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.

Our Bubble Is Bigger and More Porous Than Theirs

The Columbia Journalism Review is a magazine for professional journalists. It’s been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1961. Like it or not, it’s a relatively reliable source of information.

So it was interesting to read about a study they conducted. They analyzed “over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day”. They “analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election”. They answered questions like: “If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times?”

This is what they found:

… a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season (my emphasis).

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.

In other words, there are bubbles and there are bubbles. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, Republican orthodoxy has increasingly conflicted with reality. Since journalism at its best tends to reflect reality, fewer “conservatives” have been willing to get news and commentary from the most professional sources. This explains the growing popularity of right-wing propaganda sites like Fox News. They’re a comforting alternative to what the right began calling the “mainstream” or “lamestream” media. 

This means that a sizable minority of Americans are now convinced that the most objective sources of news are unreliable. The result is that right-wing politicians can get away with murder. Their supporters are immune to the truth. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive politicians don’t get the credit they sometimes deserve and those of us who pay attention to the traditional media are left wondering how so many people on the right can be so out of touch. 

I’m not saying that newspapers like The Washington Post and programs like CBS Evening News always get it right. Hardly. But the people who work at places like that at least try to get it right. They aren’t committed to supporting one political party at all costs. The result is that if you get your news and commentary from a variety of respected sources, you’ll probably have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on in America. You’ll realize that the Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a “disaster”, for example, and that the American economy is in much better shape than when President Obama took office.

Some will say that we all live in bubbles and we’re all equally biased. It’s easy to express that kind of cynicism, but it’s not born out by the evidence. As the study says, “pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets”, while “pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets”. There’s a reason that more than 99% of the major newspapers in the United States, hundreds of them, even papers that always endorse Republican candidates, endorsed the Democrat for President, not the Republican. The people who run newspapers and write editorials get their news from a variety of credible sources that at least try to be objective. 

The good news is that most Americans are still open to journalism that does that. The bad news is that millions of right-wingers, including some with too much power, aren’t. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of the Columbia Journalism Review article:

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans … continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient … by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.

And then what? Knowledge of the situation is a necessary first step, but what comes next? There will always be a market for fantasy. I suppose all we can do is stand up for reality.

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Fuck Him. He’s Still a Con Man.

Donald Drump gave a long speech last night that made some people think he’s not as bad as they thought. This has happened before. If you think otherwise, that he’s suddenly become “presidential” rather than “unpresidented”, read these: 

Michael Grunwald, “Salesman-in-Chief”, Politico

Brian Beutler, “The Worst Performance of [Drump’s] Presidency Now Belongs to the Press Corps”, The New Republic

Greg Sargent, “The Pundits Are Wrong. [Drump’s] Handling of the Ryan Owens Affair Was Contemptibly Cynical”, The Washington Post

Alex Pareene, “You Cretins Are Going To Get Thousands of People Killed”, The Concourse

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that there was a record high of 63.5 degrees in Antarctica last year. 

What To Do (Which Side Are You On?)

It’s already Day 5 of the T___ administration. Sadly, there’s no indication yet that Vice President Pence has begun following the steps in the 25th Amendment (in particular, the Let’s-Replace-A-Crazy-President clause). However, stories describing the President’s mental instability and general unfitness for his new job are appearing, and it’s been suggested that Pence’s staff may be leaking damaging information in order to lay the groundwork for just such a constitutionally-mandated transfer of power. One can hope.

Of course, there are things to do besides hoping. Except for the extremely successful, worldwide Women’s March on Saturday, the best known call to action has probably been “The Indivisible Guide: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”. What began as an overloaded Google doc is now a website:

WHO IS THIS DOCUMENT BY AND FOR?

We: Are former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda.

We: See the enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda and want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that.

You: Want to do your part to beat back the Trump agenda and understand that will require more than calls and petitions.

You: Should use this guide, share it, amend it, make it your own, and get to work.

Here’s the summary of Chapter Two:

How your MoC [Member of Congress] thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.

Chapters Three and Four offer instructions for organizing your own anti-T___ group and doing things that will have the biggest effect (attending events, requesting meetings and making coordinated phone calls).

Another document that’s received a lot of attention was written immediately after the election by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. It’s called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. Having lived under Putin, she lets us know it would be a big mistake to give T__p the benefit of the doubt. For example, she wishes Hillary Clinton had said something like this that dark night in November:

We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Gessen’s six rules for surviving autocracy are: 

  1. Believe the autocrat (don’t assume he’s exaggerating when he promises to do something terrible)
  2. Don’t be taken in by small signs of normality
  3. Institutions won’t save you (nor will cultural norms)
  4. Be outraged
  5. Don’t compromise
  6. Remember the future (in other words, keep hope alive).

Gessen followed this up with another article, this time describing her great-grandfather’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and her grandmother’s as a government censor in the Soviet Union. Her conclusion is: given a choice between collaboration (possibly under the guise of being a “realist”) and resistance, choose resistance.

In December, the economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich cautioned against falling into one of four syndromes: (1) normalizing the situation (“he’s just another President”); (2) going numb or shutting down emotionally; (3) cynicism; or (4) helplessness. Prof. Reich, who is currently providing almost continuous political commentary on Facebook, ends with this:

If you find yourself falling into one or more of these syndromes, that’s understandable. Normalizing, numbing, becoming cynical and feeling powerless are natural human responses to the gross absurdity and genuine peril posed by T___.

But I urge you to pull yourself out. We need you in the peaceful resistance army, starting January 20.

Finally, here are some sites that offer alternative perspectives on the news. They’re good places to visit if you want an antidote to outlets like CNN, the TV networks and the front page of The New York Times (The Washington Post is better these days):

Pro Publica (Journalism in the Public Interest) 

Think Progress

Talking Points Memo

Media Matters for America

Vox

Daily Kos (a group blog about politics)

Hullabaloo (another group blog about politics)

Plus, something that might give you chills. It did me.

Stating the Obvious – It Should Be Stated Again and Again

Although this may be the last time I state it. The election was five weeks ago. Its otherworldly result is likely to be set in stone by 300 members of the Electoral College next week (despite their duty to do otherwise). In the weeks ahead, therefore, I hope to turn my attention to the election’s aftermath, and possibly even other topics of interest, like Brian Wilson’s very good memoir, what to look for in a snow shovel and how to leave the U.S. without a passport. Or maybe where to acquire body armor and the safest way to throw a Molotov cocktail.

Nevertheless, Amanda Marcotte has a very good summary at Salon of how the Russians got away with hacking the election. The long headline is:  

The big problem isn’t that Russian hackers tried to influence our election — it’s more that we let them – Media lameness, a gullible public, useful idiots on the left and the GOP all helped enable Russian propaganda

She makes an excellent point. It’s not a new point, but it bears repeating over and over again (by someone else, not me). Assuming we escape the clutches of the Orange Menace one day, how do we avoid going through something like this again if we don’t understand how it happened? 

She begins:

(The Russian’s apparent) strategy worked because too many power players in the American political ecosystem were too shortsighted, lazy and selfish to look past their own immediate self-interest and consider the big picture. What the purported Russian email hack ended up doing was illustrating the various weaknesses in our political systems and culture — weaknesses that Trump, likely with Vladimir Putin’s assistance, was able to exploit to claw his way into the White House.

First, “mainstream media outlets are more interested in appearing fair than actually being fair”. Fox News, of course, being a propaganda machine, doesn’t care about being balanced. They simply claim to be. Reputable news sources like CNN and the New York Times, however, want to provide “balanced” coverage. They want to acquire and retain customers all along the political spectrum. But, in 2016, their lame attempts to be balanced led to disaster: 

Trump is so corrupt that he coughs up more genuine scandals before breakfast than most dirty politicians can come up with in a lifetime. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is a clean politician, which we know because she’s been under some kind of dogged investigation for the better part of three decades, without a speck of real dirt coming up on her.

But to report this basic truth — that one candidate was irredeemably corrupt and the other was not — would have drawn accusations from the right that the media was in the tank for Clinton. So, in order to appear fair, mainstream media outlets embraced a policy of being incredibly unfair to Clinton, blowing every non-scandal out of proportion.

Marcotte then points her finger at the average American voter:Most people don’t really read the news, but just glean general themes from headlines and cable TV”. One of the example she cites from Vanity Fair magazine:

juicy

But in the actual text, writer T.A. Frank admitted that “you’ll find nothing close to a scandal in itself” and “Clinton’s campaign is, mostly, reassuringly plodding and rules-bound.”

An honest headline written by someone whose goal was to inform the public would have looked something like this: 

PODESTA EMAILS SHOW PLODDING, SCANDAL-FREE CAMPAIGN

Sensationalism like Vanity Fair‘s is one reason most voters thought Clinton was more corrupt than T—p:

All these stories about “leaked” emails left the indelible impression with voters that there must have been something in them that was worth leaking, even if they had no idea what it was. 

Marcotte then points out that people on the left are open to conspiracy theories, too. Emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee convinced some Sanders supporters that the primary elections were rigged:

The email hack did not actually reveal any evidence that the Democratic National Committee had treated Sanders unfairly during the primary. It did find that some DNC employees expressed negative thoughts about him after his campaign repeatedly accused party officials of dirty pool, but there was no dirt beyond private grousing.

Nevertheless, the impression grew that somehow Sanders had been cheated. That led some who would ordinarily vote Democratic to stay home or vote for a third party. Consider, for example, that in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Green Party candidate got more than 133,000 votes. Clinton lost those three states and, as a result, the Electoral College by 78,000. 

Lastly, of course, most Republican politicians put party over country. In particular, Senator McConnell’s refusal to condemn or even acknowledge the Russian hacking was, in Marcotte’s words:

… a neat distillation of Republicans’ attitude toward any Trump-based corruption: They’re happy to look the other way as Trump and his supporters plunder the country, spread racism and bigotry and undermine our democracy, so long as they get a crack at destroying Social Security and Medicare.

So, putting the election aside and looking to the future, Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek has a long article that shows how T—p’s business would (or will) lead to major conflicts of interest. They even have a 3-minute video that summarizes the sad story.

When Balance Is Just Wrong

Jeff Zucker is in charge of CNN. Before that, he helped the Orange Monster become a reality TV star. More recently, he helped the Orange Monster become President-elect. Zucker gave the O.M. millions and millions of dollars of free advertising. CNN broadcast unfiltered everything the O.M. had to say. They broke away from other news, including other candidates talking, to show the empty podium where the O.M. might later share his thoughts.

This explains why Zucker was yelled at by both Republicans and Democrats at a recent conference. The angry Republicans had worked for the O.M.’s opponents in the primaries. The angry Democrats had worked for someone who actually loves America. But they all agreed that Zucker and CNN had given the O.M. special, advantageous treatment.

Here’s what Zucker said in response:

Half the people want to blame us for Trump, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Trump. That’s how I always think we’re doing the right thing.

Zucker has made a lot of money in his career, so he must have a brain in his head. But that is one lazy, dumb justification for misbehavior. The correct, honest answer would have been:

We gave him special treatment because he’s so damn entertaining. We make money by getting people to watch our so-called “news” network and people watch that bastard whether they like him or not.

But isn’t it fair for Zucker to parrot the journalistic cliché, according to which half the audience says we’re too mean and half says we’re too nice, so we must be doing something right?

Imagine a country that takes ice cream very, very seriously, much more seriously than the Germans take beer. The whole country loves ice cream. It’s the official national food. Then along comes an ambitious politician with a brilliant idea. Let’s have a referendum! Let’s choose our nation’s official ice cream flavor! The nation erupts in controversy. Should it be chocolate or should it be vanilla?

Conscientious journalists air both sides, delving into the pros and cons of each flavor. Nevertheless, the vanilla-lovers are angry because they don’t think the journalists are being fair to the flavor that’s clearly the best. The chocolate-lovers are angry for the very same reason.

When the votes are counted, one flavor comes out slightly ahead (I hope it was vanilla). A bunch of journalists, hanging out in their favorite ice cream bar, look back and decide they must have done a pretty good job. After all, half the people thought they were terrible to vanilla and half thought they were terrible to chocolate. Fair enough.

But suppose there’s a country that’s less concerned with ice cream and more concerned with the shape of the Earth. The flat-Earthers look around and see the Earth is flat. The round-Earthers, well, you know. So they decide to take a vote! Journalists report and analyze. Both sides are heard from and criticized in equal measure, because the journalists want to be balanced. One side wins (if it were modern-day America, it would be a close election), but neither side is happy with the news coverage. The flat-Earthers hated hearing they were wrong, especially by smarty pants scientists. The round-Earthers hated that anyone took the flat-Earthers seriously at all. But the self-satisfied journalists look back and say, well, we must have done something right!

To make a long story short, the assumption that you must be doing something right if both sides are displeased only applies when the subject is a matter of taste. Vanilla is better than chocolate! No, everyone loves chocolate! Or a matter of vague philosophy. Small government is better than big government! But a big country needs a big government! Or with the unknown. We aren’t alone in the universe! So where is everybody?

When you’re dealing with known facts, however, balance isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s seriously bad.

Imagine, for example, that a pathological liar runs for President. Or a strange old man who knows next to nothing about America’s history and government. Let’s call him Donald. When Donald spends 30 minutes in front of an enthusiastic crowd telling lies and making crap up, journalists broadcast every word, even though they know he’s plain wrong about so much. News networks even pay people to come on the air to repeat his fabrications, because it’s hard to find anyone who will lie in public for free. In the spirit of journalistic balance, however, they also let Donald’s opponents appear. Journalists even point out that Donald is often careless with the truth.

And what’s the result? Both sides are unhappy. Donald’s supporters are unhappy because they didn’t like hearing bad things about their hero. Donald’s opponents are unhappy because so much of what Donald said wasn’t challenged and he was treated with respect he didn’t deserve. Nobody is satisfied with the news coverage except the journalists. They congratulate themselves, citing “evidence” like this:  

Half the people want to blame us for Donald, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Donald. That’s how we know we’re doing the right thing.

If your goal as a news organization is to make both sides unhappy, all you need to do is what CNN and others did this year. Give a loudspeaker to a demagogue and his propaganda machine, but sometimes admit he’s a demagogue. Both sides will be unhappy, because your coverage is “balanced”.

On the other hand, telling the unvarnished truth would anger one side and please the other. Congratulations would be in order for the conscientious journalists, because they didn’t strike a balance between what was plainly true and what plainly wasn’t.