The line between fiction and reality, between what was once unthinkable and what is now happening, comes across as very blurred in news coverage of Donald Trump. But a lot of lines shouldn’t be blurry. There are things that are true. And there are things are totally made up. Sorting through them and making sense of complicated issues is the job of journalism… right? Anyway, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been doing a lot of shouting at the television in the last couple months… or maybe shouting at the internet or the radio. Media is the way we come to understand the world and what happens in it and what we as regular people can do to shape our societies. And this role, this reality, has been altered, in some pretty big and disturbing ways thanks to Trump.
To help make sense of this new dystopian media landscape, we talk on this episode with Carlos Maza, who hosts the Vox media criticism video series Strikethrough, and Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media and News and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, who wrote for Bitch about the role The Apprentice played in shaping Donald Trump’s public image. Listen in!
THE REALITY TV STAR FOR PRESIDENT
FAKE NEWS AND REAL REPORTING
• Check out Bitch’s F.U.C.K.I.T.T. List series on fake news and Trump-era propaganda.
• Read Jennifer Pozner’s article “NBC and the Manufacturing of Donald Trump” in the Family Values issue of Bitch magazine.
• Watch Carlos Maza’s Strikethrough video on comedians covering Donald Trump.
SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
Probably the worst part of Carlos Maza’s job is that he has to watch a lot of TV about Donald Trump.
CARLOS MAZA: Hi, my name is Carlos Maza, and I produce a video series for Vox.com called Strikethrough, which is focusing on journalism and media in the age of Trump.
SARAH: Since he’s watched more TV news coverage of Trump than maybe anyone else who is not currently on the Donald Trump White House staff, I asked Carlos to tell me the top three emotions he experiences while watching the endless news cycle.
CARLOS: Number one is, “Please stop.” Like there’s just too much stuff for any human to process, which is not a critique of media; it’s just a critique of the world. It’s just even a really good news consumer, I think, is probably overwhelmed and burned out ‘cause there’s too much stuff to focus on. It’s like watching a show that never stops introducing plotlines. I don’t know what’s happening anymore!
SARAH: It’s like we’re all trapped in an episode of Lost, and it just keeps getting worse.
CARLOS: Yeah, it keeps doubling over on itself. You’re like, I don’t know who the main character is. I don’t know who I want to die on this.
[Lost theme music]
SARAH: It may be a little too apt to compare our current political situation to a disappointing and bewildering TV show because, after all, a reality TV star is literally our President. Since election day, it’s been difficult, for me at least, to listen to him on the radio or on TV because it just, so often, is terrible and confusing. I often find myself asking, wait did Donald Trump actually say that? Is that real? Is it that absurd, or was that Alec Baldwin making fun of Donald Trump?
[Alec Baldwin as Trump on SNL]
TRUMP: Come on, Brooke. I was trying to look cool. I mean, what normal red-blooded American doesn’t wanna impress the Billy Bush?
[actual Donald Trump recorded clip]
TRUMP: Let’s be honest: We’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today. We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago, and Washington is totally broken. Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground….
SARAH: The line between fiction and reality, between what was once unthinkable and is now happening, comes across as very blurred in the news coverage of Trump. There are “alternative facts,” and people say we live in a “post-truth” world. But a lot of lines shouldn’t be blurry. There are things that are true, and there are things are totally made up. Sorting through them and making sense of complicated issues is the job of journalism, right?
Anyway, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been doing a lot of shouting at the television in the last couple months or maybe shouting at the internet or at the radio. Media is the way that we come to understand the world and what happens in it and what we as regular people can do to shape our societies. And this role, this reality, has been altered in some pretty big and disturbing ways under Trump. To make sense of the way that Trump has changed our media, I called up two brilliant people: Carlos Maza,
CARLOS: Hey, it’s me.
SARAH: and media critic extraordinaire Jenn Pozner.
JENN POZNER: My name is Jennifer Pozner. I am the executive director of Women In Media & News and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
SARAH: For anyone who is worried about what’s happening to journalism in the Trump era and in the future beyond, this episode is for you. It might not make you feel better about the world, but at least it will make you feel less alone.
So, as you remember, I asked Carlos Maza to explain the top three things he feels when watching news coverage of Trump. We covered point one: Please, stop [chuckles]. Now, point two.
CARLOS: The second feeling is, “Oh come the f- on.” Just like feeling like I’m in some surreal upside down version of the world where people who are very smart are talking about things in a way that’s very stupid and neutral when they should not be. And the third feeling is, “Oh, thank god.” ‘Cause there are some bright spots of really good journalism. And when you’re feeling powerless, I think the reason we care so much about the media is because at least you want the story about what’s happening too to be right. So when you see a really good moment of journalism, you’re like, oh, thank god. OK, yes. That’s exactly how I see the world. That is what’s happening. I am not crazy. And also, there are people who have some influence and power who are describing the world as it is. That can be a very good feeling. I feel like so much of people who are worried about Trump, I think, are putting a lot of stock in media ‘cause it feels like the last real, tangible check on power. So when it does do well, you’re like, whoo! OK, a moment of relief in the non-stop firestorm that it is the past few months.
SARAH: Yeah, that’s a really good point that it does feel like media’s our last check on power. Because if Republicans control every level of our government, from state legislatures to Congress to courts to the presidency, it can feel really helpless. Like, where do we go from here?
CARLOS: Yeah. I think even if you don’t see the media that way, if you think that people, citizens in public opposition is the last real check on power, it’s hard to see that working if media is not going well. Because the way the citizenry understands that something bad is happening and gets pissed off, it’s because they’re getting accurate information about it. So when media fails in that sense, even if you think the media is useless, we do need it to understand what to be upset about and what not to be upset about and when to go vote and when to protest. So it’s just a very important point of any kind of public opposition towards positions of power.
SARAH: How has your feeling about the possibility of citizen action changed since Trump has started shaping our media? Do you feel like we’re still in a world where we can have an informed citizenry that goes and cares about things and protests them and votes on stuff, or are you getting increasingly full of despair in this world of fake news? I’ve been hearing the term we’re in a “post-truth” world.
SARAH: And I don’t know how to wrap my brain around that or about what that means about what we should do in the world.
CARLOS: Yeah, and I don’t think I have a great answer. I’ll say I am obviously super anxious and nervous about what happens when the most powerful office in the government is using its platform to convince voters that they should not trust credible sources of information and just have basic questions about whether or not there’s a shared reality that we can agree upon. I think that [unclear] before Trump, and a lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am have pointed this out. But so much of Fox News’s ascendency is because they just created this alternative version of the world people really liked. So if you wanted to live in that upside down, you’d have the option to for a while. The ascendency of that post-truth world has put a lot of pressure on journalists, mainstream journalists, to act differently.
The fact that stuff is so wild and bonkers means that journalists who have, I think, gotten away with kind of playing it middle-of-the-road and trying to not take a position on issues they should be taking positions on, feel this pressure to inject some more reason into a debate that’s getting overwhelmed by bullshit. I think that that’s good, that the extremeness of the current situation is causing some journalists to be like, “I have to change my behavior in response.” I think that behavior change is long overdue and actually very healthy. So I can see it going both ways. My constant feeling is just I’m nervous. So [chuckles] it’s not a good or bad feeling. It’s just, god, I hope we all make it [chuckles], which is, I feel, probably the feeling for everyone right now.
SARAH: Well, let’s talk about the first thing that you said you feel when you start reading the news, which is, what the hell? How can this be happening? How do you feel like Donald Trump has changed the way that news is written and changed the behavior of traditional journalists, people who work for big newspapers, big television stations?
CARLOS: In a couple ways. One is that he acts in a way that does just generate a lot more newsworthy, sensational stories. So part of it is his use of Twitter. Part of it is that he just doesn’t abide by typical, standard procedure for doing things like announcing major shifts in foreign policy. That stuff happens a lot more unexpectedly ad hoc. So I think journalists are consistently playing defense isn’t the right word, but journalists are consistently operating from a place of reaction as opposed to, “I did this digging, and so I know something is happening.” That’s not just true for journalists. That’s true for everybody who has an internet connection, that a lot of it is reacting in real time to things that are just happening at a much faster pace.
I think Trump, too, has forced journalists to think about news in a more nuanced way. ‘Cause I think in the Obama presidency or in the Bush presidency, if either of them had tweeted or said any one thing that Trump tweets, it would undoubtedly be newsworthy ‘cause it would be so unusual. Everything that Trump tweets is so sensational, and despite what—
Meryl Streep was a really good example. If Obama did that, that would be super newsworthy and interesting. But in the Trump era, it happens so often, and there are so many sensational things going on that journalists have to ask this second question, which is not only is this interesting, is this important? Is this significant to my audience? Does this affect the material conditions of their lives? And I’m not gonna ignore it. I think some news outlets have done a good job of answering that question, and some have not done a good job of answering that question. Some have just taken the we’ll treat everything equally and just deal with the news cycle as it hits us. I think that screws over everyone. It screws over the reporters who are constantly overworked, and it screws over the audiences who don’t understand how to separate between real story and bullshit.
I think the other challenge that’s happened is that, another challenge that journalists face is that there’s been, I think, an understanding that when the White House says stuff, there’s at least an attempt to make it seem like it might be true; there’s an attempt to not get caught lying or to say things that journalists could have, in good faith, say this might be true. I don’t think that’s true for Trump or for Spicer or for this White House in general. There are a lot of examples of this White House saying things that are just obviously, blatantly this is obviously dumb and not true. I think that poses a challenge in the way that reporters cover it.
So one example of this is in headlines that typically in an Obama White House or a Bush White House, the President said something, the headline would just be, “The President said this thing. This is newsworthy.” Now because the President is saying something that is very obviously false, if you were to run that same headline, that’s very misleading. If you’re running a headline that says, “Trump Claims Millions Voted Illegally,” you need to actually insert this other part of this headline, which is, “By the way, that is bananas and bullshit.” There’s this extra work that reporters have to do when they’re doing recordkeeping about the White House, which is making sure that they’re not pedaling and repeating this information. I think that that is something that they always should’ve done, but it is especially important in the era of Trump.
SARAH: I think that dynamic where Trump says things that are patently untrue, that are just made-up fiction, and then reporters have to respond to that by adding caveats to everything that he says when they’re reporting on it plays into this conception that media is biased and that media is trying to undermine Trump all the time. I can imagine somebody reading a headline that says, “Trump Claims Millions Voted Illegally, No Evidence For That,” and saying, “Oh, look. What Trump is saying is true. The media’s out to get him.” I just think that we’re in this kind of bad cycle right now where everything we do plays into this idea that you can’t trust the media.
CARLOS: Yeah, and the flip side of that is that if you don’t include that debunk, that audiences tend to believe the lie and internalize it as true just through like osmosis. They just start to think that that misinformation. So you can’t just not include the debunk because people start believing it then. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. I do think that there are ways of debunking that are more effective than others. What you’re alluding to is that, for people who already support Trump, that debunks actually have a backfire effect. That it causes them to become re-entrenched in the myth because they feel protective of their candidate, or their President. Or they just don’t wanna believe that the thing that they believe is wrong. And that’s not just true of Trump supporters.
Every human has this natural bias against correction and debunking, where they don’t wanna admit they made a mistake. There’s a lot of research about this. There are ways to debunk more effectively, to kind of deal with that part of human bias, but there just hasn’t been a concern that journalists, especially journalists working on deadlines, have had to take into consideration before. I think that the extremeness and uniqueness of Trump is forcing journalists to have to be a lot more thoughtful about how they go about dealing with misinformation and how they accommodate the people who believe in Trump and take his word very seriously and are suspicious of them without giving too much room to misinformation, how to walk that line. I think you’re seeing some really creative and some really unsuccessful ways of navigating those two pressures.
SARAH: Yeah, it’s totally true that the way to make a myth become a mainstream value is to just repeat it enough until people believe that it’s true.
SARAH: So that’s something that you do a lot in your video work is try and debunk common myths and misconceptions and explain why they’re wrong in a really thoughtful way. So can you explain to me any strategies you’ve found or that you’ve seen in other people’s work about actually successful ways to debunk myths and to counter fake news or false ideas when they’re coming from somebody such as the President?
CARLOS: Yeah. There’s been a lot of research on this, and some of these, I think, are easier to do than others. One of the things that’s really powerful for debunking a myth that research shows is really effective is if you get somebody from the ideological camp of the person you’re trying to convince to agree with you. So during the debate about whether or not millions of people voted illegally, when news networks were interviewing Republican Attorneys General or state Republican leaders who were coming out and saying, “This voter fraud thing is BS. I am in charge of this oversight, and it doesn’t happen,” that was really effective because an audience is more likely to trust someone who they believe is similar to them and has the same ideological background and they can’t just dismiss as being, “Oh, you’re the enemy. You’re the opponent.” So finding validators from the other side is a really useful tool.
Not repeating it a million times. Prioritizing the reality as opposed to the falsehood is a really simple and almost dumb way of stopping a lie from being spread. Giving some explanation as to why a lie is being told is really helpful. Giving the audience a motive for why someone would be dishonest to them is really important because the human brain needs a story to replace the original story. So if your original story is millions of people voted illegally, there’s widespread voter fraud, just saying, “Trump lied” is not enough of a story to replace it. You need to say, “Trump lied. He’s making this up, a long-term conservative myth that has been used to promote voter ID laws that undermine Democratic voters.” That makes a lot more sense, and that’s easier for the brain to replace ‘cause it’s not just there’s an incorrect belief; it’s there’s this incorrect belief, and there’s a reason why people believe it. I am not an idiot for believing this thing.
The last thing I’ll say, I think there’s a bunch that we could talk about this, but one thing that I found really effective and that I try to use in the work that I do is humor or humanity and vulnerability to calm down an audience’s fears or anxieties they might have about you as a source of information. A lot of things that I do in my videos are making jokes or revealing personal information that has nothing to do with the argument, just showing you that I’m a person. It’s the reason that I wanted to start doing video work as opposed to written work is because there is a part of us as humans that wants to like and trust other people. And the more that we can establish that on the outset, that I am a person too, and I am living in the same country and trying to make the most sense of this, the more naturally we are trusting each other.
It’s just like how if you are really anxious about gay people, if you meet a gay person and talk to them about your favorite food for an hour, you’re naturally a lot more tolerant and open and warm with them because you see similarities. So part of what makes satire so powerful, and part of what makes, I think, video work so powerful is that you can show the person you’re talking to, “Look! I’m a person. I’m not a monster. I’m not trying to kill you. I’m not your enemy. I have a disagreement with you. Here’s my best argument for why I have this disagreement so you can kinda see where I’m coming from.” I think there’s something about that shared warmth that comes with talking and being funny and having asides that I think satire does so well, that I think it can counteract or kind of put on pause people’s natural defensiveness when it comes to having information they believe debunked. It’s not an exact science, but I think that can be really helpful.
SARAH: Speaking of which, what is your favorite food?
CARLOS: Oh my god! I’m obsessed with the flavored almonds from Trader Joe’s. I eat them until I get sick. I’m vegetarian, but their mesquite bar-b-que ones taste like meat. I eat them until I physically cannot talk to people. It’s my biggest vice.
SARAH: They burn your tongue [chuckling]?
CARLOS: They burn my tongue, and they [unclear] to put a whole bunch more of them in your mouth. And your like, I’ve eaten 86 servings of almonds, and I have to go to work tomorrow, and I hope you’ll get it.
SARAH: But no, I think [laughs] all Trader Joe’s almonds jokes aside, I think that’s actually the most sweet and optimistic message I’ve heard about media and Trump in a long time, that actually the human desire to believe and trust people, which is so often exploited and manipulated these days with Trump’s statements and our media outlets is something you can harness for the power of good. That’s something I think about a lot with storytelling. Humans respond really strongly to stories. We don’t respond as strongly to data. One mistake I make, and I think a lot of reporters make, is just trying to hit people over the head with data to tell them why something is right or why something is wrong. And it doesn’t work as well as telling a story about something that can tie in to people’s identity as well as their sense of the world. So while that tendency to believe stories and kind of fudge over or forget data is really disturbing in a lot of ways, we can harness that power in some ways.
CARLOS: Yeah. I think that that’s not like a feel-good, hippy-dippy new age thing. I think there’s actually a bunch of psychological research that does show that humans, like I said, prioritize storytelling, prioritize personalities, prioritize warmth over raw data. One of the benefits of that storytelling approach and the humanity approach is that it implicit in that is an understanding that I, as a speaker, know I might be wrong, and I as a speaker understand where you are coming from and don’t think you’re an idiot for believing that. That there’s a level of equal vulnerability that comes with being a human when you talk to people about this stuff and tell stories that shows that it’s almost like owning up to your perspective and bias makes you more trustworthy.
SARAH: Yeah, the biggest example of the sort of human-centered storytelling approach to reporting on Trump that you were just talking about is, of course, satire. Is this, for you, the shining point of covering in Trump? Are these the people who are actually doing the best jog even though they’re not traditional reporters?
CARLOS: It’s more nuanced than I think. Satirists are not reporters. So it’s wrong to equate them with someone like Maggie Haberman from The New York Times who spends time developing sources and can reveal information that most people don’t have access to. That is a thing that is solely within the purview of actual journalists, and they do that very well. I don’t think satire’s appropriate in those cases. Where satire is appropriate is explaining to audiences why any of that stuff matters, how they should place all the news they’re getting into their brains, and how it affects them, and why they should care about certain stories. So I’m more interested in comparing satirists to the hosts of CNN or the people who host morning talk shows. What satirists get that I think CNN does so badly is that to do effective storytelling and to do effective reporting, you need to be able to describe the world as it is and be able to say no to certain perspectives.
I think CNN’s model, especially during their primetime coverage is there’s a dispute happening, we will allow everyone to speak about this to see who has an opinion, and let the audience decide. And that’s very bad for the human brain. It doesn’t encourage critical thinking. You’re getting yelled at. You tend to just gravitate towards the people who already agree with you. And also, you’re not getting any useful information.
Another problem with CNN is that they give those people like 15 minutes of prep time to prepare for a segment. Most of them are not experts on the issue they’re talking about; they’re just pundits. So you’re literally watching people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about scream at each other for 10 minutes and then being like, “Commercial break!” It’s just not good for the brain.
What satire does really well is that it doesn’t entertain bullshit. It laughs at bullshit. And so you’re spending less time focusing on arguments that are really dumb, talking points that are really dumb. It’s not concerned with theater; it’s concerned with reality. So satire dispenses with talking points very efficiently. It’s like this is a talking point. It’s either true or false. Move on. It’s not curious about why they said it this way, that kind of the theater that political news coverage is typically concerned with.
What makes satire so effective in terms of educating viewers is that what sarcasm does to the brain, or what jokes do to the brain, is it forces you to think to get why the joke is funny. So an example is if I were to tell you, “Yeah, I had a great day today,” I’m actually forcing you to realize that I’m not telling you the truth, and I actually had a bad day. That little process of being like, “Oh, that’s not what you mean. You’re telling a joke,” forces the brain to engage more critically in information. That means that you process information better. It just turns your brain on in a way that hearing people scream at each other on a panel does not. Part of what I think news coverage does incorrectly is it talks about absurd shit with this really level tone, and that signals to the audience that you should take it kind of seriously too. Like the Trump wiretapping thing: If you were just to say, “Trump says he was wiretapped by Obama at Trump Tower. That’s not true,” that doesn’t really communicate how silly this is and how absurd it is in a way that a joke does.
So more than just the information that’s being communicated, satire can really effectively communicate how you should feel about something, how silly you should see that [unclear], and how much weight you should give to an idea. That’s a really important part of news coverage that I think the traditional straight news reporting misses out on. It’s why I’ve had so much of that sinking feeling of watching CNN and being like, “What are we talking about right now? This is bonkers!” and not having anyone on TV who mirrored that for you.
SARAH: That was Carlos Maza. As you would expect, he is hilarious on Twitter @gaywonk. You can also watch his video series Strikethrough about media criticism in the Trump era at Vox.com.
Next up: Jenn Pozner talks with us about how reality TV show The Apprentice helped facilitate its star becoming our real-life President.
In trying to figure out how the team here at Bitch can best grapple with our current dystopian media situation, we came across the word “kakistocracy.” What the heck is a kakistocracy? It’s a Greek work meaning “government by the worst people,” a state or a country that’s “run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.” Hmm…that sounds alarmingly familiar right about now!
In March, Bitch launched a new series of articles called Feminists United to Combat Kakistocracy In Trump Times List, aka the FUCKITT List. The FUCKITT list aims to combat the Trumpification of our pop culture. The FUCKITT List will be updated at bitchmedia.org every last week of the month with analysis on a new terrible term from the Trump administration’s lexicon. It’s thoughtful, rigorous, and feminist consideration of what his distinct brand of propaganda really means and why it matters. Check out the FUCKITT List at BitchMedia.org where you are welcome to suggest new words and stuff we should cover with both humor and acidity in these chaotic times of kak-istoc-racy. Okay, back to the show!
I’ve been traveling internationally in the last couple months, and whenever I meet a stranger and tell them I’m from the United States, our conversation inevitably winds up with them asking one question: “So…why did you guys elect Trump?” I have a whole spiel in response to this, involving everything from voter ID laws to the role of white supremacy. But media unmistakably played a huge role in his election, and it’s hard to unwind the giant, messy ball of string that is media’s influence on the election. But for the spring print issue of Bitch magazine, Jenn Pozner wrote a feature article about how specifically NBC and the reality TV show The Apprentice helped shape the public image of Trump into someone who could conceivably run for President. It’s called All In the Family: NBC and the Manufacturing of Donald Trump.
If you’re not one of the millions of people who has ever actually watched The Apprentice, just as a refresher, it’s this show:
[voices speaking energetically over each other, dramatic music]
TRUMP: Andy! You’re just being pounded on. You’re being out-debated. I just don’t want somebody running one of my companies that’s gonna get beaten up so badly. You’re fired.
[music rises to its climax, fades down]
SARAH: OK, so Jenn is the founder of the group Women In Media & News and is the the author of Reality Bites Back. Which it certainly did in this case. She’s currently working on a book about media’s complicity in Trump’s rise to power.
JENN: Amusingly, Ivanka Trump this morning on CBS told Gayle King that she did not know what it means to be complicit. So then Merriam-Websters tweeted at her the definition of complicity. There are gonna be a lot of ways, a lot of really weird ways, history looks back on this time period, right?
SARAH: It’s often a little hard to parse out what’s important and what’s not when you’re right in the middle of something. So I asked Jenn how historians in 50 years would look back on the role that The Apprentice played in his campaign.
JENN: It’s going to be increasingly clear, I hope, that NBC and The Apprentice really played a massive role in normalizing and not just normalizing, but creating a false sense of authority and a false sense of competence for Donald Trump for more than a decade before which, he was–I should say without which–he would never have been able to run in the first place. What I mean by that? The Apprentice, which is a show that pretended for 11 years or so, nearly every week, that Donald Trump held the keys to the American Dream in his hands. That he was the epitome of success, of authority, of telling it like it is but in a way that needs to happen so that people can make money and do good deal and get ahead. All of those ways that authority was bestowed on Trump by NBC and by Mark Burnett, the Producer of The Apprentice, alongside Donald Trump, who was also an Executive Producer of The Apprentice, creating his own narrative and learning through Mark Burnett how to create his own narrative, that authority–the image of authority, I should say–was specifically crafted in a manipulative and false manner to confuse and mislead viewers into believing this was the real Donald Trump, not the guy who was multiply bankrupt and sued for fraud numerous times.
SARAH: The whole idea of The Apprentice is that Donald Trump is a super successful business owner who knows everything about running a successful enterprise. The contestants on the show compete for the chance just to work for him. Given the facts of reality, you could just as easily have made a show where Donald Trump is some kind of symbol of what NOT to do in business: A guy who inherited a bunch of money from his family, filed for bankruptcy multiple times, and has been sued repeatedly for fraud. But that’s not the narrative The Apprentice was selling.
JENN: You know, they took a couple of minutes of footage every week of Donald Trump and left hours of footage of him off to the side. Anybody can be made to seem authoritative and intelligent and competent if you just cherry pick just a couple of minutes, and then if you leave all of his racist ranting and his pussy-grabbing off camera. So of course they didn’t want us to see that.
SARAH: During the presidential campaign, a producer from The Apprentice’s first season, Bill Pruitt, wrote a letter in Vanity Fair about how The Apprentice misled Americans about who Trump is. He wrote: “We were ‘entertaining,’ and the story about Donald Trump and his stature fell into some bizarre public record as ‘truth.’ Now that the lines of fiction and reality have blurred to the horrifying extent that they have, those involved in the media must have their day of reckoning [about] how complicit the media and social-media outlets have been in getting us to where we are now.” Wow!
JENN: Reality TV, more than any other genre, manipulates the audience. Because with sitcoms, with dramas we understand innately that even with the most realistic, gritty narrative, there are actors reading scripts written by writers, filmed by producers, and that this is a fictional process, and we get to be entertained by it. Maybe we get to learn something by it if it’s one of those sort of socially responsible types of programming efforts. But we understand that this isn’t “the truth.” Maybe, at best, it’s a reflection of true attitudes and values people might have, experiences that actors can tap into. But with reality television, this is a genre that bills itself as the truth. Most viewers don’t know that for an average hour of The Apprentice, or even an average hour of The Bachelor or any Real Housewives, whatever favorite show you have, you’re seeing less than 1% of what went on. They usually will have filmed more than 100 hours of tape. And then, if you take out commercials, then that’s basically 46 minutes or so of content. So you’re seeing less than 1% of all of the drama, all of the sort of intrigue behind the scenes. So if you think you know who Donald Trump is because you watched him for 11 years, that’s a reasonable assumption for you to make as a viewer if you believe the basic premise of reality TV.
SARAH: So what about all that footage that was left on the cutting room floor? After the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” video of Trump appeared in media, Bill Pruitt and an actor who had worked on The Apprentice both told media outlets that outtakes from The Apprentice are just as terrible.
JENN: And a lot of that material reportedly includes him using language including ethnic slurs, misogynist language, sexually harassing women who worked for him, both in terms of staff on the show as well as contestants. And so all of that, again, if viewers had known that that was the real Donald Trump and not this sort of faux authority figure who has turned into an authoritarian figure, we would’ve been able to see what was coming. And I doubt that he would’ve had a platform to run in the first place.
But they didn’t say, “Oh, we just won’t release them. We don’t want to.” They said, “No, wait. We’re not allowed to release the tapes because the tapes are owned by this production company.” Well, Mark Burnett, when he was approached to release the tapes said he couldn’t release the tapes, and NBC was the one who had the legal responsibility or permission, could grant permission or not. And then it turns out Mark Burnett is the owner of the production company that NBC is saying has the ability or not to release the tapes. So basically, it’s a giant pass the buck that ends up exactly where Burnett and NBC and Donald Trump wanted it to end up, which is keep the reality TV sausage-making process a secret. Don’t show anybody any raw footage. It would inevitably and irrevocably damage the image of supposed reality, supposed truth, of what The Apprentice had pretended that Donald Trump was.
I think in the feature I called it a disingenuous corporate circle jerk [chuckling] because all of that footage, which by the way, I wouldn’t say that anyone using ethnic slurs is worse than admitting to sexual assault; but I think it’s all bad, right? There’s a lot of reportedly really bad behavior and language on those tapes. The problem is that Mark Burnett holds onto his secrets like the biggest patriarch of any commercial endeavor. You don’t want to reveal how the sausage gets made as a reality TV producer. So in general, he has sued people who’ve leaked information about his reality shows in the past. But when it comes to Trump, who’s been one of his biggest money-makers– And it should also be noted–I didn’t have space to write this in the feature, but–Trump now is in charge of telecommunications policy. He is in charge of setting regulations for the media companies that will stand to make billions, or lose billions, based on his decisions, one of which is the company on whose payroll he still remains because of his role in The Celebrity Apprentice and not giving up his Executive Producer credit or compensation.
SARAH: The way race and gender played out on The Apprentice—on the footage that actually made it onto the air, not on the stuff that was left on the cutting room floor—foreshadowed the way Trump would demean women and people of color in his campaign.
JENN: White supremacy and misogyny played out in that show in the explicit framing of all of the contestants and how we were supposed to, as viewers, understand women and people of color and white men in the workplace. What Mark Burnett and Donald Trump did as Executive Producers was frame women contestants consistently as mentally and professionally inferior to their male counterparts on the show. They consistently framed women of color in particular as angry, as having no work ethic, as lazy. And in early seasons, they were framed to seem as if they could not excel in a business environment without using their sexuality to get ahead as a way to compensate for their lack of intellect.
SARAH: That was Jenn Pozner. If you want to know more about the behind-the-scenes crafting that goes into reality TV, check out her book, Reality Bites Back.
Even though most of it is an absolute mess, that doesn’t mean we should give up on media. People are always going to care about getting information, and we’re always going to be drawn like moths to the raging trash fire to watch shows like The Apprentice and The Bachelor. But we need some basic understanding, some basic media literacy, about what we’re consuming. We need to be able to separate fact from fiction. The stakes of blurring those lines are extremely obvious these days. I feel inspired by the people who are out there working to make good media, whether they work in TV or print or just post their ideas on social media to try and push us to better at journalism. We need journalism that asks actual questions and that makes us think about the world in new ways. Far too often, those kinds of ideas are drowned out by all the drama.
As you’re dealing with all the news coming at you right now, don’t forget to check out the FUCKITT List at BitchMedia.org for a soothing balm of reason amid the chaos of our kakistocracy.
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