Monday, October 09, 2017

Cruising the Web

Matthew Continetti has a perceptive essay about how their antipathy to Trump has led the media to abandon even the pretense that they are objective. It might have been obvious that the media were, by and large, mouthpieces for the liberal line, but they at least talked about their ideal of being objective and would occasionally cast skeptical eyes on Democrats as they have done for both the Clintons.
Donald Trump changed that, of course. He is so unusual a figure, and his behavior so outlandish, that his rise precipitated a crisis in a profession already decimated by the collapse of print circulation and advertising dollars. The forces that brought Trump to power are alien to the experience of the men and women who populate newsrooms, his supporters unlike their colleagues, friends, and neighbors, his agenda anathema to the catechism of social liberalism, his career and business empire complex and murky and sensational. Little surprise that journalists reacted to his election with a combination of panic, fear, disgust, fascination, exhilaration, and the self-affirming belief that they remain the last line of defense against an emerging American autocracy. Who has time for dispassionate analysis, for methodical research and reporting, when the president's very being is an assault on one's conception of self, when nothing less than the future of the country is at stake? Especially when the depletion of veteran editors, the relative youth and inexperience of political and congressional reporters, and the proliferation of social media, with its hot takes and quips, its groupthink and instant gratification, makes the transition from inquiry to indignation all too easy.

There is still excellent journalism. I would point, for starters, to the work on charter flights that led to the resignation of Tom Price. But the overall tone of coverage of this president and his administration is somewhere between the hysterical and the lunatic. Journalists are trapped in a condition of perpetual outrage, seizing on every rumor of discontent and disagreement, reflexively denouncing Trump's every utterance and action, unable to distinguish between genuinely unusual behavior (the firing of Comey, the tenure of Anthony Scaramucci, the "fine people on both sides" quip after Charlottesville) and the elements of Trump's personality and program that voters have already, so to speak, "priced in." Supposedly authoritative news organizations have in one case taken up bizarre mottoes, like "Democracy Dies In Darkness," and in another acted passive-aggressively by filing Trump stories under "entertainment," only to re-categorize the material as news with the disclaimer (since dropped) that Trump is "a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, and birther." The mode of knee-jerk disgust not only prevents the mainstream media from distinguishing between the genuinely interesting stories and the false, partisan, and hackwork ones. It also has had the effect of further marginalizing print and broadcast journalists from middle America.
As Pew Research Center has detailed, the coverage of Trumps first 60 days has been overwhelmingly negative with a mere 5% positive stories.
Of course, the media's excuse would be that Trump is such a break from normal that his presidency rates their critical coverage. He is an oversized and generally repugnant personality. So they focus constantly on what he says and tweets as if every utterance of his must be repetitively analyzed all day long on the news cable stations.
Trump does not change, but his critics in the media have. Their feelings of revulsion toward him have deepened. Their eagerness to oppose him has become more acute. The scope of their vision has constricted to include only Trump: what he says, Tweets, and does. The context in which he operates is invisible to them. When he raises the question of what the ultimate outcome of the removal of Confederate statues might be, the critics slag him as a racist, but do not dwell for long on polling that shows him to be in the center of public opinion. When he voices what many have felt about the politicization of the NFL and the attack on the flag and national anthem, the critics say he is being divisive and insensitive. But why is it always Trump who is being divisive, and not those who say the flag and anthem are symbols of white supremacy, and who raise fists in the black power salute?
Hurricane Maria was grabbed on by the media as proof of both the President's ineptness and socially offensive behavior. Perhaps.
The desire on the part of Trump's critics for Maria to become his "Katrina moment" is palpable. It has led reporters to disregard their own previous work on the dismal condition of Puerto Rico's governance, finances, infrastructure, education, and public health systems, not to mention the fact that it is more than a thousand miles away from the mainland. It has inspired articles suggesting that an influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida "could well prove to be a boon to Democrats." (They said the same thing before 2016.) It spurred Paul Krugman to circulate the fake news that cholera had appeared on the island. Most ridiculous was the Bloomberg story, "Trump's Puerto Rico Feud May Cause Lasting Damage to the GOP," whose authoritative and objective sources included an academic, Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and John Brennan.

As I watched Trump visit the island Tuesday, I saw crowds that looked pleased to see him, eager for his help, and even chuckling at his irreverence. Yet the commentary from D.C.- and New York-based pundits, uniformly hostile to the president, was that his appearance was an unmitigated, embarrassing, insulting disaster. Whom to believe, the folks who thought Hillary had it in the bag, or my own lying eyes?
I have no idea. Clearly, he said stupid and offensive things about Puerto Rico and the conditions there. Talking about what the damage there was going to do to federal spending was stupidly and unnecessarily offensive. But it was also true. And he did say that the federal government was still going to pay to help them.
What passes for news today is speculation and advocacy, wishful thinking and self-fashioning, mindless jabber and affirmations of virtue, removed from objective reality and common sense. The content is intended not for the public but for other media. In a recent interview with Peter J. Boyer about her institution's study of press coverage of Trump, Amy Mitchell said, "One of the things that was interesting to see was that, while the topic of the news media was not a huge percentage of overall coverage, journalists were both the second most common source type as well as the second most common ‘trigger' of the stories." The CNN anchors aren't talking to you. They are talking to one another.

The conversations that journalists in New York and D.C. and L.A. trigger among themselves have very little to do with the conversations between most people, in most places, at most times. The conversations are self-referential, self-sustaining, self-validating, and selfishly concern one topic: the president of the United States. That may be why his critics in the press are so fixated on his Tweets. Twitter is his way of talking back. It's how he pops the liberal media bubble.
What if they just ignored his tweets for a week? Other presidents would make speeches and be ignored by the national media for the most part. But now every utterance must be parsed and examined to demonstrate how awful he is. Just as the media could not stop themselves from covering his every utterance during the primaries helped to propel him to the nomination and might well have helped him to win in November, the media just can't stop themselves from their wall-to-wall coverage of every idiotic or offensive thing he tweets or says.

I just finished covering the unit on the media in my AP Government class. The students have an assignment at the end of the unit to find two current stories from the media and write up an assessment of how those stories exemplify the themes that we've been discussing. Even though their book is almost a decade old, it always amazes me how the only change has been one of degree whether they're finding examples of sensationalism, feeding frenzies, bias, or the media acting as a scorekeeper or gatekeeper. They found a lot of examples of how stories on the hurricanes, the NFL, health care, federal debt, education are all treated mostly as political stories to analyze whether they'd help or hurt either party. In discussing their papers, I asked how many of them thought that the media are biased. It was 100%. When I started teaching this class 2002, the students were split down the middle. I used to have a class debate on whether there is a liberal bias in the media with students able to find arguments on both sides. Now, no one is willing to argue against the proposition. And keep in mind that these are overwhelmingly students who are liberal themselves. Of course, they're high schoolers and don't watch much news on TV, but that is still their perception. And it has been that way even before the advent of Trump on the scene. Even students who strongly supported Obama could recognize the media's favoritism toward him.

Another thing I've noticed is that the line between reporting and opinion journalism has gotten very thin and almost doesn't exist. I warn students that they shouldn't pick an opinion column and then argue that it demonstrates bias since the author is being paid to have an opinion. But I realize that, in a world when most of our news comes through the internet, readers have to do a little work to figure out if they're reading an opinion writer or a straight reporter. My students have no chance unless they google around for the author and see if he or she is described as a reporter or an analyst or opinion writer. When they click on a link, as inexperienced news consumers, it's hard to figure out what they're finding. I imagine it is that way for a lot of news consumers reading on the internet. But my students were fast to assume that an opinion piece, whether they got it from Fox, CNN, or the Washington Post, was an attempt at straight reporting with the bias showing through. They can't tell from reading some story that they read a link to and it doesn't surprise them to think that something that was clearly an opinion essay was actually the media's attempt at neutral reporting.

As Continetti writes, they're no longer pretending to be neutral. How will they ever bounce back after Trump has hopefully disappeared from the scene?

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Joe Biden continues to be the same sort of wacky Uncle Joe who says the most unbelievable things. Here is he talking about how great the Senate was in the olden days even when the Democrats had some segregationists in their caucus.
“I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland,” said Biden, referring to a segregationist senator from Mississippi. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
Oh, those fun segregationists - now those were men with whom ol' Joe could have fun having dinner.

And as Dave Weigel reports, progressives don't want to return to those days of comity and compromise. Graham Vyse reports in the New Republic about the response by some activists to Biden's message about compromise in the good, old days.
Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of the progressive blog Daily Kos, agrees with Biden on this much: “The left’s effectiveness will always be constrained so long as part of it indiscriminately attacks those with money and success.” But Moulitsas also had harsh words for the former vice president after his appearance with Jones: “If Biden’s solution to eight years of Republican obstruction and conservative slash-and-burn tactics against him and Barack Obama is to talk about ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘consensus,’ then he might as well pack up and go home. Because if he’s that stupid to believe that sh**, then he’s no longer got any business being in the public face. The various wings of the Democratic Party may disagree on a bunch of things, but the one thing that unites us is the realization that the right wants nothing more than a white supremacist autocracy that would rather see liberals dead or in chains. You don’t seek consensus with Nazis. You destroy them.”
Gee, you could take some of that paragraph and turn it around and it would sound like Steve Bannon or Breitbart deriding the idea of seeking a moderate compromise. Probably the majority of people would like to see the nation's leaders reach compromises and work together, minus the segregationists, but the extremes of both parties would rather burn it all down than see that happen.

So Mike Pence went to the Colts/49ers game and then walked out because some of the 49ers took a knee during the National Anthem. What a grandstanding move. The 49ers have been kneeling for several weeks now and San Francisco safety Eric Reid was the first to join Kaepernick. So Pence knew that there would be at least one player kneeling so he was safe in planning a showboating gimmick by picking a 49ers game to attend and then by leaving instead of staying to respect those who did stand.

The number of players kneeling has been going down and the controversy was receding. So Pence and Trump decided that it would be good to pull a publicity stunt like this just to extend the fuss. Ugh! Is this what we're going to have to talk about from now on

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David Kopel of the INdependence Institute argues
that, if we're going to have a national discussion on guns in the United States, it would help to have a clear knowledge of gun and crime statistics. Gun control advocates are citing inflated numbers for how many "mass shootings" there are in the country. Those arguing for gun control argue that there have been more mass shootings this year than days in the year.
The FBI defines “mass murder” as “four or more victims slain, in one event, in one location.” Starting with the FBI’s definition of four or more fatalities, the Congressional Research Service reported that from 1999 through 2013 there were an average of 20 to 22 mass shootings in the U.S. annually. In an average year, four of these would be “mass public shootings”—the kind that often get national media attention. Of the rest, about half were “familicides”—killings within a family or estranged family, usually taking place in a private residence. The other half were “attributable to an underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance,” such as armed robbery, gang activity, insurance fraud or romantic triangles.

The website Mass Shooting Tracker, by contrast, counted 340 mass shootings in the U.S. between New Year’s Day and last Monday—consistent with Mr. Murphy’s claim of more than one a day. The site uses a much broader definition of mass shooting: “an incident where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. This may include the gunman himself, or police shootings of civilians around the gunman.” Under this definition, the shootings needn’t be fatal.

It’s not surprising that people who favor gun confiscation would prefer an indiscriminate methodology. But it’s not helpful in actually reducing violence. Different solutions are needed for different types of crimes.
I'm not sure that it makes a difference if you're shot which category you fall into but, in terms of making policy, it does make a difference. Kopel points to another fact that is little recognized - we have seen a great decrease in gun violence since the early 1990s.
The good news is that for gun crime in general the U.S. has had a quarter-century of success. The robberies, domestic violence and other crimes that comprise nearly all “mass shootings” broadly defined are simply the worst examples of ordinary gun crime. Since peaking in the early 1990s, gun homicide has declined by half nationwide. Overall gun crime victimization is down by three-fourths. In this same period, the American gun supply grew by 80 million, so that there is now slightly more than one gun per person in the U.S.

Scholars suggest diverse causes for the crime decline. To the extent that gun policy has made a difference, Americans in the past quarter-century have made their gun laws both stricter and more permissive. Today, unlike in 1992, there are many laws against gun possession by persons with domestic-violence records, whether misdemeanor convictions or restraining orders. Extensive and uncontradicted social-science indicates that such persons are much likelier to commit gun crimes, especially domestic ones.

Improved interstate data-sharing has facilitated laws against gun possession by prohibited persons. Tougher sentencing for criminals who use firearms in a violent crime has been an important cause of mass incarceration, and those longer sentences have helped reduce gun violence of all types.

On the other hand, unlike in 1992, right-to-carry is now the national norm. In all but a few states, adults with safety training and a fingerprint background check have a legal right to bear a firearm for lawful defense. State pre-emption laws have eliminated many local antigun restrictions.
He points to polls that show that most people think that gun crime is increased. They don't realize that there are a lot more guns in America than there were, but crime has gone down. Wouldn't it behoove those who want to decrease gun crimes to study what has made the difference in the past quarter century and seek to build on that success? But denying or obfuscating those statistics doesn't make for clear-eyed policy-making.

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Yesterday, October 9, was the fifty-year anniversary of the execution of Che Guevara. This would be a good T shirt to get to commemorate his death.