Monday, February 29, 2016

Tabloid Reporting of Politics Is Killing Us

29 February 2016

Andrew Lack, Chairman
MSNBC and NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112

RE: Political news coverage

Dear Mr. Lack,

One doesn't need surveillance cameras or spies to guess that the circumstances involving Melissa Harris-Perry's severance from MSNBC includes some personal factors. There is also a valid complaint about the quantity and quality of MSNBC's political reporting, with MHP complaining that her creative autonomy was being pre-empted in favor of breaking political coverage.

It is an election year, of course, and even by the standards of our electoral politics, this is an unusual year. As a viewer, I affirm that variety is good and even during the presidential campaign, I appreciate stories and programming on other topics - including MHP's perspective on culture. With her departure, MSNBC is losing valuable expertise. Since this raises a question about political coverage on MSNBC, I would like to express an ongoing concern about quality, and an indifference towards expertise.

There is an emphasis across the media on dramatizing politics as a "race." Constant opinion polling is part of this, along with sensationalizing coverage of the personalities, with comparatively little about policy. The emphasis on personality in political reporting has been a major factor in the ascent of Donald Trump as a front-running candidate for a major party nomination for president, despite being utterly vapid when it comes to policy. I will grant that MSNBC does include some programs hosted by people with real credentials for reporting on policy: Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell are examples. However, even they seem to be doing more of the "race" kind of reporting with less on policy. (An exception is the invaluable reporting Maddow has done about the Flint water crisis.) I have to wonder how much of this can be attributed to management rather than Ms. Maddow and Mr. O'Donnell themselves.

Covering politics as if it is some sort of race is dumb, and harmful to the process. I recognize that MSNBC like most news organizations is a business enterprise that is compelled to seek revenue; but the impact of what you do is historic. The constant reporting of opinion polls from early on, the constant framing of politicians' worth as being measured in popularity and presentational skill, shapes public perception. In the Republican primary, a United States Senator has notably dropped his efforts to speak about policy and become instead an insult comic, because that is what television networks will broadcast. This denies the country an important opportunity to listen to candidates' views about policy.

The chatter is all about "electability," which is not really a question. A candidate who can campaign nationwide, get on every state ballot, and win the required electoral votes is "electable." Any of these candidates are "electable." With that settled, we need information to examine which of them ought to be elected. As we see in this race, there are candidates of both parties who openly make different representations of themselves to different audiences, and they get away with it because these are reported indifferently, if at all, as tactics in a race - not as failures of integrity.

 Instead of a race, why not the metaphor of a trial? In a trial, candidates must present a solid case with voters as a jury. Under that metaphor, the contest is not a race to see who can raise more money faster, lie more convincingly, draw more people to their rallies, or generate more headlines by saying outrageous things. The story of the contest can be framed around who makes a better case for their policy proposals based on facts, and who has been more consistent about fighting for what they promised to do.

It can be that way, but only if institutions like MSNBC make a firm decision to report that way. Thank you for your attention and with that, I'll let you get back to work. Sincerely,

Friday, February 26, 2016

Ex Cathedra

Here is a fun Latin expression for the day: ex cathedra. Literally, from the chair. Once upon a time cathedra referred to a teacher's chair and is more commonly known as the seat of a bishop or even the Pope. Hence, a cathedral is a church that houses a bishop's seat.

When someone is arguing from a place of expertise, such as when an attorney comments on a matter of law or a physicist explains why astronauts float in space, you might say they are arguing ex cathedra - from a place of authority.

It can also be used to point out when someone is being pompous or when someone attempts to intimidate you in an argument by using their position or their academic background. Case in point, my "Desert Sage" column this week points out that the first "climate refugees" (people forced to flee sea level rise) in the United States are native Americans. This provoked a response from a prolific local climate change denier, who makes much of his background as a meteorologist for the military.

Before drowning me in cherry picked data selected for the purpose of obscuring anthropogenic causes of global warming, thermal ocean expansion, and other phenomena that the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed, published scientific research by climate scientists  affirms is indeed taking place, the complainant opened with a sneering implication that my master's degree in the "fine arts" hinders my understanding of scientific research, whereas his area of study back during the Gallic Wars or whenever it was, was in "science." This is an ex cathedra argument, and a rhetorical fallacy: it's ad hominem, an argument aimed at discrediting the person rather than the substance.

Or to put it more grossly, it's bullshit. Granted, we can acknowledge expertise: a person who studied and practiced law for decades almost certainly can claim a more thorough understanding of the intricacies of law than a "layman."

That said, any educated person, a person who knows how to read and learn, can understand subject matter out of their academic "lane." One of the most powerful federal legislators during the George W. Bush years had been not a lawyer but a pest exterminator prior to his time in Congress. A dentist can appreciate great art. A painter can understand biology. This should go without saying, but in an era where humanism is under concerted attack, we are moved to argue that the cathedra belongs to one who shares their expertise for the edification of all, not to browbeat and silence others.

Also, a degree or other credential does not validate an argument. A fine arts major can practice bad art, I'm certainly capable of giving a poor performance on stage, and a trained scientist can espouse pseudo-science either because they are opining outside their area of expertise (as when an astronaut spouts nonsense about hydrology or somesuch) or because they are cognitively biased or just batshit crazy.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Saying No To Intellectual Shiva

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly this weekend, touching off furious argument in Washington about whether the Senate would consider a successor nominated by the President. (They seem to have invented a constitutional principle in which the fourth year of a Democrat's presidency does not count.)

Scalia had been on the court since 1986, appointed by President Reagan. He was an enormously consequential figure in American law and jurisprudence. His legal theory and conservative ideology were subsequently of enormous import to masses of people. There is much to be said as the news of his death is absorbed, what his contribution was to history, and what might follow with his departure.

And not all of it is praiseful, of course. We are being asked, however, to hold off on the critique and only offer praise.

Robert Reich speaks for a lot of public leaders and "thought leaders" in writing, "This is not the time to mount the obvious criticisms of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia." There is a recurring ritual when a figure of political import dies. The entire internet is expected to behave as if they were at the person's funeral, as if the deceased's family are reading their Twitter feed, and refrain from any commentary critical of the person no matter what kind of legacy they leave behind, as if history is to take a time-out. Only praise is allowed, so we are scolded. 

Well, no. Sorry, but that's fatuous and pompous. If a horrible violent dictator dies, there is nothing indecent about saying, "This was a horrible violent dictator." There is a distinction between merely dancing on someone's grave and making truthful or sincere critical comments about someone who had an impact on masses of people's lives.

There are plenty of positive reflections being made about the jurist who died yesterday - testimonies to his intellect and to likable aspects of his personality, praise for his legal acumen by some - and there are also things to be said that are less worshipful about the consequences of his work and influence. There is no need whatsoever to hold back from including the latter in public comments. Leaving the field only to those praising him just allows the person to be sanctified while those harmed by the figure are told be "respectful." The democratic answer is no, we aren't bound to play the game on those terms.

It is quite another thing to suggest keeping such remarks tasteful. That would apply, I would hope, while the figure was alive as well. I hope whatever I might say about Scalia, or have in the past, however critical, has been tasteful. (And true, above all: I hope I am at least close to the mark on that score.) But the conflation of critiquing the legacy of those who make history with "being tasteless" is an idea that we should reject. And I do.

In an excellent piece for the Guardian in 2013, Glenn Greenwald  pointed out that when that very paper wrote, upon the death of a socialist South American president, that "the millions who detested him as a thug and charlatan [would] bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance [to him]," no one protested on behalf of his family. "There's something distinctively creepy," Greenwald wrote, "about this mandated ritual that our political leaders must be heralded and consecrated as saints upon death." As when President Obama described Margaret Thatcher as a "great champion of freedom and liberty." Greenwald argues that this ritual of hagiography has historical consequences at least in the short-term. As he concluded: "If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history."

So no, no thanks. Intellectual shiva is not a legitimate tradition, and we need not acquiesce to propaganda.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Arguing Sanders vs. Clinton? Fine. But Take a Clear and Honest Stand, Please.

Since the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic Party and independent voters who swing towards them are in quite a fury over the rivalry between Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. They are both personally popular, both have long careers in federal politics - and they genuinely represent different values and priorities. So the good news is the same thing that makes the race so heated: there is an actual choice, and either choice has consequences for the party even if the Democratic candidate does not win the election.

By the way, matchup polls show that either of them are likely to win, as the Republican Party, facing its own difficult choice, stands an excellent chance of nominating a candidate who pleases crowds but will have great difficulty winning a general election. So for the Democrats, it really can be about who is the standard bearer for the party's rank and file. Not just the elites running the party machine, not the high-level donors that finance their preferred spokespeople in the patronage system that has subverted democratic choice, but the people who actually show up and vote.

As I type this quick update, New Hampshire is voting in its primary. I am in Memphis preparing for an audition so I won't look at the results until very late tonight. And I will, because it seems possible that the Democratic Party is actually making an important choice, and however it chooses, it indicates there is a great deal of work to do for those who wish to challenge the established power structure. Even if Sanders pulls this off and becomes the nominee in the end, the behemoth will not be easy to vanquish - and a President Sanders would indeed face a Congress dominated by Republicans calling him a communist (with no regard to what that word actually means).

As the Clinton campaign senses trouble, its surrogates and sympathizers are going negative and making some fatuous arguments. Madeline Albright, who has no lessons for anyone about who belongs in hell, suggested women who support Sanders are going there for not supporting a woman. Gloria Steinem infantilized them, suggesting they only work for Sanders so they can meet boys. (Steinem later said she "misspoke," whatever the hell that means. Didn't Nixon coin that word?)
Regardless of age or sex, there are people who simply feel more comfortable with a candidate who seems familiar even if they aren't "perfect." It's a reflexive conservatism: a president looks and sounds this way, they support capitalism but hit the right notes about compassion and opportunity, liberal sound bites, for "balance," and they stand for putting a kind and gentle, familiar, "likable" face on established power. Their argument is that they are playing the game as it is played and trying to expand its benefits to a greater swath of society. Meanwhile, they deepen privatization, expanding market relations into more and more areas of human life, and cede more autonomy to corporations as with TPP. It is a false balance (capital wins) but a great many people instinctively reach for it. "Grow up," they say, and beckon people to the middle of the road. (Which is actually the most dangerous place to be.) 

Hillary Clinton sells that image very well. Fits the suit, so to speak. It is why I still suspect she will prevail in the end. No matter how much people suffer and grumble about the conditions of their lives, liberals will go for that kind of president every time. It's how they think grownups should vote.

Here is how a friend of mine presented it recently in writing: Electing Bernie does not magically mean all his policies come to pass over night. Those of us who have seen a few elections know this. I tend to wonder, if someone wants Sanders policies so badly, why are they not pushing for far-left, Progressive candidates to be elected in all nationwide elections? Why are they not excited about Sanders being in Congress, where actual legislation gets submitted? 

This is a straw man argument. No one thinks electing a president means everything magically changes for the better. If I felt a president could work magic, my candidate would be Gandalf. Magic is not a basis on which to decide for whom to vote. The candidates present, truthfully or not, what they promise to fight for, a vision, and policies that are plausibly achievable if they are fought for and won.

It is true that more progressive candidates need to be elected, locally especially, and federally when the opportunity arises. (And a lot of people who support Sanders are also active in BLM and/or fights for minimum wage increases, against foreclosures, for single-payer, and doing so as Democrats, Greens, Socialist Alternative members, DSA members, and unaffiliated.) So that is happening and I'm sure they'd love to have more in the ranks. Ah, but there's the rub of this argument. Are you doing that? You say you "like" Sanders and his policies but you aren't interested in promoting those policies or him. But you suggest from your Barcolounger that other people should go out and support progressive candidates.No offense to my friend, but this is a weird argument; and if I didn't know him, I'd suspect it was disingenuous. It goes like this: "I like Sanders, and to show my support I'm going to argue against supporting him, insist on supporting a candidate who is wholly invested in the system Sanders is criticizing, and encourage other people to support Sanders instead of me."

All I ask is for honesty. If you support Clinton, I won't be upset with you, I won't persecute you. But don't tell me you support Sanders in principle but are going to support Clinton anyway, because that is simply an untenable position. They stand for different things and will work for outcomes that are diametrically opposed. Take your stand. If you want a president who is invested in capitalist oligarchy - because it is more predictable, more stable, more beneficial to you, in your view - then take that stand. If you think we need a president who will fight according to different values and humanitarian goals - while we all recognize one president can't achieve them all even in two full terms with a sympathetic Congress - then you need to take that stand.

And once the primary is done, you have a candidate. Is it the one you wanted to work for? Is it the one whose desired outcomes are what you want to fight for? There is a concern among many on the left that supporting Sanders's primary campaign helps build a Democratic Party, which is an organization they cannot support. Others, including the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), hold out hope that the party can yet be claimed as a party that fights for the interests of labor against the dominance of capital.

For the record, I'm not a Democrat and New Mexico, where I live, is a closed-primary state. Moreover, I'm actually tepid on Sanders - this blog is not an endorsement - but I don't have doubts about his integrity, and he clearly represents a rational and (more) humanitarian alternative to the imperialism championed by Clinton and her patrons. If he wins the nomination, I will be surprised and impressed. If he wins, it represents a new generation of active voters who are ready to retire some very old, bad ideas about American politics - and it's high time. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

On the ABC Debate Debacle

The hilariously botched introduction to the ABC Republican candidates' debate has gone viral and there are lots of jokes pinning the folly on the politicians supposedly botching the show. I disagree.

The great ABC debate debacle speaks to the importance of rehearsal. You rehearse entrances like that. And some professional common sense goes a long way. Carson and Trump didn't hear their names because the names were called too quickly in the midst of loud cheering and applause. All of the candidates (except Christie) were put in awkward positions because of poor preparation and sloppy execution by their hosts. And as for the moderators not even noticing that a candidate hadn't made it to the stage - what a stunning error. I'm not blaming the candidates for any of this. This is 100% ABC and a stunning failure of basic stage management.