Tag Archives: Journalism

Journalists get it, partly

Friday’s “The Morning” e-mail from The New York Times is interesting for how it mixes up a flicker of “getting it” with plenty of the ordinary obtuse fare.

Much of the e-mail carries on the braindead political “analysis” which was a big inspiration for my book Nemesis. German Lopez writes an extensive e-mail about “why Biden is unpopular,” walking backward through the past year and a half of covid and covid policy, without ever considering

  • The obvious question of what, exactly, “unpopular” is being defined against; voters have rapidly turned against every president for decades, and more significantly they punish the president’s party consistently, even when presidential approval is much more favorable than Biden’s.
  • To the extent that presidential popularity is variable, at all, could disdain for Biden have anything to do with the fact that even mainstream journalism is so relentlessly affixed to narratives of scandal and (Democratic) failure that the result wildly misleads people about reality?
  • “Analysis” mostly just makes up its premises of what’s supposed to move public opinion and how. From month to month, “The Morning” tells us that Democrats are disappointing the public because of Afghanistan, no because of covid, actually it’s the economy, and they’re out of touch with public fears of “CRT,” etc. The claim, in Friday’s email, that the Biden administration committed itself to firm promises about freedom from covid also seems suspiciously unfamiliar to me as a fairly regular reader of “The Morning.” It feels like “truthiness.”
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Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

This weekend I concluded, in tandem with various neighbors in the twittersphere, that Ukraine has very probably thwarted Russian ambitions to impose vassalage. It looks like Putin’s government is, instead, increasingly focused on simply reducing Ukraine to a desert.

The invasion has been taking on such a character for some time. Russian activity has gradually looked less and less like an invasion for conquest or regime change, and more like a punitive expedition. I have thought repeatedly of Tacitus’s remark that “they make a desolation and call it peace.”

Tacitus aside, I’m not sure that history includes many major, really close parallels with what’s unfolding in Ukraine. Armies destroying what they can’t hold is by means new, as a tactic. But the scale, here, is eye-opening. A large nation so rotten that it launches an unjustifiable invasion, without achieving any really credible pretext, then fails badly to impose its will upon a smaller neighbor, but has and is using automated destructive tools so extensive that it can level the neighbor even though the invading troops lose. The potential for that has existed for generations, at least, but I think examples of such a revolting spite campaign at this scale are few.

There are seemingly ample good reasons for such campaigns to be few. It looks monstrous, and it looks weak in important ways when such a maximalist punitive campaign is obviously resorted to as a Plan J or something, after every hope for imposing control or influence has failed or stalled. Much of the world will react to this, harshly, despite shrugging off lots of “ordinary” atrocities. Despite which, in this case, deterrence seems ineffective.

I’m not sure how many people are really processing that, yet, but if the upper levels of Russian government are set on leveling Ukraine out of spite, regardless of cost, it is in their power to do so. We need to think more about how to respond.

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Jan. 6, 2022: the cupboard is bare

There is not a lot I can add, a year after the January 6, 2021 Capitol putsch, aside from perhaps the sense that everyone who does not want fascism to win seems at a loss for what to do.

As I posted on Twitter a few days ago, I give points to the investigators in the US House and the Department of Justice for surpassing that dismal average. Despite all the people screaming at them, they’re doing their part and doing better than I expected against the thicket of lying, stalling and obstruction.

That, by itself, is not going to preserve democracy, though. I repeat this phrase again and again, but on January 6, 2021, a horde of Republicans decked out in the defeated Republican president’s flags and banners invaded the US Capitol to break shit and attempt a violent insurrection. What’s more, one year on, the Republican Party is even more allied to the insurrectionists than it was then. For all that Republicans scurry and squirm to keep details of January 6, 2021 secret, there is logically no hidden link or smoking gun more damning than what has been right in front of us for a year.

Politics is not entirely logical, granted. But no matter what the investigators come up with, I don’t think they can transform all of American politics by themselves, and to all appearances they’re on their own.

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Failed state, culture, civilization?

It feels like I am running out of genuinely new things to add about the corrosive storm engulfing us. Eric Sandy and I seem, largely independently, to be getting a stronger and stronger sense that “The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp.”

At a guess, it seems to be staring us all in the face that the President of the United States already fully intends to pursue some kind of power play which might turn out like the beer hall putsch, or might turn out like the Reichstag fire, but is quite openly his intent.

But our systems don’t really seem to know how to handle that so mostly it’s all proceeding as it would anyway.

It’s better than nothing, certainly, that people like Greg Sargent and James Fallows have recently made clear, powerful statements that US journalism is still allowing Trump to exploit its failings as effectively as four years ago. But, realistically, the accuracy of the critique is, at this point, also a convincing argument against expecting that failure to change suddenly within the next couple of months.

I don’t think journalism is really unique in this regard, either. I’m reminded of Robert X. Cringely‘s proposal years ago that in a crisis, institutions do the same thing they do at other times, just more so.

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The Paper Goeth into the Night

Within the past week, corporate ownership basically delivered the deathblow to traditional journalism in Cleveland. The skeleton staff of alternative weekly Scene has covered these events quite well, but in brief, owners pushed out most reporters still employed at the metro’s last remaining print daily newspaper.

I comment, here, mostly to connect the obvious dots that both broad industry trends and the specific policies of said owners have been pointing toward this outcome for years, so the stunned reaction is rather frustrating.

I grant that the past week’s actions by Plain Dealer owners, Advance Publications, pushed the familiar pace a bit. The past week’s brazen dishonesty and dickishness from Advance, and their minion Chris Quinn, also justify some measure of surprise.

But the approach of this substantive outcome has been perfectly visible for years, as has a means which was fundamentally dishonest and dickish.

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The Internet vs Federalism

Such memories as today remain of the late “Tip” O’Neill are, I suspect, propped up by his grammatically tricky dictum “all politics is local.” I don’t really remember Tip, and relied on autocomplete for the spelling of his last name in fact, but I remember this. That having been said, I have increasingly remembered this maxim in a context of something obsolete, as years have gone by.

Today, though, some impressively precocious grouchy-old-man scolding from Millennial pundit Matthew Yglesias suggested one or two new wrinkles to the intersection of local politics and 21st-century America. Yglesias makes the point that plenty of politics is still local or at least sub-national, even though Democrats’ focus (and, I would argue, America’s generally to a great extent) has been swallowed up by the presidency.

I don’t disagree with this, but I did have to question Yglesias’s grounds for his tone of righteous lecturing. Both his own product and that of his employer, Vox, as a whole devote much much more attention to national and above all presidential politics than to anything else. (Consider that America has elections this fall but about 99% of Vox‘s considerable  elections coverage in 2015 has been about 2016 races.) Thinking about this, though, I had to ask myself: what gets more clicks?

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Peak President

The proposal that America fixates too much on the presidency is not exactly new or novel.

It has probably been more than a decade since I began marking midterm elections’ completion by suggesting, sourly, that “it’s so nice this is out of the way, and journalists can devote themselves exclusively to presidential politics once again.” I believe it has been at least a few years since Matthew Yglesias argued—I don’t recall whether it was at Vox or Slate, and in any event it was probably not a totally new suggestion—that liberals in particular have invested too much in pursuit of the White House while neglecting every other component of American government. Earlier this year, Yglesias’s Vox colleague Dylan Matthews wrote an essay suggesting that the eventual outcome of America’s political dysfunction will be neither collapse nor coup but, instead, gradual transformation of the presidency into an “elective dictatorship.” I found Matthews’s scenario quite easy to imagine.

Today, though, it occurred to me that revisiting this issue might permit some fruitful juxtaposition of two or three phenomena that have been bugging me, lately.

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer Fails, Fibs

One week ago, the Plain Dealer published an item by Mr. Ted Diadun about “The challenge of covering a race when there is no race.” Like a lot of things involving the Plain Dealer in the 21st century, it’s basically just a lot of sad piled on top of more sad. Essentially, Diadun indulges in some whining about what an unreasonable hardship it is for his colleagues that the Democratic candidate for governor has sunk low in the polls and looks unlikely to revive. Even we can’t fake a competitive horse-race narrative from this, it’s just unfair!, etc. Then, Diadun goes on to announce that, events having simply forced abandonment of standard practices, the Plain Dealer will actually publish some information about other state races (but only the big two party nominees, of course)! 

You could just picture Diadun with his chest puffed out, simply beaming with pride about what good sports he and his pals are, and how generous it is of them to make such an effort for the community in this way. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to summon up the adulation he seemed to be anticipating. I just couldn’t work out a coherent concept of what he believes political journalism is for, making it difficult to evaluate the Plain Dealer‘s predicament and response on its own terms.

I wrote an e-mail to Mr. Diadun outlining my questions. His official profile declares: “As the reader representative, I encourage comments, complaints, suggestions, compliments, debates, questions about fairness or anything else dealing with The Plain Dealer that a reader might want to talk about. I respond to calls and e-mails…” Sadly, a week has gone by and I still have received no response from “the reader representative.” More sadly, I have never received any response to any missives directed to [email protected] and must conclude that “I respond to calls and e-mails” is basically just empty BS. Saddest of all, possibly, this may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Diadun has no good answers to the following questions. You be the judge:

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