The Unholy Union Between Media, Politics, and Money that is Risking Our Basic Freedoms
When the body of 20-year-old student Mollie Tibbets was recovered from an Iowa cornfield last month, you could almost recite in scripted form the shameful spectacle that would follow. The tragic and violent loss of a family’s beloved daughter would retain its simple and awful truth for nary a scant moment before being warped into just another log on the fire burning away the last shreds of our national decency … and with it, once cherished ideals.
American media outlets love a good feeding frenzy. When a story contains enough of the essential elements for popular combustibility, it will be energetically mainlined into the national consciousness. No time will be wasted treating it like an ordinary collection of facts and inferences. Certainly no energy will be spent asking what sort of tone, depth, and repetition might make for responsible coverage. Instead, when opportunity knocks, the sensationalism engine will be throttled to full bore without hesitation.
So when it emerged that Tibbets, a rising sophomore at the University of Iowa last seen on an evening jog near her home, had been kidnapped and killed by an undocumented Mexican immigrant working at a local dairy farm, there was little mystery what would happen next.
Media outlets ran relentless and painstaking coverage of the killing, creating a high-traffic market of cliffhanging spectators at very little production cost. Instead of a story about the horrific murder of a young woman, the media gave us a tale about a young white woman rejecting the unwelcome advances of a hispanic illegal immigrant and paying for it with her life. Instead of reporting facts, they gave us a narrative.
It’s great business. Of course it also creates a creeping aura of danger and madness readily fed upon by the zombified denizens of the contemporary news cycle. Soon, the fact that half of every hour is devoted to obsessing over the murder of a young American woman by an illegal immigrant begins to warp the popular imagination into believing half of reality consists of the macabre savagery of youthful innocence at the hands of interloping barbarians.
Taking a dim view on humanity has always been an occupational hazard for those who take out the trash for a living. Cops, prosecutors, judges, certain military communities. But in today’s America, it’s a universal hazard because of the tone and structure of media coverage. Everyone is likely to take a dim view on the world because we are all constantly bombarded with sorrow, sadness, blood, and pain. News coverage is a live-action slasher film.
If the story ended there, it would distressing but addressable. But media irresponsibility is only the beginning.
After the media whips up a feral frenzy of hysteria, planting the seed that danger lurks around every corner and gesturing toward the fact that we should worry about it being perpetrated by immigrants (because such gestures have an uplifting impact on share price), politicians and their toadies will water that seed until it grows into a forest of fear.
There is no more potent political weapon in the history of the world than fear. Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear of economic deprivation. Fear of conquest or tyranny. Fear of victimization at the hands of the more heavily armed. And of course, the extremely potent fear of danger lurking in normally safe spaces … spaces theoretically teeming with “others” who have spirited themselves into our society to do evil unto us.
This latter fear has long been an American favorite because politicians need to stoke fear to position themselves as saviors. This is the shortest path to electoral victory. Elections in our age are seldom won (though often lost) as contests of ideas or policies. They’re about who can create and exploit fear most effectively.
So it’s little surprise that Mollie Tibbets’ murder became a political football before she was even laid to rest.
President Donald Trump tweeted an address that called for sweeping changes to US immigration policy, citing Tibbets’ killing as evidence of its necessity. He referred to her death as a “permanent separation,” cynically invoking a term of art used by his opponents in previous immigration debates. Donald Trump Jr. went a step further, directly blaming the ideological positions of the American left for Mollie’s death.
This the flagrant feeding of red meat to fact-starved masses of hard-right extremists … purpose-built to reinforce what they already believe. This is instrumental to achieving a degree of entrenchment that will prevent facts, logic, or historical precedent from dislodging convicted belief.
Combine persistent hysteria, politicization, and virulent ideology — and you have most of what you need to displace the established order and embed radical policy in its place. Look no further than the American prison system for a clear and startling example.
The number of Americans incarcerated in prisons and jails is roughly five times today what it was a quarter century ago. Roughly 750 of every 100,000 people in the US are behind bars.
This is by far the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Land of Liberty is actually the land where the most people have had their most basic liberties revoked. The US rate of imprisonment is 20% higher than that in Russia, more than double the rate in South Africa, and more than seven times the rate in Europe.
And yet, in the time incarceration has been steeply increasing, the violent crime rate in the US has been in sharp decline — roughly half today what it was in 1990.
Some will argue that the former flows from the latter — that the country is safer precisely because we’re locking more people up. But this doesn’t explain how other societies, including some with similar numbers of immigrants (to guard against a predictable response) have managed to achieve similar or better reductions in crime without warehousing millions behind bars on lengthy prison sentences.
There are some other explanations, and they’re as insightful about the trajectory of American society as they are logical.
First, the editorial policies of media outlets are in fact fuelling the impulse for incarceration. Research has shown that in most years when crime rates actually improved, a majority of Americans believed just the opposite — that crime was getting worse. The same body of research also reflects that the more media attention is given to a particular case, the greater the incentive for prosecutors and judges to impose harsh sentences. Looking tough on crime is a measure of success in public service.
Second, politicians haven’t just fed media frenzies to turn fear into votes. They’ve actively legislated to push lengthier jail terms as a way of looking tough on crime themselves — exploiting the very fear they created to solidify their incumbencies and legacies.
A burglary conviction in the US will earn you more than three times the jail term you’d get for the same crime in England. And yet, the US has a violent crime rate more than four times that enjoyed by England. Politicians haven’t lengthened sentences to make America safer, only to make their jobs safer.
Finally, the privatization of American jails has created a massive incentive for incarceration. Private companies running prisons want more people in their jails fattening their revenue streams. So they lobby Congress for tougher sentencing laws across the board. This pattern has been at work for the best part of three decades, its growth tracking in parallel with the explosion in prison populations. It feeds on the belief that a private company will probably do a better job than a government agency. But it misses the point that the government is still the agent suspending liberties, and that privatization creates an additional, intense hunger for that suspension.
None of this means there is an active conspiracy to lock up Americans wholesale. What it does mean is that whether unwittingly, half-consciously, or deliberately, the media, elected officials, and special interests are working together to create a concerning result: reduced freedom. Less liberty. More government control.
Before you cast this concern aside as something only criminals need to worry about, bear in mind that we’re all criminals. The mountainous overabundance of vague criminal laws at the federal and state levels means most of us commit several felonies and countless misdemeanors every day.
If everyone is a criminal, this leaves government with the power to arbitrarily decide which criminals to target for punishment — a dangerous latitude in the hands of a despotic administration. This is the stuff Orwell novels are made of.
Are we really the land of the free? Can we claim that mantle when we’re the world’s leading jailer?
Arguable. But less arguable is that by ignoring the unholy alliance between a malfunctioning media, cynical lawmakers, and the sweaty-toothed mercenaries holding the keys to an overgrown prison industry, we’re placing ourselves, and our liberty, at grave risk.
Bear these thoughts in mind as you navigate the sad story of Mollie Tibbets, which you won’t be able to escape unless you relocate to one of the moons of Saturn.
You might find yourself thinking differently, and that’s the first stirring of a change in trajectory.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.