The Curious Case of the Missing Crises

Crises are useful – they can rouse a sleepy and casual and self-absorbed public to action, even to war, but they can also be used to make good money. The news media figured that out. In the early sixties, the three television networks – that’s all there were then – were quite profitable, but each was worried about its image and about regulatory pressures. They did their required public service programming, but they also expanded their news operations and freed them from the pressures of commercial programming, which existed to make money. The nightly news and occasional news specials, however, were loss-leaders not expected to make money and not designed to make money. Those were all about prestige and admirable seriousness, to show that the broadcast network in question, using the public airwaves, had certainly not betrayed the public trust, in spite of the inane game shows and florid soap operas and endless commercials. It was worth building a massive worldwide news operation, losing a lot of money in the process, for the halo effect of being the folks who delivered the news of what was really going on in the world, fairly and dispassionately, and as completely as was possible in thirty minutes, less commercial breaks. That was worth the money. In the sixties, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and that was, as they say, priceless. CBS was happy to foot the cost for that designation. The crew at CBS Evening News could lose all the money they wanted – it was worth it. CBS would make up the difference, and more, with Gunsmoke and Gilligan’s Island.

How that all changed is a long story – changes to the rules for public service broadcasting and the end to the Fairness Doctrine, and the rise of cable television, which is a commercial enterprise not using the public airwaves and thus under no obligation to the general public at all, and in 1980, the creation of CNN, followed by all the rest of cable news as we know it now. The landscape changed, as did the economics. The competition was brutal and news operations were told they had to carry their weight – they had to become profit-centers too, and add that from the start, with CNN, cable news was created to make money, to sustain itself at first, and then to grow, and then to return value to Ted Turner and its stockholders. That changed everything. Now everyone had to grab eyeballs, and hold them, to convince advertisers to spend those big bucks for those thirty-second spots for denture cream or laundry detergent – and that in turn changed the news. There’s no better way to grab eyeballs and hold them than by reporting on a crisis, at length. A few bad jars of peanut butter and there’s a National Food-Safety Crisis. One swimmer attacked by a shark and The Sharks Are Coming for Us All – and of course the business model at Fox News is All Crises, All the Time. Obamacare Death Panels! Oops, that didn’t work out. Benghazi! Hey, don’t roll your eyes. It works. They crush everyone else in the ratings.

This crushes the general public too. It’s exhausting, and everything can’t be a crisis, can it? Fox News may cater to those who would never think to ask that question, and there seems to be many millions of such people, but they are far outnumbered by those who are tired of the whole thing, and who also notice that dire crises do tend to just disappear. Nixon’s didn’t. Bill Clinton’s did. There haven’t been any shark attacks in a long time. Why not wait and see what happens?

Waiting works. On Friday, May 16, 2014, ten million people, and maybe thirty million people, were going to march on Washington and overthrow the government – a crisis if there ever was one – but all you had to do was wait. Phase one of “Operation American Spring – Beginning of Tyranny Housecleaning” just didn’t work out:

The plans included ousting President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Attorney General Eric Holder. But as of publication time, those officials remained in office, and early reports were less than encouraging for supporters of the movement, which, in its first phase, called for a “peaceful, non-violent, physically unarmed (Spiritually/Constitutionally armed), display of unswerving loyalty to the US Constitution and against the incumbent government leadership, in Washington, D.C., with the mission to replace with law abiding leadership.”

“It’s a very dismal turnout,” Jackie Milton, the head of Texans for Operation American Spring, told The Washington Times. “We were getting over two inches of rain [an] hour in parts of Virginia this morning. … Now it’s a nice sunny day. But this is a very poor turnout. It ain’t no millions. And it ain’t looking like there’s going to be millions. Hundreds is more like it.”

Raw Story, which has been following the movement closely, reported Friday that a live-stream of the day’s events was posted online, but that for at least part of the day the feed showed only a call-in show hosted by conservative broadcaster Mark Connors, “who said he was broadcasting from a tour bus about 10 miles away from the National Mall because he could not park any closer.”

Maybe he didn’t bring change for the parking meter, but they had a plan:

Operation American Spring aims to pressure those lawmakers who remain – or are replaced by officials of their own choosing – “to sponsor and pass very constitutionally crafted State legislation to dissolve the size, powers, scope and spending of the U.S. Government by two thirds.”

The activists say they expect 10 million to 30 million like-minded Americans to join them Friday in the nation’s capital for a rally patterned after Occupy Wall Street and “Arab Spring” protests.

They also plan a sister event the same day in Bunkerville, Nevada, where militia groups have gathered to support scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy in his dispute with the federal government.

Organizers also anticipate “incremental nullification” by state legislatures of “all withholding taxes, employment taxes, employer taxes, and income taxes.”

What? The government wouldn’t be able to operate in any way. No roads, no bridges, no Army, no nothing, but there is a crisis, as one of those folks explained:

I fought all through the Cold War and to me I’ve never seen a threat to the United States any greater than the internal threat that Obama and his administration and a Congress that does nothing reflect. We’re in a serious, grave situation. It’s a reason we’re going to Washington to try, to try. I fear the next step, if this doesn’t happen, is going to be something that not a combat soldier wants to see. We’ve been through the carnage, we’ve seen it, we understand what happens and that’s the last thing we want.

Look at the pictures – about two hundred people turned up all told, gathering in small groups of twenty or so, here and there. The next step, the carnage involved as thirty million people take up arms to overthrow the duly elected government, one elected by the people, in a bloody revolution, for the people, isn’t likely to happen, in spite of how they justify that on the homepage:

A fluffy, cuddly lamb gets eaten by a mean old wolf is not an illegal or immoral event… the law of nature. When some greedy, self-serving occupant of the White House or Congress, or elements outside America, is threatening our existence, our freedom, our liberty, our Constitution, our life resources, our America, then we fight back to destroy the threat and there is nothing immoral or illegal about it. … A duck cannot be turned into a fox; an elephant cannot be turned into a flea; the laws of nature will not permit. … OPERATION AMERICAN SPRING will be a gigantic step in removing the flea infestation that is sucking the blood out of America.

Yeah, well – whatever. After all the many years of being told about this dire crisis or that, day in and day out, a few fleas hardly seem a problem, and metaphorical fleas are even less of a problem – but this sort of thing happens when the public has been conditioned to assume that everything in life is a crises, all the time. A few will believe that this is so, but that might not be their fault. That’s how the news has been present for years, and not just on Fox News. CNN does like those shark stories.

There are real crises, however. Only a fool would deny that, but as Max Fisher notes, sometimes they too just disappear:

Let me be the first to admit it: President Obama’s strategy for handling Russia and its incursions into Ukraine had seemed to me, as it did to many others, pretty unlikely to succeed.

Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” acting “out of weakness,” but it was the US that looked weak: it could only cobble together some targeted sanctions that, while tough, appeared to do nothing to stop Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. He needed Europe’s support for broader economic sanctions that would actually hurt the Russian economy and he didn’t get it. Obama implicitly abandoned Crimea, giving no sign that he thought that, weeks after Russia invaded and annexed the territory, it might ever be returned to Ukraine. The official US position has been to threaten broader sanctions that seem unlikely to get the European support necessary to make them hurt, while arguing that Russia’s actions will be so self-defeating that the problem would just sort itself out.

It sounded silly, a shrug of a policy. And maybe it even was. But it also turns out to be working surprisingly well. Russian President Vladimir Putin has over-reached in Ukraine, creating problems for himself so bad that they may force him down as or more effectively than plausible American actions alone might have (although they helped). Putin is hanging himself by his own rope.

Obama did an odd thing here. He refused to see a crisis and just let Putin hang himself:

This has been so effective, and has apparently taken Putin by such surprise, that after weeks of looking like he could roll into eastern Ukraine unchallenged, he’s backing down all on his own. Official Russian rhetoric, after weeks of not-so-subtle threats of invading eastern Ukraine, is backing down. Putin suddenly looks like he will support Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election, rather than oppose it, although it will likely install a pro-European president. European and American negotiators say the tone in meetings has eased from slinging accusations to working toward a peaceful resolution.

Most of this is economic. Russia’s self-imposed economic problems started pretty quickly after its annexation of Crimea in March and have kept up. Whether or not American or European governments sanction Russia’s broader economy, the global investment community has a mind of its own, and they seem to have decided that Russia’s behavior has made it a risky place to put money – so risky that they’re pulling more money out.

A lot of that may have come from the targeted sanctions that Obama pushed for against individual Russian leaders and oligarchs. Those targeted sanctions did not themselves do much damage to the Russian economy. But, along with Russia’s erratic behavior in Ukraine and the lack of clarity as to whether Europe and the US could impose broader sanctions, it appears to have been enough to scare off global investors – the big, faceless, placeless mass of people and banks who have done tremendous damage to Putin’s Russia, nudged along by the US and by Putin himself.

Kevin Drum carries this forward:

I’m a little less surprised than Fisher, though Obama’s policy was always a bit of a crapshoot since there was no telling (a) just how important Putin thought annexation of eastern Ukraine was, and (b) how much economic pain Putin was willing to put up with. This wasn’t necessarily a rational calculation on Putin’s part, which meant it was never entirely amenable to rational analysis on our part.

Still, there have always been good reasons to think that a military annexation of eastern Ukraine represented a huge risk for Russia – potentially turning into a long and wearying guerrilla war – and that even the existing economic sanctions were biting hard enough to be worrisome. After all, Putin’s nationalistic fervor may have initially played well domestically, but in the long term domestic opinion depends heavily on economic performance. If the Russian economy started to tank, those adoring crowds would have turned surly in pretty short order.

Step back. Look. Wait. Think about the real situation here, and Drum says that probably involved thinking about the value of eastern Ukraine to Russia:

Yes, there’s some industry, and potentially a land border with Crimea. But those are frankly small things, especially if annexing Ukraine was likely to lead to prolonged low-level war and even stiffer sanctions from the West. As for Putin’s claim to be responsible for oppressed Russian-speaking minorities, I don’t think anyone should take that too seriously. He may sincerely feel aggrieved about this, but even the threat of action has already gotten him what he wants on this score: a strong likelihood that Kiev will negotiate a certain level of autonomy for regions in eastern Ukraine, and perhaps a more accommodating approach in other countries toward Russian speakers.

With the caveat – again – that this has never been an entirely rational situation, I continue to think that eastern Ukraine simply isn’t valuable enough to Russia to justify a lot of risk. Putin made a play for taking control without any real opposition, and it failed. It’s obvious now that the cost would be pretty high, both in military opposition and in economic pain. Too high! And Putin knows it.

Then Drum addresses the Crisis Crowd:

Would a more assertive military posture from Obama have made a difference? Maybe – but there’s as much chance it would have made things worse as there was that it would have made things better. This is something that the John McCains of the world have never understood, which is odd since they know perfectly well how they themselves respond to threats of violence. Why do they think Putin would respond any differently?

Yes, but that old punch-him-in-the-nose thinking dies hard, just as hard as that thinking ten to thirty million folks must hate the government as much as you do, and that they’ll all show up in Washington on the very day you say. Crises require bold action. Everyone knows that. They’ve been watching the news for decades. It must be true, except it’s not true, and Putin can stop and save face now:

He has Crimea, and he’s regained at least a bit of the influence over Ukraine that he lost via his bungled foreign policy early in the year. If he backs off now, the economic pain will ease; Ukraine will be a more pliant neighbor; and he’ll retain his popularity at home. If he’s smart, he’ll decide this is close enough to victory, and call it a day.

But the United States will come out okay too. The punditocracy will have a hard time acknowledging this, since they’re pretty dedicated to the idea that there only two kinds of foreign policy success: military intervention and flashy, high-stakes diplomatic missions. But there are more subtle kinds of success too. This may well turn out to be one of them.

The trick was to forget seeing a dire crisis and let things play out, and the Los Angeles Times reports what probably had to happen sooner or later:

Ukraine’s wealthiest industrialists appear to have entered the fight against separatists endangering their export-dependent businesses, chasing militants out of the steel-producing port of Mariupol and challenging the gunmen occupying other eastern Ukraine areas.

Unarmed and protected only by hard hats, steelworkers from magnate Rinat Akhmetov’s Metinvest heavy industry empire joined police patrols in Mariupol this week to sweep pro-Russia separatists out of government buildings they began occupying more than a month ago, Ukrainian and Western media reported Friday.

Akhmetov, believed to be Ukraine’s richest man with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $11 billion, owns steel, coal and energy enterprises concentrated in Ukraine’s Donbass Rust Belt that employ about 300,000 workers in the restive eastern regions.

Why get involved in a showdown with Putin that would certainly get too hot too fast? The Crisis Crowd forgot about the rich guys in the Ukraine, not Moscow:

In Dniepropetrovsk, another volatile region of the Russian-speaking east, billionaire governor Igor Kolomoisky has also put his wealth to work in defense of a united Ukraine.

The founder of the Privat Group of banking and aviation industries has offered bounties for captured militants with ties to Moscow, the Kyiv Post reported in an extensive account of the newly deployed pro-government militia known as Donbass Battalion now operating in the region.

No wonder Putin is backing down. It’s one thing to mess with Obama and the Paper Tiger that America has become. It’s another thing to mess with pissed-off billionaires – and perhaps Obama’s team had read what Joseph Burgo had said early on about Putin:

In exploring the past of prominent figures that seem to display features of narcissistic personality disorder, I have found that many of them were childhood bullies who may also have been bullied by others.

The bully is a special type of narcissist who offloads or projects his sense of defect into the victims he persecutes. I’m not a loser, you are. I don’t feel vulnerable and afraid, you do. Though younger and smaller than many of them, Putin fought back against the courtyard thugs and became something of a bully himself. With an explosive temper and thin skin, Putin regularly took offense, instantly lashing out with violence. According to [Masha] Gessen, one childhood friend recalls that if anyone dared to insult Putin, he “would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump – he’d do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.”

The bullying narcissist is in flight from himself. His entire personality expresses an ongoing, relentless battle to ward off unconscious shame and a sense of internal defect, which accounts for his inability to take criticism or tolerate the smallest of slights. To deny the unconscious sense of being small, defective, and vulnerable, he projects a self-image that conveys his superiority. He establishes his own power and prestige by humiliating other people and filling them with the shame he has disavowed. For the bully, social interaction is all about proving himself a winner by making other people feel that they are the losers.

Everyone knows the type. Let them save some face on move on. Anything else is a waste of time. There’s no crisis. They just want one, but they’ll get over it. Putin will. The Operation American Spring crowd will. John McCain will. Even the folks at Fox News, who do display features of narcissistic personality disorder, with that compulsion to bully all others, will get over the need to make this or that a grave crisis, even if they will immediately move on to the next major crisis that they suddenly see, even of no one else does. But here’s the odd thing. Crises mysteriously disappear. Wait and see what happens, and also do your best to roll your eyes at the news. The sharks out there beyond the breakers really aren’t ganging up to attack us all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Curious Case of the Missing Crises

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Interesting read. Though I’d liked to see a little bit more about US/NATO intentions regarding the Ukraine scenario and not just the pretension that a crisis would not exist. Wonder what the people who got killed might say to such extrapolation.

  2. Rick says:

    Geez, I never even heard about this “American Spring” event! I think those people should have publicized it more. Not that I would have attended, but still…

    Or maybe the reason it failed was that there just aren’t anywhere near “millions” of Americans after all who think we should all fight to “protect” the constitution by repealing it! Most non-stupid people, of course, already know that both Obama and Boehner are where they are because of the constitution, and that these “America Spring” idiots are not — something they would have known had they only stopped listening to only each other.

    Anyway, about the news business:

    “How that all changed is a long story …”

    One very important start of this story that you left out: “Prime Access”.

    Back in the late sixties and early seventies, “Prime Time”, that big chunk of the evening when most people could be counted on to watch TV, was largely owned by the three broadcast networks, who “kicked-back” a portion of their advertising revenue during that time to the local affiliates, who in turn, as it was often said, treated their broadcast licenses as a “license to print money”, since all they had to do to earn their money was to “open the spigot” and let all that New York and Hollywood programming come gushing through.

    The FCC decided they didn’t like the fact that local stations, the ones closest to the public, weren’t actually working for their money, nor were they personally doing anything to serve their pubic, so the FCC started insisting that stations access at least a half-hour out of prime time — a time segment known as “prime access” — with original programming, not just syndicated reruns of the “Leave It to Beaver”.

    So, a bit cautiously, and at first only in the big-market stations, affiliates started putting money into expanding their local news shows. And lo, to their surprise — like Mikey in that breakfast cereal commercial back then — they found they liked it! What they learned was that, with a surprisingly small investment, they actually started making money doing news!

    That taught everyone else, including their networks, that money could be made with news, and it also encouraged folks on cable, like Ted Turner and later Rupert Murdoch, to create whole networks devoted to what had historically been only loss-leader.

    Once it was discovered TV news could be profitable, it has been argued, that — tragically — was the end of TV news as a public service and the birth of TV news as the annoying cultural schlock it is today.

    But counter-intuitively, something CNN learned early on was that covering big crises did little to help them make money, since whenever a story was huge enough to attract humungous numbers of viewers, it was also too big to break away to commercial breaks (think about it: “We’ll have more on the second-coming of Jesus Christ after this brief word from our sponsors”), at least without making all your viewers change channels to find the story elsewhere — which is why advertisers became reluctant to buy time on CNN during big stories, since they knew viewers would be too “distracted” by the news to see their commercials.

    Now the manufactured, totally hyped-up “big news stories” of today? That’s a different story. Lost jetliners and IRS scandals — whatever you can get your particular viewership hooked on, especially if none of your competitors are covering them — are much better suited to breaking away to commercials than are the real thing.

    Rick

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