The Plan Is To Have No Plan

From Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University:

This is my read on what the government’s guidance and actions amount to…. My purpose in posting it is to challenge the American press to be a lot clearer in its descriptions.

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.

Stated another way, the plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign. So much has already been made public that the standard script for a White House cover up (worse than the crime…) won’t apply. Instead, everything will ride on the manufacture of confusion. The press won’t be able to “expose” the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable.

“The plan is to have no plan” is not a strategy, really. Nor would I call it a policy. It has a kind of logic to it, but this is different from saying it has a design— or a designer. Meaning: I do not want to be too conspiratorial about this. To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives. 

Melting Down? Is It Stroke City Yet?

Some networks (they know who they are) are still broadcasting the Toddler’s demented “briefings” — despite many calls for them to stop. According to the internet, yesterday’s performance was especially toxic. Maybe the guy will finally have a stroke? Here’s most of an account from The Guardian that gets bonus points for (1) referring to him as a “toddler” and (2) bringing up his resignation (it’s gratifying to see that a talented journalist reads Whereof One Can Speak religiously, as everyone should!):

A toddler threw a self-pitying tantrum on live television on Monday night. Unfortunately he was 73 years old, wearing a long red tie and running the world’s most powerful country.

[DT], starved of campaign rallies, Mar-a-Lago weekends and golf, and goaded by a bombshell newspaper report, couldn’t take it any more. Years of accreted grievance and resentment towards the media came gushing out in a torrent. He ranted, he raved, he melted down and he blew up the internet with one of the most jaw-dropping performances of his presidency.

This was, as he likes to put it, “a 10”.

[His] Easter had evidently been ruined by a damning 5,500-word New York Times investigation showing that [he] squandered precious time in January and February as numerous government figures were sounding the alarm about the coronavirus.

With more than 23,000 American lives lost in such circumstances, some presidents might now be considering resignation. Not [him]. He arrived in the West Wing briefing room determined to tell the world, or at least his base, that he was not to blame. Instead it was a new and bloody phase of his war against the “enemy of the people”: the media. Families grieving loved ones lost to the virus were in for cold comfort here.

A CNN chyron is a worth a thousand words: “[DT] refuses to acknowledge any mistakes”; “[He] uses task force briefing to try and rewrite history on coronavirus response”; “[He] melts down in angry response to reports he ignored virus warnings”; “Angry [DT] turns briefing into propaganda session”.

The thin-skinned president lashed out at reporters, swiped at Democrat Joe Biden and refused to accept that he had put a foot wrong. “So the story in the New York Times is a total fake, it’s a fake newspaper and they write fake stories. And someday, hopefully in five years when I’m not here, those papers are all going out of business because nobody’s going to read them,” [he] said.

With a dramatic flourish, the president ordered the briefing room lights dimmed. In a James Bond film, it would be the moment that poisoned gas is piped into the room. What happened wasn’t far off: a campaign-style montage of video clips, shown on screens set up behind the podium. There was footage of doctors saying in January that the coronavirus did not pose an imminent threat, Trump declaring a national emergency, and Democratic governors praising him for providing federal assistance.

Veteran White House reporters said they could never remember such a film being played in that room….

Jon Karl of ABC News asked in consternation: “Why did you feel the need to do that?”

[DT] replied: “Because we’re getting fake news and I like to have it corrected … Everything we did was right.”

Over and over, [he] highlighted his decision to ban some flights from China in late January before there were any virus-related deaths confirmed in the US – even though nearly 400,000 people travelled to the US from China before the restrictions were in place and 40,000 people have arrived there since.

The CBS News correspondent Paula Reid was having none of it and cut to the chase. “The argument is that you bought yourself some time,” she said “You didn’t use it to prepare hospitals. You didn’t use it to ramp up testing. Right now, nearly 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead.”

[The president] talked over her: “You’re so disgraceful. It’s so disgraceful the way you say that.”

Reid demanded: “How is this newsreel or this rant supposed to make people feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?”

[He] reverted to his China travel restrictions but Reid continued to push him on his inaction in February. [He] was unable to muster a reasonable response. It was a case study in how, when he loses an argument, his instinct is to attack the accuser. He trotted out his frayed, timeworn insult: “You know you’re a fake, your whole network the way you cover it is fake … That’s why you have a lower approval rating than probably you’ve ever had before …”

…. The briefing went on for well over two hours. Even Fox News gave up before the end. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House intelligence committee, spoke for many when he tweeted: “Why do reputable news organizations carry these daily Trump press conferences live?

“They are filled with misinformation and propaganda. From the president himself, no less. The country would be far better served and informed if they used highlights [Note: I wouldn’t use that word] later. Enough is enough.”

A Man Without Qualities

Well, I’ve had the virus, been hospitalized and am now very, very happy to be back home, seeing sunshine again.

In a hospital bed, you have a lot of free time. Hanging around; waiting for your next meal (Saint Barnabas’s simple offering of a plain, almost juiceless cheeseburger, a side of macaroni and cheese, steamed broccoli and a brownie was almost sublime); being visited every so often by hospital staff, well-guarded and unrecognizable deep inside their personal protective gear; them giving you “just a little pinch”, checking your vital signs or asking about your current state of affairs; being given that anti-malaria drug for a while apparently for no good reason; “wearing” that silly “gown” that won’t stay on; dozing off; occasionally losing an electrode; wondering when the hell you will get out of there.

I didn’t turn on the TV in the eight days I was there. (Nor, after they moved me to a double room, did my roommate, who was in worse shape than I was.)

I did look at news on my phone. It wasn’t good.

Aside from the obvious, the thing that got me the most was how people who have power or cultural significance are being so nice and respectful to the monster child.

Of course, they do point out his deficiencies. Larry David quoted in The New York Times:

You know, it’s an amazing thing. The man has not one redeeming quality. You could take some of the worst dictators in history and I’m sure that all of them, you could find one decent quality. Stalin could have had one decent quality, we don’t know!

Fran Lebowitz in The New Yorker:

Every single thing that could be wrong with a human being is wrong with him.

Tom Nichols in The Atlantic:

[He] is a spiritual black hole.

But have you ever seen a quote in which someone demanded that he resign? The acting Secretary of the Navy said something very bad and was quickly hit with demands to go. He left. Why not call on the worst president in our history to go too? If someone is so totally and dangerously unfit for a job, shouldn’t our political and cultural leaders have demanded his resignation, over and over again?

I know, the Electoral College put him there and (of course) odds are he wouldn’t go. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how his resignation never comes up in our national conversation.

Another aspect of his benign treatment that especially bothered me (from my prone position) was (and still is) the daily “briefings” he’s been doing. I don’t know which organizations are part of it, but he’s allowed to spew and blather, unfiltered, to America whenever he chooses. It is truly outrageous. They broadcast his rallies from beginning to end during the 2016 campaign. Now they’re repeating the offense with these mini-rallies. He promotes himself, attacks and attacks, lies, spreads nonsense and they’re allowing him to do it. He is the president, but that makes it worse, since he speaks to some of us with authority. It is amazingly reckless that they’re letting him do it.

It’s a beautiful spring day here in New Jersey from an aesthetic perspective. Governor Murphy reports we’re at 58,000 cases, with 7,600 hospitalized, 1,700 in critical condition and 2,200 dead.

Please be safe and be kind.

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.

If There Was Any Doubt

Polls indicate that Americans are evenly split regarding DT’s cruise missile attack on the Syrian airfield last week. A Washington Post poll found 51% in favor, which corresponds to results from Gallup (50%) and YouGov (51%). CBS found 57% in favor, but their poll didn’t mention the unpopular DT by name. We can conclude that the Washington Post poll was reasonably accurate.

Here’s the interesting thing:

In 2013, when Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.

[The] new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support [DT’s] decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.

Republican support for attacking Syria went from 22% to 86% when a Republican replaced a Democrat in the White House!

You might say that’s how people are. The Democrats probably switched sides just like the Republicans.

You would be wrong:

For context, 37 percent of Democrats back Trump’s missile strikes. In 2013, 38 percent of Democrats supported Obama’s plan.

In other words, changing Presidents didn’t matter to the Democrats at all (a 1% difference is well within the margin of error).

Do you get the feeling that our Republican friends belong to a tribe in which group loyalty is a paramount virtue? And that other values play a secondary role? For that matter, that facts aren’t as important to them as group loyalty?

Some of the explanation for their astounding fickleness is, no doubt, that the right-wing propaganda they swallowed in 2013 was anti-missile attack, while the right-wing propaganda only four years later was pro-missile-attack. But being this easy to manipulate is just as bad as putting tribal loyalty above everything else. It’s all part of the same sad and dangerous phenomenon. Millions of right-wing Americans care more about group loyalty than reality or morality. If there was any doubt.