Eating thought leadership for breakfast. / Sean MacEntee

New Conventions in Corruption

Media innovators leading the way!

Eating thought leadership for breakfast. / Sean MacEntee
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One persistent truth has held fast amid the ceaseless, unpredictable tumult of Campaign ’16: our corporate media has been utterly flummoxed by it all. Why, the pundit class wails in chorus, are American voters so goddamn angry all the time? Why can’t they make with the stoicism and grit already? And for God’s sake, where has all our precious civility gone?

Indeed, this posture of bemusement and befuddlement has been so undeviating, so all-pervading, so resistant to this or that empirical disproof, that it seems long past time to reverse the basic polarity of the American media’s long-running forensic chronicle of what makes our electorate tick. Shouldn’t we, instead, don our psycho-social lab coats and start gently probing the conduct and developmental background of our national political press? Who are these people? Where do they come from? What on Earth do they want?

Alas, the spirit of scientific inquiry can’t yield reliable replies to the first two questions, apart from (respectively) “demented meritocrats” and “fancy and expensive educational preserves.” But as we lumber into the convention phase of our grotesque election season, we’ve been granted an invaluable glimpse of the cui bono agenda of the American punditocracy. As Intercept reporter Lee Fang notes, the national party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia will be doubling as open-air feeding troughs for the media concerns that are ostensibly there to cover the news. Organs of respectable opinion and reportage such as The Atlantic, Politico, The Hill, and CQ Roll Call (a subsidiary of the still-more respectable-opinion merchants at The Economist) are falling over themselves to offer branded partnerships with high-rolling business and lobbying complexes, seeking to maximize networking and influence-peddling opportunities among the major party elites. Just get a dose of how all the pleasing synergy is envisioned in a Hill partnership brochure that Fang obtained: 

We will host hospitality suites where convention-goers—as well as your members and executives—can refuel and recharge. Social events and primetime watch parties will bring together stakeholders from Presidential and Congressional campaigns, the RNC and DNC, media, and industry for networking. When aligning your brand with ours, The Hill will create both a turnkey and custom experience.

Be warned, though—the more custom the experience, and the more glittering the turnkey, the more it sets you back! For more cost-conscious clients, there’s the Policy Luncheon option, which the nimble product branders at The Hill can organize in a snap, on seemingly any available subject:

We can unpack trends among Millennial or Hispanic voters. We can take a look [at] what policies will shape the future for military veterans and their families. We can highlight advances made in STEM education or financial literacy. We can explore what it means to elect more women to Congress.

So capacious is this litany of policy invention on-the-fly that one shudders to think just what might happen if, say, Trump campaign social media maven Daniel Scavino gets hold of this prime promotional opportunity and decides to devote a luncheon to “The Scheming Jews of the Democratic Establishment.” Or perhaps Trump enthusiast David Duke can host a session called “Making America White Again.” Then again, it’s probably a remote specter: even this a la carte Hill offering is priced at a cool $45,000, and the Trump organization is appallingly low on cash just now.

Meanwhile, the most sweeping co-branding option—a “full-day partnership,” which includes a suite of events “focusing on one issue area or several related policy verticals” designed to woo the attention of the many assembled power brokers and thought leaders steeped in the business of rubber-stamping the two most unpopular major-party presidential nominees in the republic’s history—for an anything-but-low $200,000. And here, journalistically speaking, things get truly sketchy: 

Throughout the day, The Hill will book and tape interviews with key stakeholders from a given policy area. Conducted by The Hill’s editorial talent, these interviews will feature campaign policy advisors, lawmakers, industry executives, and other policy influentials [sic]—including up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice. These interviews are pieces of earned media and will be hosted on a dedicated page on thehill.com and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.

Oh, they’re pieces of something all right, but “earned media” isn’t the fragrant phrase that comes first to mind. In this telltale confusion of campaign argot and journalistic craft, the eager marketers of The Hill have, amazingly, downgraded the standards of garden-variety campaign-orchestrated attention-whoredom. When political campaigns speak of “earned media,” they’re referring to airtime they haven’t paid for: a photo-op, a press availability, a victory speech or campaign rally. In the hands of The Hill’s everything-for-sale model of political trade journalism, though, this already rickety distinction gets crushed under the sheer volume of customized product made to look, feel, and read as though it’s notionally independent journalism. Yes, there’s Hill-branded editorial talent, Hill-supplied cameras and pixel space, interviews, and policyspeak. But it is, in reality, the polar opposite of “earned” media—it’s lavishly bought-and-paid-for media, plain and simple.

And I don’t mean to single out The Hill here—it’s just that theirs is the most upfront and detailed investor prospectus for the strategic purchase of fake journalism on offer. Our old friends at Politico, as Fang notes, will be sponsoring something called a “Caucus Energy Conversation” in both Cleveland and Philadelphia—which turns out, on closer inspection, to be a vanity project of Vote4Energy, which is, in turn, an Astroturf project of the American Petroleum Institute, the multimillion-dollar lobbying shop for Big Oil. The caucus-happy Vote4Energy crew is also helping to underwrite an Atlantic-sponsored “cocktail caucus” in Philadelphia, which will explore (in singularly wobbly fashion, one imagines) “the nation’s energy and environment landscape.”

“Campaign Analysis & Election Prediction Breakfasts” have to be just about the worst way to start any day.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by their Hill rivals, CQ Roll Call (a D.C. journalism shop I once had the great misfortune of working for) has its own lavish brochure touting its own pseudo-journalistic offerings. Here, too, you have the same woozy, synergistic convergence of hotel-catered meals and just-in-time “customized” political analysis and “intelligent entertainment.” There are, for instance, your “Campaign Analysis & Election Prediction Breakfasts,” which have to be just about the worst way to start any day, but are aggressively pitched here to “organizations wanting to demonstrate thought leadership” and “convention partners seeking to extend their convention presence to a Washington audience.” There’s your Branded Custom Convention Reception (not to be confused with your standard hospitality suites, which are also available for your customized pleasure), which promises to offer you and your brand “an exclusive audience with a group of lawmakers.” And should you simply be at a loss for a viable “concept or theme” for the thing, don’t worry! “Our experienced team will work with you every step of the way to design something new and unforgettable.” This is the event of choice, we learn, for “industry leaders” and “brands looking to make a splash.”

It seems worth noting in this connection that the fiercely promotional lords of CQ Roll Call are so vigilant in exploiting available market share that they drove away 24-year Roll Call veteran (and milquetoast centrist) election-watcher Stuart Rothenberg in May because, as Rothenberg put it, “they were paying less attention to Congress and congressional elections” in favor of witlessly “chasing the story of the day, especially Trump.” When you manage to drive a stalwartly agreeable soul like Stu Rothenberg into taking a stand of principle, why, then you’ve truly come into your own as a marketing colossus. Knowing the thought leadership of CQ Roll Call as well as I do, I’m confident that they’ll make many splashes of their own in Philadelphia and Cleveland—and make out like bandits in the process.

Conventions are the media equivalent of a peacock mating season.

But for all the richly justified revulsion that this garish flesh-peddling inspires, it doesn’t behoove us to be too sanctimonious here. After all, it’s now so easy to repackage journalism product as leasable sponsored content because political journalism nowadays is all but indistinguishable from promotional advertorials. This unlovely synergy is most apparent, of course, in the cable news industry’s slavering embrace of any and all available Trump footage—as well as in CNN’s indecent decision to hire the recently cashiered Trump thug Corey Lewandowski as an on-air analyst. More than that, though, there’s the hospitality-suite caliber of all cable political commentary, with its battery of unacknowledged major-party shills affecting to deliver original, unbought analysis before the voting public. Indeed, when you examine the particular components of the performative Hill-produced simulacrum of a news segment for sale in Cleveland or Philadelphia—the “campaign policy advisors, lawmakers, industry executives, and other policy influentials [sic]”—you realize that’s the typical roster of inside-D.C. players recruited for any basic B-roll campaign footage at a cable network, or to pad out the column inches in a Chris Cillizza or Mark Halperin outing. All that’s really different is the offer to include “three named executives or organization representatives of your choice”—but if you recur to the prodigious output of campaign omni-hack Mike Allen at Politico, you soon realize that’s truly a distinction without a difference.

Indeed, in their panting quest for C-suite sponsorship at the major-party conventions, our media establishment is just showcasing its long-running business model in especially shameless and overt fashion, since the conventions are the media equivalent of a peacock mating season. One reason that you’ll never see a multi-part in-depth commercial network report on the many grotesque distortions of the democratic process worked by our fathomlessly corrupt campaign-finance system is that these networks are the principal third-party beneficiaries of this corruption. ABC affiliate WMUR in Manchester, New Hampshire has long been known as “the house that Steve Forbes built,” thanks to the massive revenues it pocketed via the ad buys of that flat-tax pimping publishing mogul’s two doomed presidential runs in 1996 and 2000. And 2016 has marked a record haul for the affiliate’s already swollen political-ad coffers. For longer than anyone cares to acknowledge or remember, American journalism has likewise been the house that Forbes—or Hillary, or Donald Trump, or Sarah Palin—built. At least in so brazenly hawking their wares as sponsored advertorial content, the herders of thought leaders and other, uh, policy influential’s in Cleveland and Philadelphia, should get some notional credit for candor. The first step to recovery, after all, is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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 June 22

For the Atlantic, actual political agency, it seems, is a lesser virtue than the civic jolt proffered by a “mediating function.”