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Parker Molloy

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  • Media keep talking about "identity politics." But what does it even mean anymore?

    More than 40 years after the term was coined, “identity politics” has been reduced to buzzword status.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    For nearly two years, Democrats have been desperate to understand the secret to President Donald Trump’s success. This week, Fox Business hosts Lou Dobbs and Trish Regan might have just figured it out.

    From the October 15 edition of Trish Regan Primetime (emphasis added):

    TRISH REGAN (HOST): You look at the Democrats right now, and they’re really clinging to this idea of identity politics. In your view, what are they missing?

    LOU DOBBS: Well, group and identity politics are really the blueprint for the Democratic Party. It's no longer, as it once was, about the American worker. It's no longer about middle America or middle class Americans. For 20 years, they watched the middle class in this country shrink. It took none other than President Donald J. Trump to step up and say he is for the American worker, the American working family, for the middle class, and put America first. And with that he has driven, it seems to me, a stake into the heart of group and identity politics. Because remember, Trish, and I know you do, this is a president -- from the moment he began campaigning -- says he will be the president of all Americans. ... This is a president of possibility and an insistence upon dreaming, dreaming -- all America is dreaming. And, by the way, those dreams are being realized in 21 months this man has been in office.

    REGAN: It’s amazing because in some ways, Lou, I think he's beating them at their own game. I mean, they used to be about middle class, working Americans, and then all of a sudden, as we saw in 2016 and the aftermath right up until today, things became about, say, the transgender population, which is 0.01 percent of the population. Now, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that. However, they forgot, they forgot all these people out there going to work every day trying to make a living, trying to put food on the table, and consequently, Donald Trump stole their thunder.

    Ah yes, identity politics! Like its rhetorical cousin “political correctness,” identity politics has become one of those catch-all terms that means whatever the person saying it wants it to mean at that particular moment. For the past several years, it’s been deployed derisively to dismiss concerns specific to any group outside of the ruling class. Marriage equality? Identity politics. Black Lives Matter? Definitely identity politics. Protecting the right to an abortion? Massive identity politics. And, well, you get the idea.

    In the above discussion between Dobbs and Regan, Regan cited the Democratic Party’s focus on issues specific to trans people as part of its downfall. After all, if just 0.01 percent of the country is transgender and Democrats are really going all-in on policies and campaign promises that would solely benefit that community, that does seem like a foolish use of resources. Unfortunately for Regan, neither point is really true. Regan was off by a factor of 60 in her trans statistic -- the Williams Institute estimates that 1.4 million adults, or 0.6 percent of the population, identify as trans.

    But to her second point: Yes, Democrats did include a few nods to the trans community in their 2016 party platform, such as supporting the passage of an LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination bill and highlighting violence against trans people. But was that to the exclusion of anyone or anything else? No, not really. On the flip side, the Republican platform leaned into these issues hard, strongly opposing a recently implemented marriage equality ruling; pledging to stop using Title IX “to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people,” as they allege President Barack Obama had done with his “dear colleague” memo to schools saying bullying against trans students isn’t OK; championing the passage of the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would shield people from local and state statutes banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation so long as the person discriminating cites a strongly held religious belief; and support for discriminatory anti-trans policies in public space, such as North Carolina’s controversial, anti-trans HB 2 legislation.

    Objectively speaking, on issues of LGBTQ rights, the Republican Party simply is more invested in identity politics. It shows in how the party has governed, too. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 129 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2017 -- overwhelmingly by Republicans. Democrats are left with the option to either push back against the anti-LGBTQ attacks (and be accused by media figures of playing identity politics) or simply roll over and let a socially conservative agenda pass without opposition. The reason the “Democrats must drop their obsession with identity politics” narrative has more or less become conventional wisdom in the aftermath of 2016 elections is that media -- both mainstream and partisan -- ignore the identity politics of the right.

    Conservative identity politics are all around us, but we've been conditioned not to notice.

    In a study titled “One Tribe to Bind Them All: How Our Social Group Attachments Strengthen Partisanship,” published earlier this year in the Advances in Political Psychology journal, researchers Lilliana Mason and Julie Wronski observed the ways in which our various identities shape -- and have always shaped -- our political beliefs and motivations, even if not consciously.

    Mason and Wronski concluded that, currently, it’s actually Republicans who are more likely to respond to stimuli along identity-based lines. This is due, in part, to the fact that Republicans tend to be more demographically homogeneous -- that is, their two most consistent identities are that of being white and Christian -- whereas Democrats’ power, or lack thereof, relies on just a tenuous connection between varying racial, gender, sexual, and religious coalitions. They write:

    Interestingly, in the realm of “identity politics,” it is generally the Democratic Party that is associated with the use of social identities for political gain. In fact, what we find here is that, if anything, Republicans are more responsive to the alignment of their party-associated groups. Among Republicans, the most cross‐cutting identities are more detrimental to in‐party allegiance than they are among Democrats. Grossman and Hopkins (2016) suggest that Democrats are the party of group interests and Republicans the party of ideological purity. What we find is that Republican “purity” applies to in‐party social homogeneity. A Republican who does not fit the White, Christian mold is far less attached to the Republican Party than one who does fit the mold. This effect is stronger among Republicans than among Democrats, who include significantly more individuals whose racial and religious identities do not match those of the average Democrat. The concept of a “deal‐breaker” identity among Republicans is more feasible than it is among Democrats, as Republicans are generally associated with fewer linked social groups. In this sense, Republicans are more reliant than Democrats on their social identities for constructing strong partisan attachments.

    This could help to explain why media’s identity-based messaging -- such as Fox News’ Laura Ingraham warning her viewers that if they don’t vote Republican, they will be “replace[d] … with newly amnestied citizens and an ever increasing number of chain migrants,” or conservative sites like Breitbart spending years accusing Democrats of waging a “war on Christians” -- tends to resonate with white conservative Americans. It’s why reminding white voters that they may soon be a racial minority in the U.S. is a tried and true way to shift politically unaffiliated white voters to more conservative positions. In July, The Washington Post published the story of a white woman experiencing “demographic anxiety” while trying to fit in with non-English-speaking co-workers, explaining the idea that whites no longer comprising a majority in the country played a role in driving white voters to adopt anti-immigration viewpoints and align more closely with Republicans.

    This still doesn’t explain why a Republican suggesting that Democrats are a threat to the right to practice Christianity is not typically viewed through the lens of “identity politics,” but a Democrat arguing that Republicans are a threat to reproductive rights is. Perhaps this is the result of in-group bias, with U.S. newsrooms still disproportionately white and male. It seems as logical an explanation as any. Mason and Wronski refer to whiteness and Christianity as “the ‘correct’ alignment of social identities,” which is to say that people, including media figures, are conditioned to see this as the default.

    The outcry against "identity politics" is, itself, deeply rooted in identity politics.

    Sometimes, trying to avoid the “identity politics” smear means explicit exclusion of people … on the basis of identity. For instance, after Democrats nominated an especially diverse slate of candidates in local and state primaries this year, some even called that an example of identity politics, suggesting that there’s no reason anybody other than a straight, white, cisgender man should consider running for office lest it be considered an identity-based stunt. PJ Media’s Tyler O’Neil wrote, “Democrats in various states took up the identity politics banner, pushing candidates who fit the minority mold. The August 14 primaries elevated transgender, Muslim, black, and socialist candidates, further cementing the Democratic Party's national radical identity politics brand.”

    At other times, avoiding the charge of playing “identity politics” means abandoning your ideological principles, as self-described liberal Mark Lilla wrote in The New York Times after the 2016 election. Democrats’ “obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored,” he wrote. Lilla’s advice was for Democrats to adopt “a post-identity liberalism” and refocus on the issues that affect the “vast majority,” rather than on things like LGBTQ rights or abortion. In other words, he thinks the answer is to focus on issues that also affect the “angry white male,” whom he describes without a hint of irony as a “maligned, and previously ignored, figure.”

    As I illustrated earlier in this piece, contra Lilla, there’s not really a way to sidestep identity-based battles with a truce of neutrality. The culture war, itself another description of identity politics in this current usage, will rage on regardless. The only question that remains is whether in the name of abandoning “identity politics,” people like Lilla think it’s worth letting the most marginalized groups in society see their rights stripped away bit by bit, all for a political gamble that may not even pay off.

    Telling a group -- whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, people of color, LGBTQ people, the religious, the non-religious -- to abandon identity politics doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just a buzzword, and journalists owe it to the public to stop using it that way.

    But “identity politics” in its original use is totally different from the way it’s used today.

    Up until this point, I’ve been using the term as it is used most commonly by media covering politics. However, the original definition, which originated in “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 missive on the path forward for Black feminism, means almost the exact opposite. Reading the statement, you wouldn’t get the sense that four decades later, people would be using the term to refer to the siloing of identities and exclusion. Here’s one salient passage:

    We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.

    In short, the statement argues that to fight for the rights, treatment, and protection of all, we need to actually hear from all. People need to be able to advocate on their own behalf, but they also need to build coalitions with like-minded individuals. Pretending that differences don’t exist  and ignoring the role racism, sexism, homophobia, and general intolerance play in society doesn’t actually address any of those issues. They don’t simply go away on their own.

    “To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough,” reads another pertinent line. The suggestion that identity politics means progress for some at the expense of others is a perversion of the term’s defining document.

    In a January Twitter thread responding to a David Brooks New York Times column about identity politics, Barbara Smith, one of the Combahee River Collective Statement authors, set the record straight, writing, “Once again Brooks gets identity politics totally wrong!” She continued:

    I can confirm that identity politics means nothing remotely like what Brooks and others like Mark Lilla say. There have been systems of institutionalized oppression in the U. S. like white supremacy, capitalism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia which predate the term identity politics by several centuries. The political theory and practice of identity politics has been most useful for building coalitions with people of various identities who are committed to working together to eradicate these systems and not for creating enemies lists.

    Whether it’s time to retire any particular political strategy is an issue that’s not for me to decide. What I can suggest, however, is that media start focusing on how the term “identity politics” -- in its modern use -- applies to Republican strategy just as much as Democratic efforts, if not more. Better yet, maybe we can just phase out usage of the term as rhetorical empty calories and instead be specific about what we mean.

  • The party of personal responsibility is now the party of “the libs made me do it”

    More than just a hit song by Taylor Swift, Look what you made me do has become the go-to excuse for unsavory actions among conservatives.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    You’d be surprised how many conservatives were this close to casting a ballot for Democrats next month only to be thrust back into their Republican ways by how liberal protesters and Democratic senators handled themselves during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. No, I don’t have data to back this up. What I do have, however, are anecdotes -- lots and lots of anecdotes from conservative media figures who are sharing them, ever so kindly and not at all suspiciously, because they just want to help Democrats win some elections.

    “From a conservative who has been disgusted by the Trumpified GOP: ‘I didn’t think I could drag myself to the polls. But after the Left’s performance in the Kavanaugh affair, I would crawl across broken glass.’ I believe this sentiment is common,” wrote National Review’s Jay Nordlinger on Twitter.

    In his most recent Washington Post column, Hugh Hewitt stressed the importance of not rewarding the “outburst of the new McCarthyism” that was the opposition to Kavanaugh’s spot on the court. This lesson, of course, is for the Democratic Party’s own good -- and it’s one that can be taught only by increasing Republican majorities in the House and Senate. For Republicans who find themselves disapproving of President Donald Trump’s “hyperbole and occasional cruelty,” voting a straight-GOP ballot is a courageous sacrifice worthy of applause. Democrats can rest easy knowing that Hugh Hewitt, longtime friend of the left, has their best interests at heart. Or … something like that.

    “I’ve heard from several of my center-right friends today who are turned off by the Left’s attacks on Kavanaugh & Cruz. As a result, they have started solidly supporting them both,” wrote Daily Beast columnist and CNN commentator Matt Lewis on Twitter, sharing an “admittedly anecdotal” bit of info with his followers.

    Each of these stories could be thusly summed up: I didn’t want to vote for Trump or his congressional enablers … but look what you made me do. In other words, it’s your fault that we’re here.

    It’s a convenient defense to sidestep responsibility for actions or positions one knows to be ethically murky. For many conservatives, that includes supporting Trump and his oft-cruel agenda.

    One variation on this trope is the rejoinder, “This is how you got Trump.” Again on Twitter, Lewis reminds readers that though he’s spent years “lamenting the rise of what came to be called ‘Trumpism’ on the Right,” we should remember at least two of the real causes behind the phenomenon: “liberal media bias” and “the radicalization of the Left.”

    The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro has blamed the rise of Trump on a litany of factors: former President Barack Obama’s lectures; Hillary Clinton’s decision to participate in a sketch during the 2018 Grammy Awards (14 months after Trump’s election); a joke about salads; a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about the cancellation of Roseanne; an admittedly bizarre HuffPost article titled “Why I Put A Dragonfruit Up My Butt…”; the response to a CNN segment in which Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis said the only two things he believed in were “the First Amendment and boobs”; and, in the most meta example possible, the phrase “this is why Trump won.”

    Surely some of those were meant as jokes, but they illustrate something important within modern politics: No one can ever be to blame for their own actions. “How you got Trump” is that Republicans voted for him during the party’s 2016 primary and then went on to cast their ballots for him in the general election. Yes, of course there were other factors, such as Obama voters who crossed over to Trump, Democrats and independents who sat the election out, voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, and so on. None of them, however, were tweets, salads, or sketches during awards shows. Voters -- Trump voters -- gave us Trump. At least that would seem apparent.

    Sometimes, this tactic is deployed as a response, as it was during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Other times, it’s a warning against future action.

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win during the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District left some on the right flustered. A young, affable, progressive candidate who rose from obscurity to defeat a powerful incumbent could pose a threat to the conservative monopoly on power -- if more candidates like her were to emerge and succeed. Right-leaning commentators have since deployed a series of editorials urging Democrats, for their own sake, not to venture too far to the left.

    “Democrats need to choose: Are they the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the party of Michael Bloomberg?” asked a June Business Insider article by Daniella Greenbaum. At The Atlantic, Reihan Salam wrote about Ocasio-Cortez as a sign that the Democratic Party may be in for an unwise shift to the left. Former George H.W. Bush staffer Lloyd Green warned at The Hill that “wealthy swing voters will not buy what Ocasio-Cortez is selling.”

    The promise, though sometimes unspoken, is that if the Democrats were to simply be a little more conservative, they would be able to cash in on the many disillusioned Trump voters. At The New York Times, David Brooks urged Democrats to make less of a fuss about right-wing attacks on abortion rights. Doing this, he surmises, would help them defeat the threat that Trumpism poses to the country and the world. Often, these articles are a request for just one little concession here or there -- maybe it’s to ease up on abortion; or maybe it’s to sit out the conservative battle against LGBTQ rights; or maybe it’s to adopt a more market-driven approach to health insurance. The message bombarding readers is that people on the left are forcing those on the right to march toward authoritarianism simply by being on the left. The underlying argument is that to be successful at the polls, Democrats need to abandon many of the things that differentiate them from Republicans -- which, in Greenbaum’s argument, involves becoming “the party of” a former Republican mayor -- or else conservatives will have no choice but to continue their rightward march.

    But if Trump is the type of existential threat to conservatism and country that National Review made him out to be in its “Against Trump” issue or that Shapiro sugested in a piece for The Daily Wire, then the “party of personal responsibility” needs to take it upon itself to reshape from within. Instead, right-wing media figures are rattling off reasons that it’s actually the fault of Democrats that Republicans became the party of Trump -- not because of their own choices, actions, and divisions.

    Trump himself uses this tactic in his own political battles. Take his immigration policy, for example.

    “It is now time for Congress to act!” Trump said in a 2017 statement announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

    The meticulously crafted statement suggested that his hands were tied. As much as he wanted to keep the program in place, he had little choice but to send the issue back to Congress with hope that it would pass legislation to protect the undocumented immigrants here under the 2012 program. This, of course, was a farce. Trump had every right to leave the program in place while encouraging Congress to make it permanent. Instead, he turned the lives of nearly 700,000 people into a political bargaining chip attached to a ticking time bomb.

    “We want to see something happen with DACA,” Trump said in January. “It’s been spoken of for years, and children are now adults in many cases.” But did he actually want to have a DACA bill on his desk to sign? A number of Democrats (including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein) called on Republican leaders in Congress to vote on a clean bill to completely resolve the issue. In fact, at the same time Trump announced the plan to wind down DACA, the DREAM Act of 2017 had been languishing in the Senate for more than a month. He chose not to put pressure on Republican members of Congress (the bill did have Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) as co-sponsors) to pass the existing bill. Instead, he railed against inaction, making repeated claims that Democrats were the ones choosing not to protect DACA recipients, tweeting that Democrats were “nowhere to be found” on the issue, didn’t care, and were ultimately responsible for the fact that “DACA is dead” (DACA is actually still active as it faces challenges in courts).

    Not only were Democrats willing to act, but many crossed the aisle to provide a bipartisan solution which included an offer to fund his border wall. In response, Trump threatened to veto the bill were it to pass Congress. He went on to repeat this exact same strategy to defend his administration’s family separation policy, falsely blaming it on a “horrible law” that simply did not and does not exist.

    Just as some conservatives in the media can justify their support of Trump’s cruelest policies by blaming just about anything apart from their own decision-making (did you know that Saturday Night Live can lead the most disillusioned former Republican back into the party’s warm embrace?), Trump justifies his own policies by blaming his political opponents. Everyone is happy to take credit for making the right call when something is good -- there’s no shortage of positive coverage among conservatives when it comes to the “Trump economy” -- but blame gets spread far and fast when something has a negative outcome.

    One of the latest examples of this trend involves Trump’s own op-ed in USA Today. While there are a number of outright lies in the piece, there’s one that’s especially galling.

    “As a candidate, I promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and create new health care insurance options that would lower premiums,” reads the editorial. “I have kept that promise, and we are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down.”

    Trump has not kept his promise to people with pre-existing conditions, of course, instead painting Democrats as the party that wants to take away people’s access to health care. In fact, the administration is actively trying to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions in court. On Wednesday, the Republican Senate voted down a measure to prevent a new rule put forward by the administration that would allow insurance companies to offer plans that exclude these crucial and popular protections.

    If and when those defenses erode, there’s little doubt that he will look to Democrats as he did during the DACA debate and shrug as if to say, “I really wanted to help. Really, I did. But look what you made me do.” His defenders are sure to join in. It’s the job of a responsible media to hold him to account.

  • Today's dumbest controversy is the idea that Eric Holder wants Democrats to literally kick conservatives

    "When they go low, we kick them” doesn’t mean to actually kick someone

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Speaking to a group of Democrats in support of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Adams, former Attorney General Eric Holder riffed on Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” line from the 2016 Democratic National Convention to comment on the need for Democrats to fight back against voter suppression efforts -- a legitimate concern, especially in that state.

    “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high,'” said Holder at last weekend’s event. “No. No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about. We’re proud as hell to be Democrats. We’re willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.”

    Just from that quote, it should be obvious that Holder wasn’t talking about physically kicking anybody, but lest someone misinterpret his comment as a call to violence, he clarified:

    “Now, when I say, you know, ‘we kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.”

    Since its release, the video of Holder’s comments has been making the rounds across conservative and mainstream media.

    On Wednesday’s edition of Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight, the host called Holder an “illustrious thug” after playing the context-free version of Holder’s comments.

    “You know, when I think what we’ve just gone through and when I think of what Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh and his family have gone through, and I think of the ignorance of the radical Dems on that committee and in that party and what they’re saying, and watching Eric Holder in Georgia, talking big like he’s some sort of street thug, I can’t imagine what it would take to infuriate, to motivate Republicans to get to the polls and take five others with them,” Dobbs said later in the program.

    On Thursday’s Fox & Friends, Holder’s comments racked up a number of mentions. Yet again, the latter half of his statement, where he explicitly said that he’s not referring to committing acts of violence, was omitted.

    “Wow, that's the new Democratic Party? Just start kicking people? That's the former head of the Justice Department, keep that in mind,” said co-host Ainsley Earhardt.

    President Donald Trump later called in to the show. Asked about what Holder said, Trump replied, “He better be careful what he is wishing for,” adding, “That is a disgusting statement for him to make.”

    He went on to call it a “dangerous statement,” saying, “They talk about us. We are exactly opposite.” He then described his rallies as “really calm and well-run and packed with people. We don't have problems at our rallies, but they used to send in -- they don't do it anymore, they haven't, they probably, maybe they will try starting again -- but they used to send in protesters, paid protesters. The Democrats and Soros and they came from all over.”

    Trump’s rallies during the 2016 campaign, however, were not the peaceful utopia he described on Thursday. There’s a stark contrast between the way Fox & Friends discussed these relatively harmless comments by Holder and how the show reacted when then-candidate Trump called in on November 22, 2015, to say of one protester who claimed to have been assaulted at one of his rallies: “Maybe he should have been roughed up.

    The distortion of Holder’s comments fits into Fox News’ pre-election strategy of framing Democrats as violent extremists who can’t be trusted to govern.

    And as goes Fox News, so goes the rest of conservative media.

    Breitbart, The Washington Times, The Federalist, The Gateway Pundit, and Twitchy all published stories centered around the first portion of the video.

    At RedState, Andrea Ruth wrote that “advocating physical violence … is really not the best look or direction for a party that got members worked up because people at a Trump rally chanted lock her up. … Let’s just hope no one gets hurt because they feel emboldened by Holder’s careless words,” she said, continuing the distortion.

    The Daily Caller and Hot Air both wrote about the video, later updating their posts with additional context.

    Hot Air’s John Sexton wrote, “Of course, I think we all know what will happen the moment someone does this to Hillary or Eric Holder. Suddenly they’ll be shocked and appalled and claim they never had this in mind. They were only speaking metaphorically, etc., etc. Don’t believe it for a minute. They see what is happening out there. They know what kind of behavior they are encouraging.” In his update, he backpedalled, adding the additional comments and writing: “People on the left are pointing to this as evidence that Holder wasn’t endorsing violence or illegal behavior. Fair enough but if you read the post above you may have noticed I never said or even suggested he was recommending violence.”

    Yeah, but you kind of did suggest that, John.

    Violent rhetoric should be condemned, but bad-faith efforts to score points through misrepresentation do little to build trust.

    Violence, of course, is bad, and so is rhetoric that can incite it. But pretending that Holder meant “kick” opponents literally, that Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-VA) “fight in the streets” comment were actually about throwing punches, or that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) calling on supporters to “push back” on the Trump administration was an actual instruction to shove government officials (in fairness, she did say to confront them in public, but that’s hardly inciting language), it gets harder to take these claims seriously. Surely, those framing these messages as calls to violence in media know that it’s deceptive to do so.

  • Why is this man on my TV?

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Left or right, political media bubbles are, at best, unproductive; at worst, they can be gateways into alternate realities. Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a significant push for people to exit their respective echo chambers and start really listening to one another. For example, BuzzFeed introduced its “Outside Your Bubble” experiment in February 2017, offering readers a range of views from around the internet and across the political spectrum on a single topic. The following month, Amanda Hess at The New York Times gave a rundown of this movement, noting that it is geared less toward trying to convince hardcore Trump supporters to open their minds to the political left, and much more toward convincing liberals to entertain more perspectives from the right.

    But just exposing news consumers to wildly different opinions doesn’t do much to bridge the polarization gap -- in fact, it might make people even more entrenched in their partisan views. Earlier this year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that being presented with different worldviews could actually trigger motivated reasoning and other defense mechanisms among consumers. While the study’s authors cautioned against making too much of its conclusions, it may be worth pumping the brakes a bit on assumptions that we may have about bubble-busting. Perhaps, a place to start would be to seek out milder points of view -- ideologically challenging but not overly partisan -- to add to an idea mix. In other words, a mainstream Democrat might benefit more from reading a relatively thoughtful conservative pundit like David Brooks than party cheerleaders like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.

    One might think that the most obvious place to look for less partisan but still right-leaning figures would be among “Never Trump” Republicans. After all, who better to help bridge the left and the right than people who would have ordinarily voted for the GOP candidate but made the decision not to support Donald Trump?

    One person who’s benefited from the push to pop ideological bubbles is conservative commentator Erick Erickson. Erickson, who edits the website The Resurgent, has also had stints as a contributor at both CNN and Fox News in recent years. Like many other “Never Trump” conservatives, such as New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens or The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, Erickson’s profile has arguably risen in the wake of Trump’s election. If you were to base your opinions of him entirely on his appearances in mainstream news outlets, you might even find him reasonable (if perhaps still a little out of your comfort zone).

    But “Never Trump” should not be conflated with “moderate” — and that’s the problem here.

    Perhaps you’ve seen Erickson on Meet the Press, tsk tsk'ing incivility or sharing relatively harmless theories about who could be the author of the mysterious, anonymous White House op-ed. Or maybe you recognize him from sharing a few laughs with Brooke Baldwin on CNN Newsroom, or saying that The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson was “bad form” on CNN’s Reliable Sources (on The Resurgent, he called The Atlantic’s move “liberal fascism”). Or it could be that you saw him on Real Time with Bill Maher, or read his extremely sensible-sounding New York Times op-ed “How to Find Common Ground.”

    But Erickson isn’t moderate. He has argued that gay men should expect to be assaulted in bars if their appearance makes others uncomfortable, defended Roy Moore voters for sticking with their candidate despite “damning” evidence that suggested he preyed on teenage girls, uncritically spread a conspiracy theory about Parkland survivor David Hogg, and later labeled Hogg a “high school bully.”

    Erickson’s output following reports of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been illuminating.

    Since September 17, Erickson has written dozens of stories at The Resurgent about the reports by Christine Blasey Ford and others that Kavanaugh engaged in sexual misconduct. Those blog posts included a number of falsehoods -- such as the debunked claim that The New York Times refused to run one Kavanaugh accuser’s story -- as well as an abundance of hyperbolic claims (“Christine Blasey Ford Demands a Soviet Style Show Trial” reads one headline).

    On Twitter, he’s shared conspiracy theories that began as pranks on 4chan (“rumors are flying Michael Avenatti, the creepy porn lawyer, locked his Twitter account because his supposed Kavanaugh victim is a prankster off 4Chan that successfully trolled him,” he wrote, boosting a debunked theory that another Kavanaugh accuser and Avenatti client, Julie Swetnick, didn’t exist). He also helped spread the false rumor that Kavanaugh’s mother foreclosed on Ford’s childhood home (first by saying “a growing body of blogs are posting” the rumor and later by tweeting about it as a fact). He went all-in on conservative commentator Ed Whelan’s elaborate theory that Ford must have confused Kavanaugh with a look-alike (first by couching it in language that simply called the theory a “credible and coherent explanation,” but later by posting a number of tweets presenting the doppelgänger theory as a factual, proven truth). Add to that the fact that he claimed Democrats were “willing to destroy an innocent man so they can keep killing kids” and called the confirmation process “the Left’s PizzaGate,” with MSNBC as “the Left’s Alex Jones.”

    Not only are Erickson’s views far from moderate, but his penchant for signal-boosting rumors and conspiracy theories has done much more to confuse the public than to inform it. This isn’t meant as a criticism of his political views, his personal life, or even his bombastic approach to media; it’s a criticism of the sanitized way he’s presented by mainstream outlets that provide him with a platform.

    The tendency to hedge on criticism of far-right figures only reinforces the myth of moderation.

    Following Erickson’s attack on Hogg, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan published a column titled “The sliming of Parkland students shows the spreading stain of media polarization.” The post was critical of Erickson’s “bully” blog post and criticized him for suggesting that Hogg wasn’t at Parkland on the day of the shooting. But even in writing about these vicious and irresponsible actions, Sullivan seemed to hedge.

    “Erickson’s actions matter because he’s seen as moderate — someone who gets to offer platitudes about ‘healing’ in the New York Times and whose comments get picked up — not as if they were the ravings of an Alex Jones, but as a legitimate conservative opinion maker,” the column originally read.

    On Twitter, I criticized the soft language, to which Sullivan replied, “He’s seen as relatively moderate compared to the likes of Alex Jones or Hannity. He’s apparently seen as relatively moderate by, say, The Hill, which saw fit to write up his post without challenging anything in it. And credible enough to write for NYT.”

    The current iteration of Sullivan’s column on the Washington Post website now includes the words “despite his often extreme views” following “Erickson’s action’s matter” and qualifies “relatively” before “moderate.”

    Sullivan’s reply suggested that whether someone is a moderate or an extremist is a matter of relativity and the editorial decisions of mainstream news outlets. This idea is as fascinating as it is frustrating -- but I believe it’s correct. The long-term effect of the constant recalibration of what constitutes a moderate position can change perception not only in media, but in politics itself. Sure, what’s moderate in 2018 -- for instance, support for marriage equality -- would have likely be considered extreme in the 1950s. Recalibrations happen over time, but usually as the result of more organic forces, not ratings. This is the Overton window in action, being shifted not by a changing landscape of political views, but by the editorial decisions involved in boosting them. That should worry us.

    All of this raises the question: What role do CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post play in establishing and upholding the Erickson-as-moderate mythology? I asked Sullivan.

    In an email, she writes, “Although Erickson may be seen by some as moderate or may actually be relatively moderate compared to someone like Alex Jones, he’s not moderate in any real sense. And whenever we refer to him, we should be a lot clearer about that than I was in my column. We owe it to our readers not to reinforce a false idea.”

    I agree, and I believe that there’s a responsibility among media outlets to ensure that they’re reflecting public opinion and the realities of modern political discourse rather than putting their thumbs on the scale to create a false balance. Whether it’s in the form of a moderate makeover for someone like Erickson or Shapiro, or ubiquitous “both sides” horse race coverage, it’s time for decision-makers at media organizations to really take into consideration the lasting effects that their work and their choices will have beyond the industry for years to come. It’s for that reason that “left, right, and center” can’t be replaced by “left, Never Trump, and pro-Trump.”

  • Media portray these tales of perseverance as uplifting and inspirational. They're actually horror stories.

    In areas like health care and sick leave, systems are failing Americans -- and the obsession with uplifting stories optimized for social media is obscuring it.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    If you spend any amount of time on social media, you’re probably familiar with mega-viral uplifting stories like “A teacher battling cancer ran out of sick days. School employees showered him with theirs,” “Birmingham college student walked 20 miles to 1st day of work so his boss gave him his car,” “Vietnam vet named 'Smiley' gets new teeth after living toothless for 40 years,” and “Little girl desperate to save mom’s life after cancer diagnosis opens lemonade stand.”

    These four examples all come from just the past five months, but there are countless additional articles and segments that share the same lessons about never giving up, going the extra mile, and taking care of others. The articles are framed to make you feel good, to illustrate the kindness of others, to show you that things can work out when tragedy hits, and yes, to “restore your faith in humanity.” These are excellent messages that we could probably all benefit from having in our lives, but there’s one thing that gets left out on an all-too-regular basis: the underlying causes.

    If the United States followed the lead of other well-off countries, paid sick leave would eliminate the need for co-workers to donate their sick days; if workers were paid a living wage and we invested in public transportation, no one would have to walk 20 miles to work; if we fulfilled the promises made to our veterans, none of them would go 40 years without teeth; if we treated health care as a right, no child would feel a responsibility to sell enough lemonade to keep their mother alive. Each story could be just as easily framed in a way meant to disgust us with the state of the social safety net and inspire us to enact policies that prevent such situations from happening. Instead, the authors tend to isolate each situation from its larger context.

    In 2017, writer Adam Johnson coined the term “perseverance porn” to refer to uplifting stories centered around people overcoming long odds and societal roadblocks on the path to happy endings. It makes for an apt name considering how these stories fetishize bootstrapping one's way out of trouble.

    Part of what makes perseverance porn so effective, at least when it comes to getting our attention, is that it tends to follow a storytelling structure sometimes known as the “dramatic arc” -- consisting of, in the Florida teacher’s story, an introduction (meet this teacher), a rising action (he was diagnosed with cancer), the climax (he realized he doesn’t have enough sick days), a falling action (he posted a selfie calling for help), and a resolution (within four days other teachers had donated enough days to cover his needs). In these dramatic-arc pieces, we see the happy ending, or are at least left with the impression that there will be one. This is the same time-tested technique, sometimes also referred to as the “hero’s journey,” used in fiction from The Odyssey to Star Wars. (In this case, CNN did publish a follow-up story making similar arguments about the original piece as are being made here, but it was an opinion piece and not the straight-reported version originally published.)

    The problem with these stories is that they routinely gloss over harsh realities in order to fit this structure. They lead us to believe that these situations have a way of working themselves out. In fact, many (if not most) people facing these challenges — whether it’s the majority of people whose medical crowdfunding campaigns don’t reach the goal, or it’s someone who dies because they can’t afford their cancer treatment or their insulin —  don’t get the the help they need, and things do not magically work themselves out. But these stories buoy the conservative argument that aspects of the social safety net should be trimmed back or abolished altogether in favor of private charity.

    During his run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, Ron Paul famously responded to a question about what responsibility the government should have for an uninsured person facing a long-term medical emergency such as a coma by saying that such a person should “assume responsibility for himself.” When pressed, he suggested that churches, neighbors, or friends would take care of it. In practice, we can see that this just isn’t the case.

    Last year, artist Shane Patrick Boyle lost his health benefits after moving from Texas to Arkansas to care for his dying mother. A Type I diabetic, he simply didn’t have the $750 he needed to buy a month’s supply of insulin, so he did what more than 250,000 people do each year: He launched a GoFundMe campaign. Unlike the stories the news media tends to highlight, his doesn’t have a happy ending. He came up $50 short, and less than a month later, he was dead.

    Boyle’s story is one of a failed system and the limits of relying on charity to fund health expenses, but it wasn’t until eight months after his death, when The Nation mentioned him in a story and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shared the article on Facebook, that it gained much traction in the national press. It could be that stories like Boyle’s just don’t generate as much traffic or attention as the ones about a neighborhood coming together to help raise money for someone’s cancer treatment. But in my view, writers shy away from reporting these stories partially out of fear of being labeled political.

    Consider the time Jimmy Kimmel used his late-night platform to talk about his newborn son’s health woes. The story contained all the elements of the dramatic arc -- his wife gave birth, his son was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, he had surgery to fix one of the defects, and the family lives happily ever after. It also took aim at an underlying issue: Kimmel acknowledged that people who aren’t millionaire talk show hosts might not have been able to afford the care his son needed. He discussed why protections banning insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition are so important to so many, and he made an argument against passing legislation that would gut those rights.

    Several right-leaning media outlets slammed Kimmel’s segment. The Washington TimesCharles Hurt told Kimmel to “shut your fat trap about partisan politics and go care for your kid, who just nearly died, you elitist creep.” Conservative host Michelle Malkin dismissed Kimmel’s plea, writing, “I feel your pain. But please use your brain.” The Daily Caller polled its readers as to whether it was appropriate for Kimmel to use “emotional coercion for political purposes.”

    Yes, Kimmel’s monologue was political, but so is perseverance porn. When journalists leave out details about why people find themselves in desperate situations, or how many people in those positions don’t end up getting the help they need, they’re reinforcing a long-running conservative narrative in support of privatizing the social safety net. More detailed versions of these stories complete with uncomfortable facts about human suffering in the U.S. might not click as well or share as reliably on social media as the current crop of content does, but they would be a lot more honest.

    The world needs positivity, and the people involved in these stories deserve all the praise they can get. But positivity without honesty can blind us to the reality of everyday life and build up a distorted understanding of the country’s problems.

    Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based writer with an interest in media, technology, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy.
  • Taking the debate bait

    Conservatives keep using dumb stunts to get attention, and news outlets keep falling for it

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In 2012, conservative radio host Mark Levin challenged the sitting president to a debate, but you probably don’t remember hearing about it.

    "I will give $50,000 to Obama's Super PAC if he will debate me for one hour,” Levin said. “Now he’s flying all over the country in exchange for meals and handshakes and photos. People are giving a lot less than that. Just one hour, a debate. It doesn’t even have to be televised. In fact, we’ll do it right here on this program. Be very professional, be very fair, equal time, just a debate."

    The amount he offered didn’t really matter. He could have offered $500,000 or $5 million, but Barack Obama would never have made his way to Levin’s studio, nor should he have — and deep down, Levin must have known that, as well. The offer was a bluff, part of a larger grift to put his name on the same level as Obama’s, to get a bit of free publicity for making an offer he knew he’d never have to pay out. It’s a tried and true approach to attention seeking that we’ve mostly come to understand for what it is: a sad ploy.

    But then seven months later, the political press forgot that lesson, giving way to a new era of bluff challenges.

    A year removed from his racist birther campaign, Donald Trump challenged Obama to release his college and passport “applications and records” in exchange for a $5 million donation to the charity of the president’s choice. Now, from what we now know about Trump’s charitable giving, there was little chance he would have actually followed through on the boast, but he knew he’d never have to. All he wanted was to be back in the news, and with this baseless new challenge, he got his wish. Trump was interviewed by Fox News and Forbes, and his offer was written up by The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters, and others.

    Fast-forward six years, and Donald Trump is now the president and conservative media personalities regularly use his 2012 tactic to boost their own popularity. Case in point: Last week, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro challenged Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, offering $10,000 to her campaign or a charity of her choice.

    At first, Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to respond to Shapiro was treated as news (at least at Shapiro’s Daily Wire). Then, after Ocasio-Cortez explained why she ignored the offer, it became news again as Shapiro wrongly accused her ofslanderinghim. “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions. And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one,” she tweeted. Shapiro and others on the right were quick to misread Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet as her literally accusing Shapiro of catcalling, which suggests that she was right to brush off his offer as coming from a place of bad intentions. That, and the fact that both Daily Wire articles featured cherry-picked, unflattering images of her, might lead one to think this was less about having a good-faith discussion of ideas and more just a setup.

    The goal, just as it was in Trump’s case, in Levin’s case, and in other examples of a public figure making a big show of offering a large sum of money to someone in exchange for a debate or to complete an unnecessary task like releasing college applications (who even keeps those?), was simple: to get attention.

    It worked, and honestly, you have to at least admire Shapiro’s ability to market himself. The Hill wrote about it. Fox News covered it. Business Insider, HuffPost, and several others took the bait.

    One thing missing from a lot of the coverage was the fact that debating random pundits is not something candidates are generally expected to do. When a number of conservative outlets argued that Ocasio-Cortez was being hypocritical in turning down Shapiro’s offer given that she had once called out her primary opponent, Rep. Joe Crowley, for his refusal to debate her, they seemed loath to acknowledge that it’s absolutely normal to expect one’s own campaign opponent to engage in debate so that their future constituents can make an educated decision when it comes to casting a ballot. That is a completely different thing from taking on anybody with a podcast.

    If Ocasio-Cortez’s actual Republican opponent in November’s general election, Anthony Pappas, challenges her to a debate and she turns it down, then it would be fair to call out hypocrisy. But the only lesson to come out of this kerfuffle is that the debate challenge grift still works, which is why in the immediate wake of Shapiro’s challenge, we’ve already seen people including National Diversity Coalition for Trump ambassador and former member of the Pussycat Dolls Kaya Jones, “The Conservative Millennial” Allie Beth Stuckey (who recently made headlines of her own for her “satire” interview with Ocasio-Cortez), and Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens challenge Ocasio-Cortez to debates, with Owens even making an “offer” of $100,000 to charity for the opportunity. “I really don’t care if Ocasio-Cortez debates me,” Stuckey acknowledged on Fox News. “The point was to kind of call her out.” It’s a way to get attention, and you can’t really fault any of the people throwing themselves into the discussion for trying to make the most of it.

    But it’s not newsworthy, and it’s not a good look for mainstream political media to fall back into the same trap that helped elevate Trump to the national political stage — not for his ideas, but for his stunts. There’s no shortage of content for the national news media to focus on without rewarding and encouraging the WWE-ification of our democracy.

    Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based writer with an interest in media, technology, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy.