Category Archives: Random Blogging

Gains and (Huge) Losses

In age of internet, I worry that it is no longer possible to have a truly national conversation.

The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for advertising and other information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true First Amendment marketplace of ideas might operate. As one scholar of the media despairingly asked, “How can you cure the effects of ‘bad’ speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?”

We are clearly in uncharted waters.

As regular readers of this blog know, I teach a course in Media and Public Affairs. It used to be titled “Mass Media and Public Affairs;”  the name change reflects a change in the reality of our methods of communication: there’s no truly “mass” media anymore.

Subject-matter covered in the course has morphed along with the media it studies. When then-Dean of Journalism Jim Brown and I began team teaching it more than a decade ago, our goal was relatively simple–introduce Journalism students to policy formation (so they would better understand how coverage of government affects policy), and help public affairs students understand the difference between what journalists consider “news” and thus worthy of coverage, and garden-variety policy argumentation.

Over the years, the media environment has fragmented and dramatically changed, and so has the course. Today, it focuses on the role of media in a democratic society, beginning with the assumption that the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We examine the responsibility of the “fourth estate” to the public it serves, and the role of media in the American political system.

We look at the legal and ethical constraints that should apply to a free press, the business pressures that affect reporting, the impact of technology and social media, the role of political pundits, the challenges of issue framing, the impact of American diversity on the profession of journalism and–with increasing urgency– how to assess the credibility of the innumerable “news” resources available to us.

We also consider the dramatic collapse of what has come to be called “legacy journalism,”  and the consequences of the current information environment for democratic and accountable governance.

Throughout the class, I keep coming back to that one core issue: how the incommensurate realities and filter bubbles we inhabit (thanks to both confirmation bias and the wildly different sources of information that are available to us) make it increasingly impossible to have a genuinely public discussion.

I think it was media historian Paul Starr who said that a public is different from an audience. An audience is fine for entertainment; a democratic polity, however, requires a public, and I’m not sure we have one anymore.

There is so much that is wonderful about the Internet; the technology has made unlimited information immediately available to us. It has allowed in-depth explorations, introduced dramatically diverse people to each other, made the arts accessible, allowed the human imagination to soar. (It has also made shopping infinitely more convenient…)

On the other hand, it has destroyed the business model that sustained most local newspapers–a grievous loss for multiple reasons, including the way that loss has influenced trust in media generally. As Michelle Goldberg recently wrote in the New York Times,

In general, people trust local papers more than the national media; when stories are about your immediate community, you can see they’re not fake news. Without a trusted news source, people are more vulnerable to the atmosphere of disinformation, cynicism and wild conspiracy theories in which fascism — and Trumpism — flourishes. Politico found that “Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online,” voted for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers, even accounting for employment and education.

We live in a world of Kardashians and clickbait, Infowars and propagandists, cute kittens and adorable babies and weird cookie recipes–a world of inadequate coverage of local governments and overwhelmingly partisan coverages of national issues. In that world we inhabit, the American public has devolved into a variety of audiences–and lost most of the common ground necessary to exist as a public.

No wonder we’re polarized.

 

Wise Words

Two different Facebook friends attended Donald Trump’s rally in Southport, Indiana, an Indianapolis bedroom community, in the week prior to the midterm election. Both were there simply to observe–one was with a group of protesters, but the other was on a sort of “reconnaissance mission.” Who, she wondered, were these Hoosiers who continued to support a man she considered morally repulsive?

Both of these observers were shaken by the experience. Trump’s “adoring crowds” evidently really do adore him. (Those “over the top” comparisons to Hitler may not be so over the top.) His crudeness and vulgarity, his contempt for expertise and elemental humanity, evidently validate them in some fashion that I can’t comprehend.

It may be because he gives them someone to blame for life’s disappointments and failures–someone black or brown or Jewish or Muslim.

We keep hearing that 90% of Republicans still strongly support Trump, and that’s terrifying. But what we don’t hear nearly as often is the corollary: that the number of people who continue to call themselves Republican has dramatically diminished. As the party has metamorphosed into a cult, a large number of good, sane Americans who were previously Republican  have run for the exits.

One of those was “Sully” Sullenberger–a lifelong Republican best known for safely landing a plane in an episode usually referred to as the “miracle on the Hudson.” Right before the election, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, and it’s worth quoting.

He began by referencing that storied landing:

Nearly 10 years ago, I led 154 people to safety as the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, which suffered bird strikes, lost thrust in the engines and was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. Some called it “the Miracle on the Hudson.” But it was not a miracle. It was, in microcosm, an example of what is needed in emergencies — including the current national crisis — and what is possible when we serve a cause greater than ourselves.

Sullenberger recounted the important contributions of passengers and airline personnel to the effort to avert disaster, and emphasized the importance of good  judgment, experience, skill — and combined efforts of people working together. He then made a crucial point.

To navigate complex challenges, all leaders must take responsibility and have a moral compass grounded in competence, integrity and concern for the greater good.

Concern for the greater good is a concept entirely foreign to Donald Trump (who, incidentally, displays neither competence nor integrity). Sullenberger didn’t identify Trump by name, but it was impossible not to know who he was talking about when he wrote the following:

In every situation, but especially challenging ones, a leader sets the tone and must create an environment in which all can do their best. You get what you project. Whether it is calm and confidence — or fear, anger and hatred — people will respond in kind. Courage can be contagious.

Today, tragically, too many people in power are projecting the worst. Many are cowardly, complicit enablers, acting against the interests of the United States, our allies and democracy; encouraging extremists at home and emboldening our adversaries abroad; and threatening the livability of our planet. Many do not respect the offices they hold; they lack — or disregard — a basic knowledge of history, science and leadership; and they act impulsively, worsening a toxic political environment.

As a result, we are in a struggle for who and what we are as a people. We have lost what in the military we call unit cohesion. The fabric of our nation is under attack, while shame — a timeless beacon of right and wrong — seems dead.

Toward the end of his essay, Sullenberger (unlike the people at Trump rallies or the spineless enablers in Congress) firmly elevates the national interest over partisan loyalties.

For the first 85 percent of my adult life, I was a registered Republican. But I have always voted as an American. And this critical Election Day, I will do so by voting for leaders committed to rebuilding our common values and not pandering to our basest impulses.

We sometimes forget that there are thousands of former Republicans who–like Sullenberger–chose to leave the GOP when it became the party of Trump and the unhappy White Nationalists who drink his Kool-Aid.

 

The Essence Of My Angst

A lot of Americans were breathing sighs of relief Wednesday. With Democrats in control of the House, there will be some accountability–at least some measure of those “checks and balances” not enough of us learned about in high school civics.

The problem is, while sanity won a skirmish, it didn’t win the war. Just two examples of what reasonable people are up against:

From The Hill, we learn that Republican state Rep. Matt Shea, who published a manifesto calling for “war” against enemies of Christianity, was reelected in Washington state.

Shea, a six-term legislator, won with 58.3 percent of the vote, defeating his Democratic challenger by a comfortable margin, according to local NBC affiliate KHQ 6.

In a manifesto he published and distributed, titled “Biblical Basis for War,” Shea calls for the end of same-sex marriage, abortion and the death of all non-Christian males in America if religious law is not followed.

Nice guy.

And then, of course, the news has been full of terrifying details about Jeff Sessions’ replacement at the Department of Justice. (If you thought it would be difficult to exceed the mismatch between Sessions and the word Justice, you were wrong…).  In 2014, when the new acting Attorney General was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he said he would only support federal judges who “hold a biblical view of justice.” And not just any biblical view–an explicitly New Testament view.

As a lawyer, one might expect him to know that setting religious conditions for holding a public office would violate the Iowa and U.S. constitutions. He was effectively saying that if elected, he would see no place for a judge of Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic or other faith, or of no faith. Yet no one in the audience or on the podium seemed to have a problem with that, and his answer drew applause.

Whitaker is also on record as criticizing the Special Counsel inquiry as a “witch hunt.” (hmm..where have I heard that phrase before?)

These are just two example out of the many, many others we might point to, and they underscore the points made in Gin and Tacos, in a post that may be the most perceptive commentary on the election and the country that I’ve seen in a very long time.

The post was titled I Know Why You’re Sad. 

On paper, Tuesday was a good day for Democrats. They took the House for the first time in eight years. Several important Governorships (in advance of post-Census 2020 redistricting battles) were won. Notably vile Republicans like Kris Kobach, Scott Walker, and Dana Rohrabacher lost. The high-visibility Senate races Democrats lost (Missouri, Tennessee) were pipe dreams anyway. You already knew that Florida sucks, hard. So you’re not sad because “The Democrats did badly.”

You’re also not sad because Beto lost, or Andrew Gillum lost, or any other single candidate who got people excited this year fell short. They’re gonna be fine. They will be back. You haven’t seen the last of any of them. Winning a Senate race in Texas was never more than a long shot. Gillum had a realistic chance, but once again: It’s Florida.

So why are we sad? Because Ed (the author of Gin and Tacos doesn’t share his last name) is right. We are still sad.

No, you’re sad for the same reason you were so sad Wednesday morning after the 2016 Election. You’re sad because the results confirm that half of the electorate – a group that includes family, neighbors, friends, random fellow citizens – looked at the last two years and declared this is pretty much what they want. You’re sad because any Republican getting more than 1 vote in this election, let alone a majority of votes, forces us to recognize that a lot of this country is A-OK with undisguised white supremacy. You’re sad because once again you have been slapped across the face with the reality that a lot of Americans are, at their core, a lost cause. Willfully ignorant. Unpersuadable. Terrible people. Assholes, even.

There’s more, and every word is worth reading, but let me just share the conclusion.

These people are not one conversation, one fact-check, and one charismatic young Democratic candidate away from seeing the light. They’re reactionary, mean, ignorant, uninterested in becoming less ignorant, and vindictive. They hate you and they will vote for monsters to prove it.

Remember this feeling. Remember it every time someone tells you that the key to moving forward is to reach across the aisle, show the fine art of decorum in practice, and chat with right-wingers to find out what makes them tick. Remember the nagging sadness you feel looking at these almost entirely positive results; it will be your reminder that the only way to beat this thing is to outwork, outfight, and out-organize these people. They are not going to be won over and they will continue to prove that to you every chance they get.

We’re sad because he’s right.

There may be some “very fine people” among the Trump voters. But there aren’t very many. And we’re sad because we are beginning to recognize that there are some compromises that are impossible– and some aisles that simply can’t be crossed– without losing our souls.

 

 

 

Two Kinds Of Religion

A number of articles published during the heat of the midterm campaigns explored Trump’s steadfast support from Evangelical Christians. A connected inquiry looked at the antagonism to immigrants and immigration displayed by this particular voting bloc–an antagonism Trump exploited (and probably caused to increase).

“Who’s organizing the massive caravan on track to hit the US Border, just in time for the Election?”

That was just one headline last week on the website of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Pat Robertson-founded evangelical media powerhouse that has become, in recent years, a de facto mouthpiece for the Trump administration.

As the Vox article quoted above noted, the ramped-up and distorted coverage of the caravan was part and parcel of Trump’s Nativist message. The question was, why did that message resonate with followers of a man whose message was to welcome the stranger? Why, for that matter, have polls consistently shown that a staggering 75 percent of white evangelicals enthusiastically support the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants  (only 46 percent of Americans overall support those measures).

According to a Pew Research Center poll in May, 68 percentof white evangelicals say that America has no responsibility to house refugees, a full 25 points over the national average.

Here’s a clue: a July poll by the Public Religion Research Initiative (PRRI) found well over   half of white evangelicals willing to admit to feelings of “concern” about the declining percentage of Americans who are white.

I’ll leave scholarly explanations of the disconnect between these well-documented attitudes and the purported religious beliefs of those who hold them to the theologians and sociologists, but one of my sons has a theory about religions in general that I think bears on the issue.

His is a simple formula: if a religion focuses on helping people wrestle with life’s important moral and ethical questions, it’s good. If it prescribes the answers–if it tells adherents what they must believe and how they must act and teaches that people who don’t agree are wrong–it isn’t.

There’s a fair amount of research on authoritarian personalities, and their need for “bright lines” and clear rules to follow. People who are deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity are drawn to more rigid and prescriptive religious and political beliefs. They aren’t interested in wrestling with moral dilemmas or finding the balance between competing visions of the good. Fundamentalist theologies–whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic–not only offer the certainty they crave, they promote distinctions between “us” (the “saved,” the good guys) and “them” (the infidel, the Other).

The Other is to be feared and/or hated.

So they cherry-pick and “interpret” the passages in their bibles that seem to counsel welcoming the stranger or helping the widow and orphan. And they cheer when an authority figure tells them that their skin color and their beliefs are superior and must be protected from contamination.

 

 

Long Division

There’s still a huge amount of data from Tuesday’s elections to be analyzed, but there are also some very clear lessons that emerged.

In the light of morning, it turns out that what may have seemed like a modest blue ripple was, in fact, a fairly impressive–albeit very uneven– wave: Michael McDonald of the Election Project estimates national turnout at 111.5 million. That’s the first time in US history that a midterm exceeded 100 million votes.  If the New York Times  initial estimate is correct, if Democrats won the national popular vote by 9.2 percent, that would mean the margin was over ten million. That’s pretty impressive.

The most important result, of course, was recapture of the House of Representatives. The Senate was never really in play, given the number of seats at risk and where they were–but although the odds vastly favored Republicans this year, they will be equally if not more favorable for the Democrats in 2020. (Granted, by then we may have a totally reactionary judiciary…)

There was other good news. Not only did a number of statehouses and state legislatures turn blue, there were impressive victories for good-government state-level initiatives. Florida’s was probably the most significant; despite the clear racism that characterized the governor’s race, felon enfranchisement won soundly, reversing a Jim Crow law that kept a million and a half people from exercising their franchise.

North Carolina elected a civil rights crusader to their Supreme Court, a result that almost certainly dooms the blatant gerrymandering that has benefitted the GOP in that state.

In what Daily Kos called “a hugely positive development for voting rights,”  Michigan voters approved several critical measures to make voting easier and elections more secure: automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration, removal of the absentee excuse requirement, and others.

Missouri also passed important reforms that will make voting and redistricting fairer.

And especially satisfying, voter-suppression guru and all-around jerk Kris Kobach lost his race for governor of deep-red Kansas.

All that said, the election also made America’s divisions too clear to miss. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post, 

We are becoming a more divided country, 77 percent of respondents said in the exit polls. But the truth is we are not evenly divided. A party that has alienated women, nonwhites, suburbanites, urbanites, Midwesterners, Northeasterners, the college-educated and all but the over-65 demographic set has dim prospects for 2020.

What that (entirely accurate) recitation omits, however, is the geography and impact of the massive divide between urban and rural Americans. As one progressive writer tweeted,  Democrats are getting trounced outside of metropolitan areas. “The consistent pattern you’re seeing is that Republicans are consolidating control of rural white America.”

Combining the geography of America’s political divide with the constitutional advantages enjoyed by small states and rural residents gives rural voters a disproportionate advantage over their far more numerous urban and suburban countrymen. (We’ve seen this operate in Indiana for decades.) The result of that reality, together with the hard-ball tactics employed by the GOP–gerrymandering, vote suppression, and increasingly unapologetic resort to blatant racism–means that the U.S. has had minority rule for some time.

That being the case, the results of the midterm elections leave us with significant–even existential–questions: will the huge and welcome increase in civic engagement last? Will the blue majority of Americans be willing to do the hard work needed to build upon the progress made in the midterms? Can we establish a national nonpartisan agency to administer the vote, so that no future Brian Kemp can rig state systems or engage in the brazen, appalling and unethical behavior that characterized the election in Georgia?

And what will we do–what should we do–to bridge the abyss between the urban and rural Americans who currently occupy incommensurate realities?