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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: journalism

Trump doesn't want us to think for ourselves

Stephen H. Provost

Note: This is a free bonus chapter you won't find in my new book. Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump chronicles the decline of the mainstream media, the rise of Donald Trump and how the two developments have created a new and dangerous reality in the 21st century. It's now available on Amazon.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t want you to read this.

He doesn’t want you to think about it. He doesn’t want you to think, period.

He wants doesn’t want you to consider the evidence and decide for yourself, because if you do, he knows he’s in trouble. There’s a boatload of circumstantial evidence against him, and if we start piecing it all together, he knows he’ll look pretty damned guilty. He knows Robert Mueller is doing just that, but he also knows that the ultimate decisions will be made in the court of public opinion, because our system subjects presidents to political, rather than judicial remedies for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

So, he’s attacking Mueller personally before the special counsel even presents any evidence. He’s seeking to discredit the messenger, just as he does with the press, because he’s afraid of the message.

Trump admitted doing this to the press, CBS journalist Lesley Stahl said, when he told her, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

He’s doing the same thing with Mueller, accusing him of partisan bias and of drawing things out, knowing that the public doesn’t have the same patience as a court does for sifting through mounds of evidence and arriving at a conclusion based on thoughtful analysis. Fatigue sets in and process itself becomes unpopular, so Mueller – as the driving force behind that process – becomes unpopular, as well.

Poisoning the well

A bias against the process can be used as a wedge to open the way for bias against the person, which Trump can use to taint the entire process and to discredit the evidence based on who’s presenting it rather than how strong it is. In logical terms, he’s resorting to an ad hominem fallacy, a baseless form of argument that’s used to distract from the facts at hand.

Why should Trump want to discredit Mueller, who at the outset of this process was lauded by Republicans as well as Democrats as a straight arrow who would act impartially to unearth the facts? Why doesn’t he simply follow the advice of political handlers to let the process play out?

Because Trump is scared the evidence will lead to him. He believes he should be above the law, and he’s exploiting the weaknesses of our system to make that belief reality. If he can get public opinion on his side and retain a majority of his own party in Congress, he knows guilt or innocence won’t matter. Political expediency will. And he’s determined to use that to his advantage.

Think about it

Courts use circumstantial evidence to establish guilt or innocence through reasoning. They lay out a series of facts, connect the dots and ask that juries reach a conclusion based on those facts, whether or not there’s any direct evidence.

Verdicts based on circumstantial evidence are every bit as valid as those where there’s DNA, video, fingerprints or some other form of “smoking gun” to connect the accused to the scene. Frequently, such evidence simply isn’t available. Eyewitness testimony? It’s often unreliable, and can be less worthy of consideration than a healthy dose of circumstantial evidence, because it’s notoriously unreliable.

Despite this, there’s a public perception that circumstantial evidence is less credible than direct evidence. We want to “see for ourselves,” and it’s only when we do that we’re satisfied. We were both satisfied and outraged when we learn that Richard Nixon had erased 18 minutes of White House tapes, even though he retained broad support until close to the time he resigned. We reacted the same way when we saw Ray Rice on video decking his fiancée in a casino elevator. But not before. Such conclusions don’t require thinking or reasoning. They’re based a simple, visceral reactions to sensory input.

Trump wants us to rely on those visceral reactions. He doesn’t want us to think. He wants us to devalue reason as a means of arriving at decisions – specifically, his guilt or innocence. He can't control people’s reasoning, but he can control their reactions to some extent, and he does so by feeding our bias against circumstantial evidence (and the thought process we use to evaluate it) at every opportunity.

Two-pronged attack

Because he’s the president, Trump can take advantage of a powerful bully pulpit to pound home his message continually. He does so through social media, his cronies and his PR machine, who love to repeat it, and through mainstream media outlets, which have to do so because it’s news. In doing so, he makes the very people he wants to discredit (the press) complicit in his efforts.

These efforts amount to a two-pronged attack on our ability to reason and our right of self-determination.

First, Trump encourages us to rely on our emotions in making up our minds. He nurtures and feeds hidden biases against black Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, Democrats and the press for precisely this purpose. He calls them names to discredit them or make them appear “weak.” It’s not that he hates these people. His personal sentiments toward them are irrelevant. What’s important is that he can condition us to rely on our emotional biases, rather than our brains, to make decisions.

Second, he attacks the evidence itself – and its sources. We should discount that evidence because (he says) it’s “fake news.” Then, he replaces it with his own propaganda – which is itself fake. Because we’re relying on our biases instead of our brains, we’re no longer using the only tool at our disposal to tell the difference. This is why the press is a particular target; if he can cut off the flow of information, the biggest source of temptation to think for ourselves will have been cut off.

He’ll have us right where he wants us. The process is taking too long, which proves Mueller is on a fishing expedition and out to get him. This means any evidence Mueller might find is suspect and, probably, tainted by his own self-interest. It should therefore be discarded in favor of our own biases in favor of the Republican Party, conservatism, nationalism and, most importantly, Trump himself.

That’s reasoning based on assumption, not fact, which is exactly what bias is. We rely on it based on our need for instant gratification in a busy society where we have little time for the kind of analysis that’s necessary to call him on his B.S.

Divide and conquer

This tactic isn’t new to Trump. Hillary Clinton did the same thing when she blamed Republicans for engaging in a vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down her husband – who, like Trump, was accused of womanizing and lying. Clinton denied lying under oath, even as he admitted misleading the American people about the Lewinsky affair. He was impeached in the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate, not based on evidence, but on political considerations.

The Democrats controlled the Senate then, just as the Republicans control both houses of Congress now.

Trump is exploiting that advantage, but he’s going much further. Instead of simply relying on politics to save him from one or two serious accusations, he’s striking at the core of our ability to access information, to process it: to reason. Because even if he escapes the Russia probe, he’ll have to deal with other accusations. Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. Obstruction. Taxes and political donations. His financial interests and his family’s role in all of the above.

He needs us to stop thinking for ourselves, so he’s fueling our own hatreds, fears and biases to divide us as he feeds us his own distorted version of the truth. He’s keeping us at each other’s throats so we don’t realize we have a common enemy: him.

The problem, however, goes beyond Trump. In conditioning us not to think – to accept that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists; that climate change isn’t real; that his inauguration crowd was the biggest in history – he’s creating a “new normal” that could be exploited by others long after he’s gone.

There’s only one way to stop a steamroller that threatens our right and even our ability to think rationally by dumbing us down and cutting off the flow of information.

Don’t ignore circumstantial evidence. Don’t give in to your biases. When Trump or anyone else asks you to believe something based merely on what he says or your own biases, refuse to simply accept it.

Question. Analyze. Insist on thinking for yourself.

Editor's Notes: Epilogue

Stephen H. Provost

When you know you might not be in a place much longer, you start noticing things you’ve taken for granted. The wind in the pines that whips around the corners of your house. The shops on Main Street, housed in buildings from a bygone age and nestled against a crisp, blue springtime sky. Conversations with people who’ve been part of your life for the past few years but who might not be much longer … at least not in person.

I’m noticing such things these days. How long will I be in Cambria? I have no idea. But I figured I’d better do some things I’ve always wanted to do here while I still have the chance. If the Who and Derek Jeter can go on farewell tours, I suppose I can, too, right? I spoke at Mary Anne Anderson's open mic night last Thursday, and I've got a farewell party set for tonight.

I’ve been meaning to take a drive up Old Creek Road between Highway 46 and Cayucos. I’ll probably do that sometime in the next few days. I want to drive some of the other back roads, too. Maybe I’ll pop in for karaoke one last time at San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill if they’re still doing it up there. “Elvis,” who runs the show up there, is always a kick.

Last weekend, on my second official day of unemployment, Samaire and I went to lunch at La Terraza, using up what was left on a gift certificate she got me for my birthday last year. I’d been milking it through three meals, and I figured I’d better use the last of it while I still had the chance. The meal was great, as usual: a chicken tamale, carnitas taco and some flan for desert.

While we were there, we ran into Clive Finchamp, who has sent letters to the Cambrian on a regular basis, but whom I’d never met in person until today. Samaire was taken by a stunning purple outfit worn by Clive’s wife, Sharon, and she said so.

Not knowing who we were, they asked whether we lived in Cambria and what we did. I said, “Until two days ago, I was editor of the newspaper here.”

Recognition dawned, and when they introduced themselves, I recognized them, as well. It’s funny how you can spend three-plus years in a place and never run into someone, then do so two days after you’re out of a job.

When I stopped by the mailbox the other day on Berwick, Aaron Wharton pulled up alongside me in his truck and wished me well. A couple of days before that, Iggy Fedoroff drove up alongside me on Main Street and expressed his appreciation. So many of the people in this town have been so supportive, and I can’t help but feel fortunate at that.

When we stopped in at Linn’s for a bowl of tomato soup, we ran into both owner John Linn and his son, Aaron, both of whom have appeared in the pages of The Cambrian during my tenure. I interviewed John after he told me about an exclusive deal he had to supply preserves and syrups to Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s hard to believe that was three years ago. Columnist Charmaine Coimbra talked to Aaron about his efforts to support youth cycling on the North Coast.

Linn’s is one of my favorite restaurants, and we’ve been there a number of times, but I’d never run into both Aaron and John there at the same time before. As an added bonus, my wife’s favorite waitress, Jordan, took care of us that evening. Synchronicity.

Before we sat down for lunch at La Terraza on Saturday, Samaire and I drove down to Moonstone Beach Drive to visit Art Van Rhyn in his gallery. I’ve worked with Art as The Cambrian cartoonist since I got here, and he’d drop by the office every Monday to deliver the week’s submission and chat for a few minutes. I learned that, before he was an artist, he’d worked as an engineer for Caltrans, and he supplied me with some great material for my book on Highway 99. More synchronicity.

We spent some time talking with Art about his paintings, our lives and what we have in common as artists (his specialty being visual, ours being words). I hadn’t expected to, but I wound up purchasing a painting from him: a stunning springtime view of San Simeon Creek Road bordered by yellow-golden flowers, which you can see at the top of this column. As a lover of old roads and pastoral vistas, I couldn’t resist. Samaire purchased a painting, too, of a Monterey pine. They’ll be perfect remembrances of our time in Cambria, if and when we decide to move on.

(How, you may ask, can an unemployed journalist afford to buy original works of art? I’ll let you in on a secret: Art’s paintings are very reasonably priced. Sometimes, when he sells one, it’s like saying goodbye to one of his children, but he loves to see them find good homes. Make the trip. You won’t be disappointed.)

Now that I’m no longer representing the newspaper, I can do some things I couldn’t do before. I can extol the virtues of my favorite places in town, I can take part in demonstrations for causes I believe in, and I can plant political signs on my front lawn. I can even write books about politics (stay tuned, but no, I won’t be writing about the water plant; I’ve done enough of that already).

Still, I’m running this under the heading Editor’s Notes – the title of my column at The Cambrian – because they’re not replacing me there, so I figure no one else will be using it. I may not be the editor of a newspaper anymore, but I look at it this way: As of this week, I’m managing editor of my own destiny.

I like the sound of that.

(See? I told you I wasn’t going to stop writing!)

Is Twitter's downfall imminent? I sure hope so.

Stephen H. Provost

Twitter lost 2 million monthly U.S. users in the latest quarter – 3 percent of its total.

I’m not exactly doing cartwheels over this, primarily because, at my age, attempting such would be downright dangerous. It did, however, make me smile.

There are things you do because you want to, and there are others you do because you have to.

For me, Twitter has always fallen into the second category. I pretty much have to have some presence there because I’m part of the communications business. Journalist. Author. If you’re in either game these days, you need all the exposure you can get.

But Twitter is, to me, what eating my veggies was to my 7-year-old self. It’s something I do while holding my noise to avoid the bitter taste, because I’ve been told, “You must do this because it’s good for you.” Needless to say, that imperative makes it all the more unpalatable.

Veggies have grown on me but, unfortunately, Twitter hasn’t.

I’m not alone in my disdain for Twitter, even among writers and journalists, some of whom have dumped the platform altogether. For these folks, it’s just not worth it:

Last year, a fellow journalist, New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, quit Twitter because he got sick of dealing with anti-Semitic attacks on the platform. It had become, in his words, “a cesspit of hate.”

Lindy West, an author and columnist, also bowed out, declaring Twitter to be “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” She concluded her piece in The Guardian with the words, “Keep the friends. Ditch the mall.”

CNN’s Aislyn Camerota realized she was “hanging out with people who find satisfaction spewing vitriol, people who spread racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.”

The medium frames the message

Should we blame the messenger?

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message” (or “mess age,” as he sometimes quipped). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the medium certainly frames the message, and Twitter’s 140-character format does just that … in a such a way as to discourage people from thinking. Or analyzing. Or conducting any kind of in-depth dialogue.

Why does Twitter attract the kind of people who ultimately alienated Weisman, West and Camerota? Maybe because it encourages hit-and-run attacks rather than reasoned discourse. Sound-bite politics does the same thing – and is, unsurprisingly, dominated by similar attacks. If you don’t like negative campaigning, you probably won’t care for Twitter, either, because Twitter is all about campaigning.

The platform is dominated by celebrities and wannabrities (along with their fans and sycophants), who are there to promote their name or their brand. Donald J. Trump, celebrity turned politician, is the ultimate creature of the nexus between politics and celebrity that Twitter has become.

Trump’s ubiquitous presence on – and reliance upon – Twitter has confirmed my opinions of both: of Trump as a simpleton who’s deluded himself into thinking he can tackle complex policy issues in 140 characters, and of Twitter as the platform that empowers him (and people like him) to do perpetuate such delusions.

High anxiety

This isn’t to say everyone who uses Twitter is a simpleton or a troll. My point is that the platform’s format attracts such folks, and like many others, I’m not comfortable in the kind of environment that creates.

As someone who’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, that doesn’t appeal to me. Besides that, there’s research that indicates using a large number of social media platforms just isn’t good for you. A study published Dec. 10 in Computers in Human Behavior found that people who used the risk of depression and anxiety in those who used the largest number of platforms was more than three times that of people used two or fewer.

That’s the last thing I need. At last count, I was active on Facebook (my primary platform), Instagram, Twitter and my blog. If I were asked to drop one, it would be a no-brainer to eliminate the one that seemed the most superficial, the least user friendly, the least interesting and the most, well, just plain mean.

That would be Twitter, folks. Where anxiety-inducing trolls and bullies are perhaps most prevalent.

Maybe other people are coming to the same conclusion, and perhaps that’s why Twitter’s user base – never remotely close to Facebook’s in the best of times – is starting to shrink. Maybe another part of it is Trump fatigue. Either way, I’m hoping users are sending a message by abandoning ship: It’s long past time for Twitter to change, and fundamentally, or die.