Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Old News is New Again

I am always suspicious when new news about an old story that has been beaten to death breaks in the midst of a separate and independent, but related event. Huh? What in the world does that mean?

Well, back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before sensitivity to Cristobal Colombo's slave trading tendencies emerged, the annual Columbus Day celebration seemed to coincide with an amazing new discovery of a previously unknown mariner's map of the New World or some discovery about Leif Erickson. Newspapers would breathlessly report the amazing new find.

In Boston, the costliest art heist ever occurred in the early morning hours after St. Patrick's Day of 1990. The case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery of works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas  was never solved. Sure enough, what seems like every year, a sudden and promising break in the investigation occurs around St. Patrick's Day.  Just in time for breathless reportage.

And so it is no surprise, that the breaking story at Fox News shortly after the publication of Hillary Clinton's book about the 2016 campaign is none other than an "exclusive report" on Benghazi.

We do not know who the next Democratic Presidential nominee will be, but as 2020 draws closer, we know that Fox News will feature stories alleging heinous acts committed by that candidate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Over and Over

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post "This week should put the nail in the coffin for 'both sides' journalism". That theme is echoed in several pieces, including Paul Waldman's "Sorry conservatives. There's no equivalence between the extreme right and the extreme left."

We have written about this problem many times, starting with "Both Sides Do It".

Tragically, someone had to die for more to see this problem and, ironically, the awful real life tragedy in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd and fled the scene exactly follows the scenario in Mann and Ornsteins's "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" (emphasis added):

"A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don't treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way. Whats the real story: Who's telling the truth? Who is taking hostages at what risks and to what ends?"

If knee jerk liberalism is bad and knee jerk conservatism is bad, then knee jerk journalism that seeks out balance between two sides, no matter the circumstances in a particular case, is even worse. For both sidesism leads directly to false balance that yields false equivalence noted in "False Equivalence in His Hands". The argument is not that Republicans are bad and Democrats are good. Nor that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. The argument is that adherence to knee jerk journalistic false balance in objective news media creates a loophole that is exploited by conservatives to create false narratives and leads to the successful propagation of fake news, that is, real fake news, in conservative media. In other words, by bending over backwards to maintain an appearance of impartiality, these mostly liberal media outlets have inadvertently made themselves partial, not impartial.

But wait, something else is woefully amiss.  The president of the United States is the one behaving more like a 'both sides' journalist as he talks about "many sides, many sides" and framing for balance "Not Trump. Not Obama" as if he can escape accountability for his entire term by invoking Obama or Clinton at every turn. Of course, his brand of journalism is actually propaganda as he cries out "fake news, fake news." Always willing to take the credit, but never to admit responsibility that could result in taking blame for anything he says or does that has real life consequences.

Trump is the president. He is no longer a candidate, though he likes to pretend with twitter and rallies that he is still a candidate. And he is not a journalist - propagandist or any other type, no matter how much he shouts "fake news, fake news". He has a role to play as the president, but he avoids fulfilling that proper role any time it makes him uncomfortable. He lapses into the role of a candidate, apparently thinking that reality will never catch up to him - the reality that he is accountable. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem able to force accountability only when horrible events occur, like murder or the start of a war of prosecutable crimes by the president. By then it is often too late.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The 'Better Than Ever' Future of the Democrats

Recent articles in politics have suggested that Democrats have failed in their messaging and need to improve. A few weeks ago party leaders rolled out the new slogan "A Better Deal" which was received with much harrumphing. (Democrats Struggle to Sell A Better Deal) But why?

David Leonhardt delved into this issue in Democrats Still Need a Story, asking readers to come up with A Better Slogan. He received 1,200 responses and collected the best ideas: A New Democratic Slogan? Your Choices. And these really do sound like the best ideas as ideas go.

I would argue that all of these "good" ideas are doomed to failure for many of the same reasons that the Candice Bergen character's best idea fell flat in "Starting Over" after her husband divorces her and then takes up with another woman. The performance of the song "Better than Ever" could be played as is at the next Democratic convention (sorry for the darkness):

Democratic strategy fails because it is so difficult for people to understand the thinking of other people who do not reason the way they do.  Rational, analytic thinkers often have difficulty understanding the minds of conservative, intuitive people. The Dems believe that they just need a better message to get through so that voters will focus on policy that will benefit them. But many instinctive people vote based on trust and they trust people who think and talk like they do and mistrust people who do not. These conservatives vote for a person, not a policy outcome. Policy is complicated, but deciding if you like a person is simple.

I think back to the political arguments my late mother had 40 years ago with her father who worked as a member of the Teamsters in the trucking industry before he retired in 1967. She would argue that FDR's policies were responsible for his Social Security which he should appreciate. Without Social Security, he would have negligible retirement income. But he was not voting based on policy or the personal impact on him . He knew who he liked and it was not the Democrats. He liked Jimmy Hoffa despite the meagerness of his own Teamsters pension. And despite Hoffa's obvious corruption. 

Trump brought a slew of new irrational voters back into the political process - people who had given up on hearing candidates who spoke and thought just like they did. And no one is suppressing the ability of these white voters to cast their votes. Republican strategists want these voters to remain engaged and actively voting.

No, the Democrats will never get through to these people with policy arguments, no matter how clever the messaging. 

Democratic strategy needs to focus on fighting voter suppression and inspiring the Democratic base. Maybe a better than ever slogan would be "Vote or Die - It's Up to  You". (Late update. Oops, apparently Vote or Die is already taken. You get the idea.)


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Not So Fast

Many of our pundit class misunderstood the Trump phenomenon - and that confusion continues, at least for those who buy into Matt Latimer's "What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat". Asking that question misses the point - that Trump won as a Republican by taking tried and proven Republican campaign tactics to their logical extreme conclusion. Personal attacks carried to extreme, irrational levels of viciousness. Attacks on the press, including threatening speech aimed at individual reporters at rallies. And lying as a tactic some of the time taken to the extreme of lying with abandon.

Now Latimer's piece may well be a parody, but serves at least a deflection for Republicans who like their party electoral strategy just fine, thank you, and do not see any need for reform, other than to regard Trump as an aberration instead of the epitome that he is.

Jonathan Chait takes down the Latimer arguments, such as they are, in "Could Trump Have Been Elected As a Democrat?" which is accompanied by a fitting photo that implies an equally 'interesting' thought experiment, "could Palin have been selected for VP as a Democrat?":

Chait writes, "Trump is a product of a decades-long evolution in the Republican Party." And he closes with "Trump is an historical outlier. But he is also the product of the political culture of a Republican Party that is fertile soil for his brand of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. The desire to regard him as a fluke who could just as easily have wound up in the other party is the kind of evasion that has prevented many Republican elites from squaring up to the forces that enabled Trump’s rise."

Unfortunately, those who do not understand their own party history are poorly positioned to make a course correction, let alone reverse course.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Exultation and Glory

"Republicans Try to Regroup After Health Care Failure; Democrats Exult" reads the headline to Matt Flegenheimer's report in the NYT.

But did Dems exult? The story shares no evidence, no quotes from Democratic leadership indicating exultation. At this point, after taking so many shots against the ACA, you would expect Democratic leaders to feel temporary relief perhaps, but exultation would suggest misplaced overconfidence.

Is this another one of those "balanced" stories? You know, the headline that ignores context, and, when a side does not lose, they win and therefore, they exult or are "gleeful" - another favorite line in mainstream stories.

Does a soldier in a foxhole exult each time a bomb drops nearby, but fails a direct hit?

This particular instance would be harmless enough, but the problem is the extent to which the mainstream political reporters stick so strongly to their expectations for story lines, rather than react accordingly to the evidence when the playing field shifts under their feet.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Puppet Master

One element of the deny, deflect, distract, accuse tactic when employed by Trump is his instinct for the accusation against his opponent to tie back to the original denial that he has done anything wrong. See The Trumpian Way for details.

For example, in denying wrongdoing with his slippery accusation about Obama's place of birth, Trump progressed to an accusation that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the accusation. That accusation served an important role - to replace the frame of whether or not Trump made the accusation with Clinton and whether or not she made the accusation. After that point, no amount of fact checking can remove the frame. At worst, the accusation can leave an open question - maybe it was Trump, but maybe it was Clinton.

Trump has been rather desperately applying his customary tactics in the current Trump/Russia investigations. His current DDDA tactic resorts to accusing HRC of working with the Russians. No surprise there. But during the 2016 campaign, the playing field was a bit different. Though Clinton her campaign accused Russia of meddling and the U.S. intelligence agencies made that finding, the fact of Russian interference had not caught on in the popular imagination as much as it has today. So Trump's on-the-fly reaction during the final debate is telling:

"TRUMP: That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, OK? How did we get on to Putin?
...[back and forth and other topics]
Now we can talk about Putin. I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.

He has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president. And I'll tell you what: We're in very serious trouble, because we have a country with tremendous numbers of nuclear warheads -- 1,800, by the way -- where they expanded and we didn't, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she's playing chicken. Look, Putin...

WALLACE: Wait, but...

TRUMP: ... from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it's pretty clear...

TRUMP: You're the puppet!

CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit...

TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.

CLINTON: ... that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.

So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 -- 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton...

CLINTON: And I think it's time you take a stand...

TRUMP: She has no idea whether it's Russia, China, or anybody else.

CLINTON: I am not quoting myself.

TRUMP: She has no idea.

CLINTON: I am quoting 17...

TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.

CLINTON: ... 17 intelligence -- do you doubt 17 military and civilian...

TRUMP: And our country has no idea.

CLINTON: ... agencies.

TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.

CLINTON: Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: She doesn't like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...

TRUMP: Excuse me. Putin has outsmarted her in Syria.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: He's outsmarted her every step of the way.

WALLACE: I do get to ask some questions.

TRUMP: Yes, that's fine.

WALLACE: And I would like to ask you this direct question. The top national security officials of this country do believe that Russia has been behind these hacks. Even if you don't know for sure whether they are, do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?

TRUMP: By Russia or anybody else.

WALLACE: You condemn their interference?

TRUMP: Of course I condemn. Of course I -- I don't know Putin. I have no idea.

WALLACE: I'm not asking -- I'm asking do you condemn?

TRUMP: I never met Putin. This is not my best friend. But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn't be so bad.

Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way. Whether it's Syria, you name it. Missiles. Take a look at the "start up" that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can't believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads, and we can't. The Russians can't believe it. She has been outsmarted by Putin.

And all you have to do is look at the Middle East. They've taken over. We've spent $6 trillion. They've taken over the Middle East. She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I've ever seen in any government whatsoever.

WALLACE: We're a long way away from immigration, but I'm going to let you finish this topic. You got about 45 seconds.

TRUMP: And she always will be.

CLINTON: I -- I find it ironic that he's raising nuclear weapons. This is a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons. He's..."

Sure, Trump often uses repetition for effect and, in the debate, provides several examples of areas where "Putin outsmarted Clinton or Clinton+Obama", but if, at the time, Trump knew that Putin was responsible for the hack of the Clinton campaign in 2016 and the distribution of the emails, then the accusation fits perfectly into the frame of blaming the Democrat because she and her campaign were outwitted by Putin every step of the way - not only by being vulnerable to the hack, but by not being able to prove that Putin was also responsible for the distribution of the emails.

Though this analysis is not proof of anything, the instinctive Trump pattern of tying the accusation he makes against Clinton back to the subject of the original denial (No puppet, no puppet) suggests that Trump knew,which, of course, would mean that he and his team were guilty of collusion with Russia on the hack and distribution of Clinton campaign emails in the 2016 election.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Working the Frame

George "Don't Think of an Elephant" Lakoff writes often about the Republican use of framing issues for tactical advantage. He advised the Clinton campaign of this tactic and recommended tactical response, but says that his arguments fell on deaf ears.

We need to pay attention to the way an argument is set forth, whether in response to a question or as advocacy for a position.

Donald Trump, Jr. is innocent of any wrongdoing. Why?  "Democrats are upset that Hillary Clinton lost the election." Notice the deflection together with reframing in terms of that horrible woman. In the preferred case, the reframing is made in terms of the hated black man, Obama, the hated woman, Clinton, or, in the ideal case, Loretta Lynch as a black woman. Susan Rice works for the same reason.

Now, the statement "Democrats are upset that Hillary Clinton lost" could logically be expressed as Democrats are upset that Donald Trump won", but removing Trump from the frame of reference is important to the art of deflection.

And more today as reported by Buzzfeed:
'“Somebody said that her visa or her passport to come into the country was approved by Attorney General Lynch,” Trump said at a press conference in Paris. “Now, maybe that's wrong. I just heard that a little while ago, but a little surprised to hear that. So, she was here because of Lynch."

Almost immediately, a spokesperson for Lynch put out a statement insisting that she had no authority over whether or not the Russian lawyer was allowed to enter the country.

"Lynch, as the former head of the Justice Department, does not have any personal knowledge of Ms. Veselnitskaya's travel,” the statement said."

But those are all details. The point of deflection is to place blame on a prime target.

What does Fox News make of this?

The banner headline and pics on the foxnews.com website right now is:

WHODUNNIT?
Russian lawyers entry into US
touches off federal finger pointing
Source:foxnews.com













Hmmm. Why is there an older white man in this trio? Oh. Forgot. The vaguely French man who was not a true American hero in Foxworld. Not a patriot like the current true Americans who work vigorously to improve relations with Russia.

But is it even possible for this twisted deflection and accusation to work as a tactic? Sadly, yes. For the true believers, work continues behind the scenes to forge the "set-up" story. The Obama administration and Clinton campaign conspired to make it look like the Trump administration conspired with Russia to tamper with the American election.

Their version of "the best defense is a good offense" uses the tactic "accuse your opponent of doing the terrible things that you are doing,"

Just as the campaign strategy to make Trump palatable to Republican moderates required extreme demonization of HRC in 2016, so the defense strategy to protect Trump and his family in 2017 requires accusations that the Obama administration conspired against them.

We can expect the preposterous convoluted attack on Obama/Clinton and other Democratic leaders of the past to continue during the Trump administration even as the new friendship of the American government and the Russian government flourishes.