Tag Archives: media

Elon and Twitter


Will Elon Musk buy Twitter? Should he? What if he does?

Wednesday, when Elon Musk announced a $38 billion offer to buy the 90.8% of Twitter stock he didn’t already own, the news feeds I follow erupted in two very different directions:

  • Political commentators began assessing the implications of the world’s richest man gaining sole control of one of the world’s most influential social-media platforms.
  • Financial writers skeptically asked, “Is this really going to happen?”

The financial question seems logically prior to the political question, so let’s start there. Better yet, let’s start with some general background.

Who is Elon Musk? Musk is a high-tech entrepreneur whose start-ups have struck gold several times, with the proceeds getting rolled into ever-bigger efforts. As a result, he is now believed to be the richest person in the world, with a net worth recently estimated at $273 billion (a figure that fluctuates with the stock market). He is most famous (and richest) from his investment in the electric automobile company Tesla. But he also founded and owns a large chunk of the satellite-launching company SpaceX. He has founded and sold off businesses that became part of Compaq and PayPal.

Born in South Africa, he moved to Canada as a teen-ager to avoid serving in the South African army, which was then fighting to defend the apartheid system. From Canada he moved to the United States and became a US citizen in 2002. (If you hope or fear that he might become president someday, naturalized citizens aren’t eligible.)

His political views are a mixture of right and left: He takes climate change seriously, and Tesla plays an important role in the electrify-everything strategy to reduce carbon emissions. He also has a strong libertarian streak, opposing most government regulation and boosting cryptocurrencies. But libertarianism hasn’t stopped him from taking advantage of government programs when he can. He opposes raising taxes on rich people like himself. He moved to Texas to avoid California taxes.

He has used his 81-million-follower Twitter account to spread Covid misinformation, and he resisted shutting down Tesla’s California factory during the lockdown. He is anti-woke. and anti-cancel-culture. His stated motive for buying Twitter is to protect free speech, but he does not seem worried about Twitter’s disinformation problem.

His public image is larger than life. If you like him, he fits the billionaires-will-save-us model of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, or perhaps Hank Rearden. If you don’t, he’s a James Bond villain waiting to make his move — BitCoinFinger, maybe.

Why Twitter? If you want to acquire influence on America’s (and the world’s) politics and culture, Twitter gives you more bang for your buck than any comparable platform. Buying other social media giants like Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram) or Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube) would cost more than even an Elon Musk can hope to come up with. Meta has a $570 billion market capitalization, and Alphabet’s is $1.7 trillion.

The reason Twitter is comparatively cheap (i.e., tens of billions rather than hundreds of billions) is that it hasn’t exploited surveillance capitalism as effectively as the other major social-media platforms. Not that it hasn’t been trying, but it hasn’t had the same level of success.

In the surveillance-capitalism model, the purpose of offering free internet services is to accumulate data about the people who use them. That data, in turn, can be used to exploit or manipulate the people who inadvertently provided it. Targeted advertising is the most obvious (and one of the most benign) uses of this data. Facebook, for example, has figured out that I’m learning to cook, so it shows me ads for air fryers and carbon-steel skillets. This beats the less-well-targeted old days, when spam email tried to sell me viagra and pictures of underage girls.

But the data can also be used to make the platform itself more addictive, and to design disinformation that individual users will be most likely to believe and act on. Unfortunately for democracy and civil society, the most addicted users are the ones who have gone down some conspiracy-theory rabbit hole. So that’s where the algorithms lead.

Twitter’s comparatively poor financial performance relative to Facebook and Google is one reason why Musk skeptics are alarmed by his ambition to “unlock” Twitter’s “enormous potential”.

Will Musk really buy Twittter? Musk announced on March 14 that he had bought 9.2% of Twitter. At first there was speculation that he wanted a seat on the board, or for the company to agree to some list of changes. But Wednesday he announced an offer to buy the whole company for a price that puts Twitter’s value at $43 billion. That would make Twitter a private company, and Musk could do whatever he wanted with it.

Financial types were immediately skeptical. Sure, Musk says he wants to spend another $38 billion buying Twitter stock. But Musk says a lot of things.

[J]ust because Elon Musk says something doesn’t mean it’s so — even when he’s talking about his own money. Musk is, at a minimum, maddeningly inconsistent. In 2018, for instance, he announced — on Twitter — that he wanted to turn Tesla into a private company and that he had “funding secured.” Which turned out not to be true.

The next question was whether Musk even has $38 billion. He’s certainly worth much more than $38 billion, but (as any rich-on-paper homeowner knows) that doesn’t mean he has cash. He could raise cash by selling or borrowing against his Tesla and SpaceX holdings, but does he really want to do that? Such a move might risk him losing control of the rest of his empire at some point down the road.

And then there’s the possibility that Twitter may fight to stay out of Musk’s control. Friday the Twitter board adopted a proposal that would make it more expensive to acquire.

Twitter said on Friday it adopted a poison pill that would dilute anyone amassing a stake in the company of more than 15% by selling more shares to other shareholders at a discount. Known formally as a shareholder rights plan, the poison pill will be in place for 364 days.

Just how much more money Musk would have to commit depends on how the existing shareholders respond to the plan, and how much capital they could come up with. There’s also the possibility of a rival bid emerging.

It’s also possible that Musk never intended to buy Twitter, but instead anticipates burnishing his crusading reputation after the company fends off his bid. In other words: He tried to save us, but the corrupt system defended itself.

Finally, Musk may be engaging in an elaborate market manipulation. Sometimes would-be takeover targets offer greenmail to make predator capitalists go away. Or if Musk’s offer elicits an rival offer for a higher price, he could walk off with a considerable profit on the shares he already owns.

But what if he succeeds? Whether you think Musk is the answer to Twitter’s problems depends on what you think those problems are. Voices from both the Left and Right worry about social media platforms forming a bottleneck that limits political discussion, but they frame that problem very differently.

If the problem is Big-Tech political bias, then Musk could be the answer. Conservatives see any institution they don’t control as biased against them, so they cast Twitter and Facebook as powerful allies of “cancel culture” and “woke-ism”. (Whether Big Tech actually is biased against conservative beliefs is questionable. But any anti-disinformation effort is going to affect conservatives more than liberals, because conservatives spread more disinformation.)

So Tucker Carlson, a powerful disinformation-spreader himself, is rooting for Musk to take over Twitter. MAGA types anticipate Trump getting his Twitter account back. (He lost it after using Twitter to promote the January 6 coup attempt.) And given how badly Trump’s copycat Truth Social platform is going, getting back on Twitter must look good to him, in spite of his claims to the contrary.

But if the problem is the bottleneck itself, Musk just makes it worse. A small number of corporations have an inordinate influence on what can be discussed and how widely a given point of view spreads. As public companies, those entities are accountable at least to their stockholders, and (to a lesser extent) to the public. A Musk-owned Twitter, by contrast, would be accountable to him alone. Trusting the world’s richest man to look after the public interest seems incredibly naive. (I am reminded of sci-fi humorist Terry Pratchett’s description of the system of government in Ankh-Morpork: “Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.”)

Another piece of the nightmare is what Musk (or any unfettered individual) could do with the kind of data Twitter collects (or could decide to collect in the future). This is not just tweets, but perhaps also the location data from smartphones running the Twitter app. If you always knew who was with who when, how much blackmail material would you have?


Could competition emerge? Conservative attempts to respond to their perception of Twitter’s bias by creating their own platforms, like Parler and Truth Social, have so far not taken off. (I have to wonder whether conservatives really want their own platform. Isn’t the whole point to troll liberals?) Whether liberals would be any more successful is anybody’s guess.

Attempts by one Big Tech corporation to invade another’s territory have also done badly. Google launched Facebook alternative Google+ with much fanfare in 2011, but shut it down in 2019.

The basic problem is a network effect: Any social network where people already gather for a specific purpose has a huge advantage over a new network attempting to fill the same niche. The problem is especially difficult when the existing service is free, preventing competition on price.

However, imagine if Musk’s “free speech” alterations make Twitter all but unusable. Tweets you actually want to see might get buried under disinformation and hate speech. Posting anything at all might open you up to abusive attacks and cyber-stalking. (In other words: Like now, but moreso.) A better curated platform might become attractive enough that a deep-pocketed competitor might emerge. (What if, for example, Amazon started a paid-subscription model, but the cost was folded into Amazon Prime membership?)

What’s the real problem? My own feeling is that trying to fix America’s “free speech problem” (as Musk claims to want to do), is misguided, because the root problem is actually much bigger. Free speech, bad faith, incivility, disinformation, and a simultaneous lack of public trust and public trustworthiness are all part of the same picture. We’re not going to solve one of those problems without thinking about all of them.

No facts? What does that mean?

Since Wednesday, you have undoubtedly seen several headlines about some Trump surrogate denying the existence of facts. It’s from Scottie Nell Hughes talking to NPR host Diane Rehm, and the money quote is: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” Sometimes condensed to “There are no facts”, that quote exploded across the internet in the same way that many fake news headlines do. But it had the added virtue of being true (to the extent that there is such a thing as truth any more).

But what does it mean?

If you make Hughes’ sentence stand alone, the most obvious interpretation is some kind of New Age you-make-your-own-reality philosophy. But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what she meant. For example, there are 2.6 million more Hillary voters than Trump voters, but even if we all get together on January 20 and visualize really hard, we won’t be transported to a world where President Clinton is being sworn in. Reality just isn’t that flexible, and I don’t believe Hughes was claiming otherwise.

So what was she saying? Let’s expand the context a little.

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say “facts are facts”, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.

I’m hearing a less metaphysical claim, which I’ll restate like this: You can’t win a political argument any more by claiming to have the facts on your side, because the other side can generate its own apparent “facts”, and the public as a whole doesn’t trust anyone to decide between the two sets of “facts”. So in the end, all that matters politically is who you like: If you like Trump, you’ll believe his “facts” and if you don’t, you’ll believe the “facts” that contradict him. Worse, no one can set himself up as a neutral fact-checker, because as soon as he decides the case one way or the other, his presumption of neutrality goes away: All the public will hear is that he likes Trump or he doesn’t.

So when The Atlantic‘s James Fallows (who was on the same episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show as Hughes) listed a series of Trump lies, Hughes responded that the sources Fallows was relying on were all biased against Trump. Fallows immediately zeroed in on a Trump claim that the NFL had written to him about something, to which the NFL had responded by denying writing any letter to him at all. “The NFL?” Fallows challenged. “The NFL is biased?” And Hughes responded: “That’s the question you have to ask right now.”

So that’s Hughes’ not-quite-a-syllogism: What Trump asserts is true. People biased against Trump will say otherwise. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is biased against Trump. (Compare Woody Allen’s reasoning in Love and Death: “A. Socrates is a man. B. All men are mortal. C. All men are Socrates.”)

The interesting thing, if you listen to the rest of the episode, is that the other guests — Fallows, Glenn Thrush from Politico, and Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post — are pretty much saying the same thing in terms less quotable than “There’s no such thing as facts.” Fallows begins the show by describing the old state of affairs as

a sort of built in constraint of most public figures, that they would at least try to tell the truth most of the time and they would recognize it as a significant penalty if they’re shown not telling the truth.

And then pointing out how this has changed:

This does not apply in the same way to Donald Trump and therefore, we sort of need to recalibrate our gears to say, how do we treat assertions where the speaker himself doesn’t seem to care whether they can be proven false five minutes later, just goes on and doesn’t show any affect from that.

One perverse result of this is that Trump has gotten a reputation among his fans as “telling it like it is”. In other words, we are used to politicians spinning; they speak in elaborately constructed sentences so that they can give a misleading impression without saying anything provably false. But Trump doesn’t spin. He speaks in very direct sentences because he just doesn’t care whether he’s saying something provably false. If he wants to give you the impression that millions of people voted illegally (when they really didn’t), he’ll just say that.

I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

In the same way that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue“, spinning is the homage liars pay to truth. Bill Clinton’s famous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was his attempt to recognize established facts, but still carve out some tiny sliver of interpretation in which he hadn’t been lying when he claimed nothing was going on with Monica Lewinsky.

It sounded weaselly. How much bolder and telling-it-like-it-is Clinton would have sounded if he had just kept saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He could have claimed that the lab that analyzed Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress was biased against him, and DNA testing is junk science anyway. Surely some “experts” could have been manufactured to go on TV and make that argument.

He didn’t do that, because sounding weaselly was a “significant penalty” Clinton was willing to pay in order to live in a world of facts. But Trump has declared his independence from the world of facts, so he never has to sound weaselly. If more than a dozen women accuse him of groping and other sexual assaults similar to his bragging claims, they’re liars and he’s going to sue them. (He hasn’t sued any of them, and he won’t.) If Trump University students claim he defrauded them and the instructor’s manual backs them up, he looks forward to refuting their baseless case in court. (He settled right after the election, paying the students $25 million.)

No spin. Just bold, direct statements that aren’t true. He hasn’t paid a political penalty for those false statements, because his supporters have neither the inclination nor the attention span to check up on him, and they don’t trust anybody who does.

If that’s not disturbing enough for you, there’s a way things could turn worse from here. An Elliott Lusztig tweetstorm explained how:

Hannah Arendt in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent.

So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in [World War I], naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.

Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to other Trump lies. For example, his claim that the murder rate is the “highest it’s been in 45 years“, when in fact it’s close to a low for that period. Combine that with his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and “Islam hates us“, and and you get a justification for a harsh police crackdown on those communities.

What Lusztig is pointing out here is how this kind of widespread lying can turn partisanship into horror: People accept claims as factual for partisan reasons, and then later can be moved to draw consequences from those false claims. Those consequences might include horrible actions that those same people would have rejected had they been proposed directly.

It’s hard to see what to do about this, but it has to start with identifying the advantages reality has over falsehood. Obviously, reality also has many disadvantages, but its advantages include that it is persistent, self-consistent, and infinitely detailed.

Fantastic lies depend on an ability to constantly change the subject, so that the thinness of the fantasy world can’t be compared to the richness of reality. When a topic becomes so important that it stays in the public mind for long periods of time — the Iraq War is a good example — it becomes harder to lie about. The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about. And finally, anything a person cares deeply about can become a conduit to reality. For example, many otherwise conservative churches have made a project out of helping refugees resettle in America. Their commitment to those projects makes it harder to sell them horror stories about the refugee threat.

This is another example of a larger theme: The Trump administration is going to force us to think seriously about things we used to take for granted. (That’s why I wrote about white pride last week.)

For a long time, many of us have taken for granted that facts are facts, truth ultimately wins out, and lies eventually rebound against the liars. Those principles may still hold, but they’re not in the “of course” category any more. We’re going to have to study more closely exactly what strategic advantages reality offers, and figure out tactics that bring those advantages into play.

Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit

Designed to appeal, without regard to the boring constraints of reality

Have you ever thought about what makes a female cartoon or comic-book character sexy? (I know, I know: sexy animated character and thinking don’t go together. But bear with me on this; I’m going somewhere.) Wonder Woman? Holli Would? Storm of the X-Men?

We can eliminate one factor immediately: realism. Those balloon-like breasts, pencil-thin waists, enormous eyes … I mean, it’s not like anyone has actually had sex with such a woman and come back to tell us how great it was. Real-life movie stars are the kind of people you are unlikely to meet, but the animated characters are outright impossible. 

Hot male comic-book characters — Batman, say, or Thor — are impossible in different ways, with shoulders the size of truck bumpers and jaws drawn with a T-square. As with the women, no one has ever reported back from a date with such a guy, because there are no such guys. So why do with think we know anything about them as lovers?

Obviously, I’m being intentionally obtuse here. Sexual attraction doesn’t work that way. It has very little to do with experience, either our own or anybody else’s. Attraction is based on fantasy rather than reality, and the building blocks of those fantasies have been programmed into us at some very deep level. A lot of it is cultural, and some of it probably even goes back into biology: A stone-age man attracted to perky breasts would be more likely to pursue women of child-bearing age, rather than those who were too old or too young. A broad-shouldered man was probably going to swing a mean club when the wolves come looking for your babies.

But here’s the thing: That programming isn’t complex enough to be subtle. It just pushes you in a direction; it doesn’t tell you how far to go. At some point in evolutionary history, peahens got it into their heads that big peacock tails were sexy. Fast-forward a few thousand generations, and the guys have these ridiculous appendages that interfere with flight and make it nearly impossible to hide from predators. Nowhere in the peabrain programming language is there a command for “That’s enough already.”

It’s the same for us. If the kind of breast development that differentiates child-bearing women from immature girls is good, then ridiculously impossible balloon-breasts are that much better. And so on. Batman and Jessica Rabbit are sexy because they are extreme; they’ve been designed to appeal to our biological/cultural programming without needing to satisfy the constraints reality imposes.

So what’s any of that got to do with news, fake or otherwise?

We may like to think that we pay attention to the news for all kinds of virtuous reasons: It makes us better citizens, we are intellectually curious about our world, and stuff like that. And there are a few ultra-serious news sources that take us at our word, like The Economist or PBS Newshour. In terms of sexiness, the stories you read or watch there are like the people your mother tries to fix you up with: very practical marriage partners and good bets to produce grandchildren Mom could be proud of. But they usually don’t give your lizard brain much to work with.

The reason ultra-serious news doesn’t dominate the market is that we also are interested in news stories for a lot of other reasons: They give us something impressive to tell our friends, they provoke an energizing rush of anger at our enemies, or they prove that we were right all along about something.

That’s why, throughout human history, tales have always grown in the telling. If I tell you that I caught a bigger fish today than I usually do, you might mention it to somebody else if they happen to be talking about fish. But if I caught the biggest fish anybody has ever seen, and I embroider that story with all kinds of remarkable details, then you certainly will retell it. If the truth is that the new parson and the blacksmith’s daughter exchanged what looked like a meaningful glance, that’s kind of interesting. But if the story grows to where they were caught half-naked in the woods, that news will spread all over the county.

Journalists at more ratings-conscious news outlets — CNN, say — have to take more account of those less virtuous factors, so they are constantly repackaging real events to make them compelling. They pick out whatever is remarkable or stunning or infuriating and feed it to us as a concentrate, like the one zinger out of an hour-long speech. The stories they produce are like Kate Upton or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: They appeal to the inner programming that tells us what is interesting, while continuing to respect the constraints of reality. And if a detail gets fudged here or there — think Fox News — it’s like airbrushing or make-up: still real, more or less, just enhanced a little.

But fake news can be Jessica Rabbit. It’s designed to appeal, without regard to reality. And it works.

Did you hear that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump? (He didn’t.) Or that an FBI agent investigating Clinton died in a suspicious murder-suicide? (Untrue.) Or that Mike Pence credits gay conversion therapy with saving his marriage? (Nope.)

I don’t know about you, but when I saw that Pence headline, my first reaction was: “I knew it!” That’s what fake news is designed to evoke.

Real news, especially if it’s told accurately, almost never does that. Real events nearly always include some mitigating detail that disrupts our comic-book reaction of triumph or fear or anger. Even the worst stories about the public figures we dislike usually just show them to be common assholes rather than Dr. Doom style villains. Real reporting nearly always leaves room for doubt; there’s stuff we still don’t know that might change the conclusion.

Real news stories, in other words, are like the real people you might meet for lunch: interesting in some ways but not others, maybe worth spending more time with in the future, but not all like Thor.

In other areas of life, we eventually get good at recognizing the fantasies people construct to manipulate us, appealing as they might be: that Nigerian prince who wants to give you a pile of money in exchange for an insignificant amount of help; the titanium designer watch you can buy on a street corner for twenty bucks; the celebrity you can see naked if you just open this attachment. We’re onto that stuff now. Some offers are just too good to be true; learning to accept that they almost certainly aren’t true is part of growing up.

Fake news that goes viral on social media, that you hear about because it’s already been shared by somebody you know — that’s new enough that most of us don’t have a too-good-to-be-true filter yet. But that 100% pure news satisfaction feeling, that “I knew it!” or “Those bastards!” or “Everybody needs to hear about this!”, it’s too good to be true. It’s a sign of fakery and manipulation, not a ring of truth.

I’m not saying you need to give up your news fantasy life; just respect the line that separates it from reality. Similarly, you can, if you want, go on fantasizing about Storm or Thor or even Jessica Rabbit. There’s no harm in it. But if you come home from lunch believing that you’ve met one of them, you need to think again.

What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson

It doesn’t matter how many details you know. If you start the story in the wrong place, you won’t understand it.

Part of my regular news-watching cycle is to check in on Fox News from time to time. It keeps me honest and helps me anticipate the kinds of arguments I’m likely to start hearing from conservatives.

Watching Fox was particularly interesting in the early part of this week, because in the evenings they (like MSNBC and CNN) gave a lot of air time to their reporters on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a rare opportunity to see all three cable news networks cover the same controversial events at the same time. Most days, the difference between the networks lies mainly in what they choose to cover — a new report on climate change might lead the news on MSNBC, while Fox focuses on Benghazi hearings in Congress. But for a few days the what of the news was obvious and inescapable, so Fox’s unique perspective on the world could only express itself in the how.

Some of the difference in coverage has been on the detail level and is easy to filter out if you’re aware of the various networks’ points of view. When police would start moving in on demonstrators, for example, Fox would report as fact whatever they were hearing from police — that, say, shots had been fired from the crowd — while MSNBC would stick closer to what they could see (police moving in), express ignorance as to why it was happening, and then later report what police were saying (shots were fired from the crowd) as a claim they couldn’t verify. Whether you were pro-demonstrator or pro-police, you could watch either network and make a good guess about what the other was reporting.

But there has been a much more subtle, harder-to-compensate-for difference in the way each network answers the fundamental question: What are the demonstrations in Ferguson all about?

On Fox, the answer to that question is very simple. Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event: White police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. That restricted context drives the rest of their narrative.

The apparent mystery. Like any good narrative hook, Fox’s omission of context creates a mystery: Why do so many people in Ferguson care so much about that particular event? Of course, Michael Brown’s family would be upset, and even Fox’s audience can cut them some slack if they want Officer Wilson nailed to the wall. But what about all those other people on the street night after night? It’s safe to say that most of them never even met Michael Brown. Why were they giving up their evenings and risking arrest or worse?

Once you have that question in your head, several answers suggest themselves: Maybe they’re all just crazy. Fox’s resident psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow, says “the psyche of the community” deserves as much investigation as the actions of police.

Or maybe most of the protesters really don’t care about Brown, and the demonstrations are just an exciting thing to do in a boring town. At night on the streets, you’re where it’s all happening. You might even get on national TV. That’s the interpretation Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan was promoting when he described the demonstrations late Monday night as a “media event” and “child’s play”. (In response, he got cussed out on camera by one of the black “children” he was demeaning: “We go through this shit every day,” the young man reported. Harrigan did not follow up on that observation.)

An even more sinister solution to the mystery evokes racial stereotypes that Fox doesn’t need to spell out. A hint is enough: Maybe these young black men are just wired for anarchy and violence. The Brown shooting was nothing more than an excuse for doing what they’d do all the time if police weren’t stopping them. And once you raise the stereotype of the lawless black savage, the incidents of looting take on a significance far beyond their number or the number of people responsible: This isn’t about Brown or the police at all, it’s about grabbing some free liquor or a new pair of Air Jordans.

In addition, the why-do-they-care mystery leads right into a question Fox raises at every opportunity: Why do blacks only go to the streets about white-on-black cases like Brown and Trayvon Martin, when black-on-black violence [see endnote 1] kills far more people? How street demonstrations could prevent black-on-black violence is a question they never address. (Demonstrations speak to governments and the national electorate, and have little effect on criminals or hot-headed youth.) But Fox presents the Brown and Martin demonstrations as pointless anyway, so why shouldn’t there be equally pointless demonstrations against black-on-black violence instead?

Second, restricting your attention to that one context-free event makes the crowd look like a lynch mob. Why are they so sure Officer Wilson wasn’t justified in shooting Brown? Why can’t they wait for the investigative process to play out? And why can’t they cooperate with police now to keep the peace?

And finally, the mystery-framing makes the politics of the situation look purely venal. How outrageous it seems that liberals — they must be liberals — are exploiting the Brown shooting to register Ferguson’s black population to vote!

What makes Fox’s frame so convincing to its audience is that you can feel well-informed inside it. You can know how many people were arrested each night and which stores they looted. You can learn details of the shooting (though anonymous leaks from police will be reported more authoritatively than eye-witness testimony from black citizens). You can learn statistics about black crime in America. You can know just how rare police killings are compared to drug killings or other black-on-black murders. You’re not ignorant; you’re a walking storehouse of the kinds of information MSNBC would never tell you.

But in spite of that well-informed feeling, you don’t understand what’s really going on, because Fox is leaving out key background information and then beginning the story in the wrong place. The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence.

Start by asking. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie did what Fox reporters (or most individual whites) hardly ever do: ask the black community what they’re concerned about and listen to their answers.

Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. … Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

The right story begins here: A majority-black community feels abused by its almost entirely white police force. [2] And complaining to the white-dominated local government does no good. (As a report from Arch City Defenders spells out, the town of Ferguson gets significant revenue from assessing fines against poor people.)

If you start there, the narrative takes a completely different path. When a policeman shot Michael Brown six times on a city street in broad daylight in front of witnesses, the Ferguson community was not shocked (the way I would be if one of my white friends were gunned down by police in my majority-white town). Quite the opposite, this was the kind of incident they found all too believable, given the police behavior they see all the time.

So the reaction we’ve been seeing on the streets isn’t “OMG! How can something like this happen?”, it’s “This shit has to stop.”

No mystery. So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect?

Their tactics are also no mystery: When the political process is unresponsive, the streets are the only communication channel left. Trayvon Martin’s mother is supposed to have said, “If they won’t hear us, make them feel us.” And Ja’han Jones put it more aggressively on Salon: “What if being peaceful won’t change a thing?”

As far as Officer Wilson is concerned, the crowds are not rushing to judgment, they are speaking from experience. Yes, police act this way, and the result is always the same: If the incident isn’t ignored completely, it is shunted into an opaque “process” in which eyewitnesses are ignored and no quantity of physical evidence is sufficient to bring charges. Ferguson police have shown every indication of wanting to go that way: keeping back relevant information as long as possible, smearing Michael Brown, responding to protests with even more excessive force, leaking bogus “facts” that support Wilson, and arresting reporters.

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

Once you understand where the story really starts and what it’s really about, then the whole detour into black-on-black crime is revealed to be “the politics of changing the subject“. Other than corpses, the two issues have nothing in common. It’s like asking Sean Hannity, “Why have you spent so much time on the four Americans who died at Benghazi when tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents?”

My reality and theirs. Demographically, I look more like a Fox viewer than a Ferguson protester. I’m white, over 50, and have an above-median household income. I barely notice when a police car goes by, and when I have had occasion to deal with my local police — usually because I approached them with a question — they have been unfailingly polite. When I arrange to meet people socially or promise to be somewhere, I don’t allow extra time for the possibility that I might be stopped and frisked, or taken down to the police station and questioned about some crime I never heard of. That kind of stuff never happens to guys like me.

If I did find myself in an unexpected and unpleasant run-in with police, it would feel like snow in July. My instinct would be to wait it out until polite normality re-asserted itself. So I could easily follow the advice of LAPD’s Sunil Dutta:

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? … Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop. [3]

Great advice for me, but I don’t believe it has much to do with the reality of places like Ferguson, or even parts of Dutta’s own Los Angeles.

What if I weren’t a middle-aged middle-class white guy? What if police abuse is normal in my experience? What if I’ve cooperated before, and before, and before that … and the stop wasn’t “complete in minutes” and I got tased, pepper-sprayed or worse anyway? What if I “saved my anger for later” and the appropriate channels laughed at me? What if I have dead or injured friends whose attempts to cooperate didn’t “end safely”, and other friends who weren’t “presumed innocent” in court, and are now in prison on sketchy or manufactured evidence?

What’s your advice for me then, Officer Dutta?

What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get. The frustrated citizens of Ferguson are pursuing a plan that makes sense: Wait for an incident so egregious that it can’t be swept under the rug, and then get out on the streets in large numbers. Tell your story to the country, put your political leaders on the spot, and show the world how “justice” works in your town. Shine a spotlight on the usual shadowy self-investigation process, and dare the powers-that-be to work their usual trickery in front of a national audience.

That plan might not work — it didn’t work in Florida — but what more likely plan have you got for them? They can’t just be quiet and wait for justice to be served. They’ve got to do something.

Because “we go through this shit every day”, and that shit has to stop.

[1] Reason‘s Steve Chapman asks:

Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

[2] Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Ferguson residents aren’t giving police credit for all the people they stop and don’t kill. What’s up with that? And what about the 3/4ths of the people police across the nation kill who aren’t black?

[3] This advice was funnier when Chris Rock was giving it.

What the CBO Really Said about ObamaCare and the Economy

File this under: “Liberal media? What liberal media?”

I doubt the Congressional Budget Office expected The Budget and Economic Outlook 2014 to 2024 to be front-page news. They put out these ten-year look-aheads every six months or so, and they don’t usually get much reaction.

But say some news outlets decided to pay attention. You might expect — the CBO probably expected — reporters to focus on the summary. After all, that’s why people write summaries to 182-page government reports with eight appendices. In particular, you might expect articles to focus on the summary’s first line:

The federal budget deficit has fallen sharply during the past few years, and it is on a path to decline further this year and next year.

That sounds like a big deal. Very Serious People have been telling us for years (or more accurately, since Inauguration Day 2009, when they suddenly stopped believing Dick Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” maxim) that the deficit is going to destroy our entire society. We’re going to turn into Greece, locusts will devour our fields, toads will rain from the sky, and so forth. So the fact that this situation is rapidly improving ought to get the VSPs attention.

The numbers are striking: The combined Bush/Obama budget of FY 2009 (October, 2008 to October 2009) had a $1.4 trillion deficit. (Bush’s first proposal for a FY2009 budget had an $407 billion deficit, which had grown to a projected $1.2 trillion by the time Obama took office, due to the economic collapse at the end of Bush’s term. Obama’s stimulus pushed the deficit the final $200 billion on its way to creating 3.3 million jobs, according to a previous CBO study.) FY 2013 ended in October with a $680 billion deficit, and the CBO projects deficits of $514 billion in FY2014 and $478 billion in FY2015.

At that level, this year’s deficit would equal 3.0 percent of the nation’s economic output, or gross domestic product (GDP)—close to the average percentage of GDP seen during the past 40 years.

So unless you think we’ve been in a Deficit Emergency for the past 40 years, we’re not going to be in one this year or next.

But that’s not what caught everybody’s attention. Instead of looking to the CBO’s summary for the story, the media (led by the right-wing media) looked to Appendix C “Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates”. Because, you know, appendices of government reports are always so fascinating, especially the third appendix.

But even if you only read the appendices, you still have some choice about what the story is. Appendix B, for example, says:

CBO and JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation] estimate that the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA will markedly increase the number of nonelderly people who have health insurance—by about 13 million in 2014, 20 million in 2015, and 25 million in each of the subsequent years through 2024 (see Table B-2).

So despite all the scary (and debunked) headlines about cancelled policies and increased premiums, the ACA will make substantial progress on its main goal: Millions more people will have health insurance.

But the cost of that coverage will explode the deficit, right? Well, this report reiterated a previous conclusion:

Considering all of the coverage provisions and the other provisions together, CBO and JCT estimated in July 2012 (the most recent comprehensive estimates) that the total effect of the ACA would be to reduce federal deficits.

But maybe you’re worried about the “insurance company bailout” Republicans have been denouncing, which the rest of the world calls “risk corridors”. If so, you’d focus on this part of Appendix B:

CBO now projects that, over the 2015–2024 period, risk corridor payments from the federal government to health insurers will total $8 billion and the corresponding collections from insurers will amount to $16 billion, yielding net savings for the federal government of $8 billion.

So the “bailout” is a re-insurance plan that the government expects to make an $8 billion profit on.

But anyway, what does Appendix C say?

CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor … The reduction in CBO’s projections of hours worked represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million in 2017, rising to about 2.5 million in 2024.

It’s not hard for me to imagine why this might happen: My wife is a (currently healthy) over-55 two-time cancer survivor, and prior to ObamaCare she couldn’t possibly have gotten insurance on the individual market at any reasonable rate. She happens to like her job, but many people in similar situations might decide to retire early (now that they have that option) rather than hang on until Medicare covers them. Similarly, my college roommate has been frozen into his job for the last couple decades, because his son was born with major medical problems that a new employer’s insurance company might write off as a pre-existing condition. Other people might prefer to work part-time, but have been hanging on to full-time jobs for fear of losing their health coverage. Or maybe extended Medicaid or S-CHIP coverage or an ObamaCare subsidy could shift the balance in a struggling household towards having one parent stay home with the kids.

That’s the kind of thing the CBO is talking about: “workers … choose to supply less labor”. It’s a good kind of thing.

So naturally it got covered like this by the conservative media:

Fox News: ObamaCare could lead to loss of nearly 2.5 million US jobs, report says

Washington Times: ObamaCare will push 2 million workers out of labor market: CBO

National Review: The CBO just nuked ObamaCare

And not much differently by the mainstream media:

The Hill: O-Care will cost 2.5 million workers by 2024

UPI: ObamaCare to cost 2.3 million jobs over ten years

And even a 180-degree false CNBC headline: CBO says ObamaCare will add to deficit, create reluctant work force — later corrected to allow that ObamaCare “may not add to federal deficit” rather than the accurate “the total effect of the ACA would be to reduce federal deficits”.

CBO director Paul Elmendorf testified before Congress Wednesday morning, and set the record straight. The CBO believes that ObamaCare will increase demand for labor over the next few years, creating jobs rather than killing them.

When reporters began to understand that they’d been scammed into repeating Republican talking points, many of them blamed the Obama administration. National Journal‘s headline: “The White House is Still Terrible at Explaining ObamaCare“. You see, it’s not up to reporters to check facts and inform their readers rather than mislead them. How can they be expected to print the truth when no one spoon-feeds the story to them properly? And why didn’t the White House (which doesn’t control the CBO) anticipate the report, anticipate that Appendix C would be the story, and anticipate that Republicans would twist its statements into pretzels? Shouldn’t they have been prepared for this?

That’s your liberal media in action.

To Succeed, Fail Boldly

Five doomed proposals for changing the national conversation

From one point of view, it all came to nothing.

Two weeks ago, liberals around the country thrilled to the story of Wendy Davis’ filibuster. With a few minutes of help from a raucous gallery of protesters, Texas State Senator Davis’ 11-hour speech ran out the clock on the special session of the legislature that Governor Rick Perry had called to pass a draconian anti-abortion bill.


For two weeks, anyway. But Perry was still governor, so he called yet another special session. And the Republicans still had majorities in the legislature, so Friday the same bill passed the Senate and was on its way to Perry’s desk. In spite of massive protests, in spite of a viral video that made another new heroine out of Sarah Slamen, the legislative result is the same as if everyone had just stayed home.

Soon we’ll probably be able say the same thing about Moral Mondays in North Carolina. The Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature and they’re not afraid to use it, so they’re going to pass whatever they want, no matter how many religious leaders protest, no matter how many Carolinians they have to arrest.

So it’s pointless, right?

In the long term, no, it’s not pointless. This is the only way things change.

Losing my shrug. Let’s start with the obvious, even if it doesn’t seem all that consequential. A few months ago I’d have shrugged if you told me Texas and North Carolina were about to pass a series of laws that would impose real hardships on women and the poor. “The South,” I’d probably have said, “what can you expect?”

Well, Wendy Davis and William Barber have taken away my shrug. Like lots of other blue-state folks, I have been reminded not to write off Texas and North Carolina. Red states are not monolithic blocks of small-minded people. Progressive forces may be losing there right now, but they’re fighting. And people who keep fighting just might win someday.

If you don’t believe that, recall how the Religious Right and the Tea Party got where they are today. For decades, right-wing extremists rallied for proposals they couldn’t hope to pass into law, and mostly still haven’t: human life amendments, balanced budget amendments, the gold standard, defunding the U.N., and so forth. They failed and they failed again. And sometimes they succeeded when no one had given them a chance. (When the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate 84-8 in 1972, its ratification seemed a foregone conclusion.) But today their point of view has to be dealt with, and in some states is dominant.

Before you can win, you have to change the conversation. And the only way to do that is to fight battles the conventional wisdom says you can’t win. You’ll lose most of them. For a while you’ll lose all of them, because the conventional wisdom isn’t stupid. But that’s how things change.

The only way to change the direction of the wind is to keep spitting into it.

How conventional wisdom shifts. I have written in more detail elsewhere about how conservatives manipulate the supposedly liberal media. Journalism is not a conspiracy, but there is an unconscious group process that decides what news is, what can be stated as a simple fact, and what has be covered as controversial. Partisan groups can pressure that process and get their desired response, independent of whether most individual journalists agree or disagree with their views.

In that article I focused on how outside pressure can make known facts seem controversial. So, for example, global warming is almost always covered as if it were in dispute, when in a scientific sense it is well established. But powerful voices will argue with journalists who say global warming is a fact, so instead they write he-said/she-said articles, or leave the global-warming angle out of a story entirely.

Today I want to focus on the opposite side of that same unconscious media groupthink: Anything that is stated forcefully by one side and not contested by the other will be covered as if it were a fact.

So: Texans are all conservatives. Only people on the right care about “morality” or “the family”. “Moral issues” are the ones about sex — abortion, contraception, homosexuality — and the moral position is the conservative position. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, making sure workers get a fair wage — all that sermon-on-the-mount stuff — those aren’t “moral” issues.

If you don’t regularly and loudly contest those notions, they’ll get reported as facts. They’ll provide the background assumptions that frame the coverage of everything else.

Wolf Blitzer’s evangelism. The clearest recent example of this principle was Wolf Blitzer’s embarrassing interview with an atheist mother after the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May. Blitzer badgered the woman to “thank the Lord” for her and her child’s survival until she finally had to confess her atheism.

So is Blitzer is an evangelical Christian trying to push his religion on CNN? Nope. Wikipedia says Blitzer is a Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. I can’t say from that precisely what he believes about God, but he was almost certainly not pressuring this woman to proclaim her Judaism.

Instead, Blitzer was applying two seldom-contested stereotypes:

  • Oklahoma is in the so-called Bible Belt, so everybody must be some kind of conservative Christian.
  • There are no atheists in the foxholes. When life and death hang in the balance, everybody becomes religious.

Probably Wolf had been hearing loud proclamations of Christian faith all day, and no voices on the other side. (This is another kind of groupthink. It’s not considered rude to thank Jesus in these circumstances — even in the presence of people whose loved ones Jesus apparently chose not to save. But conservative Christians would take offense if you said, “Stuff like this just shows that everything’s random and you can’t take it personally.”) So it became a background “fact” of his reporting that the people of Moore were having an evangelical Christian response to their survival.

Candle-lighting vs. darkness-cursing. We can wish for harder-working more-objective journalists who will seek out the truth and cover it fairly, regardless of the power dynamics. But in the meantime journalism is what it is, and we’re just being stupid if we let conservatives manipulate it and don’t fight back.

The facts on the ground today are that the media will challenge a pro-choice Catholic to reconcile the contradiction between his politics and his faith, but not an Evangelical who votes to cut Food Stamps or reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. (Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you fed me. … I was sick and you cared for me.”) Want to change that? Join the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh, or start something similar in your own state capital.

In the short term, you may not change any votes in the legislature. But if enough people contest the previously uncontested “facts”, those “facts” leave (what Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin call) “the Sphere of Consensus” and enter “the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy”. The conventional wisdom changes.

From defense to offense. So far the big progressive protests have been efforts to resist conservative aggression: rollbacks of women’s rights in Texas, unemployment insurance in North Carolina, workers’ rights in Michigan and Ohio.

It’s time to go on offense. In addition to resisting the regressive agenda of the right and timidly putting forward small proposals like universal background checks for gun buyers, progressives need a blue-sky positive agenda that we keep making people notice. Just because we can’t pass it in this term of Congress doesn’t make it impractical. (When have conservatives ever been constrained by that?) You have to keep proposing it until people get used to hearing it; only then will they look at it seriously.

So here are five bold proposals that are “doomed” according to the conventional wisdom. Their complete impracticality is a “fact” and will continue to be so until loud voices move them into the Sphere of Controversy, from which they can get serious consideraton.

  • The Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 and fell three states short of ratification when the ratification deadline passed in 1982. Supporters of the three-state strategy claim the deadline doesn’t count and in 2011 got ratification through one house of the Virginia legislature. But the ERA gets re-introduced in every session of Congress, most recently in March. Only the fact that the conventional wisdom says it can’t pass, protects politicians from explaining why they disagree with “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
  • Single-payer health care. Of all the existing plans to help the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance, Obamacare is the most conservative. (It’s Romneycare, after all.) Conservatives opposing Obamacare have offered no plan to fulfill the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” slogan. And yet, if you watch Sunday morning political shows on TV, Obamacare is the “liberal” position. It’s better than the status quo, and I support it on those terms. But single-payer is what gives Europe, Japan, and the industrialized parts of the British Commonwealth lower costs and higher life expectancies than we currently have. It would do the same for the United States.
  • End corporate personhood. Few actual humans defend the idea that corporations should be people with full constitutional rights. A variety of constitutional amendments have been proposed to reverse this piece of conservative judicial activism (which in particular has no basis whatsoever in the originalist constitutional interpretation conservatives claim to favor). Bernie Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment says: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations.” Everybody who runs for office should be challenged to state a position on that.
  • A federal Reproductive Rights Act. The current reproductive-rights situation in states like Texas resembles Jim Crow: Women’s constitutional rights are not repealed directly, but are made impractical by a series of restrictions transparently introduced for that purpose. In the same way that the Voting Rights Act protected minorities’ right to vote (until recently), a federal Reproductive Rights Act should impose federal oversight on states that have a history of infringing women’s rights.
  • Replace the Second Amendment. The overall situation of weapons and society has changed so much since 1787 that it’s hard to attach any meaning at all to the full text of the Second Amendment. I don’t have a revised text in mind yet, but I think the amendment should defend the right of individuals to procure appropriate tools to defend their homes, while giving Congress the power to control military hardware.

Are you a “news” addict?

Every week, the so-called “news” provided by 24/7 cable channels and their web sites includes a hefty helping of gossip: stuff you really don’t need to know that is designed to snag your attention. Worse, this kind of stuff is addictive; you can find yourself thinking about it when you’re supposed to be working or resting or listening to your spouse. Like any addict, your mind drifts into wondering when you’ll be able to turn on the TV or check the internet to get your next dose.

Believe me, I speak from experience. Back in the 90s, my attention got captured by addictive stories like the O. J. Simpson and the Microsoft antitrust trials. They seemed harmless at first, but before long my brain was not my own. They took mental cycles away from the important issues in my personal life, and from the issues that needed my attention as a citizen. Instead, my thoughts and emotions were focused on whatever CNN* decided to hype that week, stuff that usually had nothing to do with me.

One beautiful summer day I went to a peaceful park, imagining that I would work out the plot holes in a piece of fiction I’d been trying to write. Instead, I spent the time raging about Elian Gonzalez. That was when I knew I had a problem. I had to go cold turkey.

That’s why the Weekly Sift is the way it is. I designed it to be the informational equivalent of a coffee-and-juice bar for former alcoholics. You can hang out here, stay informed about the things a citizen needs to know, and never hear about the Casey Anthony trial. We can even talk politics without agonizing over whether Hillary is going to run again or not**.

Most weeks, providing that hype-free space feels like enough. But these last two weeks have seen such an enormous concentration of addictive not-news or almost-news stories that simply ignoring them doesn’t seem sufficient. (I had to listen to President Obama’s climate speech on C-SPAN, because CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had junk news to cover instead.) Many of my regular readers, I suspect, have been captured by these stories, because it’s hard not to be. So this week I’m doing an intervention. If you’re obsessing over any of the stories below (or something similar), think about whether that’s the best use of your time, your mind, and your emotional energy.

As I said, I’ve been there, so I know how you want to respond: “OK, maybe I am spending too much time on this, but I enjoy it. What’s wrong with that?”

Alcoholics will tell you the same thing. They enjoy drinking. They enjoy barfing in your car. They enjoy waking up with a headache and not knowing how they got here.

Take a step back from your “enjoyment” of addictive stories and look at their larger effects. Do you really enjoy staying up until 2 a.m. to put the 400th comment on some internet article (because otherwise the 399th guy wouldn’t understand what a jerk he is)? When you finally leave the TV, are you happier than when you sat down in front of it? More relaxed? Better able to deal with the rest of your life?

Or have the gossip pushers gotten their hooks into you? Has your mind stopped being your own?

The Zimmerman trial. Trials are classic soap opera, but the only people who should devote day-by-day attention to them are defendants, jurors, and the lawyers and judges who are paid for their time. Everybody else should just wait to see how they come out. A typical day at a trial produces maybe a paragraph’s worth of new information, but that paragraph can take hours to unfold and then pundits can speculate endlessly about what tomorrow’s paragraph will say. Minus the 15 seconds it takes to read a paragraph, all that time is wasted.

The Zimmerman trial is particularly insidious, because you can almost convince yourself it’s news. The Trayvon Martin case as a whole is worth knowing about, because of what it says about racism in America. (So was O. J.’s case, if you could keep the long view and not develop an opinion about Kato Kaelin’s character.) That’s why I covered it twice last year (Trayvon Martin: the Racism Whites Don’t Want to See and Prejudice, Bigotry, and “Reasonable” Racism). When the trial is over, it may be worth looking back to see how those social issues played out in this context. But don’t waste hours pondering the daily drip-drip-drip of information.

You don’t know George Zimmerman, and whether he spends 20 years in prison or walks away free has no effect on your life. So if you find yourself reacting emotionally to obscure points in the rules of evidence, consider the possibility that you may have a problem.

The Snowden chase. Like the Zimmerman trial, this spins out of a legitimate news story, but isn’t news. As I explained in the previous Sift, Edward Snowden is Not the Issue. So far, Snowden has told us a bunch of stuff about NSA spying that the government should have told us a long time ago. Why he did it, how he did it, where he is now, and whether he’ll make it to a country willing to grant him asylum — it’ll be a great movie someday, but it doesn’t matter. The Fourth Amendment matters; the NSA spying on innocent American citizens matters.

Paula Deen. This story contains a tiny sliver of some important issues: How much should we care about what TV stars do when they’re off camera? And if you imagined that racism was ancient history in America, well, clearly not.

But those issues came and went in a brief flicker. Now it’s about whether she’s been sufficiently contrite, and whether white people are persecuted by “reverse racism” or “political correctness” or some other nonsense. (I’ve already said everything I have to say about that in The Distress of the Privileged.)

If you never watched Deen’s show on the Food Network, then the story has no effect on you whatsoever. If you loved her show, don’t worry, she’ll have another one before long. Don Imus came back; so will Paula Deen.

Aaron Hernandez. I’m a Patriot fan, I’ve enjoyed watching Hernandez run after making a catch, and I still refuse to pay attention to this case. O. J.’s runs were even more fun to watch, but his murder trial took up a chunk of my life that I’ll never get back.

I’m going to continue to worry about whether Tom Brady will have anybody to throw to next season. But the Patriots have released Hernandez and the rest of us should too. A jury will decide whether he’s a murderer. The rest of us don’t need to have an opinion.

What is news anyway? News is a recent or ongoing public event that affects you either in your personal life or in your role as a citizen. You could imagine doing something about news. If it’s large-scale news, it might change how you vote or cause you to contact your elected representatives. Maybe you’ll write a check or attend a demonstration or organize to help the victims. Or maybe you won’t end up doing any of those things, but you could, because the story affects your life.

Smaller-scale news concerns stuff you might do in your personal life: a new restaurant is opening, the highway is under construction, 4th of July fireworks will be somewhere different this year.

Sometimes news changes your perspective or opens your eyes to wonder. Apollo 17’s Big Blue Marble photo was news.

Addictive gossip raises the same do-something feelings as a war or a famine, but since it doesn’t really touch any part of your life, all you can “do” is invest more energy in the story itself. So you learn more details, form more opinions about the characters, speculate about what might happen next, and generally just get more and more wound up. Perversely, you end up more motivated to do something — but there’s nothing you can do — than you feel in response to personal and political situations that are crying out for your action.

Worst of all, the addictive story gives you a chance to keep repeating all those maxims that make you unhappy and prevent you from achieving your potential: The world is rigged against people like you, nasty people are everywhere, justice never really triumphs. Maybe your negative maxims are different, but you know what they are.

Take a step back and look around. Are you really enjoying this? If you never thought about it again, would it ever come back to bite you?

Let it go. There’s a world out there that needs your attention.

* The Fox/MSNBC shouting match hadn’t developed yet. It was a simpler time.

** It’ll be fine. Either way, there will be someone worth voting for, at least in the primaries. Trust me on this.

How Bubbles Look From the Inside

Somehow, no matter what team I root for, the referees favor the other one. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life. How is that even possible?

I mean, mostly I root for teams in my area, so the refs could have a regional prejudice. But once in a while some team on the other side of the country catches my fancy, and the referees persecute them too! How do they even know? It’s not like I announce on Twitter: “New team 4 me. GO 9ERS!” (Like I’d make it that easy for them.) But somehow they figure it out. Even in the college bowl season, where I’ve never heard of half these teams and sometimes I’m not even sure myself who I’m rooting for until the middle of the second quarter, it’s just inevitable that some bogus pass interference call in the last two minutes is going to give the game to the other team.

Why me? What did I ever do to them?

Deep in their hearts, all sports fans have these thoughts. But for most of us, reason eventually wins out. Sooner or later, no matter how convincing it feels, the International Conspiracy of Telepathic Refs in All Sports becomes too unwieldy a theory to take seriously. “OK,” you reluctantly admit, “maybe I do have a perceptual bias that makes all of Kobe Bryant’s best moves look like traveling. Maybe I have a memory bias that clings to those plays at the plate where the replay showed my guy was clearly safe and forgets all the bad calls that went the other way. Maybe that’s what’s happening really.”

It’s hard to accept, like the first time you hear that the world isn’t flat and the Australians are actually standing upside-down. But after a while it’s the only thing that makes sense. (In weak moments, though, when the red light goes on even though the puck obviously didn’t cross the line, I still nurse the fantasy that someday in a dark smoky bar in Bangkok, a renegade ref on the run will explain to me how it all works.)

Something similar happens in politics. No matter who you root for, it’s pathetically obvious that the media favors the other side. If you’re conservative, you believe that the Liberal Media covers up incredible Obama scandals like Fast and Furious or Benghazi, not to mention oldies-but-goodies like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. If you’re liberal, it makes you crazy how conservatives can get completely baseless stories into the news cycle, like the Menendez prostitute thing or the ACORN pimp scam. David Atkins expressed the common liberal frustration:

The “story” about Menendez bubbled up through the right-wing “news” site The Daily Caller and gained traction from there in the traditional media.

It reminds me of the time that some liberal hacks paid off people to lie about a Republican Senator, the story “broke” on Daily Kos, and then the entire media world talked about it for months.

Oh wait. That didn’t happen, because it would never happen. The Washington press is wired for Republican control, and that includes the credibility given to alternative media sources.

Another media-bias notion popular on the left is false equivalence, where any story about Republican wrong-doing also has to mention some Democratic sin, no matter how trivial, so that the journalist can conclude that “both sides do it”, even if both both sides actually don’t do it.

This week’s false-equivalence story was the liberal war on science, which balances the conservative war on science. You see, a handful of liberals share popular conservative anti-science views (19% don’t believe in global warming) and there are even some issues where a fringe of liberal environmentalists or anti-corporatists reach beyond the facts (like the bogus vaccine/autism link). Even though none of these views have the slightest influence on Democratic politics or Obama-administration policy, they are totally the same as, say, Republican denial of global warming or evolution.

So let’s take for granted that (like sports fans) political partisans across the board feel persecuted by the media, or at least by the portion of the media that isn’t clearly on their side. From there, it’s tempting to dismiss the whole issue of mainstream media bias. But that might be false equivalence: What if some part of the media really is biased? (I mean, occasionally one team really does get the short end of the calls.) How would you know?

Increasingly, media has gotten polarized into self-contained liberal and conservative orbits. If you’re a liberal, you watch MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interview people from The Nation or American Prospect. If you’re a conservative, Fox’s Sean Hannity is telling you what the Washington Times or Breitbart.com just discovered. The worldviews you get are so diametrically opposed that they can’t both be right. So — unlike in sports — you know that there is at least one set of biased refs out there. But which one? Or both?

Once you get inside one orbit or the other, almost everything you hear confirms what you’ve already been told. But how could you tell if it’s all a delusional bubble? What do bubbles look like from the inside?

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf is arguably part of the liberal bubble, but recently he posed exactly the right questionWho best equipped readers to anticipate the outcome that actually happened?

Most of the time, a news bubble has the resources to cover up its mistakes. So if One-Sided News announces that something is the Biggest Scandal Ever, and then the scandal doesn’t catch on with anybody else, OSN can explain that it’s all being covered up by Other-Sided News. OSN might have predicted from the outset that the other OSN would stonewall, and so the non-scandalousness of the scandal merely emphasizes how deep the scandal goes.

But some events are just too big to spin, so those are the ones to focus on. Friedersdorf argues that when you do that, you’ll see that there is a conservative delusional bubble unmatched by anything on the left. This puts conservatives at an “informational disadvantage” in their competition with liberals. (Mitt Romney’s Benghazi blunder in the second debate, for example, probably happened because he believed what he heard on Fox.)

Friedersdorf focuses on the recent coverage of the Chuck Hagel nomination, where conservative pundits kept reporting signs of Hagel’s support beginning to fracture, while liberal pundits consistently predicted a bumpy ride that would eventually arrive at its destination (which is what happened).

But a story of that middling size could come from Friedersdorf’s selection bias. Maybe there are stories just as big where the informational disadvantage runs the other way, but they just don’t pop to his mind.

So let’s look at a much bigger shock: Barack Obama got re-elected. Right up to the moment polls closed, Dick Morris was predicting a Romney landslide, and many other conservative pundits agreed. (This election-night liveblog captures the full conservative shock as the votes come in.) They had elaborate explanations of why the polls were skewed in Obama’s favor. Karl Rove kept his denial going even after most of the votes were counted.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s readers saw pretty much the election they expected. Silver had prepared them for what actually happened.

We’re closing in on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, which has put another shock back in the news: Saddam had no WMDs. That was a shock even to the mainstream media, which suggests that the MSM had a conservative bias going in to the war.

As the war went on, the Bush administration consistently argued that the MSM was biased against the war; it was ignoring the good news out of Iraq, and focusing only on the bad. Again: Who prepared you for what really happened? If the Bush administration view had been right, people who believed the MSM account of the war would have been repeatedly surprised by American success in Iraq. Eventually, the peace and prosperity in Baghdad would have been too obvious to spin away.

Quite the opposite: the MSM’s Iraq reporting was consistently too positive. When the shocks came, they were bad ones. Again, the mainstream media was too conservative, and the Fox News part of the media was that much worse.

How can you tell if you’re living in a bubble? A bubble is like an earthquake zone. Life rolls along smoothly for months at a time, and then there is some huge shock.

The next time you feel the Earth shake, take a look over at the other end of the spectrum and see how they’re doing. If they’re OK, consider the possibility that they might be living in the real world.

Working for the Man and other short notes

Our 24/7 news media covers fires and hurricanes pretty well, but does a bad job on major stories that develop over decades. Thursday, Salon published an article that deserved major-media attention, but didn’t get it: 21st Century Chain Gangs by Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman.

What they’re pointing to isn’t news because it isn’t new: NewsOne.com connected many of the same dots in October (Big Business or Slave Labor? What Prisoners Make in Jail). Vicky Palaez (The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery?) was on the story in 2008. Nobody noticed then either.

Here are the dots:

  • Compared to other countries, the United States jails an incredible number of people: 2.3 million in 2010, about 25% of all the prisoners in the world. The prison population continues to increase, even as all forms of violent crime are going down.
  • Prisons are increasingly privatized. More people behind bars means more money for corporations like CCA.
  • Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the private prison industry lobbies for legislatures to jail more types of offenders and lengthen prison sentences. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes CCA as: “a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”
  • Increasing numbers of prisoners (about a million, currently) are leased out to private industry. They work for wages that are sometimes less than $1 an hour, and the workers are in no position to complain if they aren’t treated well. The old trend was to move call centers to India; the new trend is moving them to prison.

Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was sentenced to row the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. (How else are you going to get people to row galleys?) We seem to be headed back in that direction. Why should companies pay real American wages when they can get real Americans to work for less? And as legitimate jobs dry up (or lose their purchasing power) due to competition from rightless workers at home and abroad, crime becomes more tempting.

An elaborate parody imagines what the Bank of America should say on its web site. The parody comes from Yes Lab, home of the Yes Men.

The Vatican is cracking down on American nuns, who worry too much about social justice and not enough about the culture wars. The solution? Put a man in charge: Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

Nuns need to learn to take their political cues from male leaders like Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, who this week compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin.

I didn’t expect the revolution to be started by Citigroup shareholders.

A USA Today reporter investigating illegal Pentagon propaganda activities mysteriously becomes the target of an info op.

Attack those who are attacking the status quo (as James McWilliams does in “The Myth of Sustainable Meat“) and the major media (like the NYT) will beat a path to your door.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (who you may remember from The Omnivore’s Dilemma) answers.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick reports that conservative judges are feeling increasingly unfettered by standing precedents. Bush-appointed Circuit Court Judge Janice Brown recently wrote an opinion calling on the Supreme Court to return to pre-New-Deal interpretations of the law, an issue that ought to be way beyond her pay grade.

An ad by Californians for Populations Stabilization features an attractive and sensible-looking young man making this argument against immigration:

Immigrants produce four times more carbon emissions in the U.S. than in their home countries.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? We don’t hate Mexicans, it’s just that letting them into California is killing the planet.

But where does that argument come from? ThinkProgress traces the 4-fold-increase calculation to a report by the anti-immigration think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Center: They gave the 2004 award for “excellence in the coverage of immigration” to Lou Dobbs, for the same CNN program The Nation summed up as “nightly nativism“.

And here’s the logic of their report:

this study postulates a broad correlation between a person’s annual income and his or her annual CO2 emissions

In other words, immigrants have a bigger CO2 footprint in the U.S. because they make more money here. So this isn’t just an argument for keeping immigrants out of the U.S., it’s an argument for keeping poor people poor.

What if we applied the same logic to other groups? “Don’t create jobs, because the unemployed have a smaller carbon footprint.” or “Raising taxes on the rich will shrink their carbon footprint.”

Or why not go all the way? “We want to cut CO2 emissions by starting a worldwide recession.” But no. In any context but immigration, the message we get from the right is more like this:

Two groups that need help with their messaging. (1) a religious group:

(2) a university (click for bigger image)

I hesitate to link to this because (1) the study sounds very preliminary, and (2) the public got burned so badly by false reports of an autism/vaccination link. But a new study links autism to consumption of high fructose corn syrup.

A dissenting view comes, naturally, from the Corn Refiners Association.

Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for the murder of dozens of teen-agers at a camp run by the Workers’ Youth League of Norway’s Labor Party. A chilling article in the respected journal Foreign Policy sees him as “the tip of the iceberg in a rising sea of radical Islamophobia in Europe.”

The kids were mostly blond Norwegians unconnected to Islam, but Breivik blames the Labor Party for Norway’s increasing multiculturalism.

The Writing Center at St. Mary’s University gets schooled:

Democracy in Michigan: What Rachel Got Right and Wrong

Thursday, Rachel Maddow devoted 15 minutes to a very important story that no other national news source was covering, so I made it the Link of the Day on Saturday. Unfortunately, she only got it mostly right. So rather than just link you to her video, I need to write a whole article.

Briefly, democracy in Michigan is in trouble for two reasons, one that Rachel has been covering for about a year, and one she just noticed Thursday.

Local Dictators. The year-old problem is the Emergency Manager law. As the Nation summarizes it:

Signed into law in March 2011, it granted unprecedented new powers to the state’s emergency managers (EMs), including breaking union contracts, taking over pension systems, setting school curriculums and even dissolving or disincorporating municipalities. Under PA 4, EMs, who are appointed by the governor, can “exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.”

Basically, when a city or town gets into bad enough financial trouble, the state appoints a dictator who replaces the entire local government.

In addition to the taxation-without-representation aspect of the law (local people continue to pay local taxes, but have lost the ability to elect the officials who spend their money), there’s an unfortunate racial outcome: The communities most likely to suffer the dire economic conditions that trigger the law — Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Detroit — are those where white flight has left behind a black underclass.

I doubt this represents a conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks, but a similarly large group of disenfranchised whites could probably get more public sympathy. So, Rachel points out,

If you are an African-American living in Michigan, there is a 50-50 chance that this year, the state of Michigan has considered scrapping … your right to elect local officials to represent you.

(I haven’t figured out yet what “considered” means in this context. It may refer to concessions Detroit’s local government made to the state in order to avoid being replaced.)

Fake supermajorities. Here’s the newly-revealed part: The Michigan Constitution delays laws going into effect until 90 days after the legislative sessions ends — which could be a year or more after they pass. But there’s an “emergency” provision that allows a 2/3 super-majority to give a law “immediate effect”.

But then something funny happens. Since Republicans took control of the state legislature and the governorship at the beginning of 2011, 546 of 566 bills — including the Emergency Manager law — have been passed with immediate effect. The funny business isn’t just that there haven’t been 546 authentic emergencies, but that Republicans don’t have a 2/3 majority in the House.

How did they do that? Well, you see an example beginning around the 12:30 mark of Rachel’s segment: The Republicans pass a bill, the floor leader asks for immediate effect, the chair ignores Democrats calling for a roll call, asks all those in favor to rise, and within four seconds gavels that it has passed. The House journal records a 2/3 super-majority that probably never existed.

Wait a minute. Rachel is incensed, and so was I when I first watched. But then I had the same reaction as Kevin Drum:

When I first heard this, my BS meter tingled pretty hard. Maddow characterized her story as a scoop, but that made no sense. I mean, Michigan still has a Democratic Party. If this were a huge abuse of power, they’d be yelling about it, right? So what’s really going on?

OK, this is outrageous stuff, but it’s outrageous stuff that’s been happening since January, 2011 and the Michigan Democrats only sued at the end of March. (Monday they got an injunction, which the Republicans are appealing on the grounds that courts have no right to interfere in the workings of the legislature.) What’s up with that?

The Detroit News reports that the Democrats had similar percentages of immediate-effect bills when they were in power in 2009-2010, even though they also were short of a 2/3 majority. Democratic legislator Jeff Irwin was asked about this and responded:

Has this been done before? Yes. Violating the clear terms of the Constitution has become commonplace in the Michigan House of Representatives. The big difference now is that since the Senate follows the Constitution, there was always one chamber where immediate effect votes would be counted and extremely divisive bills would not earn immediate effect in the Senate.

But the Republicans really do have 2/3s of the Senate, so miscounting in the House makes a real difference now. Anyway, Irwin says:

I’m new to the Michigan House and I’ve always thought this practice of declaring votes successful without any actual voting is bogus.

What I think it means. Anybody who looks at the numbers and the video has to conclude that the Michigan House is violating the Constitution. That’s a bad practice no matter who is doing it, so it has to be stopped.

But it isn’t a sudden Republican coup. The House let itself get into the habit of miscounting supermajorities and so violating the Michigan Constitution — probably because the delayed effect the Constitution calls for was viewed by both parties as a procedural nuisance. So the House has been operating illegally for a while, even when Democrats controlled it.

Republicans should have protested this when Democrats did it, but it was easier just to block stuff in the Senate, or to wrangle extra concessions there in exchange for allowing bills to take effect immediately.

After the 2010 Republican sweep, though, they haven’t had to negotiate with anybody or concede anything. (The Emergency Manager law is evidence of that.) So Democrats have started refusing to cooperate in the illegal procedures, and the Republicans have been illegally running over their non-cooperation.

So anyway: It’s bad and it needs to stop, so Rachel was right to call attention to it. But she should have done a little more homework before she went public with it.