A Tale of Two WaPo articles

In the first article, Nathan Phillips was getting ready to leave and trying to remove himself from what seemed like an escalating situation, but the teens swarmed around him and wouldn’t allow him to retreat.

‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens

Phillips, 64, said he felt threatened by the teens and that they swarmed around him as he and other activists were wrapping up the march and preparing to leave.

Phillips, who was singing the American Indian Movement song that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home, said he noticed tensions beginning to escalate when the teens and other apparent participants from the nearby March for Life rally began taunting the dispersing indigenous crowd.

A few people in the March for Life crowd began to chant, “Build that wall, build that wall,” he said.

“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

In the second article, Phillips was concerned about escalating tensions between the teens and the black Hebrew Israelites, so he decided to walk into the mass of teens while playing his drum and singing a song. The teenage boy he stood face-to-face with (now identified as Nick Sandmann) was not refusing to let him pass, but Phillips didn’t see why he should walk around Sandmann because he was thinking of what white people have done in this country over the last several centuries.

A tribal elder and a high school junior stood face to face, and the world reacted

Phillips played a prayer song on a drum as he walked toward the students.

Some of the students began doing a “Tomahawk chop” and dancing, the video shows. Phillips said he found it offensive, but kept walking and drumming.

Most of the students moved out of his way, the video shows. But Sandmann stayed still.

Asked why he felt the need to walk into the group of students, Phillips said he was trying to reach the top of the memorial, where friends were standing. But Phillips also said he saw more than a teenage boy in front of him. He saw a long history of white oppression of Native Americans.

“Why should I go around him?” he asked. “I’m just thinking of 500 years of genocide in this country, what your people have done. You don’t even see me as a human being.”

The lengthy videos show Phillips walked into the crowd and up to Sandmann, who never approached or moved to block Phillips, said anything to Phillips, or stopped him from going anywhere. And despite Phillips describing the teens as “beasts” going after their “prey” (the black Hebrew Israelites), the 1h46m video shows the BHIs making many racist, homophobic, and aggressive comments toward the teens and others, yet the video doesn’t appear to capture any instance of the teens chanting “build a wall” or other racist phrases. Note the second Washington Post article describes the BHIs’ terrible behavior “according to the video” and the teens terrible behavior “according to [BHI] Banyamyan and another Hebrew Israelite.”

But by far the best (most ironic) part of WaPo’s coverage is this paragraph:

The incident, and the finger-pointing that followed, seemed to capture the worst of America at a moment of extreme political polarization, as discourse once again gave way to division, and people drew conclusions on social media before all the facts were known.

You mean people drew conclusions based on media accounts published before all the facts were known? Could WaPo be less self-aware?

The first round of mainstream coverage (NYT, WaPo, HuffPo, etc.) all involved interviews or at least quotes and videos with Phillips but no discussion with any of the teens involved (and no mention of the BHIs at all). It took non-journalists no time to find and review the much longer videos for full context. Now the same outlets that uncritically published headlines such as “Native American man harassed by teens speaks out” are saying “A new video shows a different side of the encounter between a Native American elder and teens in MAGA hats.” All within about a day.

Pew Research recently released a new poll finding that Republicans in particular say the news media doesn’t understand people like them. I’d say that’s a generous interpretation.

Related links:

The Media Wildly Mischaracterized That Video of Covington Catholic Students Confronting a Native American Veteran – Reason, January 20, 2019

Statement of Nick Sandmann, Covington Catholic High School junior, regarding incident at the Lincoln Memorial – CNN, January 20, 2019

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.”

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham, want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you, the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

Most Americans don’t like political correctness.

According to Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic the following people dislike political correctness:

  • 97% of devoted conservatives
  • 88% of American Indians
  • 87% of those who have never attended college
  • 87% of Hispanics
  • 83% of those who make less than $50,000 per year
  • 82% of Asian people
  • 79% of people under age 24
  • 79% of white people
  • 75% of African Americans
  • 74% of people age 24-29
  • 70% of those who make more than $100,000 per year
  • 66% of those with a postgraduate degree
  • 61% of traditional liberals
  • 30% of progressive activists

In fact “progressive activists” were the only group that overall liked political correctness, a group which Mounk describes as “much more likely to be rich, highly educated–and white.” This description supports previous findings by Pew Research.

Mounk asked his Twitter followers to guess what percent of the country has a problem with political correctness, and they greatly underestimated the true numbers. Mounk theorizes this is because, as he puts it,

They are probably a decent approximation for a particular intellectual milieu to which I also belong: politically engaged, highly educated, left-leaning Americans—the kinds of people, in other words, who are in charge of universities, edit the nation’s most important newspapers and magazines, and advise Democratic political candidates on their campaigns.

In other words, the progressive view (the minority view) benefits from having a particularly large mouthpiece.

The study Mounk is reviewing found that most Americans, described as the “exhausted majority,” see political correctness as “the preening display of cultural superiority” and “an excuse to mock the values and ignorance of others.” Mounk concludes:

A publication whose editors think they represent the views of a majority of Americans when they actually speak to a small minority of the country may eventually see its influence wane and its readership decline. And a political candidate who believes she is speaking for half of the population when she is actually voicing the opinions of one-fifth is likely to lose the next election.

In a democracy, it is difficult to win fellow citizens over to your own side, or to build public support to remedy injustices that remain all too real, when you fundamentally misunderstand how they see the world.

Graphic from the report “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” which Mounk summarizes in his article.

Pro-choice states have just as many unintended pregnancies and far more abortions.

If you’re into a lot of graphs and number crunching, read on. If you’re not, here’s the bottom line: compared to pro-life states, pro-choice states have more insurance coverage of contraception yet have roughly the same rates of unintended pregnancies and much higher rates of abortion.

In early 2015 the Washington Post published the article “States that are more opposed to abortion rights have fewer abortions — but not fewer unintended pregnancies.” Author Aaron Blake notes:

In fact, some of the states that oppose abortion the most also have some of the highest rates of unintended pregnancies — particularly in the South. And on average, the states that favor abortion rights the most have slightly lower levels of unintended pregnancies.

Blake elaborates:

Mississippi, for instance, is the state that opposes abortion rights the most, according to Pew, with 64 percent generally opposing the procedure. It is also the state with the most unintended pregnancies, at 62 percent of all pregnancies, according to Guttmacher. After accounting for fetal loss, about two-thirds of those unintended pregnancies were brought to term.

By contrast, Massachusetts is one of the most pro-abortion-rights states, with just 28 percent of people opposing the procedure. But it’s also on the low end as far as the percentage of unintended pregnancies (44 percent). Far fewer — 43 percent — of those pregnancies were brought to term.

In both his article’s title and text Blake seems to imply a correlation between anti-abortion attitude and higher proportions of unintended pregnancies. This implication seems plausible because Blake focuses on only two data points among all 50 (51 if you count the District of Columbia). In fact if you plot the two states Blake highlights–Mississippi and Massachusetts–you get this graph:

So anti-abortion views mean more unintended pregnancies. The irony!

And yet the only time Blake addresses trends across the whole country, he admits:

On average in the 10 states that oppose abortion the most, 51 percent of pregnancies are unintended. In the top 10 states that most favor abortion rights, it’s 50 percent.

In other words, the two groups hardly differ at all. Out of curiosity I dug up the numbers used to measure unintended pregnancy (from Guttmacher) and abortion opposition (from Pew Research Center). Instead of comparing only the 10 most pro-life states to the 10 most pro-choice states, I looked at all 50 states (and DC). Here’s what it looks like when you don’t cherry pick:

I guess reality was too boring for this WaPo article.

So when you look at the whole data set (instead of only Mississippi compared to Massachussetts, or only the top 10 pro-life states compared to the top 10 pro-choice ones), there appears to be no relationship at all between views on abortion and unintended pregnancy.

I found this lack of correlation interesting. Pro-choicers often claim the best way to decrease abortion is not through outlawing abortion but through better access to contraception. If that theory is true, I would expect the states most open to abortion to also have lower unintended pregnancy rates, because (1) pro-choice states are more left-leaning, (2) left-leaning states are more likely to support better access to contraception, and (3) better access to contraception is supposed to decrease unintended pregnancies and thus abortion rates.

And yet the above graphic suggests that pro-choice states have no lower unintended pregnancy rates than pro-life states. Why is that? A few possibilities jump to mind:

  1. Pro-choice states don’t necessarily have better access to contraception than pro-life states.
  2. Pro-choice states do have better access to contraception, but that doesn’t actually decrease unintended pregnancy rates (and thus abortion rates).
  3. Pro-choice states have better access to contraception, and better access does decrease unintended pregancy rates, but some other factor in those states increases unintended pregnancy rates, thus cancelling the contraception effect.

I decided to dig a bit more. I used the same Guttmacher and Pew Research data linked above for unintended pregnancy info and state attitudes about abortion. To measure state access to contraception I used data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which outlines which states require coverage of prescription contraception, related outpatient services, and no cost contraception coverage. I also looked at data collected by the National Women’s Law Center regarding which states have contraceptive equity laws (i.e. laws that require insurance plans to cover a full range of contraceptives for women). I assigned each state a contraception score by giving 1 point for each law or coverage requirement, with a maximum of 4 points.

Pro-choice states have more contraception access.

States with zero contraception coverage requirements had an average of 49% of their populations say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. States with 2 or 3 contraception coverage requirements had 41% and 38% say abortion should generally be illegal. And states with all 4 contraception coverage requirements had only 32% of their populations say abortion should be illegal all or most of the time.

States with more contraception access don’t see lower unintended pregnancy rates.

I then averaged the unintended pregnancy rates for states based on their contraception score and it looked like this:

(There were no states with a score of 1. Every state that had contraception access requirements in place had two or more such requirements.)

The states with the most contraception coverage requirements had the lowest unintended pregnancy rate at 44 per 1,000 women age 15-44. The states with zero contraception coverage requirements had the next lowest rate at 45.95. The states in between–with 2 or 3 contraception coverage requirements–had higher unintended pregnancy rates at 50.25 and 49.08 respectively. In other words there’s no obvious relationship between states’ contraception coverage requirements and their unintended pregnancy rates.

States with less access to contraception have lower abortion rates.

Since I already had the data handy I also compared state contraception access to abortion rates:

The states with zero contraception coverage requirements had the lowest abortion rates at 9.68 abortions per 1,000 women age 15-44. States with 2, 3, and 4 contraception coverage requirements had rates of 14.58, 15.14, and 14.00, respectively.

This result could imply that contraception access actually increases abortion rates, and many pro-lifers try to make that claim. Their theory is that whenever you have a desirable but risky action (sex), the more you lower the risk the more often people will take that action. If people think the risk is lowered more than is actually the case (e.g. if the contraception they’re using or the way they’re using it isn’t as effective as they think), then they may be actually increasing their risk exposure by taking a risky action more often without proportionally decreasing the risk in each instance. This theory is plausible because states with more contraception access do not have lower unintended pregnancy rates. Perhaps these populations lower the risk of a given instance of sex by using contraception but increase their overall risk exposure by having sex more often without using contraception consistently or correctly.

Pro-choice states have higher abortion rates.

Alternatively, perhaps the high contraceptive states have higher abortion rates simply because they are more pro-choice states. Given roughly equal unintended pregnancy rates, we’d expect the populations that support abortion to have higher abortion rates, and the data bears that out.

This trend may be due to social influences. It’s possible that women experiencing unintended pregnancies in more pro-life states experience more pressure not to abort, more encouragement and support to carry their pregnancies, or both, and that women in more pro-choice states experience the opposite. It’s hard to measure how much social pressures influence these decisions.

Either way, though, there’s little doubt that legal restrictions also influence women’s choices. To measure state-by-state legal restrictions, I again turned to Guttmacher. I assigned each state points based on whether they had the following restrictions in place and, if so, to what degree. The potential restrictions include:

  1. Whether the abortion must be performed by a licensed physician
  2. Whether and when the abortion must be performed at a hospital
  3. Whether and when a second physician must be present
  4. Whether and when abortion is prohibited (except life or health of the mother)
  5. Whether partial birth abortion is banned
  6. Whether public funding can be used for most abortions or very few abortions
  7. Whether private insurance has to cover abortions
  8. Whether individuals can refuse to participate in abortions
  9. Whether and when institutions can refuse to participate in abortions
  10. Whether there is mandated counseling regarding either an abortion breast cancer link, fetal pain, negative psychological effects, or any combination of those factors
  11. Whether and how long mandatory waiting must be
  12. Whether parents have to be notified or have to consent to their kids’ abortions

States with more legal restrictions garnered more points with a maximum possible 12 points. Unsurprisingly, there was an inverse correlation between the number of abortion restrictions and the proportion of unintended pregnancies aborted.

Contraception is not a panacea for abortion.

Pro-choice people repeatedly claim that if we truly care about lowering abortion rates we should support pro-choice policies and politicians who promote contraception access. As I’ve written about previously, this theory isn’t backed by the evidence. There’s some research to suggest contraception access–especially access to long acting reversible contraception–can help, but so far the evidence I’ve found continues to show that the abortion rate decreases more when there are more abortion restrictions than it does when there is more access to contraception.

Follow up on liberal media bias.

A media bias fact checker found that 12 out of 15 major US news outlets fell on the left side of the spectrum, while the other 3 fell on the right.

A little over a year ago I wrote a post looking at some of the evidence for subtle but pervasive liberal bias in media. In that post I referenced a study from Public Opinion Quarterly that found that 13 out of 15 major US news outlets produced more left-leaning articles than right-leaning ones.

Today, out of curiosity, I looked up each of those 15 sources on MediaBiasFactCheck.com. Here is there methodology for rating bias. Of the 15 sources, 12 were biased left (7 Left-Center bias, 3 Left bias, 2 Least Biased, slightly Left) and 3 were biased right (1 Right-Center bias, 2 Right bias). Here is how each source rated:

  1. BBC News – Left-Center bias.
  2. Breitbart News Network – Right bias.
  3. Chicago Tribune – Left-Center bias.
  4. CNN News – Left bias.
  5. Daily Kos – Left bias.
  6. Fox News – Right bias.
  7. Huffington Post – Left bias.
  8. Los Angeles Times – Left-Center bias.
  9. NBC News – Left-Center bias.
  10. New York Times – Left-Center bias.
  11. Reuters – Least biased (ranked minimally Left biased).
  12. USA Today – Least biased (ranked minimally Left biased).
  13. Wall Street Journal – Right-Center bias.
  14. The Washington Post – Left-Center bias.
  15. Yahoo News – Left-Center bias.

Each page in the links above includes a spectrum showing where the given source falls from left to right. If you juxtapose all of the spectra, you get the spectrum above (logos added).

How to Tell the NYT Really Hates You

President Thomas S. Monson–the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–died on January 2, 2018. Here is how the NYT covered this event:

For contrast, this is what they tweeted when Fidel Castro died:

The NYT also had nice / neutral things to say about folks like Hugh Hefner and Hugo Chavez when they died. Hefner “founded Playboy magazine in 1953 and became inseparable from his brand” and Chavez “died after a long battle with cancer.”

Under Fidel Castro, anti-gay discrimination was institutionalized.

After a discussion of homosexuality at the Cuban Educational and Cultural Congress in April 1971, homosexuality was declared to be a deviation incompatible with the revolution. Homosexuality was considered sufficient grounds for discriminatory measures to be adopted against the gay community, and homophobia was institutionalised. Gay and lesbian artists, teachers, and actors lost their jobs. Gays and lesbians were expelled from the Communist Party. Students were expelled from university. Gays were prohibited from having contact with children and young people. Gays were not allowed to represent their country.

It is worth noting that by the end of his life, Fidel Castro had done a 180 on gay rights. By 2010, he was calling their treatment under his own regime in the 1970s “a great injustice, great injustice!” and accepting responsibility for that treatment.

Even so, the contrast between the NYT’s treatment of President Monson and Hefner, Chavez, Castro, etc. is illuminating. As Ben Shapiro wrote, commenting on Hefner and Chavez,

…it’s much worse, from the Times’ perspective, to be a religious person who abides by religious dictates on female ordination and same-sex marriage than to be a sexual profligate who trafficked in pornography, or to be a socialist dictator who destroyed an entire country. Monson was obviously a monster.

Pretty much.

A Nation in Stagnation

There have been a bevy of depressing articles over the past few days that I haven’t seen tied together yet, but which I think do share a common theme. Here are the stories, which I’m just pulling from the top of my head.

1. The GOP’s moral authority is disintegrating.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever…

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

2. Police can gun down unarmed civilians literally begging for life on their hands and knees now.

Last week, in “A Police Killing Without a Hint of Racism,” I wrote about Daniel Shaver, an unarmed man killed in a hotel hallway while begging for his life. At the time, the man who shot him, former Officer Philip Brailsford, was on trial for second-degree murder, and body-cam footage of the killing had yet to be released.

Now, that chilling, deeply disturbing video is available. The relevant portion begins at the 12 minute 50 second mark. Be forewarned: An innocent human is killed.

The video is not easy to watch. I did, and I’m not posting it here. In the end, the police officer was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter. During the trial, the officer testified that he had no regrets, and that ““If this situation happened exactly as it did that time, I would have done the same thing.”

3. The media has lost its mind and its integrity

FRIDAY WAS ONE of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, with countless pundits, commentators and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.

The common theme I see running through all these stories is this: the degradation of our national institutions.

In all our panicked rushing from one sensational story to another, what I’m really worried about is the longer-term effects on the institutions that make up our nation. I don’t know how long police forces that treat their citizens like enemy combatants expect to enjoy public support, but the answer is certainly not “forever.” I don’t know what short-term victory the GOP thinks is worth selling its soul. Probably not the presidency and certainly not Roy Moore’s senate seat. And the same goes for the mainstream media and the American left which–instead of allowing Trump’s vast repository of lamentable qualities and poor decisions–feels the need to squander their credibility on conspiracy theories.

The finer points of each of these three stories can be discussed at length, and should. None of them represents a seismic cataclysm alone. None are without precedent.

But that, I guess, is the saddest part. These are just examples in long-running trends.

I don’t think more hysteria or drama will help. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment to realize there are things at stake beyond the short-term consequences, and that at a certain point the tribal, partisan struggles begin to tear the social fabric itself asunder.

Still Crying Wolf

Hitler and the Nazi’s have long held a quasi-mythological status in the American psyche. I do not know when this began, but it has simply been a fact for my entire conscious life. I can only imagine that, in centuries gone by, Satan and his devils filled the niche in the collective social consciousness that Hitler and his Nazis serve today.

Deep down, the people of all Western democracies wonder if their nation could–given the right historical circumstances–follow in the path of Nazi Germany. And all the citizens of these nations have wondered–at least at some point in their lives–if they would have had the courage and the foresight to have opposed Hitler’s rise. Because everyone wants to believe in their own heroism, and because the only evidence that they would have opposed the last Hitler is to oppose the next Hitler, there’s latent desire for someone to fill that role, just so that they could prove to themselves that they would pass the test.

This is related to what Scott Adams had in mind when he wrote his blog post: Be Careful What You Wish For (especially if it is Hitler).:

But lately I get the feeling that Trump’s critics have evolved from expecting Trump to be Hitler to preferring it. Obviously they don’t prefer it in a conscious way. But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons. No one wants to be a confirmed moron. And certainly not after announcing their Trump opinions in public and demonstrating in the streets. It would be a total embarrassment for the anti-Trumpers to learn that Trump is just trying to do a good job for America. It’s a threat to their egos. A big one.

And this gets me to my point. When millions of Americans want the same thing, and they want it badly, the odds of it happening go way up. [emphasis original]

Adams hastened to clarify that he wasn’t “talking about any new-age magic.” Instead:

I’m talking about ordinary people doing ordinary things to turn Trump into an actual Hitler. For example, if protesters start getting violent, you could expect forceful reactions eventually. And that makes Trump look more like Hitler. I can think of dozens of ways the protesters could cause the thing they are trying to prevent. In other words, they can wish it into reality even though it is the very thing they are protesting.

I don’t agree with Adams on a lot of thing, even here. I don’t, for example, find the idea that “Trump is just trying to do a good job for America” to be credible. It seems clear to me that Trump is just trying to do a good job for Trump. However, I do think he’s right that the anti-Trump movement has become so invested in their own narrative of manning the barricades in a last-ditch defense against tyranny that they kind of need Trump to come through for them. Everybody wants to be a hero and so, deep down, everybody wants their enemies to be villains.

This is all a little bit abstract, however. Adams tries to make things concrete with his example of protesters going overboard, but there’s a much better example of how this can play out. It comes from Damon Linker’s piece: America’s spies anonymously took down Michael Flynn. That is deeply worrying. Linker makes a couple of vitally, vitally important philosophical points, like this one: “In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter.” Along those lines, he points out that–even though the resignation of Michael Flynn is a good thing–the fact that he was essentially removed by intelligence professionals as part of a “soft coup (or political assassination)” is a serious concern. In particular:

The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That’s bad. But the answer isn’t to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage — or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.

As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News put it in an important article following Flynn’s resignation,

Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do. [Bloomberg]

Those cheering the deep state torpedoing of Flynn are saying, in effect, that a police state is perfectly fine so long as it helps to bring down Trump.

I haven’t had an awful lot to say–on my blog or even to friends and family in person–about Trump since the election. This is why. I haven’t figured out a good method of opposing Trump that doesn’t feed into the larger pendulum-swinging crisis in American politics. A lot of the opposition to Trump–both before and especially since the election–has been not only hysterical and unprincipled, but deeply, seriously dangerous. The reality is that at this point opposing Trump–in most places and for most people–is not an act of courage or bravery because it doesn’t carry any substantial risk. Take Attorney General Sally Yates. She was lauded as a hero because she ordered the Department of Justice attorneys not to defend Trump’s immigration executive order and was subsequently fired. Her opposition to the executive order is laudable, but there’s not even a glimmer of heroism in how she went about it. She was a political appointee on her way out anyway. Her grandstanding cost her literally nothing and earned her endless applause and praise. Heroism has certainly never come cheaper than that.Whether it’s violent protests at Berkeley, punching Richard Spencer, or applauding the growth of an unaccountable police state (see above), the anti-Trump movement is increasingly dominated by a radical fringe hellbent on racing Trump down the downward spiral of dishonesty, hysteria, and extremism.

I believe in defending our nation from Trump’s cavalier disregard for law and principle. But I also believe in defending our nation from the escalating cycle of co-dependent extremism. Journalists, who fall over themselves to run 16 fake anti-Trump news stories in the first month of his presidency, are making King Pyrrhus proud; even if they win they will find they have shredded the last vestiges of their credibility in the process. It’s time to reiterate that one Nietzsche quote everyone knows:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.


Maybe Trump is the next Hitler, but I doubt it. He’s probably not the next Stalin or Mao or Mussolini either. He doesn’t have the commitment, the talent, the opportunity, or the ideology to pull it off. But if we keep pushing the pendulum further on every swing with escalating hyper-partisanship and if we sabotage our own institutions–from the civil services to the mainstream media to expectations of basic decency–we will find that on the day when an American Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini steps up onto the stage, we will have ripped all of our institutional safeguards to shreds already.

Trump got elected because the American right keeps crying wolf when it comes to illegal immigrants and terrorists and because the American left keeps crying wolf when it comes to fascism and bigotry. Neither side has learned their lesson. And so the crying wolf continues. The reality is, we haven’t seen the wolf.


Some data on liberal media bias.

Recently I was talking with friends about whether “mainstream media” (the TV, radio, and print media most commonly consumed by people) has an overall bias for leftist viewpoints. One of my friends countered that everyone is more likely to notice bias against their own viewpoints than against the other side’s, and that he has often felt the media was too favorable to the right-wing point of view. Since we were simply swapping anecdotes and personal perceptions, I offered three pieces of information to suggest the media is in fact left-biased:

  1. Conservatives are much more likely than liberals to view the media as biased. – Pew Research Center
  2. Liberals are more trusting of mainstream news sources than moderates or conservatives. – Pew Research Center
  3. People who work in newspapers and print media are almost exclusively liberal. – Business Insider

Some of my friends countered that (1) conservative media strongly pushes the narrative that all others (“mainstream media”) are liberal biased, so that could influence conservatives to be more skeptical, and (2) just because reporters are liberal doesn’t mean they will report with bias. One friend linked me to a study by the progressive, left-leaning policy group FAIR which found that major newspapers, TV, and radio tend to cite centrist think tanks most often, followed by right-leaning think tanks, with left-leaning think tanks coming in last. The idea is that if the media were biased for liberal viewpoints, left-leaning think tanks ought to be cited more often than others, and apparently that’s not the case.

However, the FAIR study relies on FAIR’s evaluation of how left- or right-leaning a think tank is. Given FAIR is a progressive, left-leaning organization, this methodology gave me pause.

Here is a study of media citations of think tanks done slightly differently: the authors did not themselves evaluate whether a think tank was left- or right-leaning. As they describe it:

A feature of our method is that it does not require us to make a subjective assessment of how liberal or conservative a think tank is. That is, for instance, we do not need to read policy reports of the think tank or analyze its position on various issues to determine its ideology. Instead, we simply observe the ADA scores [based on voting records] of the members of Congress who cite it. This feature is important, since an active controversy exists whether, e.g., the Brookings Institution or the RAND corporation is moderate, left-wing, or right-wing.

Under this method, the researchers found a “strong liberal bias” in think tank citation for all outlets they examined except (surprise to no one) Fox News and Washington Times.

But even considering that, I’m not sure how much insight we get from looking at think tank citations. It’s better than no information, but what proportion of news stories even involve citing think tanks?

Instead, here’s a piece from Public Opinion Quarterly that looks at a lot of aspects of media beyond policy groups. The authors conclude that, with the exception of coverage of Republican and Democrat scandals, outlets don’t have a huge divide on how they cover descriptive news (as distinct from opinion pieces).

But notice in particular Figures 2 and 4. In Figure 2 you can see that all the news outlets except Fox produce more left-leaning articles than right-leaning articles (I’m not counting Daily Kos or Breitbart because I don’t think, and neither did these authors, that those are “mainstream” news sources).

Figure 2


In Figure 4 you can see that, over all the outlets, a lot more topics fall below zero (have a left-leaning slant) than fall above zero (have a right-leaning slant). (I tried to count the points myself and I got 75 below zero, 36 above zero, and then a few that looked right on the line.)

Figure 4

The authors rightly point out that there aren’t huge divides on either of these metrics, but on the aggregate it still means nearly all outlets produce net-left-biased content, and I think it has a pretty pervasive additive effect.

And this research was only looking at ideological slant in terms of whether articles were positive or negative toward members of the Democratic or Republican parties. That is valuable information, but I also think that tends to be more obvious bias. I think the aggregate industry-level bias includes obvious bias, sure, but I think it’s more common that bias is more subtle. I would particularly be interested in exploring (1) which stories an outlet chooses to focus on versus others and (2) how they choose to frame issues (as opposed to how they talk about Republicans vs Democrats).

The Public Opinion Quarterly research tried to address #1 by looking at how often different outlets covered different broad categories of topics (and they didn’t find large differences across outlets), but I don’t think that addresses the concern. For example, I have not seen people accuse one outlet or another of just not talking about abortion. It’s about which abortion-related stories they cover and how they talk about the issue. The great reluctance of most outlets to talk about the Kermit Gosnell scandal is a prime example of this. It’s my impression that a whole lot more people have heard of Dr. Tiller, the abortion provider who was murdered by a gun man, than have heard of Dr. Gosnell, the abortion provider who snipped the spinal cords of newborns and was found guilty of murder.

And that doesn’t even get into more subtle language differences, like “pro-choice” versus “anti-abortion” or, worse, “anti-choice,” or like describing a pro-life walk that draws hundreds of thousands of people as being comprised of “thousands,” a downplay of two orders of magnitude. Those are very small details, right? But they add up, and I don’t know of any research that measures this or even how it could–although I think Gallup kind of touched on it when they found that almost everyone, including pro-lifers, underestimated how many Americans are pro-life.

I don’t think the topic of abortion is the exception here. And I think the aggregate bias is pretty clear to, well, most people who aren’t Democrats/leftists. Perhaps you can dismiss the frequent conservative suspicion of the mainstream media as conservatives all being duped by conservative media, but that doesn’t explain why independents have shown similar levels of distrust, or why more than six-in-ten Democratic and independent voters believed most journalists were “pulling for Obama” in 2008.