Hoping for the Best & Getting the Worst

David Roberts is a writer for Vox who I don’t follow on Twitter anymore (he’s @drvox, but not a doctor). I don’t follow him because he’s so good at pointing out how bad things are. But somebody linked to what he posted today:

Untitled2

Among the many reasons this is horseshit, this whole genre of liberal-scolding rests on the premise that the offended heartlanders are responding to what Democrats actually say — the intramural debates in which people like (NY Times columnist Maureen) Dowd are involved. They’re not! 

By & large, Txxxx’s base has no idea what Dems actually say or do. They are responding to a ludicrous caricature they see on (Right Wing) media & RW social media. They are responding to lies & conspiracy theories. Dems changing how they talk *won’t change any of that*. 

It’s very weird how America’s elite journalists/pundits/etc. wring their hands over “post-truth politics” & the problem of misinformation, but then turn around & treat the things voters do as a direct response to Dem “messaging.” Voters rarely HEAR Dem messaging. Because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this a trillion times — the RW has a giant propaganda machine that carries their messages directly to the ears (& id) of their voters. Dems lob messages out into the (Main Stream Media) & hope for the best.

Unquote.

He could have added “& often get the worst”.

America Is Totally Screwed, Well, Maybe 90% Screwed

Margaret Sullivan, who writes an excellent column about the news media for The Washington Post, gave some stern advice to her fellow journalists this morning:

First, be bolder and more direct than ever in telling it like it is. No more pussyfooting or punch-pulling. No more of what’s been called “false equivalence” — giving equal weight to truth and lies in the name of fairness.

Can mainstream outlets, influential as they are, really go up against the counter-messaging on places like Fox News, or Steve Bannon’s podcast or fact-averse outlets like Newsmax?

This battle can’t be fought with facts alone, argues journalism scholar Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois.

The only hope, she wrote, is for mainstream journalism to appeal to passion as well as reason — “providing moral clarity along with truthful content.” Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen recently wrote, journalism must reposition itself in the media ecosystem, to seize this moment in history to take a clear stance, in everything it does, as “pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy.”

In other words, the reality-based press has to unapologetically stand for something. Otherwise, it’s just a pallid alternative to the excitement of burgeoning lies. . . .

Can journalists, mired in our “how we’ve always done it” mind-set, really change their stripes to fight the war on disinformation? Can we be more clear and direct, embrace a moral purpose, help to educate news consumers? And even if we do, will it make a significant difference?

I have serious doubts about the answers to those questions. But I do know that we have to try.

Soon thereafter, I saw the name “Chuck Todd” trending on Twitter. Todd is the host of Meet the Press, probably America’s best-known Sunday morning political talk show. He works for NBC, one of the networks Americans rely on for reality-based journalism. It was disturbing to see what he’d done this morning:

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Really? We are totally screwed if this is what passes for reality on NBC.

I couldn’t find a video where he actually expressed doubt about Biden winning, so I did a search for “Chuck Todd” and found a Meet the Press transcript for this morning’s show. Here’s that part. He’s interviewing a Republican senator from North Dakota:

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, are you really saying that the president is — you’re out there saying that the president’s not encouraging somehow any way of sort of being disorderly about this. How is that not encouraging disruption and disorderly — he’s accusing the entire system of being corrupt. Is that not undermining the democracy?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Well, first of all, what they’re claiming is that there’s a lot of evidence and they’re presenting that evidence in cases. Now, it’s up to them to present that evidence, Chuck, obviously. And we’ve yet to see a real hearing where evidence was presented. And, and they’re not obligated to present it, you know, yesterday or tomorrow, although the sooner the better from my perspective. But I’m just speaking strictly now from this “attack on democracy,” as you call it. This is, these are legal systems. This is, these are processes that are in our Constitution, in our laws, and they’re not just appropriate, but they’re really an obligation, frankly, to the millions of Americans that President Trump is a reflection of. I know, you know, a lot of people like to think that we’re the reflection of him. He’s the reflection of millions of people that want to see him fight this to the end. Now, there has to be an end, Chuck. I agree there has to be an end. I, frankly, do think it’s time to — well, it was past time to start a transition, to at least cooperate with the transition. I’d rather have a president that has more than one day to prepare, should Joe Biden, you know, end up winning this. But in the meantime, again, he’s just exercising his legal options.

CHUCK TODD:

I just want to confirm. You believe that the head of GSA [the General Services Administration], tomorrow morning at this point, ought to say, “The transition needs to begin. It looks like Joe Biden’s going to be the apparent winner. Yes, there’s more to go through.” If this is what the head of GSA said, “Yes, there’s still more to go through, but it looks like Joe Biden’s the apparent winner. Let’s allow the transition process to begin,” should that be what happens tomorrow morning?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Yes, it should happen tomorrow morning because it didn’t happen last Monday morning. I just think you have to begin that process, give the incoming administration all the time they need.

So it wasn’t as bad as people were saying. He was putting words in the mouth of the Republican jerk who runs the GSA and still hasn’t started the official transition to the new administration, two weeks after we knew who won. Maybe we aren’t totally screwed yet. 

Nevertheless, he did give a Republican politician several minutes on national TV to defend the indefensible. His audience got to hear a U.S. senator claim it’s reasonable that millions of voters want a sociopath to spread lies and undermine what’s left of our democracy. So maybe it’s only 90%.

Some good news, however: Biden now leads the maniac by more than six million votes. That margin will grow as laggard states, like New York, keep counting. He’ll end up with more than 80 million votes, the most ever for a presidential candidate. He’s won 306 electoral votes to the maniac’s 232, the same number the maniac got in 2016 (when he called it a “landslide”).

Most importantly, he made DDT (a more apt acronym than “DJT”) a one-term president. Since Franklin Roosevelt won his fourth term in 1944, only Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush have run for president as incumbents and lost (Truman and Johnson chose not to run). We know this election shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but, considering the alternative, having JRB in place of DDT counts for a lot.

A Conservative Confesses

Matthew Sheffield is a conservative journalist who admits there’s something radically wrong with most “conservative” media. He wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

As a former conservative activist and journalist, it has been so frustrating to see my former compatriots spreading wild and unchecked claims about “voter fraud.”

As the co-creator of NewsBusters, the most prominent anti-media website, I was part of a decades-long tradition of complaining about media elites being “unfair” to conservative views. There is still much to that argument, but eventually I saw that I was missing context.

What I did not realize until I began expanding my work into creating actual media and reporting institutions such as the Washington Examiner (I was the founding online editor) was that U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.

This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. The latter had flaws that arose from a lack of diversities (note plural) but they operated mostly in good faith. That’s not how the former operated.

I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would some how counteract perceived liberal bias.

While I was enmeshed in the conservative media tradition, I viewed lefty media thinkers like @jayrosen_nyu as arguing that journalism was supposed to be liberally biased. I was wrong. I realized later that I didn’t understand that journalism is supposed to portray reality.

This thought was phrased memorably by [Stephen Colbert] as “reality has a well-known liberal bias”, which is an oversimplification but is more accurate than the conservative journalist view which is that media should promote and serve conservative politicians.

I also discovered as I rose through the right-wing media ranks that most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side. I also saw so many people think that reporting of information negative to [Republican] politicians was biased, even if it was true.

If you would like to get a great look at the tensions and origins of conservative journalism, there is a wonderful, fabulous book by my friend [Nicole Hemmer], Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, which I cannot commend enough. My career was an updated version of what she chronicled.

People ask sometimes if conservative media figures like Sean Hannity or anyone associated with the Federalist could actually be so credulous as to believe unfounded and non-specific allegations of “voter fraud.” But the reality is that they don’t actually even think that far.

Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms “the left.” It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.

This assumption is behind all conservative media output. They never tell you what their actual motives are. Most center-left people don’t realize just how radical many conservative elites are, largely because they don’t wear it on their sleeves.

Just as a for-instance of this point, most people have no idea that the top two Trump White House figures, Mike Pence and Mark Meadows, think that biological evolution is a lie.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous viewpoint in light of the SARS2 coronavirus epidemic because the entirety of virology and epidemiology is based on evolution. If you think it’s “fake” then you’ll believe ludicrous nonsense like “herd immunity.”

The same thing is happening with right-wing media and specious claims of voter fraud. Conservatives are willing to believe them even if there is no evidence, simply because anything negative about liberals is true. This mentality extends to the very highest ranks.

Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, and a bevvy of GOP elected officials have no problem parroting unverified rumors as fact because conservative journalism is about supporting conservatives, not about finding facts.

I tried for over a decade to inculcate some standards of independence and professionalism among conservative writers but my efforts made me enemies, especially when I argued that the GOP should be neutral on religion, instead of biased toward Christians.

I began work on a manuscript in 2012 fearing that Mitt Romney would lose his election because conservatives had not learned how politics actually works and that we should adapt to serve public needs and make peace with secular people.

I showed my manuscript to several people who I thought were my friends because I wanted to get the perspective of religious conservatives. Instead of helping me, some of them began trying to expel me from the conservative movement.

I eventually realized that many conservative activists were committed to identity rather than ideas. One of my friends literally told me in 2016 that he would support Senator Ted Cruz because “that’s what the Christians are doing.”

We’re at a critical moment in U.S. politics right now because the Christian identity politics that is the edifice of Republican electioneering is teetering. Millions of Americans have for decades thought that their countrymen are evil.

You can watch this play out right now on a television stage when you tune into Fox News as they cover the election. Fact-based journalists have finally realized that the identity rage of the GOP is going into a raging crescendo.

On an hourly basis now outside of the rage-filled lie-fests of primetime, Fox reporters are gently trying to explain to guests that they need actual evidence before accusing people of crimes. The guests, such as Gingrich, have NEVER been challenged like this on Fox.

Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Martha MacCallum, and others are trying to save conservatism from itself. It’s like watching a modern-day adaptation of Aeschylus or Sophocles. Sadly, the rest of us are not just spectators in this tragedy.

How American conservatism dies is the most important story, by far, of this moment. Conventional media will never tell this story because their business is built on the lie that Trump is an aberration rather than apotheosis. . . .

At the same time, the tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled. And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only makes things worse. Only love can defeat hate.

And just to clarify my point about people who are “misled.” It’s the people that Trump referred to when he said “I love the poorly educated.” They are the people who work hard, go to church, and feel they have no future in a secular America.

Not the leaders, but the led.

Unquote. 

Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens choose to be misled because it makes them feel better. This is a comment I left after reading “Welcome the Txxxx Voters Back”, a piece by a philosophy professor calling on us to be nicer to the president’s supporters (in my comment, I quote the author of the article while making a few changes):

Speaking for the majority of American voters, I hereby welcome the minority to join us in “[cultivating] an information environment in which people [can] distinguish between truth and falsehood, in which expert claims are [not] treated with suspicion, and in which fringe figures and theories are [not] valued more highly than mainstream ones”.

Unless more of the “conservative” minority are willing to do that, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference whether we in the majority “appreciate the bond of citizenship” [and welcome them back] more than we already do.

I Wish Everyone Would Read This

Everyone in the US anyway. Everyone who can read.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. From NYR Daily:

“Journalism” is a name for the job of reporting on politics, questioning candidates and office-holders, and alerting Americans to what is actually happening in their public sphere. “The press” is the institution in which most journalism is done. The institution is what endures over time as people come into journalism and drift out of it. The coming confrontation can be summarized thus:

The Republican Party is increasingly a minority party, or counter-majoritarian, as some political scientists put it. The beliefs and priorities that hold it together are opposed by most Americans, who on a deeper level do not want to be what the GOP increasingly stands for. A counter-majoritarian party cannot present itself as such and win elections outside its dwindling strongholds. So it has to be counterfactual, too. It has to fight with fictions. Making it harder to vote, and harder to understand what the party is really about—these are two parts of the same project. The conflict with honest journalism is structural. To be its dwindling self, the GOP has to also be at war with the press, unless of course the press folds under pressure.

Let me explain what I mean by that. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein sees the same thing I see. In his recent article on “why the 2020s could be as dangerous as the 1850s,” Brownstein quotes several Republicans who admit what is happening:

The Democrats’ coalition of transformation is now larger—even much larger—than the Republicans’ coalition of restoration. With Txxxx solidifying the GOP’s transformation into a “white-identity party…a nationalist party, not unlike parties you see in Europe…you see the Democratic Party becoming the party of literally everyone else,” as the longtime Republican political consultant Michael Madrid, a co-founder of the anti-Txxxx Lincoln Project, told me.

 

“Republican behavior in recent years suggests that they share the antebellum South’s determination to control the nation’s direction as a minority,” Brownstein writes. That’s why they went to such lengths to deny Obama a Supreme Court pick and sacrificed everything to get Amy Coney Barrett on the Court. “It’s evident in the flood of laws that Republican states have passed over the past decade making it more difficult to vote. And it’s evident in the fervent efforts from the party to restrict access to mail-in voting this year.” (Add to that list: interfering with the census; crippling the Post Office.)

These events suggest to Brownstein—a journalist who has reported on politics for thirty-seven years—that “Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.” That’s what a counter-majoritarian party has to do: suppress voters, but also project fictions, like the proposition that voter fraud is rampant.

It’s an empirical question: is there a lot of voter fraud in the United States? Does it affect elections? And the question has been answered, not once but many times. So here is what I mean by “the conflict with honest journalism is structural.” The GOP has to rely on fictions like voter fraud to make its case, and if the press wants to be reality-based it has to reject that case.

But how badly does the press want to be reality-based? How far is it willing to go? Forced into it by Txxxx’s flood of falsehoods, journalists routinely fact-check statements like “there is substantial evidence of voter fraud,” and declare them false. And that’s good! But will they stop amplifying strategic falsehoods when powerful people continue to make them? Will they penalize politicians who come on TV to float fictions like that one? Will the Sunday shows quit having them on? And will the press revise the mental image on which its habitual practices rest?

Two roughly similar parties with different philosophies that compete for power by trying to capture through public argument “the American center”—meaning, the majority of voters—and thus win a mandate for the priorities they want to push through the system. On that buried picture of normal politics, the routines of political journalism are built.

There are no routines purpose-built for a situation in which, as Ron Brownstein put it, a minority party, the GOP, is “deepening its reliance on the most racially resentful white voters, as Democrats more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity.” There is nothing in the playbook of the American press about how to cover a party that operates by trying to suppress votes, rather than compete for them.

Faced with these kinds of asymmetries, journalists will have to decide where they stand. But the choice for a program like Meet the Press, a network like NPR, a newsroom like The New York Times’s, or a news service like the AP is not which team to join, the Democrats or the Republicans. (Anyone who puts it that way is trying to snow you.) The choice, rather, is whether to continue with a system of bipartisan representation, in which the two parties get roughly equal voice in the news because they are roughly equal contenders for a majority of votes, or whether to redraw their practices amid the shifting reality of American politics, in which the GOP tries to control the system from a minority position—white nationalism for the base, plutocracy for the donor class—while the Democrats try to bring order to their unruly and slowly expanding majority.

Bipartisan fairy tale vs. adjustment to a shifted reality sounds like no choice at all. What self-respecting journalist would not side with depicting the world the way it is?

That seems an easy call, but it isn’t. An observation I have frequently made in my press criticism is that certain things that mainstream journalists do are not to serve the public, but to protect themselves against criticism. That’s what “he said, she said” reporting, the “both sides do it” reflex, and the “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” are all about.

Reporting the news, holding power to account, and fighting for the public’s right to know are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself comes from bad-faith actors. Which is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not.

My favorite description of “protecting against criticism” comes from a former reporter for The Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. A favorite quote of mine from that: 

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern “objective” journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever…Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.

 

I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. To me, these are some of most important lines ever written about political reporting in the United States. Truth-seeking behavior is mixed with refuge-seeking behavior in the normal conduct of journalists who report on politics for the mainstream press. That’s how we get reports like this on October 28 from [National Public Radio’s] Morning Edition:

On the right, they’re concerned about the integrity of mail-in ballots. They’re hearing from President Txxxx, who is stoking those fears by claiming, without evidence, that the system is rife with fraud. And on the left, people are worried about another scenario. In their worst fears, Txxxx is ahead on election night and either his campaign or his Justice Department tries to end vote-counting prematurely. And disputes over vote-counting could go on for days or weeks. So activists on both sides are making plans to mobilize.

 

In this kind of journalism, the house style at NPR, the image of left and right with matching worries is the refuge-seeking part. That Txxxx is stoking fears by claiming without evidence that mail-in ballots are rife with fraud is certainly truth-telling. The point is not that refuge-seeking necessarily injects falsehoods; rather, it is designed to be protective. NPR, the fair-minded observer, stands between the two sides, endorsing the claims of neither. That’s how the report is framed: symmetrically.

But the underlying reality is asymmetric. Mail-in ballots are a safe and proven way to conduct an election. Fears on the right are manipulated emotion and whataboutism. Meanwhile, threatening statements from Txxxx like, “Must have final total on November 3rd” lend a frightening plausibility to the concerns of Democrats. The difference is elided in NPR’s report, which states: “Political activists and extremists on both the right and left are worried the other side will somehow steal the election.” It’s true: they are both worried. But one fear is reality-based and the other is not. Shouldn’t that count for something?

This is how the political scientist Norm Ornstein arrived at his maxim: “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” Again, what self-respecting journalist would not side with depicting the world the way it is? Well, take that NPR journalist conforming to house style, in which truth-seeking is mixed with refuge-seeking, and refuge-seeking often provides the frame due to institutional caution, misplaced priorities, and internalized criticism from an aggressive right. 

If we trace refuge-seeking behavior in the press back to its origins in the previous century, we find two main tributaries: a commercial motive to include as many people as possible and avoid pissing off portions of the audience, which rose up as newspapers consolidated, and the professionalization of what had once been a working-class trade, which put a premium on sounding detached and telling the story from a position “above” the struggling partisans. Closer to our own time came a third pressure: the right’s incredibly successful campaign to intimidate journalists by complaining endlessly about liberal bias.

But as Brian Beutler of Crooked Media wrote last week, some things have changed:

Decades of right-wing smears have driven the vast majority of conservative Americans away from mainstream news outlets into a cocoon of right-wing propaganda. Those mainstream outlets have responded [by] loading panels and contributor mastheads with Republican operatives or committed movement conservatives; chasing baseless stories to avoid accusations of bias; adhering stubbornly to indefensible assumptions of false balance; subverting the truth to lazy he-said/she-said dichotomies. None of it can or will appease their right-wing critics, who don’t mean to influence the media, but to delegitimize it. None of it has drawn Fox News viewers and Breitbart readers back into the market for real news.

The right has its own media ecosystem now. As the GOP becomes more devoted to white nationalism and voter suppression, it makes less sense for the public service press to chase that core audience or heed its complaints about bias. Beutler and I are making the same point to mainstream journalists: these are people on the right who want to destroy your institution; it’s time you started acting accordingly.

Making it harder to vote and harder to understand what the party is for are parts of the same project. “Inviting a Republican on to a reputable news show to claim Republicans support pre-existing conditions protections doesn’t offer viewers the Republican position,” says Beutler, “it offers them a lie.” The choice is between truth-seeking and refuge-seeking behavior. That confrontation is coming, whether journalists realize it or not. Even if Txxxx is gone, a minority party with unpopular positions has to attack the reality-based press and try to misrepresent itself through that press to voters. This has been true for a long time. But after Txxxx’s takeover, it is newly unignorable.

. . . There isn’t any refuge anyway, so you might as well shoot for truth.

I Could Just Copy Stuff From Twitter

Hey, that’s what I’m doing!

From a gang of tweeters:

Trump didn’t extend unemployment benefits yesterday. He told states to set up a “lost wages assistance program” in coordination with FEMA, DHS and DOL and it’s gonna be a dang mess.

It also seems, like, illegal.

But a real shame if people think this is going to pay them next week.

The memorandum is in plain English and you can see that this is insanely complicated. Obvious, key context: states have already failed utterly to implement simpler policies in timely fashion.

As I’ve said elsewhere, people need to READ the text of executive orders. It’s a publicity stunt to make people think he’s DOING something. The texts clearly show all he is doing is pointing his finger at some cabinet member and saying “Look into this.”

Trump actually thought he upgraded & modernized our entire nuclear arsenal in a few months in 2017 because of an Executive Order:

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Agreed, but the publicity stunt only works if you have an accomplice in the mainstream media that will just pipeline it into the ether.

Because he’s the “president” they have to cover him and he counts on people just looking at the pictures.