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Calling out Cersei Lannister: Elizabeth Warren reviews Game of Thrones

The real Game of Thrones might be who best leverages the hit HBO show to shape political narratives.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren argues that Game of Thrones is primarily about women in her review of the wildly popular HBO show.
  • Warren also touches on other parallels between the show and our modern world, such as inequality, political favoritism of the elite, and the dire impact of different leadership styles on the lives of the people.
  • Her review serves as another example of using Game of Thrones as a political analogy and a tool for framing political narratives.

It's been a busy week for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The presidential hopeful recently announced a bold plan to make college tuition free and cancel existing student loan debt, a plan that would affect more than 30 million Americans. Now, Warren's weighing in on another subject that's been laying heavily on Americans' minds: Game of Thrones.

In an article for The Cut, Warren breaks down why the famously violent HBO series has captured her attention: "For me, it's not about the death count […] It's about women."

It's certainly a viable take on the show. Many of the shows' subplots are focused on women of power behaving far more capably than their male predecessors. Warren talks about Daenerys Targaryen, who succeeded in bringing an army to Westeros where her brother failed (after having molten gold poured on his head). Daenerys's success and personal force seem to have at least made an impression on the many new parents who opted to name their babies Khaleesi, after Daenerys's Dothraki title.

Warren also talks about Cersei Lannister, another woman proving to be far more efficacious than her lush of a husband from way back when in season one. Where Daenerys rules through love, however, Cersei rules through fear.

Although Warren frames her article as being focused on the women in Game of Thrones, she doesn't wind up discussing them all that much. Rather, she uses them as a lens for other issues that Americans and Westerosi alike are obsessed with; politicians who serve the people rather than the wealthy, elite, and themselves; revolutionary leaders upsetting the standard quo; and the power of money in our world.

To Warren, Daenerys's commitment to fighting the white walkers for the sake of the people rather than fighting her personal enemies to the South is a revolutionary idea:

"A queen who declares that she doesn't serve the interests of the rich and powerful? A ruler who doesn't want to control the political system but to break the system as it is known? It's no wonder that the people she meets in Westeros are skeptical. Skeptical, because they've seen another kind of woman on the Iron Throne: the villain we love to hate, Queen Cersei of Casterly Rock."

Little needs to be said about Cersei Lannister's leadership style, but Warren does a good job of summing it up: "Cersei doesn't expect to win with the people — she expects to win in spite of them."

The Game of Game of Thrones analogies

While it's not a bad take on the show, Warren's review was clearly intended to garner support for her political platform by not-so-subtly connecting her campaign to that of the good guys from Game of Thrones (inasmuch as Game of Thrones has "good" guys). It's an easy and tempting bandwagon to jump onto. Game of Thrones is a story about politics, and it's immensely successful. For many people, it serves as a great window into understanding what's happening in modern politics.

Warren isn't the first to seize this connection, either. Donald Trump has been fond of tweeting images of himself surrounded by Game of Thrones branding (much to the ire of HBO), like this one he tweeted in response to Attorney General Barr's summary of the Mueller report:

In the context of Donald Trump's prior usage of Game of Thrones, Warren's review seems like her trying to shape how we use Game of Thrones as an analogy for our real-world politics. Warren is trying to declare who the Daenerys Targaryens and who the Cersei Lannisters are in American politics.

While Warren may very well be a Game of Thrones fan, her review is more likely to be an attempt to boost her name recognition and jump up in the polls in order to become a Democratic frontrunner. Warren's not exactly polling in the middle of the pack, but FiveThirtyEight polls show that she's not yet a serious threat to Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, who, depending on the pollster, regularly switch between frontrunner and runner-up. The 2020 presidential election is still a long way away. By that time, Game of Thrones will be over, but for many Americans, the real game will have just begun.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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