Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spun Out

“And right now we have about half the population who is—who have been conditioned, conditioned, one might even say brainwashed by close to 50 years of right-wing media, which has characterized, demonized mainstream media and characterized it as unpatriotic and un-American and has talked about grossly misogynistic way and in grossly racist terms, in Islamophobic and xenophobic terms and has allowed about half of our population to bathe in a sort of humiliation. And I use that term advisedly, because some of us are nervously paying attention to the parallels with Weimar Germany.”
 —Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, hyperventilating on MSNBC in the wake of Donald Trump’s election last November
As I listen to the coverage of Bill O’Reilly’s sudden and thorough fall, I cannot help but wonder what my mother would have thought of it all.

My mother was something of a fan of The O’Reilly Factor, and she clearly was not alone. It was long the single dominant show in the cable news landscape. There is a bit of irony in Mom’s attraction to the so-called No-spin Zone, as she was not a particularly political person. It was my father who followed the news closely, had a definite political philosophy and loved a good back-and-forth about issues of the day. Mom had human reactions to people in the news but generally was not inclined to get into policy.

For the last decade or so of her life, though, she did have a weekday ritual. At five in the evening—the time that The O’Reilly Factor aired on the West Coast—she would switch the TV to Fox News and watch Bill for five minutes or so, that is, as long as it took for him to deliver his Talking Points Memo. Then she would switch to another channel to join in progress a syndicated rerun of one of her favorite sitcoms, usually The Golden Girls. Five minutes a day of O’Reilly was enough for her, but she did like to see him for those five minutes.

In hindsight, I find her idiosyncratic viewing habit impressively efficient. In absorbing Bill’s bullet points, she quickly got the gist of his thinking on current events, and by changing the channel she avoided all the longer monologues, features, debates with guests and commercials that filled up the rest of the hour. As with most programs on so-called news channels, the format yielded much more heat than light.

When Ted Turner’s Cable News Network debuted—and I finally got around to owning a TV and subscribing to cable—back in the 1980s, I thought it was a great idea. The evening newscast of the traditional broadcast networks had always been frustratingly brief and superficial. The idea of getting news 24 hours per day seemed like a news junkie’s godsend. It did not take long to realize, however, that as tantalizing as that promise was, the result was disappointment. CNN simply spent much of its time repeating the same major news stories over and over. Otherwise, the hours were filled with “discussion,” as exemplified by the program Crossfire which debuted in 1982 with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. The program and its inevitable imitators soon devolved into a formula of liberal and conservative sniping back and forth at each other, making politics a spectator sport where viewers could cheer on their own side.

What many of us found about CNN was that watching it did not make one more informed. It simply offered the opportunity to spend more time absorbing the same information. In terms of world view, the editors of CNN were not much different from those of the news divisions at ABC, CBS or NBC. In the end, CNN’s main advantage was that it did not have to cut back to regular entertainment programming during major news events like the Challenger shuttle disaster and the first Gulf War.

The real game changer in cable news was when Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes perceived that the reigning world view at the major broadcast and cable news outfits was not only fairly uniform but that it reflected an educated urban population that was not reflective of a large portion of the country. These are the many people for whom a quote like the one above from Bob Garfield sounds like pure and utter gibberish.

Despite its name, Fox News Channel has never been a channel that broadcasts mostly news. It has relied on the “political talk” staple that CNN—and later MSNBC—have relied on. The difference was that the hosts and guests reflected a more rightward bent. In a way, FNC’s format long reminded me, more than anything, of National Public Radio’s. One got five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour followed by programs featuring discussion or interviews, and in the evening there was an hour of two of block news coverage.

The idea behind Fox News was clearly a winner business-wise. The channel has long been the top cable news channel, luring in—for at least five minutes a day anyway—a one-time Roosevelt Democrat like my mother. And, I’m guessing, probably quite a few others. Personally, I had little patience for news chat shows like O’Reilly’s, but I was always amused that he drew such ire from modern liberals. He was, in fact, what would pass for a moderate voice on FNC. Despite his deliberately abrasive style, his opinions were by no means lock-step conservative. His main shtick was bloviating against political correctness which, as it happens, was how Bill Maher started out his TV talk career years ago on ABC.

Fox News is successful enough—and will probably continue to be successful—that it does not need me to defend it. I do, however, think it gets a bad rap on a couple of counts. For one, people who only know about it through attacks by the left will not appreciate how much diversity of opinion is showcased in its programming. I am not talking about the presence of token liberal commentators. As last year’s Republican presidential primaries and the recent Georgia primary demonstrated, while Democrats have no trouble flocking to a single candidate, there are numerous factions with Republican politics vying against one another and ranging from libertarianism to traditional paleo-conservatism to disturbing excesses of the so-called alt-right. Left-of-center-oriented news organizations, having learned nothing from their own clueless coverage of the Trump phenomenon and the large-scale collapse of the Democrats, still seem to see everything right of center as a monolith instead of the vibrant and exciting and scary free-for-all that it is.

The other bad rap that Fox News gets is that, despite its regular depiction as a Republican party organ, its actual news organization—as opposed to all its talk-talk programming—is really quite good. Unfortunately, hard news only accounts for about an hour a day of its programming, but people looking to be informed could do worse than watching Bret Baier’s weekday evening newscast or Chris Wallace’s Sunday show. Their shows cover the same issues and events as the major networks but devote more time to them and without the soft features that often eat up a large part of the ABC/CBS/NBC blob’s scant 22 minutes of nightly airtime. In addition to the same stories everyone else is covering, Baier and Wallace also give you stories the others do not have time for, which may be the real reason Democrats hate Fox News.

FNC news consumers got way more coverage of stories like Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server than people watching other channels. Does that mean that Fox was part of some anti-Democratic conspiracy? I’m not much of a conspiracist, but maybe if more Democrats had been watching Fox they would not have been so blindsided when those issues helped to derail their candidate.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Divided We Flail

“As The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers. The red state America campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.”
New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, shortly after Donald Trump’s election
As I mentioned recently on my book blog, I have finished the first draft of my third novel. Writing a book leaves precious little time for blogging, but maybe that is just as well. With the way the world is going, it is hard to find much useful to say anyway.

The new book is not meant to be particularly political, but certain observations do creep in. It takes place in the year 1980, which means I have been revisiting that momentous period a lot in my head. Much happened during that year. In the course of the story certain events or situations, which are going on in the backround, keep getting referenced. Taken together these background events weave a running theme of how groups of people within a society become estranged from each other.

The protagonist is once again Dallas Green, narrator of my first book Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. At 27 he is older but not necessarily much wiser. One faraway event that comes to his attention is the referendum in Chile that year to replace the country’s constitution 55-year-old constitution with one crafted by the Pinochet regime. Dallas also winds up visiting the divided city of Berlin as it enters the final decade of the Cold War. Back home, meanwhile, the United States is going through an election campaign that, in some ways, has future echoes of the one we all lived through last year. On a visit back to his hometown, shortly after the November election, Dallas ponders that people can become so divided despite being citizens of the same country. It is one thing to become passionate over whether the Democrat or the Repubican wins. How do things in other countries actually get to a point where one side takes over the government by violence? Or a city actually has to have a wall built through its heart to separate citizens of the same country?

A novel cannot hope to answer such questions—especially when politicians and social scientists who spend a lot of time thinking about these things do not seem to have a clue. This is definitely a job much better left to clever bloggers. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

To answer my own question, Germany became divided at the end of World War II mainly because of external forces that were unleashed by the German government’s own tragic behavior. In America, certain rabid partisans on one side or the other have been awfully quick to invoke the Hilter label when it comes to each of the two most recent presidents. While it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for potential abuse of power by a national leader, in both of the recent U.S. administrations the opposition’s bandying of “Hitler” and “fascist” has only served to make the political discourse nonsensical. Unless I am grievously mistaken, the United States is a long ways from becoming Nazi Germany. Chile, on the other hand, is a more worrying comparison.

The fracture of Chilean society, unlike that of Germany, did not come about because of a leader’s deranged visions of conquest and racial purity. The Popular Unity allowed its socialist vision to become so overpowering that it ignored the country’s constitution and invited external support from Cuba’s Castro dictatorship. It anticipated a response from their country’s own military and armed itself in preparation. Even more devastatingly, that military reaction materialized and was supported by a portion of Chilean society that saw violence as being justified to stop the leftist takeover of the country. As a result, many people were imprisoned, tortured, killed or simply disappeared. All these years later, the divisions are still there, but it is remarkable how well the rift has healed 47 years after the election of Allende, 44 years after the military coup that toppled him and 29 years after the plebiscite that restored democracy.

Despite my serious misgivings about President Trump, I do not actually worry that whole groups of people will be rounded up and loaded on trains and sent to concentration camps. Or that the country will become internally militarized and that America’s borders will be fortified to keep people inside the country (as opposed to outside). I am saving my panic for the moment when he actually imprisons judges who thwart his executive orders—as opposed to merely complaining and tweeting about them. I do, however, worry that the country is becoming increasingly divided into two (actually more than two) camps where each side has its own particular view of reality which demonizes people on the other side. People seem increasingly to be talking past one another with no common set of terms or facts. It nearly feels as though we are at a point where the sides are not even debating each other. Instead, each side is having its own isolated debate with a straw man of its own creation.

What is the point of a blogger—even a clever one—trying to raise points to provoke thought when most people out there seem only to be looking for phrases and talking points that bolster their already established world view? In this environment, spinning yarns of fiction definitely feels like a more worthwhile use of time than trying to comment on political reality.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Truth and Consequences

“Now, people are comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. And the countdown has officially begun, to… well… I don’t know… but something really bad. I get that someone who is combative with the press and who wants to vet refugees and shut down open immigration fits the bill some are always looking for when it comes to finally getting their ‘Hitler’ villain. But if you study enough about it, you realize the guy vetting and banning refugees is probably not Hitler… the guy CREATING refugees probably is.”
—Songwriter/author Regie Hamm, writing on his blog on February 1
For those of us who love language, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival is a treat. Not only is the hero a linguist but the point of the movie is all about the way in which language shapes our perception of reality. We could certainly use the expertise of Amy Adams’s Dr. Louise Banks in unwrapping the linguistic mysteries that frustrated communication between the political left and right in America and elsewhere.

The point that Arrival makes in its entertaining way is that our language shapes our perception of reality. Just as eskimos supposedly see snow differently than English speakers because they have more words to describe it, so people arguing about politics tend to gravitate to their own particular vocabularies that reinforce their respective world views. By the way, that thing about eskimos having a large number of words for snow may or may not be accurate. A web search on the topic produces all kinds of articles not only arguing about just how many words eskimos have for snow (some say only a few, some say scores) but also about whether there really is such a thing as an eskimo language. The fact that so many authoritative publications out there have weighed in on the question with such varying results only emphasizes how tenuous everyone’s hold on reality actually is.

If you are that rarest of species, a completely detached person politically, and trying to get a handle on what is actually happening with the United States’ new government, you will get completely different pictures depending on what your source of information is. And those different pictures are not simply binary. There is not just one for people on the left and one for people on the right. There are all kinds of gradations of reality as you work your way from Mother Jones and The Nation on one end all the way across to National Review and Breitbart News on the right. Indeed, simply among news sources considered to be right-wing, there is a huge range of opinion. To haul out another old chestnut, reading the press these days is like trying to understand what an elephant is by surveying accounts from various blind men who have each touched the pachyderm in one particular spot.

I do not know many things for certain, but one thing I learned early on is that it is never a good idea to rely on only one source of information. In fact, the more sources the better—even if more confusing. In fact, if you are not confused, then you are probably not reading enough. Interestingly, the corporate media are currently on a kick to lock in their readers and to discourage them to confuse themselves by reading other sources. I am constantly getting emails from The New York Times telling me that it is the (the word “only” is strongly implied if not explicitly employed) place to go for The Truth. (One gets the feeling that the Sulzbergers may have actually looked into trademarking the term “The Truth.”) Operations like The Times clearly see an opportunity to reverse their sagging bottom lines, and good for them. Reportedly their subscriptions are up since President Trump was elected. Perhaps they feel under threat by the new administration and its harshly aggressive stance toward the establishment press, but I suspect they are sensing the Trump years could be a goldmine for them, not unlike the way years of Democratic administrations filled the coffers of Rush Limbaugh and his brethren.

Something else I am pretty sure of is that President Trump is a master of misdirection. While I listen to the same panels of pundits and analysts (who assured me he would not be nominated and then that he would not be elected) telling me what a disaster his administration already is and how he is in over his head, the man and his administration have their hands on all the levers of power and staffing up and issuing executive orders and consulting with congressional Republicans preparing legislation. For every refugee ban that falls apart on arrival and which gets saturation coverage, there is also a Supreme Court nomination that consequently gets less coverage. Maybe the president does not have a clue what he is doing, as many in The Truth business keeping trying to tell me, but personally I think he does.

One of the most insightful political cartoons I have seen lately (sorry, I cannot remember where now) showed an airport terminal with two lounges behind a wall of glass. One was filled with people with cigarettes and labeled “Smoking Lounge.” The other was filled with detained refugees and labeled “Smoke and Mirrors Lounge.”

If it is hard to get the straight story from the media, getting it from the president himself is no easier—his infamous Twitter feed notwithstanding. Taking his words literally is no use—though many in the establishment media still insist on doing so, even though they should know better by now—since he does not use language in the same way as any other traditional politician. He nearly speaks in pure metaphors, not unlike Captain Dathon, the Tamarian encountered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode I wrote about nearly five months ago.

Depending on what news outlets they are getting their Truth from, Americans may either believe they are at the dawn of a new Golden Age or in Germany in the 1930s. Common sense suggests that the reality is actually somewhere between those two extremes, but closer to which one? Lots of commentators have been working overtime at finding parallels between Trump and Hitler but, as suggested by Regie Hamm’s quote above, one of the clearest signs in the 1930s that something was rotten in Germany was the stream of people fleeing the country.

People will always have their say one way or another, and in a democracy they will have their vote. Donald Trump got enough votes in enough places to get elected president, and that has to be respected. People also vote with their feet, however, and to date people all over the world still want to go to the United States—even if Donald Trump is president. While building a border wall is never a desirable thing to do and probably not that effective anyway, I will worry much more about it when the wall is being used to keep people from leaving the United States rather than trying to keep people out.