Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Really a “Perfect Foil for the Pro-Trump Media”? – A Word on the American Media Landscape
by Aleksandra Polińska
The latest midterm elections in the United States have brought many changes to the country’s political landscape. Concentrated on the side of Democrats, the 2018 congressional and gubernatorial victories included the first Native American and the first Muslim congresswomen, the first female senators from Tennessee and Arizona, the first black female House Representatives from Massachusetts and Connecticut, the first lesbian mother in Congress, and the first openly gay man elected as a governor, to name just a few (Domonoske 2018). Among the first-timers and record-breakers is also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative for New York’s 14th district, who, at the age of 29, is the youngest woman to serve in Congress in US history.
Her victory has attracted quite an amount of public attention not only because of her win against a 10-term incumbent and the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley in the primaries or because of her progressive agenda, but also due to her social media prowess (Solis 2018). On her Instagram account, Ocasio-Cortez relates her experience as a first-time congresswoman in ways that not only make her seem authentic but also render the Congressional reality more relatable to her followers (Solis 2018). Also, as she provides constant supplies of “[a]rguments, news, some earnest self-promotion, policy explanation, and a touch of media criticism,” Ocasio-Cortez has been characterized as “an insurgent, internet-native political force” (Warzel 2019). And that is what, as Charlie Warzel (2019) of BuzzFeed News argues, makes Ocasio-Cortez a “perfect foil for a different, oxygen-sucking brand of political warfare: the pro-Trump media.” While he does stress the fact that the two are “far from carbon copies” in terms of “tone, tenor, and endgame of their politics,” Warzel also implies that there are parallels between Ocasio-Cortez and the pro-Trump media in their ability to garner attention and influence the political and public debate, which depends largely on their social media prowess (Warzel 2019). Yet, such a presumption relies on the mischaracterization of the American media landscape and its dynamics. It could also veil the fact that Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives who might follow in her footsteps might not, in the long run, be on an equal footing with those promoting pro-Trump messages.
On Instagram, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “makes politics digestible for everyday people,” says 23-year old Wandy Felicita Ortiz who follows the congresswoman “because she symbolizes someone like me.” This sentiment is echoed by Cristian Uriostegui, also 23, who says that “[w]atching her stories feels like having a friend who ran for Congress,” something he does not associate with more ‘scripted’ politicians (Solis 2018). According to Scott Talan (cited in Solis 2018), an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication, it is authenticity emanating from Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram stories that helps her mobilize young and more diverse Internet-savvy Americans to get involved in politics and act (very likely attracting many of those once energized by Bernie Sanders).
In his article entitled “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is A Perfect Foil For The Pro-Trump Media,” Charlie Warzel (2019) of BuzzFeed News draws parallels between Ocasio-Cortez and the pro-Trump media which he exemplifies by websites Gateway Pundit and Infowars as well as social media personalities, Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich. Warzel lays out similarities between ways in which the above-mentioned actors use social media to not only directly connect with their followers but also generate content – “[t]weets, dunks, and livestreams” – able to get media coverage and dictate the news cycle.
However, while this comparison is valid as far as the use of social media is concerned, it obscures the fact that the media outlets that are currently propagating disinformation in favor of the President did not start with Trump and are not confined to social media (or even the Internet).
There is more to the pro-Trump media
The limitation of Warzel’s characterization of pro-Trump media stems from its restriction to the online sphere. It corresponds to a broader tendency in both public and scholarly debates to link the propagation of pro-Trump messages and disinformation almost exclusively to recent technological developments such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram (Benkler et al. 2018).
However, as Benkler et al. (2018) have amply indicated in their book Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, the news media that produce and spread pro-Trump messages and disinformation include well-established and influential sources such as Fox News. The authors explicitly state that “over the course of 2017 Fox News had become the propaganda arm of the White House in all but name” (p. 14), in particular with regard to the ongoing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation (Benkler et al. 2018).
Founded in 1996, Fox News is a leading outlet of a massive and powerful network of right-wing media that conservatives have created as part (along with conservative think-tanks, research organizations, publishing houses, etc.) of their alternative information system (Grossmann and Hopkins 2016, Benkler et al. 2018). Starting with print publications between the 1940s and 1950s, the conservative media system was further boosted by openly anti-mainstream media stances of President Richard Nixon (“[…] the discrediting of the press must be our major objective over the next few months” (Brock 2004: 24)) and his Vice President Spiro Agnew (who called the media “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” (Brock 2004: 27)). Conservative media further grew and were transformed by the deregulatory platform of President Ronald Reagan as well as the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed under President Bill Clinton. Created on the premise that the ‘liberal’ mainstream media (the conservative mantra-like claim of the mainstream media’s liberal bias has not been corroborated by academic research) needed to be ‘balanced,’ the alternative conservative media have been marked by their partisan and ideological undertone. Over the years, it has been documented how the right-wing media, first offline and then online, have grown into an “information cocoon” (Grossmann and Hopkins 2016) and an echo chamber that has been disseminating partisan and ideological disinformation and propaganda for decades. No comparably large, coherent, and powerful alternative media universe has emerged on the opposite side of the political and ideological spectrum (Grossmann and Hopkins 2016, Benkler et al. 2018).
Moreover, this robust right-wing media network has provided conservatives with a way to circumvent and at the same time set the agenda of the professional mainstream media. Brock (2004) offers an example of how, during the 2000 presidential campaign, “techniques of character assassination” were used by Republicans and their media allies to create a narrative casting Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as a liar. Beginning with a GOP press release falsely accusing Gore of claiming to have “invented” the Internet, conservative outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, National Review, and the Washington Times pushed the claim, which resulted in the “impugning of Gore’s character and the questioning of his mental fitness” (p. 5). In their attempt to appear impartial and avoid conservative accusations of liberal bias, media outlets such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and MSNBC eventually picked up the narrative. (Additionally, due to their for-profit character, many of US mainstream news outlets follow the “If it bleeds, it leads” maxim, according to which publishing sensationalist stories attracts more audiences and, consequently, more revenues.)
In the 2016 presidential election, conservative media propagated a conspiracy theory alleging that, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had offered quid-pro-quo favors to US adversaries such as Russia in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation. This time, these were the Washington Post and the Associated Press that reported on the story, lending credibility to the paranoid allegations (Benkler et al. 2018).
Asymmetrical chances for media visibility
To clarify and reiterate, the above is not to say that the online trolls and conspiracy theorists such as Cernovich or fake news websites such as the Gateway Pundit do not matter, nor is it to negate the fact that Ocasio-Cortez applies some of the pro-Trump media’s online techniques to promote her progressive causes. But to suggest that she is a “perfect foil” for those media outlets is to not only misrepresent them, but also to equate Ocasio-Cortez with, what is in fact, a right-wing media mammoth, of which Cernovich and Gateway Pundit are only a small and recent addition.
This asymmetry is also relevant in the context of media exposure – the ability to dictate online and cable news cycles, especially in the long run, referred to in Warzel’s article.
On social media, Ocasio-Cortez is likely to retain her current visibility, providing she maintains her skillfulness or, to put it simply, keeps on doing what she does. She will, however, only be able to actively reach out to those who are online and choose to follow her. To maintain offline visibility, she will need to continue to rely on the 24/7 television news channels that pick up on her online activity and provide exposure with which she can reach broader audience. However, due to their responsiveness to conservative claims of ‘liberal bias,’ mainstream media have not only long marginalized the progressive views in favor of the moderate ones but also accommodated conservative positions, in order to appear more ‘balanced’ (Brock 2004 McChesney 2004). As such, it is not guaranteed that progressive Ocasio-Cortez will continue to attract broader media attention at the current rate.
On the other hand, the pro-Trump media as presented above, are not restricted by similar dependency. As a vast and coherent system, they already have their visibility and representation and, particularly due to the Fox News Channel, are part of the media mainstream in today’s America.
Benkler, Yochai, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. 2018. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brock, David. 2004. The Republican Noise Machine: Right-wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Domonoske, Camila. 2018. “The Midterm Elections Have Made History with These Notable Firsts.” NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2018/11/07/665118634/the-midterm-elections-have-made-history-with-these-notable-firsts (last accessed on January 11, 2019)h
Grossmann, Matt and David A. Hopkins. 2016. Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. New York: Oxford University Press.
McChesney, Robert. 2004. The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Solis, Marie. 2018. “Why Everyone’s Obsessed with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Stories.” Broadly. Retrieved from: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/vbadpy/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-instagram-stories-congress (last accessed on January 11, 2019)
Warzel, Charlie. 2019. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is A Perfect Foil For the Pro-Trump Media.” BuzzFeedNews. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/charliewarzel/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-is-a-perfect-foil-for-the-pro (last accessed on January 11, 2019)
About the Author
Aleksandra Polińska joined HCA’s Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust” (GKAT) in 2017. Her doctoral project focuses on the transformation of trust and authority in American news media, its different trajectories, and political implications.
Aleksandra received her B.A. in English Philology from Warsaw School of Applied Linguistics in 2013 and her M.A. in American Studies from University of Warsaw in 2015.