Madam Secretary 4.1

I want to think about trashy news and trashy people today.  The United States has enemies, of course, and they act against us in the old style and in the new. [1]  The old style is acting against us in support of some interest of theirs.  If we had planes surveying the areas where they are growing or refining drugs and they shot down one of our planes, that would be the old style.  

In the new style, the enemies are trying to weaken the United States generally.  This has nothing to do with some current conflict.  They would like to live in a world where the U. S. is internally divided and is, therefore, weak and hesitant externally.  Whatever does that, whenever it is possible to act on it, they will act on it.  These are acts of war, not of diplomacy and they are part of the fabric of our world.

Our peril lies in the combination of enemies—when have we not had enemies?—andmad sec 5 trashy people.  I am going to look at some of the trashy people and I am going to say directly that they make possible the damage our enemies do to us.

I have some trashy people in mind.  These particular trashy people are players in an episode of NBC’s Madam Secretary. [2]  I’m going to lay out the bare bones of the plot and distinguish “the bad guys” from the trashy people.  Then I want to indulge in some baldfaced moralizing.

Shrewsbury College

But before I do any of that, I want to visit Lord Peter Wimsey briefly.  This aristocrat, Dorothy Sayers’ best-known sleuth, was called in to solve a series of crimes at a women’s college in Oxford, England.  The perpetrator of these crimes is acting against Shrewsbury College in what I called, above, the new style—whatever weakens the college is good.  She commits crimes of which anyone might be suspected, and in fact, each of the dons comes to suspect most of the others.  They bend, in a sense, but they don’t break.  Here’s the way Lord Peter puts it:

Will you let me say here and now, that the one thing which frustrated the whole attack…was the remarkable solidarity and public spirit displayed by your college as a body…This kind of loyalty forms at once the psychological excuse for the attack and the only possible defense against it.”

There is, of course, no possibility of getting the kind of group loyalty Lord Peter is referring to in a nation-state.

The Obama Interview

In an interview with David Letterman, former President Obama said that in his early and enthusiastic use of the internet as a campaign tool, he did not see the formidable uses the same techniques could be put to.

So I had a very optimistic feeling about [the net-based campaign in 2008].  And I think that what we missed was the degree to which people who are in power…people…special interests…foreign governments, etc….can, in fact, manipulate that and …propagandize.

What the Russians exploited, but it was already here, [bold font is added]  is we are operating in completely different information universes.

What was it that was “already here?”

Madam Secretary, Season 4, Episode 1

The Colima Cartel, drug dealers, want a small “independent” Asian nation, so they can expand their distribution in Asia.  The President of Timor Lesté, holds them off for awhile and finally caves in.  His second in command, a personal friend, does not give in and the Cartel murders him.  He dies of the poison they gave him during his meeting with the U. S. Secretary of State (shown here, with the President).

mad sec 3Long before the body is cold, some manufacturers of “outrages made to order,” a specialty of the house in Macedonia, has begun circulating the rumor that the Secretary had, in fact, killed the Vice President.  And we haven’t even come to the trashy people yet.

These rumors—enticing enough to serve as “click bait”—are picked up by Americans who run conspiracy-oriented sites and who care nothing at all for the truth of the rumor, but only for its likely effect.  This rumor “goes viral” among these groups and finally makes the leap to the next level.

At the next level are Senator Carlos Morejon and talk show host Marty Hawk, who bring this to the attention of the mainstream public.  Hawk says it is not longer possible to ignore a rumor that is lighting up the blogs.  The allegations are trash and Hawk knows they are trash, but he is as fully addicted to “clickbait” as the conspiracy theorists are.  So, not only does he inform his viewers that these rumors are circulating, he presents them as something to be denied.

And in the process, he shows a clips (from ten minutes ago, he says) from Senator Morejon.  Morejon also takes no responsibility for bringing this item to public notice.  “I was just repeating a news item that one of my staffers read online.”  And with no more than that to go on, he links these words together: allegation, investigation, FBI, murder, Secretary of State.  And he does it with a stern “root out corruption” tone and demeanor.

Senator Morejon is not a trashy person.  He is at war.  Anything is fair.  Here is the way he puts it in his final scene.  

Here’s what I know already.  In this brave new world of scattered partisan media where unscrupulous news outlet are desperate for any juicy news story and political plot twist that they can find,  I believe I can chip away at [President] Dalton’s approval ratings quickly and efficiently.  12% of the American public thinks that you’re a murderer, Madam Secretary.  I can work with that.


In this kind of world, it really doesn’t take very many bad people to conduct a vicious war.  It takes a few bad people; a great many trashy people; a general alienation from politics as a public concern; and an internet to connect all of the above.

There is probably nothing we can do about the Colima Cartel.  We could stop using drugs, I suppose.  That would require changes in the economy, in the high-using communities, in our incarceration policies, in our institutionalized racism, and in our relations with the governments where that cartel and all the others, operate with impunity.  So…not much we can do.

There is probably nothing we can do about the “click-bait factories” operating in Macedonia and which have found a very comfortable home in conservative sites.  If you think of the founders—like well-known Macedonian media attorney, Trajche Arsov—as “click lords,” rather than “drug lords,” you will see the similarities in the two situations.

There is probably nothing we can do about the conspiracy-oriented sites.  If these people think of themselves as at war with the U. S. they are “foreign agents” in a sense, but if they just like to play in the mud, I’d put them in the trashy people category.  So long as their audiences hold up, there is no reason for them not to publish the most outrageous lies, provided that they are lies their fans click on and thus provide revenue.

We might be able to do something about the fanatics who “share” the trash with each other.  They pass it along free of any involvement because “reposting is not endorsing,” they say.  So all the “sharing” of egregious lies doesn’t even raise a moral issue with these people.

The Cable News Anchor

The principal “trashy person” in this show is Marty Hawk, the cable news anchor.  He springs the whole load on the Secretary of State on the grounds that: a) there is a “story” that is burning up a lot of websites right now, b) a snap poll shows that 22% of Americans believe you are a murderer, and c) Sen. Morejon of Arizona gave an interview ten minutes ago in which he promised an investigation.  Then he shows the ominous clip from Sen. Morejon.

What Hawk does is to lift the story up out of the right wing sewer and present it as “news.”  The fact that he can offer a legally-elected U. S. Senator who is “just repeating a news item a member of my staff read online,” really does make it news, but the real news is that Sen. Morejon has just hit a new low.  The seeming news is that nearly a quarter of the American populace thinks their Secretary of State is a murderer.

But, of course, people watch the Marty Hawk show hoping for titillating little goodies like this, which they will pass on as “news.”  Secretary McCord assesses the situation accurately, I think, when she goes right at Marty Hawk.

Morejon is using the tactics not just of dirty politics but of warfare.

Because it’s dictatorial.  It’s autocratic.  It’s un-American.

Furthermore, a mainstream media outlet ought to have a better understanding of its responsibility to the public and refuse to signal-boost these kinds of outright lies.  Really.  You ought to know better. [3]


I know this is a grim assessment.  The sources of this public sickness are either beyond our reach (Macedonia, Colima) or so much a part of our life that we can hardly see them, much less oppose them.  Still, I think this show—which is a TV drama, not a news report—has captured a large part of what the problem is and that is worth doing.

Thank you Madam Secretary.

[1]  As we act against them.

[2]  This is not a show I have watched much.  When it was introduced several years ago, I watched a few episodes, decided it wasn’t all that good and turned to other things.  A friend told me recently that it had gotten better over several seasons and that I should try it again.  The episode I watched, News Cycle, is the first of Season 4.  I still don’t like the show generally, but this particular episode dramatized very nicely an issue that is coming to mean a great deal to me, namely web-based attacks on the U. S.

[3]  This tirade causes the President’s Chief of Staff to go ballistic because that’s not how you treat a scandal.  You just hunker down until it’s over.  And he is right, if minimizing damage to the Secretary and the President is the game.  But it passes up the chance to call this cancer what it is and to oppose it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Political Psychology, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.