Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 8:21 pm

The trade publication Law Enforcement Today is making the Internet dumber

You can’t make this up, y’all. This is an editorial by Jim McNeff that was posted today on the LET website:

With the NBA season around the corner, and more athletes indicating they plan to join the “sit-in” during the National Anthem, I feel compelled to send a message to athletes and coaches alike, since peace officers are asked to provide protection, security, and traffic related functions at these events. And ironically they are ultimately protesting the institution of law enforcement, but track with me for a minute.

The ultimate authority in America is the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights are part of this authority. The First Amendment, which grants us the right to protest, is part of the Bill of Rights. The American flag is the foremost symbol of America and the ultimate governing authority—the Constitution. The Star Spangled Banner is the National Anthem, which declares our support and allegiance to the flag, our Constitution, and the United States of America.

Consequently, I believe anyone who protests the American flag, or the National Anthem, is actually protesting the right to protest. It’s illogical.

Son, please. That sauce wouldn’t pass muster in any sixth-grade debating club. You are conflating tangible symbols with intangible values, and you’re not even particularly clever about it. I read this passage to my wife, who once taught at Yale and was a Fulbright Scholar, and she paused and said, “That made my brain hurt.”

He goes on to say:

If someone wants to protest oppression, real or imagined, that is fundamentally American. But shaking a fist at the symbols representing the rights being exercised is a misunderstanding of civics and demonstrates a principal lack of knowledge and understanding.

Uh, no, just the opposite, as the Supreme Court has found in numerous cases, including its 1989 Texas v. Johnson decision finding flag burning constitutionally protected speech. Damn, son.

Oh, but he’s not done:

One problem we have in America is that we’ve lost a sense of reality regarding governmental oppression. I am pictured in the photo below with a group of people that have experienced human atrocities at the hands of their respective governments and terrorist organizations. I worked with these people (refugees) for a short time in Mullheim, Germany. I had a chance to hear their gut wrenching stories from Afghanistan, Syria, Gambia, and Eritrea. I am not trying to sensationalize my experience. I simply want you to know, the people in this picture would literally sacrifice their life if it meant family members would be able to enjoy the rights and privileges that are taken for granted in the U.S.

This dimwit is literally arguing that violations of constitutional rights in this country don’t matter because people in other countries have it worse. I’d like to know which Supreme Court ruling or statute he’s basing that opinion on, because it sure as hell isn’t found in the Constitution.

He also appears to be presuming that everyone in the U.S. takes their rights and privileges for granted. But not everyone does. Why not? Because not everyone can — particularly not when U.S. law enforcement has engaged in patterns of abuse for years that recent, widespread availability of hand-held video technology is only now bringing to light. No, not every cop does it, but too many do, and too many more remain silent about what they observe.

Law enforcement has a public-relations problem because it has a behavior problem that is so bad that even relatively safe, relatively content conservative middle-aged white guys like me have taken notice. Publishing takes like this that evince utter ignorance of the law that officers swear an oath to uphold is not going to increase public trust and confidence in law enforcement; to the contrary, it will provide at least circumstantial evidence that many of the bad things that people are saying about cops are true.

Cops have a dangerous enough job as it is without allowing people like Jim McNeff to make them look foolish. So the National Police Association, which posted a link to this piece on Facebook, and the people who run Law Enforcement today ought to think long and hard about who speaks for cops and whether those individuals understand the first damn thing about what they’re writing about. Because Jim McNeff doesn’t; what he writes makes cops look absolutely stupid. That stupidity will result in a loss of already-fragile public trust in law enforcement, thus making a dangerous job even more so.

Besides, it makes the Internet dumber, and nobody should be allowed to do that.

 

 

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I fear that I have found the perfect metaphor …

… for this year’s presidential election:

Saturday, September 24, 2016 10:48 am

After protests, the next step is a boycott — but of what?

The problem with protests is that while they can raise awareness, they’re much less effective tools for bringing about real change. And some of the people most involved with protests against the killing of unarmed people of color by U.S. law enforcement are beginning to talk about that.

Shaun King in the New York Daily News:

… we’ve crossed a line in America. Police brutality and racial violence have pushed people far past a reasonable or compassionate human standard.

For the past two years, we’ve protested all over the country, and my gut reaction used to be that it hadn’t accomplished as much as it should have — that the energy required for those protests didn’t meet the meager reforms that we’ve achieved.

I no longer feel that way. In two years, in great part because of those protests, the fierce injustice of the United States has now become known to the entire world. That’s no easy feat. The world knows the names and stories of our victims and they care.

Furthermore, we have built consensus among tens of millions of people in America who are fully fed up with police brutality and demand a better way.

It is time that we organize a passionate, committed, economic boycott. It must be painful. It must be unified. And we must continue with it until we see change. This country is clearly willing to continue killing unarmed men, women and children without ever making any serious efforts at reforms. This economic boycott can change that. …

I’m going to be listening for the best ideas on how we proceed. We have to all be on the same page here or it won’t work. I’m in and I hope you are too.

(If you want to contact King directly, he’s on Twitter at @ShaunKing.)

For the purpose of discussion, and because I live in the real world, I’m going to stipulate the following: 1) We do have a problem with law enforcement killing unarmed people of color; 2) state and local governments, which oversee the overwhelming majority of law enforcement in this country, do not perceive this problem; do not think the lives lost are as important as other considerations, which may range from retraining cost to fears over loss of political support of LEOs; or perceive the problem and are just fine with it; 3) protests alone have achieved most or all of what any reasonable person could expect, i.e., they have raised awareness but have not led to widespread political or policy change.

King draws parallels with the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King and others, which lasted for more than a year. Closer to home and closer to now, there have been protests about the N.C. legislature’s ill-considered House Bill 2, but real pressure for change didn’t build until businesses, associations and entertainers started boycotting the state (and REALLY didn’t build in this college-sports-crazy state until the Greensboro-based Atlantic Coast Conference pulled all its conference championships out of the state and hinted that it might move its headquarters out as well).

King concludes not with a specific call to action but with a call to discussion, because he acknowledges, however briefly, a critical truth: To work, boycotts need a clearly identified target related in some way to the boycott’s goal. Here in North Carolina, business leaders who have legislators’ ears are seeing economic-development opportunities fly out of the window — and they also know that there undoubtedly more opportunities passing us by that we never even see, company formations or expansions for which we’re never even considered, because of the bigotry among the Republicans who control the Lege.

What might such a dynamic look like with respect to getting the police fully back under civilian control — because they are only nominally there now in many jurisdictions — and making the political changes, not just law-enforcement changes, necessary so that law enforcement officers can truly work for justice, rather than merely function as tools for keeping what one privileged segment of society considers to be order?

I have one suggestion. It might not be the best. It might not even be particularly good. And God knows whether it’s workable. But it identifies a clear target that is related directly to the goal of changing the policial framework that dictates how law enforcement operates, so that law enforcement will operate in the interests of true justice:

A tax boycott.

People of color and their allies could stop paying their state and local income and property taxes until state and local governments and their police forces take specific, quantifiable steps to reduce that violence.

People of color pay taxes, just like anyone else, to support a government that is required by law to provide equal protection under the law. Yet it is abundantly clear that that government does not provide equal protection. Further, the majority-white power structure in most jurisdictions doesn’t care, or else more steps would have been taken before now.

What might the steps that people demand look like? That would be up to each community or state to decide. For purposes of discussion, I’ll throw out some possibilities:

  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in de-escalation techniques.
  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in dealing with subjects with mental illness.
  • An increased commitment to community policing. A lot of departments are doing a lot of this now. We need more. It is in officers’ own safety interests to be seen as part of the community, someone you run into every day, and not as an occupying army.
  • Repeal of the new state law, HB 972, which permits release of police body-cam and dashcam video only with the permission of a judge. Here in N.C., those videos should be treated the same as any other public record under North Carolina law, which is to say that they should be presumptively public.
  • Civilian police review boards with subpoena power.
  • Demilitarization of state/local law enforcement and return of military-grade equipment to the federal government. (This one in particular I’m not on board with; there are so many firearms and other weapons on the street that a lot of departments need at least some of this stuff to avoid undue risk to officers. But there also are a lot of places that will never in a million years need it.)

Such a boycott would have a clear target. The target would be related directly to the problem. I have no idea if it would work. And the consequences for at least some potential participants could be devastating — and these are people who already have endured devastating consequences.

But if that many people took part — tens of millions of Americans in all 50 states — governments couldn’t jail/foreclose on all of them.

Again, to be clear, I am not advocating this specific course of action. But I think people of good will do need to talk about what it will take to force the kind of lasting political change that will, if not end this phenomenon, at least make it much rarer. This suggestion is one idea about what an effective course of action might look like.

But Shaun King is right: Protests alone, while serving a valuable purpose in raising awareness, aren’t effecting change. History suggests that money, almost alone, talks. So money must find its voice if lives are going to be saved.

(h/t Jill Williams for bringing King’s column to my attention and prompting my thoughts on this subject.)

Thursday, September 22, 2016 8:45 pm

So much pain. And so much horseshit.

I was born in Charlotte in 1960 and grew up there, so I lived there through the disturbances surrounding Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and surrounding the busing for desegregation in the early 1970s. I graduated from high school there and from nearby Davidson College. And for all but 18 months of my adult life, I have lived within an hour or two’s drive. My stepmother and brother live there today, as do other relatives. I grieve at what has happened there, but I also know there is no reason why it shouldn’t have happened there, just as there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen here in Greensboro or, really, anywhere else in this country.

What we know is that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shot and killed an African American man, Keith Lamont Scott, Tuesday afternoon. We have wildly differing accounts as to why, and this morning, the police chief said that police video of the shooting does not provide “definitive” evidence that Scott was pointing a gun. That’s important: North Carolina is an open-carry state, so Scott was permitted to have a pistol in public, as the NRA would be shouting from the rooftops if it weren’t a racist organization. Only if Scott were an “imminent” threat — if he were pointing the gun at someone — would his shooting have been legally justified.

Without definitive video evidence, we are left only with the word of police officers. They might be telling the God’s honest truth, but a lot of people won’t believe them because if there’s one thing the smartphone era has made clear, taking cops’ word for it in any and all situations is a fool’s errand. Just today, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was charged with manslaughter for shooting an unarmed African American man who had his hands in the air and, clearly, on video, posed no threat. Absent the video, there’s every reason to believe that the officer who shot him would have skated. So you don’t need a PR expert to know that if all you have to go on is the word of police officers, a whole lot of people simply aren’t going to believe you.

And so there were demonstrations Tuesday night and Wednesday night in Charlotte, and follow-on rioting both nights. Gov. Pat McCrory has called in the National Guard. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, at this twilight-fading-to-dark writing, has not imposed a curfew. And as my friend Ed Hardin from Charlotte writes, a lot of people are hoping tonight for rain.

We don’t know exactly what happened on Tuesday in Charlotte, and absent dispositive video evidence, we likely never will. That’s awful for all involved. But here are some things we do know, in no particular order:

This country has a problem with its law enforcement. Disproportionately more unarmed African Americans die at the hands of police than do whites. Meanwhile, a lot of white criminals, such as the suspect in last weekend’s terrorist bombing in New York, can actually shoot at police and still be taken alive. (And, critics, stop linking to that New York Times article — you know the one. It says in so many words that the study it describes does not focus on the killing of unarmed people of color by law enforcement. And that is the issue here. So that article is irrelevant.) Whether the problem is individual racism, flaws in training, both, or something else entirely, we need to find it and fix it. But before we can do that, we have to admit it, and way too many people are in denial about this.

Law enforcement needs to take a long, hard, critical look at itself. One of the patterns we’ve observed in many cases of law-enforcement violence against people of color is that while one individual officer may be the proximate perpetrator, others frequently lie to support the perp’s version of events or, at the least, fail to report the criminal behavior of their co-workers. That culture is radioactive. It needs to be ended. And if a whole lot of cops have to lose their jobs to make it happen, I will not shed a tear. I don’t want corrupt cops on my payroll, not only because it’s wrong on the merits but also because if my city or county or state gets sued because of their corrupt behavior, I, the taxpayer, will have to pay the judgment. And cops who fail to report and help prosecute their criminal co-workers are corrupt, full stop.

This problem with law enforcement, which is resulting in too many prematurely dead African Americans, is more important than property damage. And yet way too many commenters are focusing on the rioting at the expense of the dead people. Stop it. You’re exposing yourselves as moral midgets. Yes, both are wrong, but one is a lot more wrong than the other.

Too may critics are conflating “demonstrators” — and even “the black community” — with “rioters.” This one is almost, but not quite, self-explanatory. An uncomfortable truth is that demonstrators often serve as unwitting stalking horses for rioters, in this sense: Rioters almost never show up in situations in which a demonstration is not already happening. That’s because rioters are cowards coasting on the courage of others. Any fool can throw a brick through a window. It takes guts to stand up publicly against a militaristic law-enforcement apparatus one perceives as corrupt, armed only with one’s convictions and maybe a sign — guts that rioters simply do not have. If would-be demonstrators stayed home, so, too, would the rioters. And yet people have the constitutional right to demonstrate, and, indeed, an obligation to do so, inasmuch as major social change in this country seldom happens without demonstrations of some kind. It therefore behooves everyone else to properly distinguish between demonstrator and criminal, and way too many people — including some in the media who damned well ought to know better — are failing in this obligation.

In a weird way, HB2 is to blame. OK, we don’t actually know this, but: I can’t help thinking that Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, and current Mayor Jennifer Roberts would be on better terms if not for HB2, and that the governmental response to the situation would be better organized and coordinated. But from all I’ve seen, the two aren’t really on speaking terms right now — which is McCrory’s fault, with HB2 the proximate cause.

Some incredibly ignorant people are going to say that MLK wouldn’t have approved of all this uproar. To which I respond, probably not, but he damn sure would have understood it. Here he is speaking, about two weeks before he died:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

And in 1965, in Montreat, N.C., even while the Watts riots in Los Angeles were still going on:

I say to you my friends this afternoon that I am convinced in so many instances that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people who would bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or who would shoot down an Episcopal theological student in Lowndes County, Alabama, but also for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around as they wait on time. Somewhere along the way, we must realize that human progress never rolls in on the heels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God….

We must realize that the time is always right to do right. (h/t John Burns for both quotes)

 

I fear that this will get worse before it gets better, but here’s something else I know: White people need to sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen to their brothers and sisters of color. Unarmed black men getting gunned down in the streets while white wanted terrorists who shoot at cops get taken alive isn’t something you can explain away from the comfort of your wood-paneled suburban den, and it is a mark of moral retardation that people are even trying.

Instajackass

Apparently there is no situation so bad that Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds cannot make it worse.

Once upon a time, one could argue that Reynolds was at least an interesting and iconoclastic thinker from time to time, but he passed his sell-by date a long time ago.

 

Milo Yiannopoulos in the Wildcats’ den

My alma mater, Davidson College, has invited alt-right icon, provocateur, and general sociopath Milo Yiannopoulos to speak next month. The event is open only to Davidson students and facstaff, not the general public. Here’s how the invite to that community was framed:

In keeping with the [Center for Political Engagement]’s dedication to discourse, we announce our first scheduled speaker for the 2016-2017 school year: Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos is a highly controversial writer at Breitbart and an incendiary public figure who loves messy and rough discourse, often intentionally using language and rhetoric to play on the emotions of his counterparts and undermine their argument.

We present him as he presents himself: a figure to grapple with, challenge and learn something from. We are incredibly excited to see what Davidson will bring to the table. We believe in your ability to rise to the challenges Yiannopoulos so purposefully puts forth. We believe in your ability to engage with ideas on any point of the political spectrum. We believe in your ability to take the ideas and rational, linear discourse of the classroom and translate that into a messy and real world interaction. We believe in the power of such conversation to both expand and hone our views and arguments.

The question now is: do you accept the challenge?

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, speaking at Davidson is a privilege, and I would rather that prestige, money and mindshare not have gone to someone who so gleefully contradicts most of what the college stands for, particularly its Honor Code.

On the other hand, this invitation reads like, if I may mix my metaphors, a shooting license to students: Come listen to this guy, and then, when he has had his say, cut him some new assholes. (And keeping the event Davidson-only means that Yiannpoulos won’t have his groupies on hand to disrupt the proceedings.)

I wouldn’t have done it. Inviting him — and accepting him on his own terms — gives him a legitimacy he hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve and ignores the significant damage he and his groupies have done to reasoned public discourse in this country at a time when reasoned public discourse is rare, getting rarer, and probably more desperately needed than at any time since Dec. 8, 1941. It’s not quite as bad as inviting, say, Joseph Goebbels, but you can see there from here.

But now that the invitation has been extended, I also don’t think it can or should be rescinded. And I hope and trust that students will accept the invitation in the spirit in which it was extended, and show up with long, sharp rhetorical knives.

Saturday, September 17, 2016 2:45 pm

The press is lying, but so are the voters

Two of our greatest American institutions are badly failing us today — our news media, and our very electorate. Both like to think of themselves as standing up for our essential American-ness, embracing values as defined in, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance. But both groups are lying, to us and to themselves.

Evidence of the problem can be found in the news media’s problems in covering Donald Trump, which I addressed earlier this week, and I’ll have more to say on that in a bit. But let me start with the electorate.

We voters like to think of ourselves as spokespeople for American values, holding these truths to be self-evident — a free and independent country, a democratic republic where all are equal, with liberty and justice for all, and so on and so forth. In point of fact, those truths are not self-evident; they are evident only to the extent that we do the work of making them real, every day, everywhere. And that is not what American voters have chosen to do. Largely although not exclusively by embracing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, a large minority of Americans has said something quite different: that they choose to be ruled by a tyrant.

This is not a new development. That segment of Americans has always been present and has been politically active continuously since World War II. They were there in the 1950s, lining up behind Joe McCarthy; they were there in the 1960s, hailing the domestic spy and hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover long after it was clear he was a constitutional abomination; they were there in the 1970s, defending the indefensible Richard Nixon; they were there in the ’80s, supporting the lawbreaking and increasingly senile Ronald Reagan; they were there in the ’90s, cheering George H.W. Bush’s pardons of the Iran-contra lawbreakers as he left the White House; they were there in the aughts, angrily denigrating anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s serial violations of U.S. and international law; and they are here today preparing to cast a ballot for a dyed-in-the-orange-wool fascist. Take it away, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

A substantial portion of this country wants someone not to govern, but to rule, to defeat the imaginary enemies they have concocted so as not to bestir themselves to resist the forces that actually are working against their interest. For the balance of this election cycle, and largely due to the presence in it of this ridiculous man and his ridiculous campaign, the American people have proven themselves profoundly unworthy of being called citizens. …

[Trump’s personal and financial involvement with Moammar Qaddafi] likely will occasion another spasm of impotent introspection on the part of our elite political media on the topic of, “Why doesn’t any of this stick?” But few of the members of that media will dare to look at the real answer, which is that there is a substantial constituency for what Trump has been peddling. …  Americans are bored with their democracy and they don’t have the democratic energy to do anything about it, so they’ll settle for an entertaining quasi-strongman. When they decline, democracies get the dictators they deserve. A country mired in apathy and lassitude gets a dictator who can’t even put in the hard work of becoming very good at it. …

But the truth is that the facts are out there if anyone wants to make the effort and find them. (The elite political media makes this harder by its curious reluctance to let these stories fully inform its coverage of the campaign.) That’s our collective job as citizens, and to do it requires a collective national will that no longer may be in us. With every new poll that is released, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not willing to put in the hours to be a competent authoritarian, which is cold comfort, I know, but you take what you can get.

That cannot be said of the next guy to try it, and there will be a next time, because the basic tectonic plates beneath our democracy have shifted so as to make the next guy inevitable. The mechanics of tyranny are not a magician’s prestige, the third part of a trick in which the lady is reassembled or the rabbit brought back to the hat. The mechanics of tyranny are primal in all of us, and vestigial in very few. They are reflexes, like breathing or flinching. We engage them without thinking. In fact, that’s the very best way to do it.

These are people who largely have decided not to do the hard work of self-goverance. Rather than seeking wisdom, or at least knowledge, they seek candidates who reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and who seek extraconstitutional power. They do so secure in the belief, though lacking any proof of that belief, that should such a tyranny come to pass, they would never suffer.

Why do they do so?

One big part of the problem, as I noted on Monday, is that the U.S. news media, for the most part, has not provided the information that a free people need to govern themselves, but the problem with the press is bigger than that. Donald Trump has presented the press with a campaign in which it is important, perhaps for the first time, for the press to respond not only with facts but also with values — and the press has almost completely failed to do so.

When Web 2.0 and social media began to become a thing back in the early 2000s, I wrestled with this issue in my role as an editor, Web jockey and blogger for the News & Record in Greensboro. Among the many things that seemed clear to me was that “objectivity,” the standard of the mainstream U.S. news media for the past century or so, was an inadequate standard for a changing industry. I suggested to co-workers at that paper and in the industry, and to the occasional reader who asked, that we needed something different, something more.

I argued, in different times and places and with differing levels of coherence, that we needed not objectivity, but fairness, accuracy and transparency in pursuit of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” called “the discipline of verification.” With respect to transparency, I said, news organizations need to be open to their publics about how they do what they do, and about why they do it. And those reasons, I argued further, should stem from clear, well-defined values.

What should those values look like? I never completed a list, but I did start one. I would have hoped, for example, that a U.S. news organization would embrace and stand for some of the country’s fundamental values — like, well, liberty and justice for all. Equal protection under the law. Government by the people, which meant, as a practical matter, that the people needed to be able to know in almost all circumstances what the government was doing, and how, and with whose money and for whose benefit.

It sounds pretty basic and pretty logical, but the longer I spent in newspapers, the less I believed that the U.S. news media really stood for this stuff anymore, if it ever had. (Some of the country’s best, and best-known, newspapers were segregationist until relatively recently, for example. For another example, U.S. news media did not uniformly criticize our government’s use of torture, a crime against both U.S. and international law for which it had hanged representatives of other governments.)

And that is part of the reason why the media are failing to confront the danger that a possible Trump candidacy poses to those American values, writes Brian Beutler in The New Republic: The press hasn’t expressed those values because it hasn’t embraced them except in very attenuated circumstances. What it values most is itself.

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment [or about how his financial dealings conflict directly with national interests — Lex] have a hard time breaking through.

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.

So when someone points out weaknesses — often huge ones — in the press coverage of Trump, the press doesn’t perceive the criticism as highlighting a danger to the country, it perceives the criticism directly as a danger to itself. As Beutler notes, this tendency was highlighted by Liz Spayd, the grossly inferior successor to Margaret Sullivan as public editor (ombudswoman, if you will) of The New York Times.

This problem can be prevented if the press will define and then act in accordance with its explicit values as elucidated in the founding documents, crafting those values as reflective of the press’s historical role as the representative of the people, all the people, who govern this country: its citizens. It also can be prevented if journalists will stop spending so much of their time worrying about what effect this proposal or that comment will have on one candidate or the other’s standing, and worry instead about what we talked about earlier: pursuit of the discipline of verification, including eyewitness verification.

Beutler agrees, in a separate article published just yesterday:

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.

What we do about the large minority of the electorate that appears to desire, or at least be content with, the election of a tyrant is a larger and more difficult question, likely encompassing everything from family dynamics and civic education to neuropsychology. And the stakes could not be higher outside the realms of global warming and giant meteors: The future of the 240-year-old American experiment depends on our finding an answer, for as Pierce observes, while this tyrant is quasi-comical and in many ways inept, the next tyrant quite likely will be neither. But one thing that cannot hurt and almost certainly will help is a press that strives to pursue the discipline of verification within the context of explicitly stated and observed values that will inspire us to be our best national self, which is the best the world has to offer.

Monday, September 12, 2016 6:32 am

The normalization of Donald Trump

If Donald Trump is elected our next president, there will have been several reasons why, but the most important one by far will have been the national news media’s performance. The media have both beaten up Hillary Clinton over nonexistent “scandals” and ignored or downplayed aspects of Trump’s character and actions that in any sane society would render him fundamentally unfit to be a major party’s nominee for the highest office in the land.

Examples of the former date back at least as far as the original New York Times story on the Whitewater real-estate deal in 1992, in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were suspected of having somehow benefitted improperly — the fact that they lost money notwithstanding. In Hillary Clinton’s case, they have included allegations of wrongdoing over investing in cattle futures, misplacing documents, and mishandling emails, and in no case was Clinton found to have committed wrongdoing.

Most recently, the Associated Press purported to prove that donors to the Clinton Global Foundation had somehow benefitted improperly with their relations with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. In point of fact, none of them did. Two weeks after it tweeted that it had found “pay for play” in those relationships, a claim the AP’s own reporting did not bear out, the AP took that tweet down with no explanation or apology that I’m aware of.

And just this weekend, the media, following as always the lead of their GOP sources, have acted outraged that Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Only here’s what Clinton actually said:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people (and) now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Was it scandalous that Clinton said this? On the contrary, polling shows that she is understating the problem. Hell, The New York Times found that almost 20 percent of Trump supporters thought freeing the slaves was a bad idea and another 17 percent weren’t sure. They’re not just a basket of deplorables, they’re a kettle of vultures and a gen-u-wine Bucket o’ FAIL. Hell, Trump himself frequently retweets people who are white supremacists themselves and/or follow some of the leading white-supremacist Twitter accounts.

And yet somehow Republicans and the media alike thought Clinton owed these people some kind of apology, with CNN describing Clinton’s assertion as a “shocking statement.”

Meanwhile, the media continue to normalize Trump’s bullying, narcissism, and bigotry, which has been blatantly obvious since he started his campaign more than a year ago with this assertion:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Oh, some are good people. How big of him.

Trump has proven himself to be a serial liar of world-historical proportions. He has lied about tariffs, reporters, his own political performance, the economy’s performance, and whether he was self-funding his campaign. He has lied, bigly, about his charitable givingHe even has lied about who was the biggest liar in the GOP nomination race. And one finding of the independent fact-checking site Politifact is that not only is Trump the most dishonest major politician on the U.S. scene today, Hillary Clinton is second only to Barack Obama in honesty.

His temperament, which some professionals have identified as narcissistic personality disorder, makes him a significant threat to place in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Yet despite clear evidence that Trump is too deeply flawed to be qualified for president, cable news gave him far more free air time than it gave his GOP opponents for the nomination:

According to The New York Times, Trump has received $1.9 billion worth of earned media, which includes coverage of the candidate on television and social media, and in newspapers and magazines. That is more than twice the amount of earned media Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton has received and more than six times the amount received by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the second-biggest earner of free media among Republicans.

Meanwhile, print/online pundits have persisted in reassuring the American people that he would “pivot” away from such views after winning the nomination to appeal to more moderate voters. This is staggering, for there has been no evidence whatever that such a transformation was ever in the cards. Trump has lied voluminously, but he has said one thing that the media need to take to the bank: “I am who I am. It’s me. I do not want to change.”

As I write, Trump trails Clinton by 5 percentage points in national polls, and, also at this writing, the way to 270 electoral votes appears shorter and straighter for Clinton than it does for Trump. But given the dramatic difference in qualifications of the two major-party nominees, the gap ought to be much wider.

Part of the problem is that about three in four white evangelical Christians say they’ll vote for Trump. That group makes up almost half the Republican primary vote and, on the basis of Christ’s teachings, might be expected to reject Trump’s bullying and bigotry. A number of prominent evangelical leaders have done so, but the rank and file appear almost all in (and some other evangelical leaders are just cashing in).

But I think a significant segment of the blame also lies with U.S. news media, who seek to create equivalence between Trump and Clinton when there simply is none.

Why? I don’t know. I suspect sexism plays a nontrivial role. In addition, perhaps the people who run news media are, as a group, Trump supporters. Perhaps they simply want to see a close race, figuring that that would generate higher ratings and readership (and possibly increased political-ad revenue as well). Perhaps reporters and pundits are in a rut of adhering to narratives that either were never true or, if they once were true, no longer are. Perhaps all of the above.

But whatever the reason, it adds up to journalism that is at best lazy and incompetent and at worst dishonest and dangerous, given the stakes for the Republic if Trump wins. And that will be the big takeaway of news-media coverage of this campaign, whatever the outcome of the election.

 

 

 

Sunday, September 11, 2016 7:15 am

“I didn’t really want to go downtown in the first place.”

As always on this date, I refer you to the gospel according to Sarah Bunting, “For thou art with us …”

We’ll talk soon.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 7:51 pm

Phyllis Schlafly, dead

Schlafly spent a far-too-long life masquerading as a Christian while doing everything she could to make millions of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, and others miserable. The fact that she lived to 92 while David Bowie is dead is proof that there is no justice in the world.

Schlafly was reputed to have said that there would be a woman president over her dead body (Snopes claims otherwise, h/t David Harley Boyd). If she didn’t say it, she might as well have, given how hard she worked to eliminate that possibility and many others for so many women, and I for one am glad God found those terms acceptable.

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