Skip to content

Cable News Charnel

Mayhem as a guide for living

The reason we are showing you this,” the grave news anchor says, “is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such.” The anchor is Fox News’s murine-faced Bret Baier. “We feel you need to see it, so we will put up one of the images on your screen right now.” It’s February 2015, and Fox News is about to show us a man being burned alive.

The paramilitary extremist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh (henceforth “ISIS,” for the sake of simplicity and brand recognition) had produced (or “slickly produced,” in the parlance of nearly every Western pundit) a twenty-two-minute video of ISIS members immolating a Jordanian pilot in a metal cage. While a few American print outlets used stills from the video, Fox was alone among American cable news channels in showing stills on air. It then uploaded the entire video to, where, according to the Guardian, it became an immensely popular link among the strange international community of online ISIS admirers and would-be camp followers. “The reality of Islamic terrorism”—specifically, this carefully choreographed version of that reality—was also just what ISIS wanted to show the folks at home. It’s why they made the video in the first place.

Fox plays ISIS propaganda with the same intention that ISIS brings to its production: to make Americans feel frightened of and threatened by an organization that actually poses no threat to American freedom or security. Exaggerating the power and reach of ISIS is in the immediate best interests of both the savage terrorist organization and the cynical, right-wing media outlet. The fiction that ISIS—a band of fanatics currently engaged in protracted battles and occupations half a world away from the United States—poses an existential threat to the best-armed nation in the history of the world both burnishes the group’s credentials with would-be jihadis and gives weight to Fox’s critique of a Democratic president as soft on terror. (In an earlier era, with a Republican in the White House, Fox’s on-air news personalities routinely blasted the Arab-language cable outlet Al Jazeera for playing Al Qaeda propaganda videos.)

This is not a particularly novel criticism. Fox faced almost universal condemnation from the American news industry (or at least those parts of it not yet prostrate before conservative ideology) for its decision to post the video in full. CNN executives and personalities, for instance, wasted no time in mounting their high horses to attack the ethics of their far more successful cable rival for playing right into the terrorists’ hands.

But CNN’s dalliances with ISIS propaganda are only marginally less shameless. CNN’s talking heads breathlessly report on each new clip and feature titillating stills from certain videos, including one documenting the execution of American journalist James Foley, all over the network’s website. They do everything but post the videos themselves. And just about every major media organization has put together a package on the growing “sophistication” of ISIS propaganda clips, analyzing the footage as if ISIS were an avant-garde Scandinavian film collective that also happens to hold large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS’s canny command of video cameras, like so many other traits ascribed to the group, is often overstated. Nevertheless, the jihadists documenting their gruesome exhibition of atrocities did recognize an important fact about the news business in the twenty-first century: war reporting is hard and expensive, and ISIS is providing free content for news organizations to use as they see fit. The group’s videos are certainly more viscerally compelling than grainy VHS footage of a tired old Osama bin Laden delivering a lecture in front of a bare blue backdrop. Some observers even worry that, just as America armed and trained the mujahideen who later went on to turn their insurgency tactics against us, careless Westerners may have instructed the future agitprop agents of ISIS in the dark arts of viral content production. As American University of Beirut media studies professor Jad Melki put it to NBC News: “Western money has been donated to train people digitally or on social media—people who use it aren’t vetted by their beliefs, so how do we know that some of the people who have benefited have not ended up in ISIS?”

This is what fascinates the Western press: How can people who seem to ardently court the impression that they are subhuman monsters revolting against the inevitable forward march of civilization be so incorrigibly media-savvy? It’s a bit as though Sam Peckinpah had joined Cat Stevens in the early ranks of celebrity converts to politicized Islam—and then bred a whole school of millennial followers who proved as fluent in the aesthetic language of cinematic violence as the producers of the NBC hit Hannibal.

The Politics of Meme-ing

We go to war with the weapons we have. The American government has many of its top policy thinkers seeking to project our “soft power” in the long-term crusade to convert hearts and minds to the Western cause in the scarier stretches of the world. The current State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs is none other than former Time editor Richard Stengel, the man who, in 2006, named “YOU”—as in the diligent Everyman creator and curator of user-generated Internet content—Time’s person of the year. (If we are to concede the notion that ISIS has ingeniously subverted the Western canons of social media branding to serve its own sick propaganda aims, then it’s only fair to ask just how many of its founders may have seen that infamous Time cover and thought to themselves, Indeed, Mr. Stengel, I am the hidden hand driving the course of world history!)

To the cable news camera, structural oppression is harder to capture than a burning cop car. Spectacle still rules cable news.

In May, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a panel on winning the propaganda battle against the forces of radicalization in the Islamic world, which afforded many earnest senators the opportunity to lament America’s lagging standing in the global content gap. Senator Cory Booker, no stranger to the exercise of exaggerating capabilities and accomplishments through the adroit exploitation of social media, held up printouts of propaganda and said, “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing.” (And no, that is not a cheap, snarky paraphrase: those were the actual words uttered by the junior senator from New Jersey as he sought to bring home the urgency of a pressing threat to our collective well-being.) We shall fight on the message boards, we shall fight on the subreddits, we shall fight on YouTube, we shall fight on Snapchat, we shall never surrender.

As usual, the private sector is certain that it can do the government’s job more nimbly and efficiently. In a recent column, Rance Crain, editor in chief of Advertising Age—one of the foremost trade publications for America’s most self-regarding content-creators—argued that to combat the forces of extremism, America’s creatives must metaphorically enlist in the fight. The headline: “To Battle Isis’ Message, We’ll Need Slickly Produced Content That’s Just as Compelling.” Like any good evangelist, Crain set the stage for his big takeaway with a confession of crippling doubt and weakness. Yes, dear readers, our ad savant had previously questioned Madison Avenue’s ability to make a dent in the war on radical Islam, but his readers set him straight:

After my first ISIS column ran, I got an email from Stephen Feldman, CEO of Feldman Integrated Marketing, challenging my notion that advertising wouldn’t change minds in such a standoff: “An industry that spends over $500 billion per year to inform, educate, persuade and sell cannot change any minds?”

It’s a fair point. The ad wizards who convinced a nation that Subway is health food have a proven ability to fight wars of competing ideas. But are they up to this particular task? Crain’s modern-day Don Drapers go on to suggest that someone create an anti-ISIS video celebrating “non-violent” Muslim heroes, featuring “a powerful music track created by a global artist in collaboration with a young Muslim star.” And then, perhaps, the Coca-Cola polar bears can shuffle endearingly into the scene to tell the kids to stay in school (unless, obviously, that school is a radical madrassa).

To witness our finest marketers struggling in this embarrassing fashion to nail the anti-ISIS concept may convince some that we’re powerless to counter the viral content of ISIS, but as Crain proceeds to argue, Cory Booker is wrong. The American meme industry is as vibrant as ever. But here’s the thing: the strength of our memes isn’t the problem—their content is. We’re still quite good at cool. As ISIS well knows, violence is cool. But here again, our culture industry plays right into the enemy’s hands: there’s nothing our culture lords like more than blood-pumping stories about Americans waging war on Islamists.

Western Death Cult

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for president, recently unveiled portions of his foreign policy platform on Twitter. One tweet read “Marco on radical jihadists,” and it was accompanied by a still from a film with large, white, bold text overlayed on it—a classic meme. The still was actor Liam Neeson on the phone, and the text said, “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” For those unfamiliar, this is a reference to the film Taken. In the Taken series, an old white man exacts violent revenge on swarthy Muslims who repeatedly and inexplicably kidnap members of his family. The films (there are two sequels and counting now), conceived by a French filmmaker and starring an Irish movie star, are massive international hits—which would seem to indicate that the American brand remains a powerful global force. But it is also, just maybe, not quite broadcasting a message that will win us many admirers in the Muslim world.

Rubio is not alone in invoking a Hollywood product to sell a militaristic foreign policy. One of the biggest hits of 2014 from our ostensibly liberal entertainment industry was American Sniper, a Clint Eastwood–directed biopic about Chris Kyle, who claimed to be the deadliest sniper in American history, with (unofficially) 150 or more “kills” to his credit. (Kyle was also something of a serial liar, inventing stories like the time he supposedly beat up former wrestler and governor Jesse Ventura—a claim that eventually won Ventura a defamation judgment against Kyle.) Predictably, the movie became the focal point of a tiresome national conversation about patriotism, “Red America,” the glamorization of war, and pop-cultural depictions of Muslims. (The absolute nadir was the firestorm of controversy that erupted when Michael Moore noted, mostly correctly, that snipers had traditionally been portrayed as cowardly villains in the American war movie canon, picking off our heroes from a safe distance.)

American Sniper’s considerable box office success heartened hawks throughout the political and media spheres. The Wall Street Journal editorial board certainly enjoyed the movie, and took from it the lesson that we must continue bravely sniping our enemies until the war on terror is won. They compared our glamorization of death to the enemy’s, and found ours morally superior:

Messrs. Maher and Moore may want to hold up the Iraq war as evidence of American perfidy, but as the atrocities of Islamic State are again reminding us, the moral balance in that war was exactly the opposite. No wonder millions of Americans admire Kyle and are flocking to see the movie that treats him like a patriot in full.

Violence justifies violence, even ex post facto violence. (Chris Kyle died well before ISIS established itself as a major force in the region—slain, ironically enough, at a Texas gun range by a fellow Iraq War veteran evidently suffering from PTSD.) Our plunging national crime rate seems to give the lie to the notion that violent pop culture creates violent children, but there’s worrying evidence that America’s elected officials and prominent pundits are extremely susceptible to the dangerous influence of the uncritical glorification of mayhem for mayhem’s sake.

Warmongers use the media to disseminate images of gruesome violence to justify military intervention. It’s a tradition dating back to the dawn of the Republic. The American press has generally favored imposing order on a world that can very easily be made to appear incredibly dangerous. The ascendancy of ISIS is, in point of fact, the product of the bias for fear. As nineteen-year-old Ivy Ziedrich recently reminded Jeb Bush, a then unannounced presidential candidate: “The threat of ISIS was created by the Iraqi Coalition Authority, which ousted the entire government of Iraq,” leaving tens of thousands of armed and trained soldiers without work—and seething at the United States and its new Iraqi government.

The Iraq War was sold as a thrilling visual spectacle, a big-budget sequel to the Gulf War. From the grainy “Shock and Awe” airstrikes, to the staged toppling of Saddam statues, to the “Mission Accomplished” banner, the narrative was much more carefully planned and managed than the war and subsequent occupation. The leaders of ISIS, too, may turn out to be better at producing victorious images than holding territory (let alone governing), but they learned it from watching us. And now, as a third Bush seeks the presidency, their videos can serve as the justification for a third American military adventure in the region.

CNN is not a nakedly partisan outlet, and it is not hyping ISIS to ding political opponents. But CNN as an institution certainly subscribes to the general elite consensus that American power should be brought to bear against “bad guys,” and each ISIS report on the network is accompanied by the exhortation, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, that Something Should Be Done. In the American television news business, “Something” generally means American military intervention (and with it, more content).

Bringing It All Back Home

All this raises a question to ask ourselves here at home: What are the forces driving the contemporary media to disseminate images of civil violence taking place within American borders?

Local television news, the only local news many Americans consume, has long reserved airtime for a nightly street grotesque. A persistent majority of Americans believe crime is worsening, even as the actual rate of violent crime falls to levels not seen since the era of Mad Men. The disjuncture is almost certainly attributable to the pride of place that local news producers grant to any and all stories drenched in blood on the 6- and 11-o’clock broadcasts. Even if the crimes are fewer, they’re more likely to be “caught on camera” than ever, thanks to the prevalence of smart phones and the modern tendency to film everything. “Shocking footage tonight” is probably one of the most commonly entered teleprompter script lines in television.

Our culture industry plays right into the enemy’s hands.

Which now means that we’re in the middle of a fascinating experiment in which we learn what happens when those images run counter to the usual crime-news narrative of cops versus thugs. If we lay the cable coverage of the Baltimore riots side by side with the same networks’ ISIS fixation, something very close to a photographic negative emerges. In the case of ISIS, the inescapable brutality of videotaped murder seems to make the case for a violent response. But when it comes to images of violence on the streets of American inner cities, that core logic gets inverted. The recent, sickening spate of videos documenting the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens by police officers has been less professional than ISIS’s “slickly produced” iMovie-edited snuff films. Though as undersecretary Stengel would be quick to point out, that’s because they’ve mainly been produced by YOU, the diligent civilian content-creator; they were shot mainly with cellphones or surveillance cameras. The victims were Eric Garner, in New York City; Tamir Rice, in Cleveland; and Walter Scott, in South Carolina. Their deaths, along with the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and other, less publicized names from across the country, contributed to what has likely been the biggest outpouring of racially charged domestic unrest since the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

But in diametric contrast to the ISIS coverage, newscasters urge Americans outraged by these deaths to remain calm and peaceful, and to attempt to address their grievances through diplomacy, persuasion, and (eventually) in the voting booths. There was an immediate response, from almost every corner of the respectable mainstream press, to delegitimize violence as a proper response to violence.

Indeed, the unrest this time was countered by domestic police forces that had been heavily armed by federal agencies seeking to look like they were helping to win our endless wars on terror and drugs. Would-be rioters faced armored vehicles and state-of-the-art crowd disbursement technology, not just the billy clubs and fire horses that greeted the protesters and rioters of the 1960s. The police were playing occupying forces in unfriendly territory for the cameras, and they looked the part. Whatever else these confrontations may portend for the troubled nexus of race, class, and democratic dissent in America, they undeniably made for compelling television.

However, as the fallout from the recent protests in Baltimore has shown, the well-worn cable playbook preordaining that all shows of protest must segue into the specter of community-destroying menace is now encountering a lot of unanticipated static. Let’s revisit the basic arc of the Baltimore story in order to suss out just what, from the cable scaremonger’s perspective, may have gone awry. On April 12, after Baltimore police officers pursued and apprehended a man named Freddie Gray for no clear reason, he was arrested for possessing a knife. He was packed into a van. He emerged from the van with a severed spine and crushed vertebrae. He died on April 19. On April 25, a protest ended with rocks thrown at police officers, anti-car violence, and thirty-five arrests.

On April 27, the day of Gray’s funeral, Baltimore police warned the press that teenagers—an unknown number of teenagers, but it was safe to assume however many you might be scared to see amassed in one place—planned an after-school crime spree patterned after the dystopian horror film The Purge. (The analogy is inapt: in the world of The Purge, the repressive state allows its citizens to act on their violent impulses for one twelve-hour, police-free period each year—and the most enthusiastic sowers of mayhem in the movie are privileged and white.) The action was to happen at a mall across from a high school that doubles as a transit hub. And so, once the kids and teenagers were let out of school, they found themselves trapped—since transportation to and from the mall had been cut off by the enormous mobilization of police. And they realized just as quickly that they were surrounded by an army of cops in full riot gear.

It certainly looked like the Baltimore Police Department purposefully created the conditions necessary for unrest to boil over into violence. If so, it would have been an entirely legible, if far from wise, exercise in institutional self-justification: What better casus belli for a militarized police presence than the spectacle of inner-city kids whaling away on area property under the alleged influence of an apocalyptic horror film? At the very least, the tight, police-led circumscription of the rioting area guaranteed that the whole uprising was smoothly repackaged for national press coverage. And cable savants, from Geraldo Rivera to Wolf Blitzer, duly broadcast an unmistakable message of Spartan peace-keeping to the rest of the country: Do you see the people we have to pacify to keep this city safe? (To be fair, I’ve floated this theory to a few friends who’ve lived in or covered Baltimore, and their consensus is that the city’s police leaders are far too incompetent to pull off a plan like this intentionally.)

But the larger point here is that no civic conspiracy was really necessary to ensure that the broad contours of the Baltimore coverage all translated, in visual and rhetorical terms, into a crudely effective single message: outraged black people are, seemingly by nature, ungovernable. The pertinent news tropes are now so firmly entrenched that they would likely have reinforced this dictum even if the mourners of Freddie Gray had turned out en masse with a giant scroll of petition signatures and addressed the local gentry with a series of elaborate bows and deferential hand gestures.

The moralizing pundits, like the Baltimore police, seemed to fail to grasp that this time, the nation’s silent majority may be more sympathetic to the rioters than to the police. The regular comment-section eruptions of white-supremacist angst, of the sort that fueled Matt Drudge’s regular coverage of every instance of a black person hurting a white person in the Obama era, certainly continued to operate like clockwork. But the usual disingenuous calls for restrained responses to violent aggression didn’t seem to land as nicely as they had in the past.

Nicholas Kristof, who’s parachuted into a war zone or two during his tenure as a New York Times opinion columnist, implored Baltimoreans to remember that “violence doesn’t work.” Until Baltimoreans started throwing rocks and burning drug stores, Kristof had evinced no particular interest in the structural and institutional problems plaguing the city. And he didn’t seriously entertain the rather incontrovertible opposing view: if violence didn’t work, the police wouldn’t use it and CNN wouldn’t cover it. After all, it wasn’t until the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, waged a protracted battle with the G.I. Joe–cosplaying cops that the Justice Department probed, and the press reported on, the real, daily violence that the city’s police force and legal system inflicted on the populace. The police had monetized violence, turning their antagonistic interactions with poor residents into reliable sources of government income, which can be scarce in a conservative-run state in an era of budgetary austerity.

In much the same fashion, cable news and local TV broadcasts have also transformed the imagery of civic mayhem into a profitable way to marshal the wayward news consumer back into the timorous, quasi-fetal posture of the frightened and bewildered prisoner of the cable remote. In other words, if you want to see the predatory class logic of The Purge on your news feed, then look no further than the hyperkinetic set of The Situation Room.

A Little Order Around Here

To the cable news camera, structural oppression is harder to capture than a burning cop car. Spectacle still rules cable news. CNN has attempted in recent years to boost its ratings with stunts, game shows, personality-driven edutainment, and the firing of Piers Morgan, but nothing succeeds like violence. When something bad is happening, Americans still instinctively tune in to CNN to watch it happen live. This creates a strong incentive on the part of CNN producers to make bad things appear as bad as possible.

The moralizing pundits failed to grasp that this time, the nation’s silent majority may be more sympathetic to the rioters than to the police.

Oftentimes, in covering the comparatively brief course of the Baltimore riots, CNN’s approach seemed to border on outright provocation. Reporters would embed themselves in marches of protesters and hand the mic to the rowdiest participants. Sending Don Lemon, one of the channel’s most divisive personalities (especially among black viewers) to Baltimore was something of a master trolling maneuver. Lemon appeared baffled that the National Guard hadn’t yet been called in to quell a civil uprising against brutal police tactics. As rioters gutted a CVS, Wolf Blitzer solemnly asked, “Where are the police?” as though the protests were taking place in a complete political vacuum. In light of what the proximate cause of the riot was, asking “Where are the police?” was a bit like coming across a kitchen grease fire and wondering why there wasn’t also a gas leak. At one point Monday night, the CNN chyron read “SOME STREETS IN BALTIMORE NOT UNDER POLICE CONTROL,” which some might have interpreted as a victory for the forces of liberty. But in Baltimore, as in the Middle East, CNN sees chaos and demands that the American state Do Something—even while the network’s producers take extra care to remind aggrieved citizens that, in opposing the prerogatives of the state, they should do nothing, or at least as few disruptive things as possible.

The desire for someone to impose order on the mob through force found its strangest outlet in one of the most viral videos to emerge from the Baltimore riots. Midway through a local WMAR reporter’s stand-up report, a woman runs into the frame, grabs a young man, and drags him off, striking him repeatedly. The woman was the young man’s mother. She had seen him on television—of course—and chased him down to drag him home. The clip initially went viral (without identifying information) on Twitter, but it wasn’t long before the pair was identified as Toya Graham and her sixteen-year-old son. Baltimore Police commissioner Anthony Batts even referred to the clip at a news conference, saying, “I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight.”

The speed with which the video spread and the jocular satisfaction it provoked, even among viewers sympathetic to the victims of the injustices that sparked the riot, indicated a widespread acceptance of the “black pathology” explanation for anger and violence among disenfranchised young black men. What these kids actually need, the Internet decided, is a good whuppin’.

Conservative types who lauded the “mother of the year” (as she was dubbed by the New York Post and a thousand other outlets) as a force for responsibility against lawlessness also missed the actual point of this sad, public domestic drama. Commissioner Batts may have seen a woman who was “embarrassed” by her son’s behavior. But as Toya Graham later told reporters, she went to retrieve her son not just in anger but in fear: “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” Graham worried that if she didn’t subdue her son, the state would, lethally. These kids have been getting whupped for years by forces a lot meaner than Toya Graham.

While Graham was anointed “mother of the year,” for all the good that will do her, the press evinced little sympathy for the angry young men her son had felt inspired to join. Amid their calls for the police and the National Guard, Blitzer and Lemon certainly weren’t asking what would happen to those young men if the heavily armed and violent police—let alone the domestic arm of our actual national armed forces—did decide to intervene to put a sudden, brutal end to the unrest. (The National Guard, for the record, eventually showed up to empty out most of West Baltimore and shut down a good deal of the city’s downtown; this, presumably, was also a cable producer’s answered prayer, since it simultaneously preserved the image of looming urban menace while also permitting more Baltimoreans to plop down in terror before CNN to see their eerily vacant streets reflected back at them in the sanctums of their dens.) There was just the awful sight of a CVS chain—an American brand!—burning, and no Chris Kyles around to rescue it from the savages.

On the most chaotic night, CNN’s cameras and anchors were fixated on a fire at a construction site—the fire, which burned some ways away from the center of the riots, was never conclusively determined to have anything to do with them—mainly because it looked cooler from a helicopter than anything else going on. The April 28 front page of USA Today went with the headline “BALTIMORE BURNING,” but in the end very little of it actually did: the mayor’s office reported fifteen building fires on April 27, a number the Baltimore Fire Department revised to sixty-one “structure fires” of any kind over the course of two full days of unrest and rioting.

Reporting is inherently rude, often bordering on cruel. Newspapermen used to knock on the doors of murder victims’ families for quotes. Now they beg on social media for permission to use fresh photographs of accidents and tragedies. But that rudeness at least has a point: the end result is a story that explains what happened. Sending superstar anchors to the scene of a currently raging riot is not, by any definition, “reporting.” It’s just pure exploitation of suffering for ratings. A name like Anderson Cooper might score a big interview, but he’s never going to be able to move freely through a crowd or a housing project to talk to regular Baltimoreans. Cooper’s mere presence creates the scene he’s reporting on. The satellite van, the massive security presence, the lights, the crew, and the famous television personality distort the scene to the point where it cannot possibly resemble what the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson were like before CNN descended on them. The product is not a story, but a spectacle.

What’s more, this spectacle is in growing danger of playing to a skeptical house, if not an empty one. When asked this spring by the New York Times and CBS, “Do you think race relations in the United States are generally good or generally bad?” (a profoundly confusing question, but fine for gauging the baseline anxiety of the shrinking white majority), a majority of Americans—61 percent—said “generally bad,” up from 33 percent a year ago. Much of that increase comes from white respondents, who perhaps had their conviction that Dr. King’s dream had been achieved shaken up by the onslaught of images of black deaths at the hands of police, followed by uprisings in mostly black communities.

This failure to induce generalized civic panic was evident in the vibe of disappointment among the anchors when the citywide curfew in Baltimore had the intended effect of calming the unrest. Eventually, most of the tense evenings in Baltimore were being filled out by a flat and disappointing round robin of cops, the accredited out-of-town press, their crews, and their muscle. There was barely a fire or reported gunshot to keep the audience interested. After the officers involved were charged with the death of Freddie Gray instead of absolved, the national press, satisfied that they’d seen the best violence the city had to offer, packed up and went home.

It was an anticlimactic echo of CNN’s relentlessly self-referential reporting from Ferguson, Missouri. After the announcement that a grand jury would not indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, CNN spent the following hours covering CNN reporters, Don Lemon once again among them, wandering the city in search of anything resembling mayhem. “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air,” Lemon reported. Why tell us? In order, to paraphrase Lemon’s Fox News analogue, to bring you the reality of American unrest as CNN would like you to see it.