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Cable News and the Ways of the World

It’s human nature to want a single explanation for anything that happens. We usually look for the reason, not the reasons. Thus, when the new management at CNN fired John Harwood and Brian Stelter, both of whom have openly criticized the former president (and full-time criminal), the reason that immediately came to mind was a political one. CNN’s new owner, Warner Brothers Discovery, wants the company to be nicer to Republicans.

An article from Vox written a couple weeks ago suggested that’s one reason, but there’s probably another as well:

In [one] version of events, Stelter is the victim of John Malone, the billionaire cable magnate and the most powerful investor in Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., which now owns CNN and the rest of what used to be called Time Warner.

Malone’s politics lean quite right/libertarian…. More to the point: Current and former CNN employees believe Malone’s view of CNN is entirely colored by Fox News. “John Malone doesn’t watch CNN. John Malone only watches CNN via Fox News,” says a CNN employee. “If I watched CNN via Fox News, I would hate CNN too.”

And Stelter, who spent most of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation, was already a target of Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson…. Then, after Stelter’s boss, Jeff Zucker, was pushed out in February, Stelter went after Malone, who had said he wished CNN was more like Fox News because Fox News had “actual journalism.”

Asked about this theory by the New York Times, Malone gave one of the most candid admissions you’ll ever see a public person make in the guise of a denial: “Mr. Malone said he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.” Translation: Yes, this pleases me.

So in this theory, … Malone and his managers — CEO David Zaslav and Chris Licht, the executive Zaslav hired to replace Zucker — will find other CNN journalists they want off the air as well. [In fact, they already have. They fired John Harwood this past week — he called the Republican front-runner a “dishonest demagogue” on his way out the door].

Then again, maybe they’ll need to let go of a lot of people because of theory No. 2:

Warner Brothers Discovery has a heavy debt load, but Zaslav has told investors that won’t matter, in part because he’s going to find $3 billion in savings.

We’ve already seen signs of budget-cutting in the company’s entertainment properties … but there will be many more cuts to come this fall. So Stelter, who reportedly made close to $1 million a year, was an easy cut: His show … was a big deal in media circles … but not a huge draw for normals.

Under Zaslav/Licht, CNN has already made one significant cut: Killing off CNN+, its brand-new streaming service, weeks after it launched … But that may not be anything close to enough to help the parent company hit its numbers. In which case, Stelter’s departure could be the first of many, and we’ll spend less time worrying about CNN’s politics and more time worrying about its ability to provide first-class news coverage.

But there’s another theory. Someone who goes by YS on Twitter and claims to have worked at CNN for 18 years says it’s all about who watches cable news:

Each quarter, the cable operators [like Comcast and AT&T] release their subscriber base. For seven consecutive years, the cable operators have seen subscriber declines… It’s called in the TV biz, “Cord Cutters”.

97% of “Cord Cutters” are under the age of 50. The majority of what is left watching cable are … old people. As demographics for cable TV has changed … the networks remaining with any traction (ESPN, news networks, etc.) have to – HAVE TO – appeal to who is sitting on their couch watching.

In the ratings war, the scorecard is usually based on the A18-49 demographic. But not for news. All advertisers on these networks buy them for A50+. [Aiming for that demographic] MSNBC went left. Fox News went right. CNN tried to play the middle.

But between 2008 and 2016, CNN lost 60% of its 50+ audience. Fox News, saw a 70% increase in the same demographic during the same period (mostly men). Fox News gave the audience what they want, an aggrieved white man perspective…. While the rest of America is out there cutting the cord, Fox News doubled down on old people. And won. 

News networks are not here to defend democracy. There is only one goal and one goal only. Higher CPM’s [i.e. what they can charge advertisers to reach a thousand viewers. On average, advertisers pay $20 to reach 1,000 viewers, which adds up when 100 million people watch the Super Bowl]. CPM is the currency used in TV to reflect the value of the programming.

[CNN’s new boss] was given one edict. Raise CPM’s. That’s it. That’s all he has to do. And he believes [becoming more “centrist”] is how.

Whether there’s one reason or several for CNN’s management to change its programming, the basic fact is that many old people (although not all of us) watch cable TV and will accept a kind of fascism if it comes to that, and the people who call the shots for big corporations tend to be Republicans who have some doubts about democracy and no doubts at all about making money.

Being Real in America

The real Eiffel Tower is in Paris. There’s a fake one in Las Vegas. If there is a “Real America”, is there a fake one somewhere? Maybe in Belgium or Thailand? Max Boot of The Washington Post has some thoughts on what’s real about America:

I’ve been feeling very blue this summer. Oh, I don’t mean I’m depressed — I’ve been having a ball. But I’ve been spending time in some of the most liberal enclaves in America: first Martha’s Vineyard, then Provincetown, Mass., an LGBTQ mecca where pride flags are ubiquitous…..

I have to admit that even this reformed ex-Republican did a slight eyeroll at the car next door to our rented beach house in P-town. It sports bumper stickers proclaiming “Biden-Harris,” “Coexist” (with Christian, Jewish, Muslim and peace symbols), “Resist” and “Bye Don” under a shock of yellow hair. Naturally, it’s a Subaru station wagon with a bike rack. How cliché can you get?

It is easy in such environs to imagine that you’re not in the “real America”….

But you know what? Provincetown is the real America [note: first settled in 1700]. So is Martha’s Vineyard. These communities are undoubtedly on the left…. But, in many ways, they might be more representative of 2022 America than the Rust Belt diners where reporters love to take the pulse of T____landia.

There is an implicit assumption, shared by many Republicans and Democrats, that “real” Americans are White, rural, conservative, Christian and poorly educated. (“I love the poorly educated,” D____ T____ said in 2016.) Ultra-MAGA Republicans assume that their policy preferences — anti-immigration, anti-gun control, anti-abortion, anti-“woke” — are the only legitimate views that can be held by “real” Americans, and that anyone who disagrees is a pointy-headed elitist or “globalist” who is out of touch with reality.

Yet it is White, Christian, rural, conservative voters who are now in the minority. Indeed, much of the reason that MAGA Republicans sound so hysterical so much of the time is that they know that the tides of economic and demographic change are leaving them behind. The White share of the population has declined from 80 percent in 1980 to just 60.1 percent in 2019. By the 2040s, America is projected to become “majority minority.”

Accompanying this demographic shift is an economic shift that puts a premium on brains over brawn: In 1970, 31.2 percent of non-farm workers were employed in blue-collar jobs. By 2016, the blue-collar share of the workforce had fallen to just 13.6 percent. There is even a religious shift: Atheists and agnostics are the fastest-growing religious group in the country, while the percentage of Christians declined by 15 points between 2007 and 2021.

Demography is not necessarily destiny, and Latinos, in particular, are not as Democratic as they used to be. But these trends are hardly favorable for a T____ified Republican Party whose base increasingly consists of White, evangelical Christians who haven’t graduated from college.

A more diverse, better-educated country is more liberal, particularly on cultural issues. In other words, more like P-town and the Vineyard. Just look at the massive shift on same-sex marriage. Even Obama came out against marriage equality in 2008 when it had the support of only 40 percent of Americans. Now same-sex marriage is supported by 71 percent of the public — and even by 55 percent of Republicans. It has become a nonissue.

The hardcore MAGA base might thrill to the kind of cultural warfare practiced by T____ and [Florida Governor] DeSantis, but it repels most of the electorate — which is why so many Republicans who touted their opposition to abortion during the primaries are now soft-pedaling an unpopular stance.

Our political system has a sharp minoritarian bias, but there is little doubt that Democratic positions are way more popular than Republican ones. Sixty-seven million more Americans live in counties won by Joe Biden than by T____ in 2020 — and the Biden counties produce 71 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

The Biden strongholds are in major cities and suburban areas — and that is increasingly where most Americans live. Even in red states, major metropolitan areas tend to be pretty blue. The largest city T____ won in 2020 was Oklahoma City [the 22nd largest city in the US].

The whole country might not be nearly as progressive as Provincetown or Martha’s Vineyard, but those blue havens are closer to an increasingly liberal mainstream than the MAGA redoubts where pickup trucks sport “Let’s Go, Brandon!” bumper stickers. There is a good reason so many MAGA Republicans are embracing “semi-fascism”: Their views are too unpopular to command majority support anymore. They certainly don’t speak for the “real” America — to the extent that such a thing even exists.

Unquote.

In the old days, when Hollywood made a war movie, a platoon would include soldiers from all over (maybe they still do it these days with the addition of a woman or two). There would be a fast talker from Brooklyn, a cowboy from Texas, a hothead from Mississippi, a college athlete, a family man from Iowa, a skinny kid who lied about his age to enlist, an Arizona Indian, a reliable sort from anywhere USA (maybe played by Van Johnson), perhaps even a quiet black man and somebody named “Gonzales” or “Nakamura”. The message was that real Americans, the great guys who were defending democracy against the fascists, came from all over. Today, when our homegrown fascists and semi-fascists hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat. They hate the reality of America.

Student Loan Forgiveness: Bad Assumptions, Bad Arguments

I went to college when you could do it relatively cheaply. More recently, a close relative took out loans and paid them off. Yet I find myself strangely pleased that President Biden is giving many former students financial assistance. If you happen to disagree (or if you don’t), here are perceptive comments on the matter from two columnists. First, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post. Then Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times.

One can make reasonable arguments against the student loan forgiveness plan President Biden announced this week. But the outright fury of the response in some quarters, and the absurd bad faith and hypocrisy being mobilized against this plan, have been a wonder to behold. And it is revealing fundamental things about the people taxpayers think the government ought to help.

To watch the reaction, you’d think this is the first loan forgiveness program in human history. You’d also think it’s absolutely vital to determine whether every last recipient will be morally deserving of this assistance, and whether any good people anywhere might fail to qualify for it. The more you examine these arguments — not only from Republicans but also journalists and a few Democrats — the weirder they seem.

At the most basic level, loan forgiveness isn’t novel or even unusual. Our bankruptcy system allows people to discharge loans every day — yet perversely, the law makes it extraordinarily difficult to get released from student loan debt even if you’re bankrupt. Some well-known people have used the bankruptcy system to eliminate their debts [including a former president, six times].

The government, furthermore, bails out people, companies and industries all the time when it decides that doing so is worthwhile. In the Great Recession we bailed out banks, insurers and auto companies. D____ T____ handed out tens of billions of dollars to farmers hit by his pointless trade war. Pandemic relief distributed hundreds of billions of dollars in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans to businesses.

Some of those forgiven loans — remember, taxpayer money, from truck drivers and waitresses — even went to the same Republican members of Congress who now rail against forgiving student debt, as the White House eagerly pointed out. If you’re a struggling blue-collar worker, are you mad that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had $183,000 in loans forgiven, or that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) had $1.4 million forgiven, or that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) had $482,000 forgiven?

If not, why does student loan forgiveness make you mad?

This leads to one of the most bizarre arguments against this program: Sure, it helps some people, but what about people it doesn’t help? What about people who never went to college, or who already paid off their loans? Why should they chip in to help these other people?

That argument could be raised against almost every government program in existence. This is the nature of paying taxes and having a government: Your money goes to all kinds of things that don’t benefit you directly or that you don’t like. You pay to maintain national parks you might not visit, and to find cures for diseases you’ll never contract. You support schools even if you don’t have kids. You build roads in states you don’t live in. You support wheat farmers even if you’re on a gluten-free diet.

How many people complaining about loan forgiveness have campaigned against the mortgage interest deduction? It costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every year, and its recipients — homeowners who itemize their deductions — are disproportionately wealthy. Where are all the cries of “How does this help people who rent, or people who already paid off their mortgages???”

The flip side of that argument is one we’re also hearing, that some people who will get this assistance might not truly need it. Journalists are searching for supposedly undeserving recipients, no matter how small their numbers. What if there’s an engineering major who just graduated and hasn’t gotten a job yet, but next year she’ll be working at Google? My God, are we going to forgive her loans when in 10 years she could be a billionaire?

The answer to that question is, who cares? Seriously. As a taxpayer (and as someone who, yes, took out student loans and paid them off), I don’t mind if some people get relief who might do fine without it, because tens of millions of lives could be transformed by this policy. The question is how much good the program as a whole does, not whether it helps someone somewhere who doesn’t really need it. The overwhelming majority of recipients will be middle class and because it gives extra to Pell Grant recipients, people from poor families get the most help.

Finally, some people warn that the program could worsen inflation, because it will put money into the economy. The truth is that the effect on inflation will likely be minuscule, but you could raise the same objection to literally anything the government spends money on.

For instance, earlier this summer, the House passed an $839 billion military spending bill for the 2023 fiscal year — that’s one year, not over a decade. Will pumping that much money into the economy be inflationary? And if so, should we just stop funding the military?

The fact that this question probably sounds ridiculous to you is revealing: Nobody ever worries about the inflationary effect of military spending, because people make that kind of objection only to policies they don’t like.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the objections to Biden’s loan forgiveness: Most of those making them are perfectly happy to have the government help some people, just not these people. And if that’s your argument against student loan forgiveness, you haven’t shown why the program is bad; all you’ve done is reveal yourself.

Unquote. Now from Mr. Bouie’s newsletter (no link available):

The Republican response to President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program is to try to turn the issue into a culture war…. Republicans would say that they are simply speaking up for those Americans who won’t benefit from the program. But they’re working under faulty assumptions.

First, a few details on the program itself. Under the plan, Biden will direct the federal government to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans for recipients of Pell Grants (which are awarded to students from low-income families), and up to $10,000 in loans for other eligible borrowers. It is restricted to individuals with incomes of up to $125,000 a year and households with incomes of up to $250,000 a year.

If every single recipient earned $124,999, it would lend credence to the Republican argument that this is some kind of war on working-class and blue-collar Americans. But they don’t. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of Biden’s policy are exactly the people Republicans claim to represent with their rhetoric. As my newsroom colleague Jim Tankersley notes, “the people eligible for debt relief are disproportionately young and Black. And they are concentrated in the middle band of Americans by income, defined as households earning between $51,000 and $82,000 a year.”

If you want to haul freight for a living, you’ll need a commercial driver’s license, which means you’ll need training, which means you’ll need school. This schooling can cost thousands of dollars, and students can pay their tuition with federal student loans. So, too, can people who need training to work as medical technicians or home care workers or physical therapists or restaurant workers, among many other trades and professions.

Millions of people with blue-collar jobs owe thousands of dollars in federal student loans, and they may not have the income needed to pay them off. Biden’s plan helps them as much or more than a graduate of a four-year college with debt on the ledger. It also helps the millions of Americans who took out loans, attended college, but for one reason or another could not complete their degrees and are in the worst of all financial worlds as a result.

Like the “welfare queen,” the lazy, profligate and irresponsible student loan borrower of Republican rhetoric is a myth. And the point of the myth, as I said earlier, is to spread cultural resentment.

The fact of the matter is the Republican Party does not have anything to offer the millions of working- and middle-class Americans who labor under the burden of student debt. For all the talk of “populism,” the party is still hostile to the social safety net, opposed to raising the minimum wage, hostile to unions and worker power and virtually every economic policy intervention that isn’t tax cuts and upward redistribution from the many to the most fortunate few.

To debate the reality of student debt relief is to make that more than clear to the public at large. Republicans, then, are trying to make this a debate over culture, to try to reduce issues of class to a question of aesthetics, with traditional blue-collar workers on one side and the image of an ungrateful and unproductive young person on the other. And they’re hoping, as always, that you won’t notice.

Unquote. 

That should be the Republican Party’s epitaph: THEY HOPED YOU WOULDN’T NOTICE.

Workers as Cogs in a Digital Machine

For many workers, the 21st century workplace means constant, dehumanizing surveillance. This is an excerpt from “The Boss Will See You Now”, by law professor Zephyr Teachout for The New York Review of Books:

….The 1980s and 1990s were a major turning point in surveillance, the period when companies went on their first buying sprees for electronic performance-monitoring. In 1987 approximately six million workers were watched in some kind of mediated way, generally a video camera or audio recorder; by 1994, roughly one in seven American workers, about 20 million, was being electronically tracked at work. The numbers steadily increased from there. When videotape technology was supplanted by digital devices that could scan multiple locations at once, the cameras first installed to protect businesses from theft shifted their insatiable gaze from the merchandise to the workers.

The second big turning point in electronic performance-monitoring is happening right now. It’s driven by wearable tech, artificial intelligence, and Covid. Corporations’ use of surveillance software increased by 50 percent in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, according to some estimates, and has continued to grow.

This new tracking technology is ubiquitous and intrusive. Companies track for security, for efficiency, and because they can. They inspect and preserve and analyze movements, conversations, social connections, and affect. If the first surveillance expansion was a territorial grab, asserting authority over the whole person at work, the second is like fracking the land. It is changing the structural composition of how humans relate to one another and to themselves.

Some long-haul truckers have to drive a fifty-foot flatbed truck six hundred miles a day with a video camera staring them down the entire time, watching their eyes, their knuckles, their twitches, their whistles, their neck movements. Imagine living in front of that nosy boss-face camera for months on end as it scans your cab, which serves as your home most of the time….

Employers read employees’ e-mails, track their Internet use, and listen to their conversations. Nurses and warehouse workers are forced to wear ID badges, wristbands, or clothing with chips that track their movements, measuring steps and comparing them to coworkers’ and the steps taken yesterday.

…  Amazon, which minutely tracks every moment of a warehouse worker’s activity, every pause and conversation, has a patent for a wristband that would, the Times reported, “emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins” and then vibrate to steer the worker toward the correct bin. A “SmartCap” used in trucking monitors brainwaves for weariness.

Off-the-shelf human resources software can monitor workers’ tone of voice. One major firm, Cogito, touts its product as “the AI-informed coach [that] augments humans through live, in-call voice analysis and feedback.” While workers are making fifteen dollars an hour fielding angry consumer complaints in a cubicle, they must pay heed to a pop-up screen that starts flashing if they talk too fast, if there is overlap between their voice and the customer’s voice, or if a pause is too long….

In one sense, intimately tracking behavior is old news: the business model of tech companies like Facebook and Google, after all, relies on tracking users on- and off-site. The commodification of data is in its third decade. But surveillance and automatic management at work are different. Workers can’t opt out without losing their jobs: you can’t turn off the camera in the truck if doing so goes against company policy; you can’t rip the recording device off your ID card. And worker surveillance comes with a powerful implicit threat: if the company notices too much fatigue, you might get overlooked for a promotion. If it overhears something it doesn’t like, you could get fired.

The political implications of ubiquitous employment surveillance are monumental. While bosses always listened in on worker conversations, they could only listen rarely—anything more was logistically impossible. Not now. Employees have to assume that everything they say can be recorded. What does it mean when all the words, and the tone of those words, might be replayed? Whispering has lost its power….

Worker surveillance is installed for ostensible safety reasons, like the thermal cameras installed to protect customers and coworkers from a worker who has a fever. But it is not, it turns out, good for our well-being. Electronic surveillance puts the body of the tracked person in a state of perpetual hypervigilance, which is particularly bad for health—and worse when accompanied by powerlessness. Employees who know they are being monitored can become anxious, worn down, extremely tense, and angry. Monitoring causes a release of stress chemicals and keeps them flowing, which can aggravate heart problems. It can lead to mood disturbances, hyperventilation, and depression….

Is it any surprise that truckers’ mental health is suffering? Or that call center employees are breaking down? Truckers and call center workers report a kind of destabilizing fog, a constant layer of uncertainty and paranoia: which hand gesture, which bathroom break, which conversation was it that caused me to lose that bonus? “I know we’re on a job, but, I mean, I’m afraid to scratch my nose,” an Amazon driver told Insider for a story about the company’s driver-facing cameras. She didn’t share her name for fear of reprisal….

The modern promise of tech personalization, building on a romanticized notion of individuality and authenticity, is that we can all live in tailor-made worlds, with newsfeeds adjusted to our preferences and professional and leisure interests. You may be one of few listeners who loves both Kenny Rogers and the Cure, but Spotify knows you, and can bring you songs that speak to your singular soul.

But extending this tailor-made ethos is exquisitely unromantic: these eyes may have the intimacy and memory of a lover, but they lack all affection. Modern surveillance technology means that tailor-made wages are coming for all workplaces [i.e. workers won’t be paid at a fixed rate; their wages will constantly be adjusted depending on their most recent performance, as measured through digital surveillance]. The mass-produced, nonunionized depressed wages of the late twentieth century were already alarming, but the new, specially commissioned AI wages of the twenty-first century enable a new level of authoritarianism. To stop it, we’ll have to outlaw particular forms of spying, and use antimonopoly and labor laws to restructure power.

Tracking technology may be marketed as tools to protect people, but will end up being used to identify with precision how little each worker is willing to make. It will be used to depress wages and also kill the camaraderie that precedes unionization by making it harder to connect with other workers, poisoning the community that enables democratic debate. It will be used to disrupt solidarity by paying workers differently. And it will lead to anxiety and fear permeating more workplaces, as the fog of not knowing why you got a bonus or demotion shapes the day.

This matters because work is not an afterthought for democratic society; the relationships built at work are an essential building block. With wholly atomized workers, discouraged from connecting with one another but forced to offer a full, private portrait of themselves to their bosses, I cannot imagine a democracy.

Metropolis-wide

As We Approach a Population of 8 Billion

It’s estimated that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 of us homo sapiens 50,000 years ago.

By year 1 (either C.E. or B.C.E, there was no year zero), we were around 10 million. That’s roughly the population of Nanjing, China’s 8th largest city.

Now we are a bit shy of 8 billion (7,970,000,000 and counting).

20220825_142436

We’ve clearly been an extremely successful species, especially during the past few hundred years.

What might be called “success”, however, could also be called an “infestation”. That’s definitely how many other species would see it.

The numbers and chart above are from A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species by ecologist Rob Dunn. The author, as you might expect, sees problems ahead, including the climate crisis and antibiotic resistance. Life will flourish. Us, not so much.

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