Category Archives: Random Blogging

Why We Need Journalism

Given the tensions in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was a relief to receive news of the  guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Those verdicts owed much to a vastly more competent prosecution–and there has been widespread recognition of that fact and praise for that prosecutor.

What is far less widely recognized and celebrated, however, is that the trial wouldn’t even have occurred had it not been for a local reporter.

Larry Hobbs is the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, and he covered the initial story, which was pretty bare-bones. He got his information from the local police:: a burglary suspect had been shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga.

The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes….

Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.

If Hobbs hadn’t been part of a local newspaper covering local news–if he hadn’t been “doing journalism”– the original prosecutor’s conflict of interest and actions covering for the McMichaels might never have come to light. When we talk about the “watchdog function” of journalism, this is what we are talking about.

As the Washington Post Magazine wrote last week in a special issue,

The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.

Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold.

The Post devoted the entirety of its Sunday magazine to stories that had been under-reported–or in several cases, not reported at all. (Some had been previously covered by outlets that are trying desperately to preserve a market for local journalism against long odds;  others were reports that were seeing the light of day for the first time.) All of them deserved “more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.”

I have previously posted about the continuing loss of journalism. Those of us bemoaning that loss are not talking about the loss of newsprint–the loss of physical paper. That is immaterial. We are talking about the loss of journalism, which can certainly be delivered digitally. As the Post reminded readers, in the last 15 years, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers have ceased publishing. Not just ceased producing newsprint–ceased publication. “By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.”

And that doesn’t even count the places like Indianapolis that do, theoretically, still have a newspaper–places where corporate ownership (in our case, Gannett) has decimated staff and eviscerated coverage, leaving communities with what are called “ghost” papers.

The Post used its special issue to remind readers that we don’t know what we don’t know–and a lot of what we don’t know is important.

When we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.

 

 

Heaven And The GOP

The Pew Research Center is often referred to as the “gold standard” in research methodology, and their results frequently shed light into corners of society that are otherwise dim. One recent study illuminated a rarely-noted distinction between Republicans and Democrats that may (or may not) explain some behavioral differences.

According to Pew, Republicans are considerably more likely to believe in heaven–and to believe that only their religious beliefs will get folks there. As the report on the study noted, not only are there big differences between Republicans and Democrats on matters here on earth, there are similarly large differences in the specific beliefs they hold about life after death and who is entitled to it.

A majority of Americans believe in both heaven and hell, including 74% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats. But about a third (35%) of Democrats say that they do not believe in either heaven or hell, compared with just 14% of Republicans who say this.

In fact, when given the option to express belief in some sort of afterlife aside from either heaven or hell, a quarter of all Democrats say that they do not believe in any afterlife at all, which is much higher than the share of Republicans who express the same view (9%).

Of course, as the report acknowledges, much of the difference can be attributed to the religious composition of today’s parties. A large majority of Republicans are Christians, a much higher share than Democrats. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to be religiously unaffiliated –to  describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

 Large majorities of Christians in both parties believe in heaven, hell or both, including 95% of Republican and GOP-leaning Christians and 90% of Democratic Christians. And in addition to being more numerous in the Democratic Party, religious “nones” who are Democrats are far more inclined than religiously unaffiliated Republicans to say they believe in neither heaven nor hell (68% vs. 47%).

But even among those who believe in heaven, Democrats and Republicans also differ on who deserves to get in. In general, Republicans who believe in heaven are more likely to offer an exclusive vision of it – as a place limited to those who are Christian or at least believe in God – while Democrats tend to say they believe that heaven is open to many people regardless of their sectarian identities or beliefs about God.

Among the people in Pew’s study who claim a belief in heaven, an “overwhelming” share says that people in heaven will be free from suffering and will be reunited with loved ones who died previously. They expect to meet God and have perfectly healthy bodies. People who believe in hell say it’s a place where people experience physical and psychological suffering and become aware of the suffering they created in the world. (Given the emphasis on bodily health, you might expect these folks to be more active proponents of universal health care here on Earth, but consistency doesn’t seem to factor in…)

Ordinarily, I’d take these results with a pretty large teaspoon of salt. I think it was George Gallop who observed that Americans routinely lie to pollsters about three things: sex, drug use and religious belief and observance. As good as Pew is, I have trouble believing that they’ve found a way to ascertain the degree to which these responses are truthful.

Or the degree to which they are accurate representations of respondents’ religious identities.

I have Christian friends who feel strongly, for example, that many of the purportedly pious folks who self-identify as “Christian” are really Christian Nationalists, a rather different thing. And with respect to belief in heaven and hell,  I often think back to my mother’s “belief” in heaven and hell–according to her (somewhat idiosyncratic) theological lights, heaven and hell are what humans create and experience here on earth, during our lifetimes, which is why Jews have a duty to heed biblical and talmudic exhortations about doing mercy and pursuing justice.

Accurate or not, the Pew study is admittedly consistent with what we see around us: a Republican Party obsessed with protecting  (White) “Christian” privilege, and a Democratic Party trying to improve lives in the here-and-now.

Evidently, Republicans believe their eventual ticket to heaven depends entirely upon their success in creating a society that imposes their religious views on the rest of us–it sure doesn’t seem to require correcting hellish situations here on planet Earth.

 

Can Conservatives With Integrity Save Us?

Many thanks to all the readers who posted kind thoughts yesterday. They are much appreciated!

Among the regular readers of this blog are several people I came to know through Republican politics. Even then–“back in the day”–I had philosophical differences with a couple of them. (I generally described myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, but even in my politically-active days, I defined “fiscal conservatism” as prudence, as “pay as you go”–not as ignoring the needs of the poor while being generous to wealthy purported “job creators.”)

The thing is, philosophical differences are philosophical. Rational adults can discuss them, agree or disagree about what the evidence tells us, and even find middle ground. As anyone who is following today’s political environment can attest, today’s GOP is neither rational nor philosophical. Its members bear virtually no resemblance to the center-right, generally Conservative party of which I was once a part.

The liberals and Democrats who dismiss help from the so-called Never Trumpers point out that many of them actively worked for the GOP for years and continue to hold very conservative political views. True–and that is their strategic virtue. The crazies who currently control the GOP and its various propaganda arms certainly aren’t going to listen to people like me; they most definitely aren’t going to listen to AOC and think, “you know, she has a point.” When the New York Times or the Washington Post reports that something from Fox News is false, they aren’t going to believe it.

However, when people who are known to be principled conservatives refuse to engage in the propaganda, some who are not entirely lost to the cult may pay attention. So when longtime commentators resign from Fox in protest, it is a hopeful sign.Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg just did that very thing.

We joined Fox News as contributors in early 2009. Combined, that’s more than 20 years of experience, relationships, and friendships. For most of that time, we were proud to be associated with the network, if not necessarily with every program, opinion, or scandal that aroused controversy. We believed, sincerely, that the country needed Fox News. Whether you call it liberal media bias or simply a form of groupthink around certain narratives, having a news network that brought different assumptions and asked different questions—while still providing real reporting and insightful conservative analysis and opinion—was good for the country and journalism.

Fox News still does real reporting, and there are still responsible conservatives providing valuable opinion and analysis. But the voices of the responsible are being drowned out by the irresponsible.

A case in point: Patriot Purge, a three-part series hosted by Tucker Carlson.

As they write, the Carlson piece is not the “hard-hitting expose” Fox is promoting.

it is a collection of incoherent conspiracy-mongering, riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, deceptive imagery, and damning omissions. And its message is clear: The U.S. government is targeting patriotic Americans in the same manner —and with the same tools—that it used to target al Qaeda….

This is not happening. And we think it’s dangerous to pretend it is. If a person with such a platform shares such misinformation loud enough and long enough, there are Americans who will believe—and act upon—it.

This isn’t theoretical. This is what actually happened on January 6, 2021.

The two of them defend the news programming on Fox, which they say “routinely does what it is supposed to do.” If one only turned Fox on for the news, they’d be told that COVID-19 is deadly, vaccines work, Joe Biden won Arizona, the election wasn’t stolen, and January 6 wasn’t a “false flag” operation. But the news side of Fox has been buried by commentary masquerading as reporting, and they’ve had enough.

As they conclude:

With the release of Patriot Purge, we felt we could no longer “do right as we see it” and remain at Fox News. So we resigned.

We remain grateful for the opportunities we’ve had at Fox and we continue to admire many of the hard-working journalists who work there. This is our last recourse. We do not regret our decision, even if we find it regrettably necessary.

We often hear people bemoan the GOP’s “move to the right.” That isn’t really accurate. I don’t know where insanity falls on the political spectrum, but a collection of conspiracy theories and racial and religious animosities are not a political philosophy. Genuine conservatives with integrity understand that the Republican Party is no longer home to people holding genuinely conservative beliefs.Just ask Liz Cheney.

Ultimately, whether our “backsliding democracy” survives may depend on how many principled conservatives are willing to join Cheney, Goldberg, et al. and draw a line in the sand.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

On Thanksgivings past, my kids would call me the “gratitude gestapo” because I insisted on going around our bountiful table and making everyone say what they were thankful for.

I’m not sorry.

I’m aware that I am incredibly lucky to buffered against many of the very real problems that others face–problems that are so often the subject of discussion and concern here.

So I’m going to spend today being grateful–for my health, my endlessly supportive husband and our wonderful children and children-in-laws, for our extended family, and for all of you who are kind enough to visit this blog read my daily diatribes.

Happy Thanksgiving! (I’ll be back to my grumpy self tomorrow…)

Strategy And Language Matter

One of the more under-appreciated consequences of living in information “bubbles” is  lack of recognition of the realities of political communication. 

Because I write this blog, I routinely access messages from the left, right and (dwindling) center, and it has become obvious that Americans who reside in silos are simply unaware of what the people in other bubbles are hearing and thinking. They aren’t only “preaching to the choir”–they believe most of the church is singing their hymns. 

I will admit to a partial bias in that direction myself–as I read claims made by those promulgating the “Big Lie” or bizarre beliefs of QAnon adherents, I wonder how any sentient person could believe such nonsense. But then, I remind myself that an uncomfortable number of people do believe these things–and that the language we employ to communicate with their fellow-travelers matters.

In my own silo, too many people have forgotten that. Too many see arguments about strategy as lack of commitment to progressive goals. 

We saw this most recently with the disastrous “Defund the Police” slogan. No one I know disagreed with the goals of the “defund” movement, which were eminently reasonable. But people with even a moderate understanding of political strategy understood how easily that slogan could be weaponized against progressive candidates.  Purists defending the slogan by insisting that it “just needed to be explained” were incredibly naive.

If there is one thing Republicans do well, it’s demonizing and weaponizing progressive terminology. It began a long time ago, when the GOP managed to turn “liberal” into a swear word, or a synonym for communist. They have had somewhat less success with “socialist,” mostly because they accuse any government action–most recently, repairing infrastructure–as “socialism.” (Or in Marjorie Taylor Green’s case, as communism.)

That one talent–turning progressive words into weapons–can derail well-intentioned but clumsy efforts to avoid hurtful language. 

Michelle Goldberg recently wrote about one such effort to demonstrate “wokeness” via terminology.

If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as “wokeness,” you might have heard about a document called “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.” Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes.

Some of these substitutions make sense; health care professionals shouldn’t be referring to people who’ve been in prison as “ex-cons.” Some are a matter of keeping up with the times, like capitalizing Black when talking about Black people. Some, however, are obnoxious and presumptuous and would impede clear communication. For example, the guide suggests replacing “vulnerable” with “oppressed,” even though they’re not synonymous: it’s not oppression that makes the elderly vulnerable to Covid.

As Goldberg points out, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be ignored, if it didn’t “inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life.” Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” movement are admittedly heavy-handed and feckless, and the rest of us keep having to answer for them.

John McWhorter, recently made much the same point in a column about the use and misuse of the term woke. McWhorter traced the emergence of the term and its original utility–and the subsequent success of reactionaries and White Nationalists in weaponizing it.

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

There probably wasn’t much progressives could do about “woke,” which began as a useful descriptor. But as Goldberg points out, there is a lesson here, and activists who actually want to win elections need to learn it. Language matters–and reluctance to use terminology that is a gift to the GOP isn’t evidence of a lesser commitment to the cause.