Truth About Truth

Pontius Pilate supposedly asked “Quid est veritas?” What is truth? Daniel Detmer teaches philosophy in Indiana. He was asked about postmodernism and ended up talking about objective truth. Below is a fairly long selection from a longer interview conducted by Richard Marshall at 3:16:

DD: As you know, “postmodernism” is a very loose, imprecise term, which means different things in different contexts. The only aspect of it that I have written about at length concerns a certain stance with regard to truth—more specifically either the denial that there is such a thing as objective truth or else the slightly milder thesis that there might as well be no such thing since, in any case, we (allegedly) have no access to it. It is a stance that is reflected well in Richard Rorty’s complaint that we “can still find philosophy professors who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking  the truth , not just a story or a consensus but an accurate representation of the way the world is.” Rorty goes on to call such professors “lovably old-fashioned . . .”

. . . Some of those who thought postmodern truth denial was politically liberatory explained that they thought it enabled one to show that the claims that prop up oppressive political structures are not (simply) true, but rather are to be understood as merely comprising one narrative among others, with no special status. One problem with that, from a political point of view, is that it also entails that the critique of such structures as oppressive is itself also not (simply) true, but rather one narrative among others. . . .

3:16: What do you think postmoderns get wrong and what do they get right . . . ?

DD: Often what they have gotten right is the specifics as to how some specific claim is untrue, or misleading because it is only partially true, because some important thing has been left out. What do they get wrong? Well, consider [Richard] Rorty’s rejection of the notion of objective truth. One of his main arguments is that such a concept is of no help to us in practice, since we have no way to examine reality as it is in itself so as to determine whether or not our beliefs about it are accurate. To put it another way, we have no way of knowing whether or not our beliefs give us information about the way things really are, since “we cannot get outside the range of our lights” and “cannot stand on neutral ground illuminated only by the natural light of reason.” Thus, “there is no way to get outside our beliefs and language so as to find some test other than coherence,” and “there is no method for knowing  when one has reached the truth, or when one is closer to it than before.”

The first problem is that of figuring out what such statements mean. Rorty obviously cannot claim that they are  objectively true—revelatory of the way things really are, so that anyone who disagreed would be simply mistaken—since such a claim would obviously render him vulnerable to charges of self-refutation. But what, then,  does he mean? How, for example, could Rorty, consistent with his strictures regarding the impossibility of knowing the objective truth,  know that “we cannot get outside the range of our lights” and “cannot stand on neutral ground illuminated only by the natural light of reason”? Does he just mean that this is how things  look from  his lights? And how can he  know that there is no method for knowing when one has reached the truth, or when one is closer to it than before? Does he know that  this view is closer to the truth than is the one that holds that there  are methods for knowing when one is closer to the truth than one was before?

At a conference Rorty was once challenged to explain why he would deny that it is objectively true that there was not, at that time, a big green giraffe standing behind him. He replied as follows:

Now about giraffes: I want to urge that if you have the distinction between the idiosyncratic and the intersubjective, or the relatively idiosyncratic and the relatively intersubjective, that is the only distinction you need to take care of real versus imaginary giraffes. You do not need a further distinction between the made and the found or the subjective and the objective. You do not need a distinction between reality and appearance, or between inside and outside, but only one between what you can get a consensus about and what you cannot.

But if it is possible to find out that there really is a consensus about the presence, or lack thereof, of a real giraffe, then why isn’t it also possible, even without such knowledge of a consensus, to find out whether or not there really is a giraffe present? Or, to put it another way, if there is a problem in finding out directly that a giraffe really is or is not present, why does this problem not also carry over to the project of finding out whether or not there really is a consensus about the presence or non-presence of a giraffe? Why are consensuses easier to know about than giraffes? If they aren’t, then what is to be gained, from a practical standpoint, by defining “truth” or “reality” in terms of consensus?

It is as if Rorty were claiming that society’s norms and judgments are unproblematically available to us, when nothing else is. But why would anyone think that it is easier to see, for example, that society  judges giraffes to be taller than ants than it is to see that giraffes  are taller than ants? If anything, this gets things backwards. I would argue that the category “the way things are” is, over a wide range of cases, significantly  more obvious and accessible to us than is the category “what our culture thinks.” Is it a  more clear and obvious truth that we  think that giraffes are taller than ants than that giraffes  are taller than ants? I am quite certain of the latter truth from my own observation, but I have never heard anyone else address their own thoughts on the relative heights of giraffes and ants, let alone discuss their impressions of public opinion on the issue. Similar remarks apply to many elementary moral, mathematical, and logical truths.

Moreover, this problem remains no matter how one understands such phrases as “reality” or “the way things are.” For example, if we understand them in some jacked-up, metaphysical sense, to be expressed with upper-case lettering as Reality-as-it-Really-Is, beyond language or thought or anything human, then, while it is understandable that we might want to deny that we know whether or not a giraffe is “really” present, so should we deny that we know whether or not we “really” have achieved a consensus on the matter. (For notice that knowledge of consensus seems to require knowledge of other minds and their thoughts, and it is unclear why anyone would think that our knowledge of the existence of other minds is any less problematic than is our knowledge of the existence of an independent physical world.)

If, on the other hand, we understand them in a more humdrum sense, merely as meaning that things typically are the way they are no matter what we might think about them, and that some of our thoughts about them are made wrong by the way the things are, then, while it is easy to see how we might be able to gather evidence fully sufficient to entitle us to claim to “know” that we have achieved a consensus on giraffes, so is it clear that we might be able to claim to “know” some things about giraffes, even in the absence of any consensus about, or knowledge of consensus about, such matters. Of course, one could use the jacked-up sense of “reality” when saying that we don’t know what giraffes are “really” like, while simultaneously using the humdrum sense of “reality” when saying that we can nevertheless cope by knowing what our culture’s consensus view of giraffes is, but what would be the sense or purpose of this double standard?

Or again, consider Rorty’s statement that we should be “content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of free and open encounters turns out to be,”and that he “would like to substitute the idea of ‘unforced agreement’ for that of ‘objectivity.’” Notice that on this view, in order to know whether or not giraffes are taller than ants we must first know (a) whether or not there is a consensus that giraffes are taller than ants and (b) if there is, whether or not the communication that produced that consensus was free, open, and undistorted. But isn’t it obvious that it is easier to determine whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to determine either (a) or (b)?

. . . At other times Rorty defines “truth” not in terms of consensus, but rather in terms of utility. For example, he characterizes his position as one which “repudiates the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature to which true statements correspond…in favor of the idea that the beliefs we call ‘true’ are the ones we find most useful,” declares that its “whole point is to stop distinguishing between the usefulness of a way of talking and its truth,” and says that it would be in our best interest to discard the notion of “objective truth.” This appears, at first glance, a clever way to avoid the problem of self-refutation. As Rorty obviously recognizes that it would be inconsistent for him to claim to have discovered the objective truth that there is no objective truth to discover, he here instead bases his rejection of “objective truth” solely on the claim that such a notion is not useful to us—we would benefit from abandoning it

But as soon as we ask ourselves whether or not it is indeed  true that the notion of objective truth is not useful to us and that we would therefore benefit from discarding it, all of the old problems return. For either we understand this as an objective truth claim, in which case we get a performative contradiction (because we make use of a notion in issuing the very utterance in which we urge that it be discarded), or else we understand it in terms of Rorty’s pragmatist understanding of “truth,” in which case we generate an infinite regress (because the claim that the notion of objective truth is not useful to us would then have to be understood as true only insofar as it  is useful to us, and  this , in turn, would be true only insofar as  it  is useful to us, and so on).

And insofar as Rorty’s move to pragmatism is motivated by doubts about our ability to know how things really are, the problem remains unsolved. For any grounds we might have for doubting that we can know whether or not giraffes “really” are taller than ants would easily carry over to our efforts to find out whether or not it “really” is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants. On the other hand, any standard of “knowledge” sufficiently relaxed as to allow us to “know” that it is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants would also be lax enough to enable us to “know,” irrespective of the issue of the utility of belief, that giraffes are taller than ants.

In short, I regard postmodern truth denial of the sort just described as confused, incoherent, and illogical, as well as, from a political standpoint, worse than useless. One might hope that Dxxxx Txxxx’s very different kind of assault on truth might help to reawaken our awareness of the political importance of truth, and of the value commitments (such as a prioritizing of evidence over opinion, and of realism over wishful thinking) necessary to attain it. 

Truth and the American Way

From Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. He leaves out a big issue:

You remember the old joke? Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and tells the children of Israel: “Children, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I bargained him down to 10. The bad news is that adultery is still in.”

Well, I’ve got bad news and worse news: We’re now down to nine.

Yes, this was a historic four years — even one of the Ten Commandments got erased. Lying has been normalized at a scale we’ve never seen before. . . .

I am not sure how we reverse it, but we’d better — and fast.

People who do not share truths can’t defeat a pandemic, can’t defend the Constitution and can’t turn the page after a bad leader. The war for truth is now the war to preserve our democracy.

It is impossible to maintain a free society when leaders and news purveyors feel at liberty to spread lies without sanction. Without truth there is no agreed-upon path forward, and without trust there is no way to go down that path together.

But our hole now is so deep, because the only commandment President Txxxx did believe in was the Eleventh: “Thou shalt not get caught.”

Lately, though, Txxxx and many around him stopped believing even in that — they don’t seem to care about being caught.

They know, as the saying goes, that their lies are already halfway around the world before the truth has laced up its shoes. That’s all they care about. Just pollute the world with falsehoods and then no one will know what is true. Then you’re home free.

The truth binds you, and Txxxx never wanted to be bound — not in what he could ask of the president of Ukraine or say about the coronavirus or about the integrity of our election.

And it nearly worked. Txxxx proved over five years that you could lie multiple times a day — multiple times a minute — and not just win election but almost win re-election.

We have to ensure that the likes of him never again appear in American politics.

Because Txxxx not only liberated himself from truth, he liberated others to tell their lies or spread his — and reap the benefits. His party’s elders did not care, as long as he kept the base energized and voting red. Fox News didn’t care, as long as he kept its viewers glued to the channel and its ratings high. Major social networks only barely cared, as long he kept their users online and their numbers growing. Many of his voters — even evangelicals — did not care, as long as he appointed anti-abortion judges. They are “pro-life,” but not always pro-truth. . . .

Israeli Bedouin expert Clinton Bailey tells the story about a Bedouin chief who discovered one day that his favorite turkey had been stolen. He called his sons together and told them: “Boys, we are in great danger now. My turkey’s been stolen. Find my turkey.” His boys just laughed and said, “Father, what do you need that turkey for?” and they ignored him.

Then a few weeks later his camel was stolen. And the chief told his sons, “Find my turkey.” A few weeks later the chief’s horse was stolen. His sons shrugged, and the chief repeated, “Find my turkey.”

Finally, a few weeks later his daughter was abducted, at which point he gathered his sons and declared: “It’s all because of the turkey! When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.”

And do you know what our turkey was? Birtherism.

When Txxxx was allowed to spread the “birther” lie for years — that Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was actually born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to be president — he realized he could get away with anything.

Sure, Txxxx eventually gave that one up, but once he saw how easily he could steal our turkey — the truth — he just kept doing it, until he stole the soul of the Republican Party.

And, had he been re-elected, he would have stolen the soul of this nation.

He and his collaborators are now making one last bid to use the Big Lie to destroy our democracy by delegitimizing one of its greatest moments ever — when a record number of citizens came out to vote, and their votes were legitimately counted, amid a deadly and growing pandemic.

It is so corrupt what Txxxx and his allies are doing, so dangerous to our constitutional system, but you weep even more for how many of their followers have bought into it.

“Lies don’t work unless they’re believed, and nearly half the American public has proved remarkably gullible,” my former . . . colleague David K. Shipler, who served in our Moscow bureau during the Cold War, said to me. “I think of each of us as having our own alarm — and it’s as if half of their batteries have died. Lots of Txxxx’s lies, and his retweets of conspiracy fabrications, are obviously absurd. Why have so many people believed them? I’m not sure it’s fully understood.”

That is why it’s vital that every reputable news organization — especially television, Facebook and Twitter — adopt what I call the Txxxx Rule. If any official utters an obvious falsehood or fact-free allegation, the interview should be immediately terminated, just as many networks did with Txxxx’s lie-infested, postelection, news conference last week. If critics scream “censorship,” just shout back “truth.”

This must become the new normal. Politicians need to be terrified every time they go on TV that the plug will be pulled on them if they lie.

At the same time, we need to require every K-12 school in America to include digital civics — how to determine and crosscheck if something you read on the internet is true — in their curriculum. You should not be able to graduate without it.

We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

Unquote.

It’s not very surprising, but a crucial issue Mr. Friedman left out is the tendency of reality-based journalists, including those who work for the nation’s best newspapers, to strive for impartiality and balance even when dealing with liars, and to report lies as if they are simply controversial opinions. 

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.

Science, Schmience

From Paul Krugman’s newsletter:

Untitled

. . .  I’ve sometimes regretted having gone into economics, a field in which getting the story right all too often offends powerful players, who in turn intervene to prop up zombie ideas that should have died long ago.
 
But I also realized some time back that politics can and will intrude into any area of scholarly research where some people have strong motivations for getting the story wrong. This has obviously been the case for climate research, where an overwhelming scientific consensus has had to struggle against a whole industry of climate denial, which is almost entirely supported by fossil-fuel interests and has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
 
In fact, in some ways the climate scientists have had it worse than the economists; mainstream Keynesian economists (which is pretty much what I am) get a lot of abuse, but as far as I know none of us has had politicians trying to criminalize our work, the way Ken Cuccinelli, now a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, did to climatologist Michael E. Mann [ten years ago].
 
I used to think, however, that climate change was a subject uniquely vulnerable to anti-science propaganda and intimidation. After all, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are invisible and gradual, taking decades to unfold; it’s always possible to mock the science because it happens to be snowing today, while accusing the scientists of taking jobs away from salt-of-the-earth coal miners.
 
Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that easy to politicize a science, to claim that all the experts were part of a vast conspiracy, in an area in which experts’ predictions could be validated and the conspiracy theorists revealed as phonies in a matter of weeks.
 
But I was wrong.
 
Epidemiology, like climatology — or for that matter economics — involves trying to model complex systems, so that no prediction ends up being exactly right. And the chains of cause and effect are long enough that the consequences of bad policy take some time to become completely apparent: Florida began reopening in early May, but Covid-19 deaths didn’t spike until July.
 
But we’re talking about weeks, not decades, and the story of the coronavirus is as clear as such things ever get.
 
Experts warned that a rush to resume business as usual, without social distancing and widespread use of face masks, would lead to a surge in new cases. The usual suspects on the right dismissed these concerns, insisting either that Covid-19 was a hoax or that its dangers were being greatly exaggerated by scientists who wanted to bring down Dxxxx Txxxx. Sunbelt states decided to believe the skeptics, not the scientists — and the result was a huge, deadly viral surge.
 
So that put an end to the politicization, right? Wrong. Not only are Txxxx officials still pressuring health experts to minimize the dangers, the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services accused his own agency’s scientists of “sedition.”
 
The moral here is that there’s no such thing as a safe subject when you’re dealing with people who have a totalitarian mind-set — and that is, in fact, what we’re dealing with. I suspect that in the early days of the Soviet Union plant geneticists imagined that they were working in a low-risk field; I mean, who would politicize that? In the end, however, thousands of them were sent to labor camps or executed for questioning the theories of Trofim Lysenko, a quack who somehow became one of Stalin’s favorites.
 
The fact of the matter is that we’re now struggling over where there’s even such a thing as objective truth. And staying out of politics is no longer an option for anyone.
 
Unquote.
 
I wouldn’t say we’re struggling over whether there’s objective truth. It’s real. What we’re struggling with are people who don’t respect it (like the chairman of the Republican Party who claimed that Biden’s record on the virus is worse than Txxxx’s). But Prof. Krugman is right about not staying out of politics. Voting — and supporting candidates in other ways — matters.
 
Which reminds me. Has anybody seen my Biden/Harris lawn sign? It still hasn’t been delivered. Maybe the crooked Postmaster General arranged for it to be confiscated?