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The Art of the Heel

The Art of the Heel

CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta spent Tuesday night reporting from President Trump’s rally in Tampa, Florida, and once again a scene ensued between the more vocal Trump supporters and their favorite reporter to dislike.

 

 

Acosta, who is used to this by now, persevered through his stand-up in that clip, acknowledging the crowd, and finishing his spot. Later, he took to his own Twitter account with his thoughts and some of his own video:

 

 

 

Now, Acosta and others are not wrong in worrying that at some point these displays could get out of control. The behavior of some of those at these rallies is inexcusably horrid. Some degenerate could very well revel in shouting “traitor” at a reporter, decide to take it literally, and do something tragically stupid and violent. Any time a group gets overly charged, a mob is only a few bad decisions and a handful of heartbeats away.

But that level of emotional involvement is also the point; it is a tried and true formula for engaging an audience.

The Masters of Fake Reality

Pro wrestling figured this out years before politics did, by taking a theatrical component as old as recorded human performance and monetizing it: good guy vs bad guy. Wrestling nomenclature is face (the good guy) and heel (the bad guy). WWE Hall of Famer and best-selling author Jim Ross explains the idea like this:

How many great movies or TV shows have you seen or how many books have you read  where there wasn’t a definitive hero or villain? Villains can take many shapes and forms whether it be war, disease, a bully, a coward, a cheat, etc. Great villains in the sports entertainment genre are people that a fan will pay to see them get their ass beat. It’s a simple formula that is timeless.

Obviously, today’s pro wrestling villains come in different presentations, more often than not ill planned, but nonetheless having antagonists who people want to see get their mouth shut and ass whipped still sells. In real life there is a fine line, in many cases, between good and evil. However, TV wrestling isn’t real life. It’s show biz and almost every show biz presentation that you or I have ever enjoyed had a hero and a villain component…

These two entities, the good guy and the bad guy, both from opposite sides of their own exclusive fences come together to eventually compete for championships while along the way they have a clearly established personal issue with which the average viewer can relate.

The crowd gets emotionally invested, shows up, watches, and spends money to cheer the hero in finally shutting up the heel. The heel makes sure to keep the crowds riled up. But privately, behind the scenes in the locker room, the heel and the hero are both getting paid as long as each plays their role. They need each other, and they know it. It is a symbiotic relationship to keep the money and ratings rolling in from an entertained crowd.

Enter Donald Trump. No stranger to pro wrestling story lines himself, and like Jim Ross Trump is a WWE Hall of Famer. Some of his media tactics could be right out of the writers’ room for a wrestling show. If you are going to run as a populist savior, you need a villain, or better yet, a powerful conglomeration of villains. You need long odds against a hated rival. You need a bully who has run down the people for years and is due for a comeuppance. What better foil than the news media? For years, vast swaths of America have rightly felt the media was not only biased against, but outright condescending, to them and their interests. What part of that perception they may have lacked was nudged along by the rise of new media, whose own narrative of crusading against the “mainstream” media dovetailed nicely to those sentiments.

It was Trump himself who elevated Jim Acosta, calling him out by name and starting the now common exchanges between the president and the CNN representative. It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to Acosta professionally, and the White House and President Trump love it too. Like the wrestling roles Ross explained, their public feuding serves both their interests.

Whether Jim Acosta

Jim Acosta is not — despite the chant — a monster, stupid, or a traitor . He’s a reporter, long time media pro, and good at what he does. His Father was a Cuban refugee, his mother’s folks “were of Irish and Czech descent,” and his maternal grandparents are buried at Arlington. If you really must insist on dehumanizing the man because he shouts at the president and has a logo on his microphone, maybe at least read his own account
of what it meant to travel to Cuba as a reporter with his own heritage first.

White House Correspondent is a coveted assignment for network reporters, and as one of the higher profile roles is not entrusted to just anyone. Acosta started out doing college radio and then worked his way up through TV in places like Knoxville, Dallas, and DC more than once. The James Madison University alum worked his way to his current lofty perch. Traditionally a stepping stone to the top of whatever network you work for, time in the Brady Briefing Room is both a slog and a privilege. In print media appearances might not matter as much, but a network reporter in the White House Press Corps needs to stand out, since they are all reporting on the exact same thing at exactly the same time. The biggest names in network news almost all did a turn with POTUS duty. Ambition is part and parcel for the gig.

Sam Donaldson comes to mind, having made his bones by constantly being the focal point of Reagan press conferences. He could be legendarily difficult, but also knew the role he was in. One amazing piece of video is available here, where the man who could stand in front of Reagan challenging his credibility also was the consummate pro when sitting down on the occasion of Frank Reynolds’ death. The line between ambitious and aggressive behavior at that level comes off to others as “being a jerk” and is subjective, but commonly mistaken as the same thing. Is Jim Acosta a jerk? I have no idea. Is he biased? Of course. How do we know that? Because every human being on earth is. Just because he knows how to play to camera and narrative does not mean he cannot deliver big “J” journalism as well. There are many great reporters; you want to be the man at CNN, you better be a great reporter that can put on a show and keep eyeballs on it.

None of this is meant to venerate Jim Acosta, but to offer some context to the cardboard cutout by some on the right of “evil, biased, treacherous” media that is magically spit out of the mainstream media reporter factory. You can rightly claim bias, perhaps even malicious bias, but color with that brush within the lines of not demonizing folks.

And if you are focusing on any of that, you are missing the point anyway. You are buying into the show as more real than it is.

News and Reality Entertainment

Let’s go back to one of Acosta’s own tweets for a moment:

 

Note though, that while you are hearing the yelled insults, in the foreground what is actually going on is a Trump supporter asking Acosta for a selfie, and what is apparently a cordial back and forth. Fox 13 Tampa’s Evan Axelbank was there, and described a scene that has become common at these rallies that does not make the social media feeds and b-roll for the networks:

 

 

The folks in the crowd shaking hands and taking selfies with Acosta get it. Show’s over, time to get an autograph and head home. Some shake the hand of Acosta out of respect, or at least appreciation that they know he is playing his role and that they played theirs, momentarily rubbing shoulders with someone more famous than they. Those who take it too seriously are still chanting and screaming, and may or may not know they are being recorded for the purpose. In the more volatile clips, it’s telling that the folks with the worst behavior turn it up a notch when they notice the camera panning to them. The same can be seen at televised ball games, concerts, wrestling events, and anywhere else cameras are placed in front of a crowd. So perhaps it’s more human behavior under the guise of politics than we give credit for.

The reality here is that the crowd chanting “CNN sucks” has fully bought into the show. They can scream “fake news” all day long, but they have entered into the symbiotic relationship, and they now need the heel Jim Acosta and the villainous CNN to justify their own purpose of showing up for their hero President Trump and protesting the injustice of it all. They need each other. Acosta the pro doesn’t do his stand-up in the media area, on the stage, or outside the building; he makes sure to get the crowd going. Lights on, it’s plowing through his report with a hostile crowd, and tweeting out the story — in many cases accurately — of those horribly behaved ruffians impeding the work of the press. Lights off, shake hands and interact with the people who might have chanted along during the show, but know to turn it off once the show is over, and appreciate the art and effort of the performers.

Yes, we need to worry about the crazy makers. Of course we should all turn it down a notch, and it is fair to point out this current media monster was created mostly by ourselves. Yes, the President should be better than this. Sure, Acosta can be insufferable. Yup, CNN could do more journalism and less antagonism. But that isn’t what we really want. If we did, we wouldn’t pay for the show in views and attendance. In the meantime, let us at least attempt to recognize that while parts are real, we should keep the show in perspective.

So chant away at Jim Acosta, but keep it light-hearted and don’t make it personal. If you cannot like the man, at least respect how great he is at the art of the heel.


Senior Editor
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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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59 thoughts on “The Art of the Heel

  1. All good and fun, until it isn’t. Acosta can handle it, Trump can handle it and the crow can handle it, but what happens when Trump has a bad day and decides to crank his rally rhetoric up a notch or two? Or Acosta doesn’t play ball and reacts somewhat aggressive to the crowd? Or a group of drunk Trump supporters decide that chanting is fun, but breaking some bones is more fun?

    The question is not if this will go wrong, but when and how horribly wrong. You can’t control the mob.

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    • I agree the Trump vs Acosta is a side show which is why I took this approach to it . Trumps main focus at all times is Trump, and the news medias favorite thing to cover is their own importance, which makes these things the perfect meeting of subject and medium for both. And while they are doing it, there is precious little coverage on vastly more important things being ignored.

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    • The comment suggested that a problem with the analogy is that at the end of the day in the wrestling world, the heel and face go home and are entirely different people, doing harmless (or even helpful) things. In the Trump/Acosta world, the face goes home and guts environmental regulations and attempts end-runs around Congress that would add half-trillion dollars to the deficit. One’s the show; the other’s just a sideshow.

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        • And I initially saw it while it was in moderation. At some point later the text disappeared. There’s another comment a bit farther down this thread where only half an edit seems to have survived, even though the system showed me the entire edit while the comment was in moderation. My intuition is that now that the moderation system is grabbing way more comments than it should, it’s exposing a previously unknown bug — maybe in the moderation code, maybe in some other code — involving multiple execution threads accessing the database.

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  2. Could you compare and contrast this with the way that President Obama dealt with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh? I’m not arguing BSDI, but I offhand think that there are some interesting similarities and differences.

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    • I think it’d be interesting for you to expand on it. My own vague recollection was that Obama generally ignored Right Wing Entertainment/Media entirely; was pretty detached from that kind of political advocacy and that his aloofness in many areas served him quite poorly.

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    • I think it’s an interesting question that I think bears exploring. If my own memory suffices Obama largely ignored the Right Wing Entertainment/Media most of the time; hell a lot of the time he seemed to even ignore the main stream media. It certainly lent him a certain aloofness/dignity but he ceded a hell of a lot of messaging opportunity by being so detached (and arguably scornful of that kind of politics) and both he and his party paid dearly for it.

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  3. @michael-cain

    Just a note that I have no idea where the heck your comments went – they were like this when I first looked at the site this morning.

    Have asked if he knows what the system is doing… *kicks tires in the meantime*.

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  4. CNN is obviously a capitalist enterprise. They are in the business of selling news/information to make money. My long-standing opinion is that there is no real need for 24 hours news networks*. Kolohe has noted that a lot of them work on the old news radio format. I.e., they report the same things over and over again throughout the day. A lot of stories you see on cable news networks are more fit for local news. Stuff like Balloon Boy and one story I remember catching on CNN many years ago, a bear roaming the backyards of suburbia somewhere.

    I am starting to wonder whether our current era of bad feelings is a product of both BS jobs and Amusing Ourselves to Death. Many people work long hours at jobs that might not need as such. We work long hours for a variety of reasons that are deeply cultural and hard to unpack. Part of it is our Calvinist heritage. Some of it sheer necessity. I work in a co-working/shared office space. The company we lease from as a front desk person to handle mail and other issues through out the day. You need someone at the desk but he or she is rarely busy from 9-5 so I see them on their phones a lot. This is fine but we need stuff to fill the down time and create dramas like the ones you mention here.

    I don’t know if my theory is fully correct. I’ve noticed that a few people (usually libertarians interestingly) like to claim that the divisions are being manufactured and people really agree more and/or the stakes are much lower. I don’t think this is true. I think that social politics really matter to people with strong intensity. Like you mentioned, I have my biases and side I support but I also think social politics leaves very little room for compromise. There is often no moderate/compromise stance on abortion, LBGT rights, gun control, birth control access, racial justice issues, etc.

    But the thing about a lot of posts like this is that they seem to imagine a world where Trump is very popular. He is not. He has never cracked 45 percent in polling and this is remarkable considering the strength of the economy. He has a base of hardcore supporters but lots of people loathe him. Kevin Drum pointed out yesterday that the college-educated, white, female Republican is basically a highly endangered species and this is largely if not entriely because of Trump.

    https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2018/08/quote-of-the-day-college-educated-republican-women-are-extinct/

    But on a lot of blogs and a lot of the media, there is this idea that Trump is going to become massively popular any day now. I find it interesting that a lot of the media especially TV media and old-school newspapers does not want to discuss the massive unpopularity of Trump.**

    Of course the GOP does control Congress and the Presidency and the response to Trump’s unpopularity might be that it doesn’t matter until it produces a check on the GOP.

    *I think that 24-hour news networks could be great at long-form investigative documentaries/reporting but no one would watch this and it would not sell adverts.

    **Places like Slate and Vox will discuss and write about Trump’s unpopularity. I don’t know if this is because of partisan affiliation/different audiences and/or as net publications they don’t believe in the rules of “objective” journalism as practiced by CNN and paper publications. I think Vox had an essay on how it is time to discuss Trump’s massive popularity.

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  5. Yes, we need to worry about the crazy makers. Of course we should all turn it down a notch, and it is fair to point out this current media monster was created mostly by ourselves.

    Great article. My take is about the same:

    1) It IS designed to be theater. These people shout and holler because they see it as such. The comment most often heard from the MAGA crowd about trump rallies is that they are fun and entertaining. A venue where you can let out your darker angels is in keeping with human traditions from jousting and the Colosseum to a Yankees vs. Red Sox game.

    But….

    2) It’s playing with fire. Unlike the WWE or Fenway there are real things at stake here. This mob isn’t whipped up to root for a wrestler. They are being whipped up as a prelude to action or support of an agenda. The agenda itself can be argued as politics – left vs. right, economics, IR etc. But the use of the mob in service to that agenda is dangerous. If it continues it’s only a matter of time before the crazy makers do something irreversible.

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  6. I dunno but I begin to think about what some “prepper” type I read once who said something like “Don’t go stupid places and don’t hang around stupid people” if you want to avoid trouble. I think political rallies, unfortunately, in our polarized times, more often than not run the risk of rapidly becoming a “stupid place.”

    Mob mentality is scary. It’s bad enough when people on social media decide to gang up on someone; it’s worse in meatspace where there might be fists and feet and even weapons. The problem with people like Trump and Acosta playing up the sideshow for eyeballs and attention is kind of like the kids who try moves they see on wrestling, not knowing that wrestling is fake, and getting hurt: someone’s eventually going to take all the noise and bluster way too seriously, and someone’s going to get hurt. I wouldn’t feel AS bad if it were the person taking it all too seriously, but all-too-often in those cases, innocent bystanders wind up hurt. And I’m not willing to put my face between some angry person’s fist and an innocent bystander, as much as I seem to get called on to be a “peacemaker.” Shoot, even at work, when I’ve been called on to “peacemake” between two people merely arguing over intellectual turf, they wind up turning on ME…

    Some days I am profoundly pessimistic for the future of our culture, and sadly there aren’t even really any Territories left to “light out” for if stuff gets too bad….

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      • the problem with comments showing up as blank is you don’t know if the commenter is playing along with the glitch, or if they said something really clever or good that you want to read, or if they refuted one of your points in a particularly devastating way.

        Until/unless this shows up I am going to worry I said something very stupid and refutable that I am unable to realize I said it…

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        • FWIW, this one of Chip’s was briefly caught in moderation before it got approved and then broke, so I read it, and while my short-term attention span has gone through about a million other things since then, I remember it being sympathetic to your feelings and at least partially in agreement with you.

          Definitely wasn’t a scoff comment.

          (I remember more about feelings than I do about words.)

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  7. One of the problems with wrestling is the Philadelphia problem.

    You have a babyface and a heel in Philly, you’re going to find yourself surprised that they’re cheering the heel and booing the babyface. (I think it has something do to with “authenticity”.)

    What this basically means is that you have to book extra careful if you’ve got a PPV in Philly… but it also gives you a little bit of leeway. Are you tempted to have one of your put-upon babyfaces finally crack his façade and give a promo where he tells everybody what he *REALLY* thinks? Put it in Philly! Are you going to have a match that ends in a non-finish where the heel comes out looking really good to set up for the rematch? Put it in Philly! Are you going to turn a babyface heel or turn a heel babyface? Well… maybe do that one in Madison Square Garden.

    There’s also the problem of heel vs. heel matches or, to a lesser extent, babyface vs babyface matches. There’s nobody for the crowd to root for in the former and nobody for them to root against in the latter (there are a handful of really good babyface vs. babyface matches, though… but they’re few and far between… they really only work when you’re either Passing The Torch or when you’re setting up a heel turn and want to establish that one of the good guys has started being tempted by the various shortcuts available to him).

    There’s also the problem of the smart mark. He’s the guy who has been watching the show long enough to say “dang… that is some quality heeling!” when he sees the heel do something particularly devious. (Chris Jericho, back in the WCW days, grabbed a pro-Jericho sign out of the hands of a fan and ripped it in half. He then yelled “DON’T PATRONIZE ME!” That’s some quality heeling.) This can result in jaded fans rooting for the heels (who are allowed to be interesting) more than they root for the babyfaces.

    Put all of these dynamics in a pot at the same time?

    I give you Jim Acosta.

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  8. Great post. Reading it reminded me of the early days of cable news when the “breaking news” chyron was always on display 24/7 because a young white woman had gone missing. It became a running joke. There’s even a Wiki page about the phenomenon. But the takeaway from that era of cable news was that the extent of the coverage, and the breathless sense of urgency expressed by the anchors and reporters, was entirely disproportionate to the importance – the newsworthiness – of the event. The presentation, the reality being conveyed, just wasn’t real in any meaningful sense except as, and this is key I think, an appeal to pure emotion. It was almost entirely theater, or even *entirely* theater if you believe that good theater always has a bit of truth at its core. Fast forward thru blogs, the proliferation of websites, the rise of alternative media outlets (way back in the day I was a big fan of Raw Story since it covered news other outlets wouldn’t even touch, now not so much), on thru attracting users merely to sell their info, the monetization of eyeballs, clickbait and hot-takes, weaponized memes and so on, and what you get is a media and political culture where the signal is the substance, the performance is the reality, the WWE is truer (more real) than our politics.

    At least for some people. Not me, of course. Or anyone on this board.

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      • I endorse this recommendation also. I was only about a year into watching wrestling as an adult when I saw it, and honestly most Monday nights way more of my attention was on my novel or goofing off with one or more of our other friends who watch… well, except for when Mankind or the Rock, or better yet both, were on the TV…. and I really wasn’t interested in it as a business or a mythic foundation AT ALL. then I watched the documentary and I was like “OH THIS IS REALLY INTERESTING OMIGOSH” and thus began my journey to smarkdom…

        Wait, is that a recommendation or a warning about going down the rabbit hole?

        Either way, it’s an incredibly compelling documentary.

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  9. ” Is he biased? Of course. How do we know that? Because every human being on earth is.”

    QFT. But how many of the mainstream reporters/journalists CLAIM they are neutral. That’s my beef. Non idiots know they aren’t neutral, so don’t look me in the eye and claim you are. (I don’t know if Costa has claimed this..but most do)

    ” Yup, CNN could do more journalism and less antagonism. But that isn’t what we really want. If we did, we wouldn’t pay for the show in views and attendance.” Hey if that’s what you want, watch. I want independent hard hitting news–no commentary. Stop selling your soul for “access”–which is why I don’t watch that crap anymore.

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  10. FWIW, while I don’t disagree about its relevance, I think something that gets lost a lot is that the individual who won that race is actually pretty atypical as wrestlers go. Outside of his persona, he is soft-spoken, thinks before he speaks, admits a great deal of nuance, and he was an elementary school teacher before he became a pro wrestler.

    I disagree with him about a hell of a lot, but despite some Highly Questionable storylines in his wrestling past (necrophilia?? really???), I have a lot of respect for him as a person.

    As “libertarian” politicians go, he’s always struck me as more sincere than most (cf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8xphl-CyvU although since I don’t have the patience for a 1hr13min video on Austrian Economics right now, if anyone watches it and there’s something appalling I had no idea about in there, I most humbly apologize. I very much doubt there would be though, which puts him miles ahead of, say, a Rand Paul in my estimation.)

    (Now, have I deliberately been avoiding learning too much about his opinions since Trump started running? Why yes, yes I have. Is that kind of weak sauce of me? Oh, probably. But still, he’s not your average wrestling dude, in ever so many senses of the word…)

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    • You are correct here. Glenn Jacobs has for several years been transitioned more to part time performer and has been doing lots of things behind the scenes. He had long been tabbed for management-type things as his career wound down, which is earned respect both for his acumen and people skills. I haven’t followed the ins and outs of his policy platform any further than the blanket “libertarian” stuff I caught on his clips, but he is a sharp guy with no discernable baggage so no reason he wouldn’t make a go of politics. Good for him.

      Wrestling storylines can be very poor in taste, the one you reference here is infamous and second only probably to Mae Young giving birth to a hand (no, I’m not linking it, figure that one out on your own) but holding him liable for that would be like holding an actor for performing a bad script, and we forgive them.

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