and measured engagements with substantial news stories concerning events of real gravity. So far as his intended critique is concerned, Rather is incorrect in saying, “It’s never been this bad.” But where the journalistic theatrics and the numbness they propagate are concerned, it’s going to get a lot worse.
Joe MacKinnon is a freelance writer.