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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: media

Purists are making allies an endangered species

Stephen H. Provost

Our polarized political tug-of-war has created an odd dichotomy in the middle. On one hand, more and more people are identifying as independents. On the other, these people “aren’t really all that independent,” as CNN wrote in a headline.

The percentage of voters identifying themselves as independents increased from 33 to 38 percent between 1994 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. This should have made the so-called “moderate middle” fertile ground for candidates in a general election. But it hasn’t. Instead, politicians have focused more and more about appeasing “the base” – those true believers at either end of the political spectrum.

These true believers, not surprisingly, are more engaged and motivated. Or, to use a term often employed by pundits, the base is “where the energy is.” In other words, people at the extremes are more likely to vote. A Pew poll in the fall of 2018 found that roughly 60 percent of party-affiliated voters said they voted; that compares to just 54 percent of Republican-leaning independents and 48 percent of Democratic leaners.

Because they don’t identify with one side or the other, independents don’t feel as though they have as big a stake in the game. Their concerns aren’t reflected in the shock-addicted media or acknowledged by either of the parties, so why bother? This attitude, however, creates a vicious circle: The less they vote, the less the parties will pay attention to them ... and they less relevant they’ll feel. More and more people feel ignored by the two parties, disengage, and see the parties confirm ignore them even more.

Instead of working together, the true believers are working from both sides to make gaps unbridgeable. Gender gaps, income gaps, gaps between faith and science, between urban and rural America. I could go on.

This hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been occurring over the course of years or even decades, propelled by a number of factors – many of which involve the fragmentation of how we communicate and our willingness to consider opposing views. Like prizefighters, we stay in our own corners (Fox or CNN, Breitbart or the Mother Jones) until it’s time to come out fighting. Then, the Marquess of Queensbury Rules be damned. The transformation from civil society to MMA-style social brawl has been insidious, like a boiling frog.

Those who insist on staying in the middle don’t matter.

This is why the power of “the base” is ascendant even as independents have become the largest segment of voters. It’s why Mr. Trump continues to target his ultra-conservative base, rather than worrying about how independents view him. They don’t matter, because they’re less likely to vote, anyway. And the more they feel marginalized, the higher the chances Trump will win re-election.

But the principle is in play on the left, as well, where intra-party feuding is rampant and political “purity” is reinforced by voter shaming and a series of litmus tests not all that different from NRA ratings an anti-tax pledges on the right. The latter can be traced to George H.W. Bush’s act of reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge. But instead of realizing how badly such pledges boxed them in, Republicans decided to make more of them and be sure they kept them, regardless of whether they were a good idea.

Their willingness to do so helped plant the seeds of the political purity movement we see today, and the resulting trend toward the extremes has been fairly well documented in the political realm.

Disaffected

What hasn’t been mentioned much is that the same dynamic is occurring socially. As with politics, tension has arisen between issues and identity. Many of those issues, indeed, are common to both the social and political realms, but social identities are different, and often less fluid, than political identities, which makes the social dynamic even more treacherous for those in the middle.

A Democrat can always re-register as “decline to state” (in California) or with a different party, and some states, such as Virginia, don’t even offer party registration.

Social identities, by contrast, aren’t that easy to change. Some of them – race, sexual orientation and, to a slightly lesser extent, gender – don’t offer any wiggle room at all. You were born with it, and that’s what you are. It’s slightly less difficult to escape class-based identities, but it’s still no easy task: Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods have a built-in head start on obtaining a good education, making white-collar job connections, and so forth.

It’s no coincidence that the economic middle has been growing less relevant, too (although, unlike the disaffected political middle, it’s shrinking, not growing). Political decisions affect economic realities and reinforce social constructs. So, as the political and economic middles become less relevant, the same thing is happening socially.

The rise of social “purity” on the right has led to a resurgence of newly emboldened white supremacists, nationalists and religious bigots. On the left, it’s led to censorship and political correctness, the free exchange of ideas be damned. The people left out of this are, socially as well as politically, the middle-grounders: the people who want to think for themselves and reserve the right to disagree, on occasion, with those they most often support.

The concept of a “loyal opposition” has gone down the toilet. Either you’re loyal or you are the opposition. That’s Trump’s mantra, to be sure, but the same principle is being invoked, only slightly less explicitly, on the left.

Allies go home

The shrinking social middle consists largely of allies: People who may not belong to a certain group, but support that group as a matter of conscience or principle. Like those in the political middle, they don’t – or can’t – identify with a given “side” in the culture wars, but they nonetheless agree that side should prevail. Maybe in most respects. Maybe in all. They are, however, not the social base. They’re not as personally invested in the struggle and, while they may believe in it, they’re often not as motivated to fight tooth and nail for it.

Plus, many have an aversion to following anything blindly. Even if they agree with most of the actions a group espouses, they reserve the right to think for themselves and politely disagree if they prefer a different course of action.

Increasingly, however, such politeness is met with skepticism and derision. Members of the social base have adopted a motto of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” They don’t trust independent allies because they don’t appear to be “all in” for the cause, whether that cause be racial justice, gender equity, LGTBQI rights, or raising the minimum wage. If they disagree occasionally, it’s seen as a red flag that they might not really believe in anything the group stands for. Disagreement is viewed as evidence they’re (at best) slaves to some subconscious social conditioning or (at worst) posers out to infiltrate the movement.

Some question whether a white male can ever really truly be all-in on gender equity or racial equality; whether a cisgender person be all-in on transgender rights; whether a person oriented toward the opposite sex be all-in on LGBTQI rights. There’s always going to be some underlying lack of understanding or potential conflict of interest when the rubber meets the road, or so the purists fear.

Disengaging

If you’re a social ally in the middle and your motives are repeatedly questioned, you’re likely to do exactly what political independents do: Disengage. If you feel shamed for your identity, you’re apt to withdraw. Race, gender and sexual orientation aren’t like political parties; you can’t simply reregister at the drop of a hat. So, you’re left feeling as though you don’t really belong anywhere. You can’t abandon your identity, but you won’t abandon your principles, and that tension isn’t something most people care to live with for long.

It didn’t exist, at least not to this extent, 20 years ago, but social purity tests have poisoned the well, just as surely as political polarization has proven toxic to government. (Lawmakers willing to forge alliances by working across the aisle are all but extinct, thanks to demands for political purity.) In the current environment, many allies become silent supporters, voting their conscience at the ballot box but otherwise keeping their mouths shut in order to avoid taking fire from both sides. They turn their attention elsewhere – to places where they feel like they are relevant: their families, their jobs, pastimes they enjoy. Places where they’re appreciated and feel like they can make a difference.

Political independents are checking out in droves for the very same reasons.

In alienating the social and political middle, extremists are accomplishing their ultimate goal: to create an atmosphere of social and political tyranny ruled by bigotry, censorship and intolerance. It’s the antithesis of what the founders sought to enshrine in the Constitution: a free exchange of ideas that acts as a crucible for progress and innovation.

So much for the American dream. In alienating independents and silencing the middle, we’re killing it. It’s dying from the inside out.

Media coverage of Trump is heavily biased ... in his favor

Stephen H. Provost

Thinking out loud ... or at my keyboard.

Postulated: Modern mainstream journalism is heavily biased in favor of Donald Trump, at least when it comes to the Mueller investigation. You read that right. The same journalists Trump accuses of being out to get him, the ones he calls purveyors of “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” are biased in his favor.

Balance beam

Journalists are funny creatures. I know. I used to be one. They obsess about being “fair and balanced” (a phrase that long predates its appropriation by Fox News as an Orwellian battle cry). They’ve been known to give equal time, or at least a mention, to such folks as anti-Obama “birthers” and climate change deniers.

These claims may be no more factual than those of flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, but they’re given a voice because enough of them are shouting loudly enough to demand it. Not for the sake of facts, but for the sake of “balance.”

If enough people believe something false, does that alone make it worthy of coverage? Some in the media seem to think so. But it’s hard to cover a belief without lending it a degree of legitimacy, and that’s what journalists do when they repeat false claims. They’re worried that if they don’t, they might be accused of favoritism – especially when it comes to politics – so, they let virtually anyone with a loud enough voice have a platform.

That generally means people with R’s and D’s after their names. Independent voters are too, well, independent to offer any unified message, and third parties are too small.

Truth or consequences

All other things being equal (or close to it), the level of interest in a story should be a factor in whether it sees the light of day. When it becomes the overriding factor, however, there’s a problem. The Founding Fathers understood this when they devised a system founded on a statement of fundamental principles: the U.S. Constitution. Under this system, any movement that opposed those principles was deemed unlawful – regardless of how popular it was.

Similarly, the journalist’s unwritten constitution should put the truth ahead of popularity. Period. No matter how great the sacrifice in terms of ratings or subscriptions or advertising dollars.

When journalists decide popularity is more important than truth in deciding whether to report a story, they abandon their traditional role as gatekeeper. They throw open those invisible gates they’re supposed to be guarding to anyone and everyone, including marauders who want to destroy or plunder or conquer.

The result is chaos, and it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

Journalists are gatekeepers whether they like it or not. They have limited resources - space on their news pages, time on their newscasts, staff to report the news - so they must pick and choose what they cover. Some things will get covered and others won't. Journalists are the ones who decide; they're responsible.

When they abdicate this responsibility, giving con artists and conspiracy theorists a platform, they may try to debunk them – thereby compromising their own integrity. Suddenly, they’re not just reporting a story, they’re commenting on it. Are Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity reporters or advocates ... or entertainers? Even Hannity doesn’t seem to know: He’s argued at various times that he is and is not a journalist. If he doesn’t know the difference, how are viewers supposed to?

And how are journalists supposed to retain credibility when they seem more like attack dogs than reporters? In the eyes of viewers, they’ve sacrificed the very “balance” they sought to achieve in the first place.

More important, though, is that it’s a lot harder to confront marauding hordes inside the city gates than beyond them. The only negotiations likely to take place at that point will involve the terms of your surrender.

Actions, not words

Before I go further, I should point out a key distinction: Sometimes, the actions of people purveying falsehoods are worthy of coverage, even though their ideas aren’t. When 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in an attempt to somehow rendezvous with an imaginary spaceship, the tragedy was newsworthy. The spaceship wasn’t. These people believed so strongly in its existence that they were willing to die for it, but no one suggested that this viewpoint deserved to be considered as a rational possibility for the sake of “balanced coverage.”

Yet somehow, when politics become involved, all that changes. Modern politics transforms many in the media from champions of truth into scared puppies cowering under the table.

They tend to believe they must give the ideas of both sides relatively equal weight, even when one side is arguing for beliefs that have been disproved by science, rewrite history or fly in the face of the most basic common sense.

One-sided story

It’s bad enough if one side is telling the truth on a given issue, while the other side is lying. (In politics, neither side tells the truth all or even most of the time). But what if one side is making a series of false statements, and the other side isn’t saying anything at all?

This is exactly what’s happening in the Mueller investigation. Donald Trump and his legal team/PR machine are spewing out daily tweets, legal claims and proclamations, many of which are at odds with established facts and with one another. Sometimes, both.

Mainstream news outlets aren’t just covering them, they’re falling all over themselves to do so. They trot out a parade of “breaking news” items, significant and otherwise. Then, when there’s a lull, they call in any number of talking heads who proceed to analyze this stuff to death, exhume its remains and dissect it until there’s nothing left but dust and bones.

All the while, they’re referring back to the Trump team’s version of events, time and again. No matter how fanciful or self-contradictory that version may be, it will start to take hold if it’s repeated often enough. And it appears to have done just that: In July, 45 percent of those surveyed in a Washington Post poll disapproved of the way Mueller was handling the investigation, up from 31 percent at the start of the year.

This, in spite of the fact that, apart from several indictments, no one really knows what Mueller is doing. They only know what the Trump team tells them: that the inquiry is a “witch hunt” being conducted by a bunch of “angry Democrats” and that it’s “bad for the country.” All of this is either badly exaggerated or patently false. Even so, it’s dutifully reported in painstaking detail by Trump’s mouthpiece: the mainstream media he professes to hate.

Mueller, meanwhile, remains silent because that’s what a good prosecutor does.

Unhinged and unbalanced

The result is far worse even than what happens when media outlets give equal coverage to two sides – one factual and the other not. In this case, not only are journalists reporting falsehoods and dubious statements from a biased source, those statements are the only things they’re reporting. Because that source is the only one they’ve got. Trump’s team is the only side with direct involvement that’s providing any information, so their message, naturally, carries the day.

The media “solution” to this only makes matters worse. Cable news networks trot out talking heads to act as surrogates for what Mueller might be doing or considering. But it’s all just speculation, and speculation is no substitute for facts. Viewers know this and treat it as such.

When commentators try to balance the scales by casting themselves in adversarial roles, it’s even worse. It only fuels Trump’s narrative that the media are biased against him, even though almost all the news of substance they’re reporting originates in his own camp! He’s having his cake and eating it, too, all the while giving journalists heartburn.

How to restore balance

This leads me to the blunt conclusion journalists don’t want to face, and the thesis of this column: In order to achieve actual balance in this case, the media would have to stop reporting the Trump team’s side.

Should they, really? The news media are supposed to report the news, not withhold it. But if they’re so dedicated to achieving “balance” that they repeat phony claims such as birtherism and climate change denial, shouldn’t they refrain from covering one side when the other side doesn’t have a voice?

Especially when the side that’s talking has a history of contradictory, false and self-serving statements. And especially when national security is at stake. Let’s not forget the gravity of the accusations being made: that people close to or involved in the Trump campaign were complicit with wealthy, politically motivated Russians in helping to influence the outcome of a national election.

Our election, not theirs. Not an election to be decided at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin, who has openly admitted he wanted Trump to win. If he’d wanted Hillary Clinton to win, the episode would have been just as repugnant. No more, no less. Putin’s actions are an insult and an act of violence against the heart of a democratic republic, against the Constitution, against the nation and against each of us as U.S. citizens.

Journalists’ responsibility

Journalists must take their role as gatekeeper seriously if they are to avoid being suckered into becoming a propaganda mouthpiece for Donald J. Trump. That’s where they’re headed, if they aren’t already there.

But as much as many in the media may loathe Trump personally, there’s a reason they won’t pull themselves back from the brink. They might tell you it has to do with journalistic ethics or integrity, but there’s something else in play here: ratings, subscriptions and revenues.

Bottom line: Trump’s story sells newspapers and lifts ratings, which, in turn, woos advertisers. This is ultimately why mainstream media outlets will go right on telling it. Right on serving as his mouthpiece. Because to them, popularity really is more important than truth.

Popularity equals ratings equals profit. Trump and the media both know this. They’re on the same page, so is it really any surprise that media companies do Trump’s bidding? When it comes right down to it, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Stephen H. Provost is an author, former journalist, historian and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump examines the toxic relationship between journalism and Donald Trump, focusing on the media’s transformation from impartial observer to ringside commentator and sometimes-combatant in the 21st century culture wars.

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.