It's the media, stupid

IdeaLog.jpgThe 2014 election has been a shameful, ignorant affair. Americans are choosing candidates based on obsolete stereotypes, phony memes, and absurdly untruthful campaign ads. Why does the mainstream media tend to repeat all the lies?

In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. An excerpt recently published in the Post sheds light on our current problem.

Bradlee explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”

[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….

That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.

First, right wingers have vast propaganda organs masquerading as sources of news. Obviously the biggest of them is Fox News, led by Republican operative Roger Ailes and owned by extreme ideologue Rupert Murdock. But there’s also Rush Limbaugh, Christian right broadcasting, and a flood of blatantly right-wing magazines, pollsters, and websites. If we look at them honestly, none are “news” media. They are news-themed entertainment for the conservative base.

People can now get all their political and policy information from sources that are not attempting to deliver facts. We can’t stop well-financed right wingers from abusing the First Amendment. But why do legitimate reporters and news networks regularly insult themselves by pretending that they’re in the same business as Fox and that crowd? And more important, why do they repeat lies that come from the right wing noise machine?

Second, the mainstream media has changed its “rules” to substitute balance for truth. In just about any mainstream news story (i.e., not including editorials and columns), the reporter will quote one side and then the other, providing a balance of views. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a little independent research and objective reporting would find that one or both sides are lying. The right wing fully understands these “rules” and uses them to launch outrageous falsehoods. The mainstream media repeats the lies and balances them with a quote from the other side. The right-wing strategy relies on the fact that mainstream reporters will almost never state an obvious truth or call out an obvious lie. Just when we need reporters to act as referees, they impersonate play-by-play announcers instead.

A corollary of the “balance” rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when Republican obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when Republicans grab the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. On progressive blogs we call this “false equivalency,” but that’s an idea rarely expressed elsewhere. As a result of this corollary, the media’s so-called “fact-checkers” are frequently the worst purveyors of false information. Bending over backwards to balance their columns, they declare that some detail where they quibble with a Democrat’s interpretation of statistics is the moral equivalent of a calculated lie invented by a Republican’s campaign.

Third, the media treats elections in a way that makes their stories useless to the democratic process. Months before an election a newspaper might run some serious comparisons of the candidates’ proposals. There may also be sporadic investigations of the candidates’ backgrounds. But overwhelmingly, campaign news coverage is limited to the very superficial matters of poll results, political strategy, and so-called gaffes. Again, reporters act like they are play-by-play announcers at a sporting event. And yet, democracy is not a sport.

A voter’s choice for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, or governor is enormously serious—it affects who will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will starve. It does not matter to our country and our world how theatrically a candidate recites talking points, or whether a candidate smiles or frowns, or if a candidate delivers satisfying zingers. What matters is the policies that he or she will pursue in office.

Perversely, the closer the election, the worse news coverage becomes. The last few weeks of coverage are devoid of substance. And yet, that is exactly when undecided voters are looking for information. Do reporters understand so little of politics that they don’t know this?

In recent years, the mainstream media have utterly surrendered its historic role in a democracy—the most critical job of the “Fourth Estate”—to speak and write the truth at a time and in a manner that empowers voters to do their jobs. The media must tell the truth; that was the point of Bradlee’s speech:

Where lies the truth? That’s the question that pulled us into this business, as it propelled Diogenes through the streets of Athens looking for an honest man. The more aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. The more complicated are the issues and the more sophisticated are the ways to disguise the truth, the more aggressive our search for truth must be, and the more offensive we are sure to become to some. So be it.

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What We Stand For in Twelve Words

What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.

By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.

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Understand the anti-teacher narratives

If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. These stories are a powerful means of persuasion, even though they are false. The discussion below is not our normal "use these words in debate," which you can find here. Instead it is for you to understand that the other side's arguments are a pile of myths.

First, they insist there is a crisis in education.

The sky is falling! Our schools are failing, they assert, based on the "evidence" of average scores on standardized tests, both domestic and international. This "crisis" in education is used to justify their extreme tactics: closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curriculum, greatly expanding the use of standardized tests, teaching to the test, opening charters willy-nilly, handing “failing” schools to for-profit “turnaround” specialists, and on and on. There is absolutely no evidence that any of these tactics improve children's lives.

The truth is, there is no education crisis. As Diane Ravitch has fully documented, on domestic standardized tests, and by other measures, student achievement has been rising steadily for decades. And when we look at international standardized tests, if you control for poverty—comparing on an apples-to-apples basis—our students rank as the best in the world. The only reason U.S. test scores look mediocre compared to other countries is that low-income students everywhere score very poorly and we have the highest rate of child poverty among the leading western nations. In short, we don’t have a crisis in education; we have a crisis in child poverty. It's poverty we need to address.

Second, they claim that market-based tactics are the solution.

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Is Obamacare now helping progressives?

Right-wingers and the media have spent the past few years confidently asserting that Obamacare is a political albatross. This was backed up by polls that mindlessly combined conservatives who opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it “goes too far” with  liberals who opposed the ACA because it “doesn’t go far enough.”

Now most pundits have switched direction, pointing out that Americans do not want to repeal the ACA, even in red states. Those writers now say that Obamacare is no longer a powerful political issue. But what if they’re wrong again?

2014 is a turnout election. Predictions of Democratic disaster are based on the assumption that the conservative base will show up to vote this November while the progressive base will not.

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Should your police have military equipment?

More than 8,000 local police forces, including at least 117 college police agencies, have received more than $5 billion in military equipment from the federal government under the “1033 Program.” This obscure anti-terrorism program was thrust into the news when police in Ferguson, Missouri were faced with protests against the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a local officer. As the New York Times explained:

Police officers in full body armor responded. A sniper rode a BearCat armored truck, paid for with $360,000 in federal money. They pointed assault rifles at unarmed protesters and fired tear gas into crowds.

“What we're witnessing is the militarization of policing, and it has become commonplace in towns across America,” wrote Kara Dansky of the ACLU. Local police now routinely have automatic weapons and heavily armored military vehicles. They have camouflage combat fatigues, flash-bang grenades and night-vision rifle scopes. At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Alan F. Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition for the Defense Department said:

Bayonets are available under the [1033] program. I can’t answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for.

You can and should do something about this.

First, ask your own law enforcement agencies whether they own or have ordered any military equipment. If so, find out how much the storage and maintenance costs, what they do with the equipment, and whether there is a training program to make sure those military weapons and accessories are not misused.

Second, you can sponsor legislation to ban such weaponry or set up procedures to ensure proper oversight for the acquisition and possession of military equipment. New Jersey State Senator Nia Gill is introducing two bills to bring some accountability and transparency to the process.

Military equipment clearly did more harm than good in Ferguson. Does the use of this equipment make sense in your state, city or county?

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Progressive Values 101

It is an exaggeration to say that today’s progressives don’t have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda–we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don’t have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters. Because a crucial election looms before us, progressive thinkers are rightfully focusing on this problem.

But in fashioning a solution, we must ensure that the language we use speaks to the Americans we are trying to persuade. This is a challenge, because most persuadable voters are not like us—they are normal people. Unlike us, they don’t think much about public policy, they don’t have a policy checklist for candidates and they don’t speak policy or use intellectual jargon.

How do we persuade people who are so different? By assuring them that we share their values. “Values” need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. In politics, they are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. There is a set of values that progressives can employ to frame public policy in language that will win over persuadable voters. And to those we are trying to reach, our values will sound very familiar: freedom, opportunity and security.

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Are today’s progressives bad at message framing?

Looking back, without expensive consultants or focus groups, liberals of the 60s and 70s brilliantly framed their federal programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. Nowadays, we often moan about the ineffective language that progressives use, but in fairness we've found success with frames like clean elections, environmental justice, living wage, smart growth, assault weapons, hate crimes, predatory lending, and racial profiling.

A problem, perhaps, is that much of the left doesn’t really understand “framing.” Here's a simple way to think about it. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person or activity. Obviously, there are words we use in public policy where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. But there are also words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is the simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.

 

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D.C. School Test Results Reflect Utter Failure of “Reform” Policies

If this isn’t failure, what is?

The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”

This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.

Here are the DC-CAS results copied directly from the DCPS website. These do not include charter schools; school authorities chose to hide those longitudinal results. But we know from a detailed memorandum by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that—based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—results including charter schools would be little different than this.

DC-CAS_CHART_2009_to_2014.jpg

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Why Progressive Values Work

Liberals, lefties, Democrats, environmentalists, unionists, consumer advocates—all progressive types—suffer from negative stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes were invented by the right-wing messaging machine, and others are self-inflicted. By using values, we address and reverse some pernicious assumptions held by persuadable voters. Our values of freedom, opportunity and security prove:

We’re patriots. The right wing has been engaged in a concerted campaign to persuade voters that progressives “hate America.” We’re the “blame America first” crowd, they say. Frankly, we often lean into that punch. We do hate injustice in America. We are eager to make our country better, and fast. But we have to make it clear that we love America—we are just as patriotic as conservatives. In fact, by wanting to fix our nation’s problems, we show that we care about America more than they do. There’s nothing more patriotic than standing up for our democracy. There’s nothing more patriotic than defending our Constitution. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we love America and what it stands for.

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Freedom Is Free

The Fourth of July is a time for both well-meaning and evil-intending people to misuse the word “freedom.”

As a political concept, the only workable definition of “freedom” is that it’s the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights. Freedom is freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Freedom is a defense of basic constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.

 

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