Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Media’s 10 Rules of Hate | Washington Spectator

Matt Taibbi’s The Media’s 10 Rules of Hate | Washington Spectator

In an earlier post I commented on Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone who has covered political campaigns. This article from The Washington Spectator captures ten rules of hate that Taibbi discusses in chapter 2 of his book. While I don’t agree with some of his observations or claims I agree with his general points about how the news media wants us to hate one another. Taibbi starts with “pick up any major newspaper, or turn on any network television news broadcast. The political orientation won’t matter. It could be Fox or MSNBC, The Washington Post or The Washington Times. You’ll find virtually every story checks certain boxes.” What are these boxes?

Call them the 10 rules of hate. After generations of doing the opposite, when unity and conformity were more profitable, the primary product the news media now sells is division.

The problem we (in the media) all have is the commercial structure of the business. To make money, we’ve had to train audiences to consume news in a certain way. We need you anxious, pre-pissed, addicted to conflict. Moreover we need you to bring a series of assumptions every time you open a paper or turn on your phone, TV, or car radio. Without them, most of what we produce will seem illogical and offensive.

While I think Taibbi has a valid point I also believe another deeper factor drives this dismal lack of objectivity: postmodernism. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, postmodernism is “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” If objectivity doesn’t exist then news reporting doesn’t need to be bound by a respect for the facts and the need to restrict opinion to the editorials.

Nonetheless, Taibbi offers interesting conclusions based on his first hand experience as a reporter.

1.    There are only two ideas

There are only two baskets of allowable opinion: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, left or right. This is drilled into us at a young age.

2. The two ideas are in permanent conflict

3. Hate people, not institutions

4. Everything is someone else’s fault

Here’s how we create political news content. Something happens, it doesn’t matter what. Donald Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh. A hurricane hits Puerto Rico. A massive humanitarian crisis hits Syria. Whatever it is, our task is to turn it into content, quickly running it through a flow chart:

Can it be blamed on one or the other party?
YES (we do the story)
NO (we don’t do the story—see rule #5)

5. Nothing is everyone’s fault

If both parties have an equal or near-equal hand in causing a social problem, we typically don’t cover it. Or better to say: a reporter or two might cover it, but it’s never picked up. It doesn’t take over a news cycle, doesn’t become a thing.

6. Root, don’t think

By the early 2000s, TV stations had learned to cover politics exactly as they covered sports, a proven profitable format. The presidential election especially was reconfigured into a sports coverage saga. It was perfect: 18 months of scheduled contests, a preseason (straw polls), regular season (primaries), and playoffs (the general), stadium events, a subgenre of data reporting (it’s not an accident that sabermetrics guru—read baseball statistician—Nate Silver fit so seamlessly into political coverage).

By 2016 we’d raised a generation of viewers who had no conception of politics as an activity that might or should involve compromise. Your team either won or lost, and you felt devastated or vindicated accordingly. We were training rooters instead of readers. Since our own politicians are typically very disappointing, we particularly root for the other side to lose.

In this business, everyone is on a side, and we’re always fighting, never looking for common ground. It ruins everyone’s suspension of disbelief if we do.

7. No switching teams

The concept of “balance,” which used to be considered a virtue, has been twisted all the way around to mean a taboo trade practice, a form of dishonesty. [HCS Note: I would prefer replace the term “balance” with “objectivity.”]

8. The other side is literally Hitler

There’s nowhere to go from Hitler. It’s a rhetorical dead end. Argument is over at that point. If you go there, you’re now absolving your audiences of all moral restraint, because who wouldn’t kill Hitler?

9. In the fight against Hitler, everything is permitted

Meanness and vulgarity build political solidarity, but also audience solidarity. Breaking barriers together builds conspiratorial closeness. In the Trump age, it helps political and media objectives align.

The problem is, there’s no natural floor to this behavior. News and commentary programs will eventually escalate to boxing-style expletive-laden pre-fight tirades and open incitement of violence.

If the other side is literally Hitler, this eventually has to happen. What began as America vs. America will eventually move to Traitor vs. Traitor, and the show does not work if those contestants are not eventually offended to the point of wanting to kill one another.

10. Feel superior

We’re mainly in the business of stroking audiences. We want them coming back. Anger is part of the rhetorical promise, but so are feelings of righteousness and superiority.

It’s the same premise as reality shows. The most popular programs aren’t about geniuses and paragons of virtue, but instead about terrible parents, morons, people willing to be filmed getting ass tucks, spoiled rich people, and other freaks.

Accept a binary world and pick a side. Embrace the reality of being surrounded by evil stupidity. Feel indignant, righteous, and smart. Hate losers, love winners. Don’t challenge yourself. And during the commercials, do some shopping.

Congratulations, you’re the perfect news consumer.

If you are a conservative or libertarian you probably will disagree (as I do) with many of Taibbi’s examples because he aims his harshest comments at Fox (Sean Hannity in particular) and Trump while giving the mainstream (liberal) media relatively mild criticism. Nonetheless I’d say he has captured valid problems with how the news media cook their political bias into their stories.

As I said at the beginning Taibbi’s explanation that it’s more profitable for the news media to inflame hatred than agreement and has turned the news into a full contact sport misses the deeper cause. Postmodernism flourishes in the “soft” spheres such as the arts and humanities which deal with human based activities rather than the “hard” activities like the sciences which deal directly with nonnegotiable reality. News reporting tries to make sense of human actions and can be influenced by the biases and agendas of the reporters, editors and managers.

I’m talking primarily about reporting in politics, not on natural events like fires, floods, hurricanes, or murders and traffic accidents. However, even in covering natural disasters the reporting can be colored by injecting commentary on whether these events result from human-caused global warming. So the basic reporting of the facts might be accurate but are shaped into a narrative to support the belief that we cause climate change.

Nonetheless, I’ve found it helpful to read someone like Taibbi who comes from a different political perspective than mine, who lives in the world of news reporting, and has seen first hand how bias permeates this world like the air we breathe. In my experience most of the consumers of this “truth product” (Taibbi’s term) absorb this product without question. They assume their news sources present the whole, unvarnished truth. If you question this “conventional wisdom” they think you’re refusing to accept the obvious truth, that your bias affects your conclusions. Meanwhile they believe they are exempt from bias.

A friend of mine likes to say it’s a though many of us live inside The Matrix, a fabricated world that fools us into thinking it’s reality. The Wikipedia summary of The Matrix seems particularly appropriate: “In The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus. The red pill represented an uncertain future—it would free him from the enslaving control of the machine-generated dream world and allow him to escape into the real world, but living the ‘truth of reality’ is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represented a beautiful prison—it would lead him back to ignorance, living in confined comfort without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix. Neo chooses the red pill.”

Keeping Taibbi’s rules of hate in mind can help free us from The Matrix. If we take the red pill it means we need to work a bit harder to think objectively – and independently – in the search for truth.

Friday, November 22, 2019

News as selling mythologies

I’m reading Hate Inc.: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matthew Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone who has covered political campaigns. If you’re not familiar with Taibbi I’ll note that he would never be accused of being a right-winger! In reading his essays and his book it’s clear Taibbi despises Fox News and Donald Trump. However, unlike many of his new media brethren who have jettisoned objectivity to push their politics, Taibbi seems to value being objective even when it leads him to uncomfortable conclusions. While he excoriates Fox and Trump he also turns his guns (although with markedly less harshness) on CNN and MSNBC.

In the chapter titled How Reading The News Is Like Smoking, Taibbi says the following.

The main difference between Fox and MSNBC is their audiences are choosing different personal mythologies. Again: this is a consumer choice. It’s not the truth, but a truth product.

People who watch Fox tend to be older, white, and scared. They’re tuning in to be told they’re the last holdouts in a disintegrating empire, Romans besieged by vandals.

People who watch MSNBC, meanwhile, are tuning in to receive mega-doses of the world’s thinnest compliment, i.e. that they’re morally superior to Donald Trump. The network lately has become a one-note morality play with endless segments about Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort.

The coverage formula on both channels is to scare the crap out of audiences, then offer them micro-doses of safety and solidarity, which come when they see people onscreen sharing their fears.

I’ve written before about Arnold Kling’s book The Three Languages of Politics in which he identifies three primary languages in American politics. Liberals tend to talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed. Conservatives fret about civilization succumbing to barbarism. And libertarians see things in terms of individual freedom from coercion. Based on listening carefully how liberals, conservatives and libertarians talk I think Kling’s model is valid.

Taibbi’s description of Fox’s primary audience identifies conservative’s fear of leftist barbarians undercutting the traditional foundations of civilization, which reflects Kling’s language modal. While Taibbi doesn’t discuss the views of MSNBC (or the other major news outlets) in the same terms as Kling, I assume Taibbi would agree with many of the Trump haters I’ve met who claim that Trump is a racist, misogynist and didn’t earn his wealth but who obtained it by taking advantage of people. A common theme underlies these charges: that Trump (and therefore his supporters) favor oppressing people because of their race, gender or economic status.

Later Taibbi says:

I’ve run into trouble with friends for suggesting Fox is not a pack of lies. Sure, the network has an iffy relationship with the truth, but much of its content is factually correct. It’s just highly, highly selective – and predictable with respect to which facts it chooses to present.

Here I’d say the same thing could be said about CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and NPR. Taibbi gives them a pass, as if they don’t do exactly the same thing he attributes to Fox. On the other hand, the first appendix in Hate Inc., “Why Rachel Maddow Is On The Cover Of This Book,” explains why Taibbi put Maddow’s photo on the cover with Sean Hannity. He concludes the appendix with this comment about Maddow.

What she reads each night is not the news. It’s Stars and Stripes for a demographic, the same job that made Sean Hannity a star. Only she does it for a different audience, Lonesome Rhodes for the smart set. Even she must realize it can’t end well.

[Lonesome Rhodes was a character in a 1957 movie titled A Face in the Crowd. Here is the Wikipedia summary of the plot: “The story centers on a drifter named Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes who is discovered by the producer … of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.”]

While I’m only halfway through Hate Inc. I’ve read enough to be comfortable with recommending it to people on the left or the right. As Taibbi says, the news organizations “keep people away from the complexities of these issues, by creating distinct audiences of party zealots who drink in more and more intense legends about one another. We started to turn the ongoing narrative of the news into something like a religious contract, in which, in which the idea was not just to make you mad, but to keep you mad, whipped up in a state of devotional anger. Even in what conservatives would call the ‘liberal’ media, we used blunt signals to create audience solidarity. We started to employ anti-intellectualism on a scale I’d never seen before, and it ran through much of the available content.”

The only thing I’d add is that this anti-intellectualism springs from shedding objectivity.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Trump, Ukraine, and Quid Pro Quo

As anyone who reads this blog knows I like to provide links to examples of objective analysis. (Or at least I think they are objective!) The latest story dominating the news cycle is whether President Trump held back funds from the Ukraine government unless it finds dirt on the dealings of Joe Biden's son for his role in the Ukraine based energy company Burisma Holdings Limited.

The first link takes you to an article written by Alan Dershowitz who can hardly be described as a Trump supporter. Dershowitz, who is a scholar of US constitutional law, answers these questions.

[D]id President Trump commit impeachable offenses when he spoke on the phone to the president of Ukraine and/or when he directed members of the Executive Branch to refuse to cooperate, absent a court order, with congressional Democrats who are seeking his impeachment?

The answers are plainly no and no. There is a constitutionally significant difference between a political "sin," on the one hand, and a crime or impeachable offenses, on the other.

Even taking the worst-case scenario regarding Ukraine -- a quid pro quo exchange of foreign aid for a political favor -- that might be a political sin, but not a crime or impeachable offense.

Sharyl Attkisson provides the thoughts below in her Quid pro quo in Ukraine? No, not yet | The Hill. (Attkisson, a five-time Emmy Award winner, was an investigative correspondent in the Washington bureau for CBS News.)

A quid pro quo has two essential parts. First, a deal must be understood between the parties. In this case, it would be President Trump delivering U.S. aid if, and only if, the president of Ukraine delivers dirt on Trump’s “political rival” and potential 2020 opponent — Joe Biden. 

Second, the goods must actually be delivered. In this case, President Trump would have had to receive the requested packet of “dirt” on Biden, in order to trigger release the U.S. aid to Ukraine. So far, there is not an allegation that Part Two ever occurred. Without delivery of the dirt, there’s no quid pro quo. Just a quid. 

The most that can be reasonably alleged against President Trump at this stage is that he offered a quid pro quo — something both Trump and the other party, the president of Ukraine, deny — but that it was never consummated. New facts could emerge but, right now, there seems to be less than meets the eye.

I've chosen Scott Adams for my final example. Unfortunately this article probably sits behind The Wall Street Journal pay wall so I've provided a couple key quotes below. 

If you’ve followed the Ukraine phone-call news, you might have noticed reality branching into two completely different movies. In one, President Trump was doing his job of protecting the republic by asking an allied country to help out on an important legal investigation. The other movie involves Orange Hitler bullying a foreign country into meddling in our elections by “digging up dirt” on a political opponent.

Which movie is the real one, if such a thing exists? I’d like to offer a rule of thumb for evaluating political news: If a fact is reported the same by both the left-leaning and the right-leaning press, it’s probably a fact. If not, wait and see.


One side says the quid pro quo—in the form of Mr. Trump’s asking his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Crowdstrike and Joe Biden at the risk of losing military funds already approved by Congress—was so obvious it didn’t need to be stated in direct language. The other side says every conversation among world leaders carries some kind of implied quid pro quo, and in this case the request for investigation was entirely appropriate. You might even say it was one of Mr. Trump’s highest priorities, given the risk that a potential future President Biden might be compromised in his dealings with a foreign government.

When Adams talks about the two different movies people see depending on their viewpoint, I have run into this myself. A friend asked if I was upset with what Trump said in the phone call with the new Ukraine president. (He referred to Trump as “your president”, not “our president” because he hates Trump and knows that I don’t.) I said that I read the transcript of the phone call and didn’t see something that would warrant impeachment. My friend claims he read the transcript too and disagreed with me. Both of us read the transcript of the phone call but came to different conclusions. I told my friend that this shows that while both of us think we’re being objective we still reached drastically different conclusions.

By the way, Adam’s rule of thumb about evaluating political news is intriguing. I know it won’t work all the time (or even most of the time) because each news outlet spins the facts to fit the narrative they want us to buy. Maybe both sides will present the core facts the same they will conveniently leave out facts that threaten to spoil their spin. For a good summary of the ploys the news media wield to influence us please see How to Spot 11 Types of Media Bias from AllSides; they illustrate each type of bias with real examples.

I subscribe to a variety of daily email newsletters and Twitter feeds. Since I consider myself to be libertarian about three quarters of my news feeds come from libertarian or conservative sources. But I also receive notices from leftist sources to get different perspectives and to test mine.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

This infographic shows the 188 (!) cognitive different biases that can affect how we think and the conclusions we reach.
Science has shown that we tend to make all sorts of mental mistakes, called “cognitive biases”, that can affect both our thinking and actions. These biases can lead to us extrapolating information from the wrong sources, seeking to confirm existing beliefs, or failing to remember events the way they actually happened!
Who says being objective is hard?! 😀 

We're in a permanent coup by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi doesn't support Trump yet his articles show objectivity that is sadly lacking in the news media. His latest piece, We're in a permanent coup, provides another example.

Early in the article Taibbi lays out his concerns.
My discomfort in the last few years, first with Russiagate and now with Ukrainegate and impeachment, stems from the belief that the people pushing hardest for Trump’s early removal are more dangerous than Trump. Many Americans don’t see this because they’re not used to waking up in a country where you’re not sure who the president will be by nightfall. They don’t understand that this predicament is worse than having a bad president.
The Trump presidency is the first to reveal a full-blown schism between the intelligence community and the White House. Senior figures in the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies made an open break from their would-be boss before Trump’s inauguration, commencing a public war of leaks that has not stopped.
Towards the end of his article Taibbi says, 
I don’t believe most Americans have thought through what a successful campaign to oust Donald Trump would look like. Most casual news consumers can only think of it in terms of Mike Pence becoming president. The real problem would be the precedent of a de facto intelligence community veto over elections, using the lunatic spookworld brand of politics that has dominated the last three years of anti-Trump agitation.
Taibbi labels this tug-of-war between Trump and those who want to remove him from office as the Permanent Power Struggle. This is a common theme of Tucker Carlson: that the Democrats lust for power compels them to dispose of Trump who they feel is an illegitimate president.

While I agree with Carlson's point there is a deeper one. Would we even have this perpetual political WrestleMania if the Federal government didn't wield so much power? Would we still have this to-the-death battle to wrest the levers of power from the incumbent party to the political party that lost the previous election? I doubt it!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Persuasion Mode, Demonization Mode - Arnold Kling - Medium

Persuasion Mode, Demonization Mode - Arnold Kling - Medium

In the linked article Arnold Kling distinguishes between two modes of political discourse: persuasion mode versus demonization mode.

In persuasion mode, we treat people on the other side with respect, we listen to their logical and factual presentations, and we respond with logical and factual presentations of our own. In demonization mode, we tell anyone who will listen that people on the other side are awful human beings.

Later in the article Kling poses the following reasons why we tend to demonize people who disagree with us politically.

As individuals, we seek to minimize cognitive dissonance. It troubles me to believe that there are good reasons for people to disagree with my views. The dissonance goes away if I can dismiss those who disagree as driven solely by bad motives.

As social creatures, we are motivated to demonstrate loyalty to our tribe. Demonizing people of other tribes is a way of doing this.

Why have we devolved into demonization as our default mode of discussion? (How about that for alliteration?) Kling thinks its tied to how the mainstream news media.

As best I recall, fifty years ago, more of the commentary in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio was in persuasion mode, and less of it was in demonization mode. But in recent decades Rush Limbaugh discovered that demonization could appeal to a mass audience and Paul Krugman discovered that demonization could appeal to the readers of the New York Times.

While I agree with Kling that despite our ability to reason objectively we still harbor deep-seated tribal instincts that can challenge or at times over-ride our objectivity. I would argue that the influence of postmodern philosophy makes it even harder for some people to maintain their objectivity or makes it easier for them to succumb to primitive, tribal forces.

What is postmodernism? For a detailed explanation and analysis please refer to Stephen Hicks Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Based on his study of postmodern writing he extracts the following summary. Warning: the quoted paragraph is long and uses philosophical terms but I think it’s worth plowing through it to get to Hicks’ main points.

Metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions. Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social-linguistic groups that they are a part of, those groups varying radically across the dimensions of sex, race, ethnicity, and wealth. Postmodern accounts of human nature also consistently emphasize relations of conflict between those groups; and given the de-emphasized or eliminated role of reason, post-modern accounts hold that those conflicts are resolved primarily by the use of force, whether masked or naked; the use of force in turn leads to relations of dominance, submission, and oppression. Finally, postmodern themes in ethics and politics are characterized by an identification with and sympathy for the groups perceived to be oppressed in the conflicts, and a willingness to enter the fray on their behalf.

Let’s see if I can digest Hick’s ideas a bit further. Before doing that I need to touch on his description of modernism, the philosophical outlook that preceded postmodernism. Modernism reflects the Enlightenment in which thinkers agreed that there is an objective reality and that we have the ability to reason from the facts to sound, objective conclusions that we can defend and explain.

Postmodernism then fundamentally disagrees with the modernist, Enlightenment worldview. If, as postmodernists claim, that we can’t forge objective conclusions about the world then “truth” belongs to the winner of the inevitable resulting power struggle. And unfortunately that means we’re free to treat people who disagree with us as sub-human demons because they threaten our grasp on the reins of power and they’re considered agents of oppression so it’s OK to ignore or even silence those who disagree.