A Few Brief and Blunt Answers

Christiane Amanpour is a journalist at CNN. Donald McNeil Jr. is a science writer for The New York Times. She asks him questions about the virus. He gives informed yet blunt answers.

Three minutes on how our federal government screwed this up.

Less than three minutes on our testing shortfall (Warning: our president says words during the first thirty seconds, so be careful).

Even less on the difference between medicine and public health (Mr. McNeil doesn’t discuss how the president and his minions sabotaged our preparedness by cutting budgets and firing qualified people; it would have been good to hear McNeil speak bluntly about that).

Update:

The Times issued a statement saying Mr. McNeil “went too far in expressing his personal views”. His editors discussed the issue with him and reminded him that “his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions”. There are some things corporate journalists are not supposed to say in public, even though they say such things in private and what they say is true. 

Experts Urge Caution?

From the NY Times:

“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?” he asked. “Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

After the president’s comments, searches soared for cleaning products like colored laundry detergent capsules, or Tide Pods, leading the Washington State emergency management division to tell people, “don’t eat tide pods or inject yourself with any kind of disinfectant.”

The maker of the disinfectants Lysol and Dettol also issued a statement on Friday warning against the improper use of their products.

“As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” the company said. The words “under no circumstance” were highlighted in bold.

Unquote.

Times editors want to be so balanced and calm in their headlines that they put this under:

Trump extols the powers of sunlight and household disinfectants. Experts urge caution. 

A reasonable alternative would have been:

Trump extols the powers of sunlight and household disinfectants. Experts and normal people cite injury and likely death.

Update:

A member of the cult said the president was merely being “inquisitive”, but would anybody outside the cult disagree that the president of the United States should not be bringing up absurd, extremely dangerous treatments on national TV, unless it’s to strongly warn the public against them? It’s not a subject to be “inquisitive” about, certainly not in public. He made it seem plausible and nobody there disagreed.

Meanwhile: 

Untitled

The owners of The Onion saw the phrase “some experts” and decided to close up shop, finally accepting that they can’t compete.

Update #2:

It took them several hours, but they finally offered a correction. The comments are excellent.

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The Good Times by Russell Baker

Russell Baker wrote a column for The New York Times for many years. At least at the beginning, it was called “Observer”. He presented his observations, usually humorous, on whatever he felt like writing about. I loved it. That’s why I read his first memoir, Growing Up. It dealt with his boyhood in America before World War 2. I loved Growing Up too.

When he died last month at the age of 93, reading his obituary in the Times made me want to read his second memoir, The Good Times. It sounded really interesting. After college, he got a job as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He worked his way up to being the paper’s London correspondent, and then covered Congress and the White House for the Sun and the Times. The story ends when he began writing his column in 1962 (something he did for the next 36 years).

I didn’t enjoy The Good Times as much as Growing Up. Baker’s wartime and college experiences weren’t that interesting. Neither was his job as a reporter in Baltimore. I thought he’d tell great stories from those days, but he mainly discusses his relationships with his demanding mother and the imposing editors he worked for.

It doesn’t even sound like he had a good time until he and his family moved to London. That’s when the book got interesting, maybe because London and Washington are more interesting than Baltimore. If I had to do it over again, I’d start with the second half of the book.

One other thing. Reading the book, it wasn’t clear why he called it The Good Times. Baker never seemed to be have a very good time except for his year in London. Then I got to this passage at the end of the book. He contrasts his career with the careers of the great reporters who covered the war, which, from a journalistic perspective, was a “great story”:

Well, of course, in my time as a reporter, which was from 1947 to 1962, there were not many great stories to broaden a newsman and deepen his character. Those were the good times, from the summer I started at the Sun in 1947 to Dallas in 1963, at least compared to what had gone before and what came afterward. They were especially good times if you were young, ambitious, energetic and American. Being young makes all times better; being American in that brief moment that was America’s golden age of empire made it the best of any time that ever was or will be. Provided you were white. Good times, though, are not the best times for a reporter.

I Did the Reading, So Now I’m Sharing

I read too many articles on the internet about politics. Instead of having one subscription to a high-quality newspaper that used to land on our driveway every morning, I now subscribe to three quality newspapers that I read online. I also visit a number of websites that offer interesting political news and commentary. All you need to give them is your time (although that, of course, is more precious than your money).

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t spend so much time reading about politics, but I want to understand what the hell is going on, i.e., why America is so screwed up. And after I read something, I sometimes feel the need to share. This reading and sharing might be a big waste of time, but it feels like something I should do.  

This explains why I read three long-ish articles in the past few days that I’m now going to mention and very briefly describe. Then I’m going to share a funny video. And then I’m going to share a little good news for a change.

The first article I read was “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology”. The title isn’t quite accurate, because epistemology is the philosophical theory or study of knowledge. The title should really be something like “Trump and the Rise of Right-Wing Propaganda as a Source of Supposed News for Millions of Americans and the Ill Effects Thereof”. Another title might be “Here’s Why Our Country Is So Screwed Up: Many Americans Don’t Trust the Only Institutions We Have That Do a Fairly Decent Job of Describing Reality, and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?”. I recommend reading the whole thing, which isn’t really seven million words long, despite what the author says.

A link in that article led me to a 2016, pre-election article called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism”. It’s about people with authoritarian personalities, and how they aren’t necessarily bigots or stupid, but how they tend to be afraid of strangers and change, and when they’re especially afraid, they look for “strong” leaders who will protect them by building walls, putting people in jail and blowing things up. There are more of these authoritarians than you might expect and they’re the strongest supporters of the current President, for obvious reasons (“I alone can fix it”).

An interesting point is that the social scientists cited in the article don’t identify people with authoritarian tendencies by asking them about politics. They ask them about child-rearing, posing questions like these:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Authoritarians tend to answer these questions differently than the rest of us. Furthermore, they supposedly tell the truth when asked about raising children, which they might not do if asked about politics.

Another point made in the article is that many people have authoritarian tendencies, but those tendencies only come into play when these potential authoritarians are sufficiently scared, and sufficiently scared by people whom they think are dangerous in some way, either dangerous to their physical persons or to their preferred way of life. 

The importance of the fear factor leads to the third article, “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics”. I confess I didn’t read the whole thing, because it was too depressing. It was written two years ago by a former Republican and is mostly historical. It describes the undoing of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, the rise of right-wing talk radio and the amazing success of Fox News, the result being that your authoritarian cousin and your potentially authoritarian plumber are convinced that liberals, scientists, the “mainstream media” and other lowlifes are out to destroy America. That makes your cousin and your plumber very angry and/or very, very afraid. 

So here’s the funny video: Randy Rainbow singing “Covfefe: The Broadway Medley”! If nothing else, watching it will mean that, for four glorious minutes, you won’t be reading about politics on the internet. 

I’ve watched this video many times, because, aside from the pleasure of watching and listening to Mr. Rainbow, and hearing those wonderful melodies again, if you do anything for four minutes, over and over again, it does add up. 

Lastly, the good news:  “Nevada Is Considering a Revolutionary Healthcare Experiment”. The Nevada legislature has passed a bill that would allow anyone in the state who doesn’t have health insurance to buy in to the state’s Medicaid program. Details need to be worked out and the Governor might not sign the bill, but it’s an encouraging sign that America might turn the corner one day.

“Covfefe, I just met a girl named Covfefe…”

Those TV People Are Arguing Again

I stopped watching television news during the Clinton administration (the real one, not the administration Comey killed in its cradle). I got sick of lengthy, supposedly balanced coverage of the Whitewater non-scandal and the Clinton/Lewinksy episode. But from what I hear, TV news has gotten even worse during the past 20 years. Vox has a little bit of text and a six-minute video that helps explain why:

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

… CNN’s fixation on drama and debate has turned the network’s coverage into a circus of misinformation. CNN’s [DT] supporters derail segments critical of the president, misrepresent [his] positions to avoid tough questions, and peddle false and misleading information on national TV while being paid by the network. In many cases, CNN’s [DT] supporters repeat the same lies and talking points that CNN’s serious journalists spend all day trying to debunk….

All of this would be fine and normal for a [sports] network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

The video is interesting in a train wreck kind of way. Everyone who watches CNN should watch it.

But so should everyone who wants to better understand what the hell’s going on in our modern world. The Vox thing reminded me of Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published way back in 1985. Here’s a quote from Mr. Postman:

… television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

And it’s gotten worse since then. Here’s the video.