I’m a tweet little bird in a gilded cage,
Tweety’s my name but I don't know my age.
I don't have to worry and dat is dat,
I'm safe in here from dat ol’ Puddy Tat!
You get the allusion, or you ought to. Tweety is a bright, happy fellow with big blue eyes and shiny yellow feathers, who is constantly being attacked by a bad-tempered, black-and-white cat named Sylvester. In scores of cartoons from the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes series, Sylvester makes every possible effort to catch Tweety and eat him, only to fume and fuss when the “tweet little bird” escapes. Too bad the Golden Age of Cartoons ended before Tweety could turn the tables and take revenge on “dat ol’ Puddy Tat.”
But wait…that cartoon is playing now! Tweety’s not young any more; he’s put on weight; and he’s taken to arranging his yellow feathers in a somewhat outlandish way. But just look at his new gilded cage—it’s humongous! And so safe, he can get up every morning and tweet to his heart’s content. As for Sylvester, he’s always meowing about his First Amendment rights. But let’s face it: the First Amendment doesn’t pay for cat food; Tweety pays for cat food.
The nice thing about cartoons is that they’re not real. The President-Elect of the United States is not a bird, the media is no pussycat, and this is not Looney Tunes. (Actually, I’m not so sure about that last bit.) But as Oscar Wilde once remarked, “life imitates art.” At the moment, the media are in thrall to every puff of gas emitted by PEOTUS. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal puts it well:
Before web-driven media, follow-up stories on anything as fact-free as [the BuzzFeed story about Donald Trump in Russia] would go on page A15. No more. Now all such stories—in newspapers, on TV or online—run at the same unmitigated intensity because that’s the only level the web knows. These recurring political media storms have become self-feeding wildfires, and they aren’t going to stop. Everyone near them gets burned.
Or as Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, describes it,
As if urged by so many social media gurus, [Trump] tweets and posts enthusiastically and regularly with an ‘authenticity’ that overrides the countervailing requirement for impulse control or sometimes even basic common sense. Ratings drive everything.
Back in Toontown, this means that Tweety has the power to make Sylvester chase his own tail for an entire news cycle. Of course, Sylvester was already doing this before Trump came along. Ask any journalist, and you will get an earful about the pressure to tweet-tweet-tweet. Some of that pressure comes from publishers with an eye on the bottom line. But some comes from the journalists themselves. As one reporter explained to a Tow Center researcher:
I’d rather break [a scoop] on Twitter than anywhere else because it bleeds out very quickly. And the news just becomes like wildfire on Twitter. So if you could do that, you could develop a reputation eventually as a reporter, as someone who is really at the front of information. And that’s what you want.
In a way, it is gratifying to watch the media run around in circles. They deserve some comeuppance after ignoring all those politically frustrated, non-elite Americans who voted for Trump. Right after the election, a handful of reporters ventured out into the sticks to talk with the natives, and J. D. Vance sold a lot of books. But that news cycle ended as quickly as all the others, and now the talking heads and key-bangers are back in their caffeinated conurbations, frantically trying to tweet their way to “the front of information.”
Now, here’s a thought from the back of information: All those politically frustrated, non-elite Americans are still out there. They haven’t gone away. And you know what? Most do not use Twitter. According to a recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute, Twitter users “are a subset of Internet users, who are in turn a subset of the whole population…. Twitter users fit the profile of young, well-educated, and wealthy elites.”1
Does this mean Trump’s every tweet is not followed in the small towns and rural regions where he has attracted so many voters? It’s impossible to say, because tweets are not geocoded. It is, however, possible to doubt Trump’s claim of having twenty million Twitter followers. Indeed, techies frequently comment that an unknown proportion of those followers are not voters but bots—fabricated digital robots. But this is where Sylvester comes in. Most Americans do not follow Trump on Twitter. Instead, his every tweet gets multiplied, amplified, and magnified by all the other media, from TV to talk radio, newspapers to news portals.
It is possible that Trump will spend the next four years hijacking every news cycle with a flamboyant tweet whose sole purpose is to rivet attention on his yellow-feathered self. But it is also possible that the public will tire of this, and the media, seeing their ratings slip along with Trump’s poll numbers, will decide to rebuild the audience by going on the attack. This is when things could get dangerous, because, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Among the voices lamenting Trump’s power over the media, some of the loudest warn of a totalitarian takeover, followed by a sudden switch to state propaganda and repression of uncooperative journalists. But the real dangers are subtler.
First, a “disruptive” change in media ownership, with the President buying one or two major companies and his offspring and their spouses buying controlling shares in several others. Second, a few “tweaks” in editorial policy, cutting “divisive” political coverage and “boring” investigative pieces and adding more “fun” coverage of sports, entertainment, and the fabulous First Family. Third, a “cutting-edge” model of journalism, in which the latest technology is used not only to inform the American people but also to keep track of what they’re saying and doing (for their own good, of course).
This is how Tweety would eat Sylvester—in small bites, not so different from the way rich, powerful “leaders” have been scarfing down the media in other countries around the world. Watching this happen would be funny in Toontown. But in America, it wouldn’t be.