By Michael Harrison
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Despite the massive free publicity generated by Megyn Kelly’s recent Sunday night interview with Alex Jones on NBC, network heads were disappointed – even stunned – by the show’s lousy ratings. It was soundly beaten by a rerun of “60 Minutes,” which was, in turn, trounced by a rerun of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
No surprises here. And don’t pin the blame on Kelly. She’s the total package – brains, beauty and… balls! But she isn’t operating on the same playing field that made Barbara Walters a household name in her day.
The main issue attached to this circus had nothing to do with the journalistic credibility of either of its principal performers, nor the platform upon which it was presented. Yet, that is what dominated the discussion and analysis.
So, what is the real meaning here? Are Americans just not interested in Alex Jones or his controversial brand of political sensationalism? Well, some certainly are. Enough to give his internet content millions of followers and establish him as an influence in niche-driven political news/talk media.
However, to expect Jones to attract yesterday’s big network numbers is a stretch. This disconnect comes from a misunderstanding and gross misuse of the term “mainstream media” (MSM).
We are immersed in the digital era marked by a dizzying number of media platforms and their attendant human interests. Yet, we still hear the expression “mainstream media” used as though news and entertainment continue to be dominated by a handful of media outlets and patronized by a largely homogeneous society. We actually still believe there is a “general public.”
I laugh when I hear, “The American people have spoken.” Who are they?
If we are going to insist on clinging to the “mainstream” analogy for media we should at least recognize that it is no longer the narrow, deep river in which we used to swim as kids – capable of supporting the ocean liners that were network television. Now, it’s a wide-but-shallow marsh only capable of supporting smaller, specialized vessels.
We no longer live in the universe of “I Love Lucy” and the “Texaco Star Theater.” The water pressure in major cities no longer measurably drops during commercial breaks while the masses relieve themselves.
The only thing we have even close to Uncle Miltie in the 21st century is Uncle Donny. And the only vestige of yesterday’s “mainstream media” is the annual broadcast of the Super Bowl. Nothing else. Not even that paragon of mom and apple pie, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Media observers shouldn’t misread the massive numbers racked up by the cable networks during the GOP primary “clown car” debates as being indicative of a widespread growth of substantial interest in American politics.
It was far more akin to the massive (although temporary) fascination people from all walks of life had in seeing the amazing spectacle of the century’s greatest media exhibitionist lay waste to 17 (or so) garden variety political hacks.
For a moment in time (that is still “now”), this unusual specimen of Homo sapiens “united” Americans (as an audience) in their common interest of disliking their institutions and leaders as well as each other… and created a spectacle more riveting than Wrestlemania.
Donald Trump is the first president exclusively playing by the new natural laws of the modern arena and he is clearly aware that the game is played the way the game is scored. He executes with the same unbending focus that savvy radio programmers familiar with the ways of PPM strategize connecting with their carefully targeted formats.
In the world of the widening mainstream, it is often more prudent to prevent the tune-out than risk eroding the loyalty of your core by compromising your message in the quest for the tune-in. Whereas old school observers see Trump’s 38% approval rating as “the lowest” in the recent history of the presidency and thus, a glaring weakness, he actually is the strongest niche player in the game… especially since his 38% is so tenacious in its loyalty to its hero.
Does anyone else out there have a dedicated following of 38%? Alex Jones sure doesn’t. Nor does Megyn Kelly. Nor do any of the major networks or newspapers… nor does anything.
And the so-called “resistance movement” doesn’t have a leader. Is Rachel Maddow the next president?
THAT’S why Donald Trump continues to play exclusively to his core.
This makes Trump unstoppable (at least for now) and, in a non-partisan sense, terribly dangerous – even to his supporters. Because a 38% “approval” rating of dedicated disciples in a fragmented society (which will very likely continue to be the state of society going forward) is a recipe for the hostile acquisition of unprecedented power.
This is not meant to be a knock on Trump or his political policies. I prefer to stay out of that. It is meant to call attention to the new rules of the game so media practitioners can get a grip on the exotic challenges being faced, not to mention the responsibility we all have to protect the First Amendment and balance of powers that the founding fathers so presciently embedded into the Constitution.
Michael Harrison is the publisher of Talkers Magazine. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.