Endless Russia: The Emergence of the Permanent Political Media State

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Another week, and another round of layoffs have hit entertainment media. Vice Media, which started as a government-funded magazine to cover music in Montreal, and now owns a vast multimedia empire valued at $5.7 billion, announced last week that it is laying off 60 employees, and specifically in its print staff to make way for more video-centric and international content.

Though the Vice layoffs will affect a wide array of the media company’s business, the two sectors that will feel the brunt are the sports division, which has been shuttered, and Vice’s Thump subdomain, which covers electronic music and will now be folded into the main Vice website. Vice says it will pull from its other channels to make up for the coverage losses.

“All good things come to an end,” said Jorge Arangure, editor-in-chief of Vice Sports on Friday (7-21). “Vice Sports will cease [to] exist as a site. And I will no longer work at Vice. It was a great run. Thanks for reading.” 

The layoffs come as MTV and Fox Sports made similar moves recently to vacate print and personality spots on their employment rosters to save on payroll and make way for cheaper video production staff. The contraction in entertainment media is also being felt by decidedly smaller outfits like popshifter.com, which decided last week it will cease operations. Of the smaller blogs and websites that survived the late 2015 contraction in media due to the widespread adoption of ad blockers and the shift from Google to Facebook as the primary driver of web traffic, only a few are still holding on in the increasingly adverse economic environment for online publishing.

Amid the continued contraction in sports and entertainment coverage, from the massive layoffs recently at ESPN to the scores of smaller blogs and websites who’ve now called it quits, not enough is being made about how the Russian collusion controversy and the endless political news cycle surrounding it are undoubtedly pulling time and attention from the elective reading in the entertainment sector.

One consistency in the recent media contraction is it seems to be affecting sports and music disproportionately to other entertainment coverage such as celebrity news and gossip. Just like with Vice, which targeted both music and sports coverage for its layoffs, it seems like when one story about layoffs at a music outlet emerges, it is chased with similar news from a sports outlet. This is in contrast to the trend in previous years for music and entertainment outlets like Vice and Rolling Stone to add sports coverage to their beat due to the emerging popularity of sports commentary, or for sports outlets like Deadspin or ESPN’s now shuttered Grantland to add music and culture coverage to grow and diversify their audience.

But that was all before the polarizing 2016 election cycle. Even the NFL—which many believed was an untouchable juggernaut of entertainment with expectations for nothing but expansion well into the foreseeable future—experienced a surprising down tick in ratings last season, and caught many entertainment experts by surprise. The Presidential election was thought to have a significant effect on the ratings down slide.

After the election ended in November, and President Trump took office in February, prognosticators assumed a sense of normalcy would eventually return to the media space, and to life in America. However due to the Russia saga, no such shift has occurred. If anything, the polarization of American culture has only solidified.

The drama surrounding San Francisco 49’ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem, or the various controversies surrounding ESPN and what some conservatives feel is a liberal agenda show that the polarization of the American population is not just drowning out information and interest in leisure and entertainment, it is permeating it. Similar controversies have gripped the music space, such as Beyoncé’s Album of the Year loss at the 2017 Grammy Awards, and the anger over Beyoncé being excluded from consideration in the Grammy Awards’ country music categories.

In the month of June, aside from a few moments, it felt like life, including in the entertainment world, was finally returning to some sense of equilibrium as the Russia story smoldered, but didn’t flare up as it had done in previous months. People were able to enjoy the NBA and NHL Finals in relative peace. But as recent new revelations in the Russian investigation have emerged, and the healthcare battle has heated up, the protracted political cycle is once again clogging the social media and news feeds of consumers, pulling attention away from entertainment, and turning the economics of covering anything but politics into a prohibitive proposition for media both big and small.

This leads to further polarization of the media, as media outlets feel the need to choose sides in the political battle, or begin to shift to more political-oriented coverage to lure in lost readers in the environment of endless polarization and seething political vitriol. This allows political cycle to become even more elongated and deeply-rooted, permeating throughout culture beyond the standard political boundaries.

However it’s hard to couch the media itself as a victim here, especially print media. Perhaps entertainment media is a victim, but it is print media that has been the catalyst for the slow drip of Russia coverage, driving the narrative, and insuring that a sense of normalcy cannot be realized by incrementally releasing developments through government leakers on a seemingly regular basis, and at times even seeming to checkmate positive news or moments of consensus or normalcy with fresh revelations.

Where newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post were facing an existential threat in recent years due to the internet and alternative news sources, and the efficacy of the traditional print story delivered by professional journalists was severely in question, now all of a sudden these outlets are like the rock stars of the media, making one new revelation on the Russia story after another, and sitting in the driver’s seat of the national narrative.

Amid all the talk of media outlets emptying their offices of print journalists for savvy multimedia producers, print media in the political space is experiencing not just a renewal, but a Cambrian explosion of interest and productivity, and having profound effects on politics and culture like never before. Print media is also laying off art critics and lifestyle reporters for more political reporters, pundits and commentators. The information on the Russia story is not coming from the government, independent investigators, lawyers, or politicians in an official capacity. It is coming from local newspapers, resulting in an international impact on not just Russia, but an array of political subjects.

However the incessant march of political revelations in a purposeful trickle that won’t allow the public or the media to regain a sense of the normal news cycle is causing long-term, damning affects on how Americans fundamentally live their lives, and how they interface with each other, their communities, and engage in entertainment and leisure, through media coverage or directly.

Where before Americans were consumed with rooting for their favorite sports team or perhaps their favorite entertainer to win a Grammy or an Oscar, now their rooting interests are drawn down political lines. Though this level of political engagement may be seen as a positive compared to the apathy of eras past, or seen as important by either side because of the graveness of the matters, when the result is the constant undermining of each other’s goals based on political differences, and there’s no sportsmanship involved, the impact is not just less attention on elective activities in life such as music and sports, it’s the stultification of progress, and the seizing up of any actions that might result in sum positives for the American population, even when there is consensus.

The pursuit of happiness in America has been replaced by a national obsession to incessantly undermine the will of anyone seen as a political adversary. And similar to the Shia/Sunni conflict in the Middle East, the internal conflict had rendered the United States unable to pursue its collective will as a country, and has allowed it to become vacant on the international stage.

The accusations against the Trump Administration are grave and serious, and should be investigated. If that investigation is attempting to be impeded by the Administration, or politicized by any governmental entity, then the media should report on this. And in a Democracy, it is imperative on the media to police and report on these public institutions, especially if corruption or illegal activity is believed to be involved.

However as any investigator will tell you, leaking details of an ongoing investigation to the public, or attempting to try a case in the court of public opinion, only hinders the fact finding process, impedes the ability of all parties to fair action under the law, and overall is damaging to the pursuit of justice.

The intent of Russia in meddling in America’s 2016 Presidential election—if we are to believe the reports—was not just to help win the election of President Trump. It was to sow disharmony throughout the entire political process and to pit Americans against each other, with the results being the weakening of the United States, and its ability to project power around the world. Not in spite of the media coverage on Russia, but through it, the Russians have been able to achieve their goals of constant and endless disruption in American life by forcing everyone to choose a side, and to pay attention.

In this case, the incessant media coverage of the Russian issue, and the baiting of the American public by governmental leakers and their willing accomplices in the media, is not the workings of the checks and balances on power, it is the American media and their plants in the government working as unwitting pawns, doing the bidding of Russia to sow disharmony in both the government, and in public life.

The antidote to Russian meddling is not the incremental exposure of disjointed and incomplete facts through unnamed sources and still yet-to-be-revealed-evidence, it’s allowing the investigative process to move forward unimpeded by outside pressures, and soap-opera style leaks of gossip that are ultimately inconsequential to the efficacy of the investigation, and are more to feed the appetite of a public that wants to be polarized and angry at the other side of the political divide. There should be consensus in the need for a complete a thorough investigation where guilty parties can be brought to justice, or the accused can be ultimately exonerated. And the media should be a part of this process, not undermining it.

Granted, some believe disruption of society and government is the path forward for their particular political ideals. It just happens to be that if we are to believe all the reports on Russian meddling in the election, the Russians would agree. If the government can’t function effectively, then it’s less likely to get involved in Syria, The Ukraine, or other places where Russians are looking to take advantage of American discord.

There is a lot of quoting and comparisons of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 these days, especially in how propaganda and fake news seems to pervade the media cycle, revisionist history seems to be the rule of the day, the world seems to be under the thumb of crooked politicians, and surveillance of our every move and thought has reached levels that just a few years ago would have incited panic.

But one element of George Orwell’s iconic novel that is regularly left out of the comparisons is how the 1984 world was marked by endless conflict. In fact in the novel, the endless conflict is the reason that the ruling party deems it necessary to authorize deep intrusions into people’s personal lives, and receives it from a worried and fearful public. Whether there actually is a conflict, and the scale of it or the seriousness of the threat is left open to interpretation.

Similarly, today it feels like politics both domestic and international is in an endless cycle that now permeates every part of human life. It is no longer compartmentalized to political campaign seasons, or the political elements of the government and culture. It affects every sector, and demands every moment of our attention, including the elective ones, while the 50/50 division of opinion makes for the perfect environment for the media and politicians to implore the public to remain engaged, and to continue to pour money into the political industrial complex, lest the other side gain a slight advantage and end up in the majority.

Even when the Russian investigation resolves, no matter the outcome, it still may be years for the endless ripping of scars that has occurred through the dripping news cycle of this Russian collusion investigation to truly heal, if they ever do. The media has found its perfect story to keep the public continuously fearful, angry, polarized, and most importantly, engaged. After years of contraction due to the disparate nature of the internet and the emergence of countless independent outlets and social media, the media at large has now regained control of the public narrative through the Russian story. The question is when it’s all over—if it ever ends—will we be able to come back together to enjoy a baseball game, or a music concert together? Or will political polarization undermine the pursuit of happiness in America?