The WWE does not call itself a professional wrestling company. Instead, it describes its brand as “sports entertainment.” Announcers call the wrestlers “Superstars” and the wrestlers are very careful to never actually utter the W-word. It’s a clever albeit ham-fisted company policy that tries to separate the WWE from an association of only working in wrestling. Still, the marketing doublespeak receives constant derision from fans. Wrestling is the show. While there are a variety of reality and entertainment shows in the WWE Universe, the WWE’s ancillary programs are just that, ancillary. Few people beyond Vince McMahon see the WWE as something separate from wrestling. So, the fans argue, call it what it is. They want wrestling. Modernize, yes. Adapt, sure. But don’t sacrifice your identity in order to grow and expand.
The WWE is not alone in this sort of activity, though. Television news has increasingly embraced an entertainment model of production. Facts, analysis, and debate are couched in between characters. The life-and-death realities of politics take on a dramatic flair. While this is not necessarily unique to our time (William F. Buckley’s antagonisms certainly drew attention to his show Firing Line), market pressures have exposed contradictions in the system that are harder and harder to ignore. In fact, CNN president Jeff Zucker all but admits them.
On April 4th, the New York Times published a profile on media mogul and current president of CNN, Jeff Zucker. In the profile, the Times describes the symbiotic relationship between President Trump and Zucker—the President relies upon the station’s constant coverage to get his message out and the station thrives because of the president’s antics. None of this is particularly revelatory. A news station needs news to cover. The president provides news. But the profile also describes a sinister shift at the network, a movement that embraces news as entertainment:
As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast.
The very next day, Zucker’s network put out an article on the Trump administration’s statement that “all options” will be on the table regarding North Korea. The article talks about how this is a departure from diplomatic norms and how it ratchets up aggression in the region. The article also refers to North Korea as “rogue,” a statement CNN repeats over and over throughout multiple articles.
Two days later, President Trump bombed an airfield in Syria without consulting the UN, congress or any of our usual allies. For some reason, CNN did not describe this as a “rogue” action. Instead, its commentators could not wait to lavish praise upon this act. More important than hard analysis on war efforts or America’s increasing international aggression, is the character drama of good versus bad, moral versus evil. CNN does not think its viewers are capable of seeing grey in a story. They think the viewers can only understand Red against Blue.
Each of these three stories, not even separated by a week in the news cycle, acutely demonstrate how news and the profit motive cannot reliably coexist.
In wrestling, a “mark” is the fan who buys into the spectacle. It’s derived from carnival slang for the hapless consumer. CNN and televised news takes us all for marks who must be persuaded into supporting their product. If CNN sees itself as occupying the intersection between news and entertainment, perhaps it’s best to stop calling it a news network. After all, the WWE works hard to brand itself as something more than just wrestling.
Jeffrey Lord is a conservative commentator for CNN. His works include comparing President Obama and his supporters with the Hitler Youth as well as declaring the Ku Klux Klan a left-wing organization. Suffice to say, Jeffrey Lord is not particularly known for being a hard analyst. Instead, he has achieved a level of recognition due to his polemic takes.
But Jeffrey Lord would have been relegated to the rarely seen pages of the American Spectator if CNN hadn’t hired him to speak in defense of Trump. Now, Lord is the foil to Van Jones, a feud that will continue so long as both work at the network. This would be great business for wrestling but it’s terrible for a so-called news network.
Lord and his anti-science, anti-analytical friends now have a home with wide distribution where they can say whatever they want under the guise of fair and balanced “news.” Twitter and Facebook explode whenever two people get into a fight and trade barbs on television. We have climate change deniers playing the heel to the babyface Bill Nye. People who oppose Islam face off against inclusive commentators. But there is one key difference in the spectacle of televised news dramatics and the façade of tension in professional wrestling.
In wrestling, the audience is in on the show.
Everybody knows the villain and the storyline usually ends with the bad guy getting their comeuppance. The delineation between real life and the act, though oftentimes blurred, has always been an open secret in professional wrestling. This is not the case at CNN. At CNN, Jeffrey Lord is only a villain to those who side with Van Jones. At CNN, the defender of Islam is only a hero to those already opposing the other side. The news ceases to be about presenting facts and evidence and becomes instead a sideshow where the goal is to draw in more viewers, more clicks, more trending hashtags.
Most Americans agree that money in politics devastates our democracy. The rich donate to campaigns to bolster their chosen candidates but we all see it for what it is—greasing the machine. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s even admits that she views political donations as an investment. The political process is corrupted by money. That seems plain as day. But money also corrupts our news and information sources as well.
When a network supposedly devoted to facts, recent events, and hard analysis has to simultaneously worry about deriving a profit, shareholders will always demand that concern for the latter outweigh the former. While it is possible that quality reporting will draw in viewers, it is all but guaranteed that spit-fights and insults attract more eyes.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that CNN has a vested interest in casting characters as opposed to telling the news. But while CNN and the shareholders of its parent company, Time Warner, get richer off of this, the repercussions for the rest of us are dire. Instead of accepting the status quo, we should question what it results in. It results in the beating of war drums or the acceptability of the view that the United States has a Muslim problem. It’s the normalization of a destructive ideology that sees healthcare and iPhones as interchangeable choices for consumers. What’s worse is that this has all happened before.
Tobacco companies funded advertising around “safe cigarettes” and so-called research that controverted some of the dangers associated with smoking. Similarly, CNN demands debates where reasonable people have long since reached a singular conclusion. Exxon and other oil companies fund bunk science to create a “debate” around climate change because it is better for their bottom line. Fox News and MSNBC peddle in conspiracies because the money they make from that is more important than reaching the truth.
The sad reality is that our economic system all but necessitates this. In order for large shareholders to make more money from their companies, they need more people to watch so that they can sell ad-space and subscriptions for more money. It was always going to wind up this way and the only solution exists outside of a profit motive. So long as news operates as a business where it needs to keep its shareholders happy, it will struggle to be anything but mudslinging.
Alex Jacobs is a graduate of Northwestern University Law School where he was President of the American Constitution Society and served as senior editor on the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy. His Twitter handle is @afjfromfla.