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Parker Molloy

Author ››› Parker Molloy
  • Congress had a big chance to hold Google accountable. Legislators blew it. 

    Our lawmakers are so hung up on the idea that companies are instituting politically biased policies into their products that they’re ignoring real threats.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Tuesday, at the request of congressional Republicans, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The goal of the hearing was to better Congress’ understanding of the search giant’s practices around data collection and use -- or at least it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, like in past hearings with tech executives, much of the questioning focused on the idea that the company has some sort of deep-seated anti-conservative bias that needs to be examined and eradicated.

    There’s nothing new about the false allegations that social media and tech companies are biased against conservatives. In fact, these claims are just the latest incarnation of a long-term effort to brand the mainstream American press as “liberal,” which dates back to at least a half-century ago, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”

    The claim of bias is little more than an attempt to “work the refs” or to get favorable treatment by calling foul. And given that House Republicans are just weeks from losing their power to call these sorts of hearings (as they will when the new Democratic-controlled House takes over), it made sense for them to hold one final show designed to make the McCarthy hearings look like a low-budget community theater production of The Crucible.

    It doesn’t actually matter that Republicans are lying when they claim bias, since they get their desired result anyway.

    In 2016, Gizmodo published a story titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” It was an explosive if not particularly well-sourced story, based on the opinion of two of the site’s trending-section curators, one of whom openly identified as conservative. Other curators interviewed for that story couldn’t corroborate those claims. The argument seemed to be that sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax weren’t treated with the same level of authority as The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. The practice isn’t censorship or anti-conservative bias, but rather just a decision to favor trusted, mainstream sources over aggregators and partisan outlets. In any case, the article handed the Republican Party a talking point, and that same day, the GOP published a blog post demanding that Facebook address the issue of censorship against conservatives:

    With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.

    It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points (sic) and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.

    Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.

    Now, most people likely understand that there are good reasons to trust newspapers and media organizations that do original reporting over aggregators like Drudge. But the narrative had been created, and the GOP jumped on it. Panicked, Facebook officials met with a slew of conservative media commentators and other right-wing leaders to try to put out the public relations fire. The goal was to force Facebook to institute a pro-conservative bias, and it worked. Facebook fired its human curators, replacing them with an algorithm that heavily promoted hoax news stories before eliminating the section altogether. Additionally, Facebook created a task force to root out liberal bias (which, again, doesn’t actually exist).

    Conservatives worked the refs, and Facebook caved. But by taking steps to appease the insatiable beast that is the conservative victimhood complex, Facebook sent a clear message: The tech industry fears conservatives, and that fear can be leveraged. Since then, Congress has held show trials masked as hearings about anti-conservative bias, leading social platforms and tech companies to take proactive steps to express pro-conservative views.

    Earlier this week, Wired published a story about leaked audio from a Google meeting in which executives at the company expressed their desire to build inroads with conservative organizations.

    “I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives. I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers,” said Google’s U.S. head of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, according to Wired.

    The hearings may be getting results for conservatives, but they are one big swing and a miss in addressing the many actual issues with tech companies. There’s reason to be wary of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others in the tech space. Legislatively, the U.S. hasn’t kept up with other countries. For instance, the European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules outlining the steps companies must take before gathering and storing user information. Though some states have taken steps to enact their own data policies, there aren’t any major consumer protections at the federal level to speak of.

    Now is the time for lawmakers to be having discussions with executives at these companies, but the topic needs to change from an overwhelming focus on the idea of political bias to questions of how our data is being collected and used. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many of our lawmakers are complete technological neophytes, with some still barely able to get beyond the basic misunderstanding of the internet then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) demonstrated in 2006 with his “series of tubes” comment. For example, on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wanted to know why his staff’s edits to his Wikipedia page kept getting removed, claiming that Google should be liable for the online encyclopedia’s content because the search engine has given it a “trusted spot.” (Google pulls some data from Wikipedia entries, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually against Wikipedia’s guidelines to edit your own page.) Rep. Steve King (R-IA) needed to be reminded that Google doesn’t make iPhones. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) repeatedly asked -- while, like King, holding up an iPhone, which doesn’t come with Google software installed -- whether Google could track his movement within a room via the device.

    “I now know how it feels to work at the Genius Bar in Arlington,” tweeted New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose.

    Had these lawmakers been even slightly more tech adept (or at least willing to brush up on some of the current controversies facing companies like Gooogle), there’s a lot they could have actually accomplished. Vox reporter Emily Stewart published a list of topics committee members could have more thoroughly addressed had they not been so laser-focused on bias. For instance, how does Google use our data for mobile advertising? Does the company plan to make changes following a $5 billion judgment in an EU antitrust case? Or why didn’t Google self-report on the massive Google+ data breach the company discovered earlier this year?

    Political media seem less interested in issues of substance than in he said/she said accusations of bias -- and that’s a problem.

    Moments before the start of Pichai’s opening remarks, CNN’s Poppy Harlow hyped the event as “what could be a very tense hearing on Capitol Hill,” noting that “Google's CEO will testify publicly for the first time, facing allegations of political bias against conservatives.” That evening, CNN International’s Quest Means Business host Richard Quest interviewed media correspondent Brian Stelter, again discussing the question of bias.

    On Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined Tucker Carlson to talk about … bias. Jordan went on a short rant about Google and Twitter -- repeating a debunked claim that Twitter had “shadowbanned” conservatives -- and at Carlson’s suggestion, threatened to punish the companies with regulation and legislation that would scare them into making gestures to placate the political right.

    How tech companies handle our data and the effects of that data being handled poorly are not sexy topics. Certainly, the thought that there are politically motivated people putting their thumbs on the search engine scale to disadvantage one political party or another is a more exciting angle. While it’s not clear whether it’s lawmakers taking their cue from media or the other way around, news media do a major disservice to their audiences when they put so much emphasis on factually dubious claims of bias. Instead, they should be helping readers and viewers better understand why policymaking around data collection matters and what the real-world consequences of inaction by our legislators could be. As always, covering politics as though it’s some sort of sport makes the world a more divided and less understanding place. If media organizations feel compelled to cover claims of bias, they owe it to the public to plainly say that these allegations are simply not backed up by the facts.

  • Tucker Carlson Tonight is the local news broadcast from hell

    Fox News peppers its lineup with a “greatest hits” of local news stories designed to reinforce its audience’s existing beliefs

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Here’s what was in the news on February 28, 2018: Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart announced that they would be ending sales of “assault-style” rifles, President Donald Trump (briefly) came out in favor of raising the minimum purchase age on some guns, and an explosive report from the United Nations linked North Korea to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

    Viewers of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, however, would not be hearing about any of those stories. Instead, they got front-row seats to an exclusive interview with Ryan Wolfe, a Wake Forest student upset that the university had not pursued a “school judicial case” against other students after one photoshopped his face onto a picture of a saltine cracker 16 months earlier.

    “I assume that’s a slur against your ethnicity, correct?” Carlson asked Wolfe, referring to the photo. It was a patently ridiculous moment in television history, and it went on for four surreal minutes.  It was something you might expect to find in a school newspaper, or maybe hear a quick mention about on a local TV segment -- but almost certainly not something one might expect to see broadcasted to Carlson’s more than 2.5 million nightly viewers. Except it actually is, if you’ve kept up with the show at all.

    One way of thinking about Tucker Carlson Tonight is as less of a nationally broadcast news show, and more … local news from hell.

    Here’s what I mean by that. Local news broadcasts are known for including a few cutesy local interest stories or lighthearted takes on things that happened around town. Tucker Carlson Tonight functions as a sort of “greatest hits” round-up for local stories and minor controversies that feel custom-made for the Fox News audience. Now, I should be clear: This is pretty standard for Fox shows, but Carlson’s is truly the pièce de résistance of the whole lineup, the broadcast your local news outlet would tease with scary cliffhangers like, “This one common household item might kill you. Tune in at 9 to learn more!”

    A lot of the time, Carlson does this with the help of Cathy Areu during a regular segment called “The Liberal Sherpa.” Areu is introduced as the founder of Catalina magazine and, as Carlson said during his July 4 show, as someone “willing to defend pretty much any new fad on the left, whether it's hiding in cry closets or getting consent before you change your baby's diaper.”

    Recent “Liberal Sherpa” segments included discussion about Cleveland radio station WDOK’s decision to leave the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” off of its holiday playlists, a British university’s internal memo asking professors to avoid writing in all capital letters in correspondence with students, and a California school district’s new dress code.

    Others included debate over a college diversity network’s recommendation to curtail use of the phrase “as you know,” a pair of Massachusetts parents who’ve decided to raise their children gender neutral (Carlson called this “steep civilizational decline”),  a New Jersey high school that let all interested students join the cheerleading team without tryouts, a white Utah teen wearing a traditional Chinese dress to prom, as well as the aforementioned cry closet and diaper consent stories.

    Sometimes, as was the case in a February 23 segment about Purdue University urging students not to use words with “man” in them, Carlson & Company straddle the line somewhere between exaggerating and being willfully misleading.

    Areu is the Washington Generals to Carlson’s Harlem Globetrotters, reinforcing the audience’s perception of liberals as a whole.

    Areu’s role really does seem to be to defend anything Carlson puts forward as being a trend on “the left.” Watching these segments, you get the clear impression that the mainstream “left” would back every single one of these views, even taken to the absolute extreme. For instance, Carlson asked Areu during the “dress code” segment whether girls should just be allowed to come to school topless if they want; instead of telling him that’s ridiculous, she actually agreed that they should.

    These clips seem to exist primarily as a way to get Carlson’s audience worked up into a lather about how ridiculous or out of touch progressives are, and based on the responses they elicit when they’re posted on social media, it seems to work. It’s genuinely unclear whether Areu is being completely earnest in her Tucker Carlson Tonight appearances; in fact, there’s at least one thread on the pro-Trump r/The_Donald reddit forum asking whether she’s just playing a character.

    Is the average Democratic voter a gender-neutral, clothing-optional, lowercase-letter-using, cry-closet-dwelling, language-policing, prom-dress-hating, Christmas-song-averse parent who asks their babies for permission to change their diapers? No. On the local news broadcast from hell, however, that’s the party’s core constituency.

    These segments fuel the identity politics-driven culture war that conservative media blame on progressives.

    One way Carlson achieves this is by covering hot-button social issues, such as the ongoing debates over transgender rights, plucking examples of minor controversies around the country and overwhelming his audience with sheer quantity. For instance, as of this writing, someone has mentioned the word “transgender” on 35 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight in 2018. Sometimes, it comes in reference to a policy that has a legitimate place in national news, such as the Trump administration’s efforts to ban trans people from the military.

    Many of the others times, however, it’s just more local news stories blown up for effect. For example, in March, Carlson interviewed a college student who was reportedly “kicked out of class” for saying there were “only two genders.” Carlson has also used his show to discuss the results of a Connecticut track meet, the Boston Marathon’s entry rules, and a bizarre story involving the winner of the women’s 35-to-44 division cycling meet in Los Angeles -- all because the stories involved trans people.

    Very few, if any, of these stories were likely deserving of national airtime, and yet, Tucker Carlson Tonight was there to give them a boost. What makes the conservative media obsession with trans issues a bit maddening is that these outlets appear unwilling to admit that such a preoccupation exists at all. Carlson took time out of his July 24 episode to chide former Bernie Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver for the Democratic Party’s supposed “fixation” on “esoteric sexual politics like transgender bathrooms.”

    Meanwhile, The Rachel Maddow Show, Carlson’s MSNBC counterpart, mentioned the word “transgender” during just six episodes over the course of the same period. Four shows were discussing Trump’s military ban, one was about Vermont’s Democratic nominee for governor, Christine Hallquist, and another addressed The New York Times’ bombshell October 21 report that the Trump administration was considering sweeping changes to the federal definitions of “sex” and “gender.”

    Whether it’s by design or not, the stories highlighted on Carlson’s show help build upon a conservative media alternate reality in which the deck is stacked against Republicans, where they’re the primary victims of discrimination, where the world is out to get them, and where every success they have comes in spite of all of this -- a topic I recently covered. The stories themselves surface from a number of places: other Fox News shows, other conservative outlets, or even 4chan. Once Fox covers a story, whether on Tucker Carlson Tonight or any of its other programming, it signals a sort of legitimacy to the rest of the world that this actually is worthy of national coverage. This has played out in the past with trumped-up “War on Christmas” narratives, and we’re seeing it happen now with overblown stories about free speech on college campuses.

    I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Neither conservatives nor liberals benefit from portraying the most extreme elements of the opposing side as mainstream. This isn’t to say that one should adopt a Pollyanna approach to media coverage and pretend that “unity” is all we need to solve the very serious differences we have with one another. Let’s be real: We live in a particularly fraught moment in political history. The local news broadcast from hell serves only to convince us that things are somehow even worse and more divided than reality would show.

    Shelby Jamerson contributed research to this post. 

  • The path to conservative media success is paved with outrage-bait

    We’re all being trolled by attention-starved wannabe media stars

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    When right-wing pundit Erick Erickson suggested last week that the U.S. cut foreign aid to Central American countries and instead use those funds to “prop up the next generation of Pinochet types,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. A number of conservatives have a bit of a soft spot for the former Chilean dictator. When Erickson said that he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” though, he raised a few eyebrows, as such a statement is designed to do.

    His reference to helicopters was a nod to Augusto Pinochet’s history of having at least 120 political dissidents thrown to their deaths from helicopters into the “the ocean, the lakes and the rivers of Chile.” On his blog, The Resurgent, Erickson elaborated a bit on that tweet, still straddling the line between being serious and just joking around, and writing that he’s “not actually fully on board” with his own idea.

    Does Erickson actually think helicopters are essential to this tweet, blog post, or political suggestion? Probably not. Certainly, he knows that the extrajudicial murder of political opponents is a reprehensible thing to praise. Why say it, then? Because it gets him attention, and in a sea of political media takes, attention is everything. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time watching political talk shows or cable news channels knows that it’s the loudest and most extreme voices that rise to the top of the punditry food chain. It’s as true for Erickson as it is for more recent additions to our national discourse, Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos. The power to provoke has replaced intelligent discussion, and would-be commentators are catching on.

    There’s nothing new about self-styled “provocateurs” in political media, especially among conservatives.

    Erickson, along with the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, or any number of other conservatives coming out of the world of talk radio, have made entire careers based on saying things so outrageous that the rest of us ask whether they even mean what they’re saying. Does Coulter actually wish that Timothy McVeigh had bombed the New York Times building? Or that politicians who support immigration reform should face “death squads”? Probably not, but her many outrageous statements have helped make Coulter a bestselling author and mainstay in the world of political commentary for two decades running.

    The truth is that you don’t have someone like Erickson or Coulter on your Sunday morning political talk show if you’re interested in an-depth discussion about policy. No, you have them on because of their potential to generate controversy. Their entire brand is built upon being predictably unpredictable.

    The truth is that discussing politics can be boring, and maybe it should be. Deficit discussions and tax talk just aren’t sexy. Foreign policy is probably better considered with a sober seriousness, and the economy is best understood as a complex mess of systems only a technocrat could love. But people like their politics with a side of entertainment. After all, there’s a reason people tune in to CNN over C-SPAN, and this creates a major incentive for would-be commentators to embrace a politics-as-WWE approach.

    Milo Yiannopoulos is one of the more fascinating cases of a commenter embracing the extreme for a taste of fame.

    Before becoming the poster boy for crude offense masked as commentary, Milo Yiannopoulos was the editor of The Kernel, an online tech and culture magazine he founded. Though he was never shy about his conservative beliefs, he was far from the firebrand who’d later publish Breitbart articles under such headlines as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Teenage Boys With Tits: Here’s My Problem With Ghostbusters.”

    While he’d always had a reputation for his inflated ego and a tendency to pick fights, back in his days writing at The Kernel, Yiannopoulos could actually be -- dare I say -- thoughtful. Based on his writing, 2012’s Yiannopoulos would have almost certainly hated his 2018 self. Take, for instance, a 2012 blog post titled “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths,” in which he describes the rise of a new sort of anti-civility, online and off:

    What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.

    In “When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers,” Yiannopoulos lambasted social media companies that refused to take swift action against cyberbullying and extremist content. In another blog, he argued that “free speech has its limits,” and in yet another, he took one of his own cyberbullies to task. He called Laurie Penny’s book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet “terrific,” writing, "We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online."

    In 2013, The Kernel shuttered after being sued by former contributors over unpaid wages. It was acquired by a German company called Berlin 42 before being sold to the publisher of The Daily Dot. By 2014, Yiannopoulos was writing for Breitbart and fanning the flames of Gamergate, a controversy he would use to propel himself to U.S. stardom. The rest is, as they say, history.

    The blueprint to conservative media stardom is obvious to even the casual observer, making it easier than ever for young voices to grab the spotlight.

    Tomi Lahren went from hosting a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political roundtable show in which she accepted the realities of climate change to becoming a Fox News megastar. The secret to her success: a newfound embrace of the theatrical and outrageous. Her road to stardom was paved with tweets calling the Black Lives Matter movement “The new KKK,” videos in which she said that the U.S. government during the Obama administration had a “be-friendly-to-Jihadis mentality,”  and more recently, a tweet saying that the “highlight” of her Thanksgiving weekend was watching the tear-gassing of migrants (including children) at the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Lahren found a shortcut to success, and she took it. How many of us can honestly say that we wouldn’t act out a more extreme version of ourselves if it meant a one-way ticket to the top? Because if it’s not Lahren filling the rage void in political media, it’d be someone else just as over-the-top and abrasive. If social media has shown us anything, it’s that there are always people waiting in the wings, longing to be discovered.

    The key to longevity is to muster up the ability to be totally earnest on occasion.

    The Yiannopoulos star burned bright, but for now, it’s fizzled. He knows that the only way to stay relevant is to say truly outlandish things, like when he told The Observer in June, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” He’s become the political embodiment of The Onion’s brilliant 2001 “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People” article.

    He faded because the blueprint shifted ever so slightly. People got bored of watching an entirely unserious man shout slurs and call it commentary, because he couldn’t take off the “Milo” public persona he’d created for himself, even for a moment. He tried, as in the wake of comments he made that appeared to condone pedophilia, but it came off as hollow and insincere. The trick for media provocateurs is to offer a dash of humanity in with the vitriol. Lahren did this when she opened up about being pro-choice on an episode of The View. Erickson does this whenever he stops by a respectable talk show to promote civility or denounce conspiracy theories.

    As the rules change, so do the players. Uninterrupted trolling no longer has the power it once did. Maybe we can move the bar further still. Maybe the answer to professional trolls is to deny them the attention they so desperately need to remain relevant. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about Erickson’s “helicopter” tweet at all. Maybe I shouldn’t bother to note when media figures hang a neon “pay attention to me” sign above their heads as they tweet things like “Can someone explain to me why I'm supposed to lose sleep over Saudi Arabia killing an Islamist political opponent?” about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or when they tweet “I've found my Christmas card photo. #Caring” in response to a photo of a family running from tear gas on the border.

    If the expected response is reactive outrage, maybe deliberate disinterest is the answer. So, why am I writing about this, you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the patterns at play. Starving the trolls of the attention they seek is a reasonable long-term goal. But in the meantime, we need to recognize that there are people toying with our national political discourse just for a shot at fame and fortune.

  • Fox News marks Transgender Day of Remembrance by airing two anti-trans segments

    Laura Ingraham and Shannon Bream give platforms to transphobia

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    November 20 marks the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, an observation held in memory of trans people who have lost their lives to anti-trans violence over the past year. It’s a solemn occasion, where trans people and allies hold vigil for those lost and hope for a better future -- a stark contrast to events like Pride.

    But Fox News marked the occasion this year by airing two segments sympathetic to anti-trans causes. Fox host Laura Ingraham interviewed Isabella Chow, a student senator at the University of California, Berkeley, about backlash she received after speaking out against a resolution in support of LGBTQ students. Chow is linked to extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council and has appeared on its leader Tony Perkins’ radio program.

    From the November 20 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:

    LAURA INGRAHAM (HOST): Take us through these past few weeks. We first want to establish what happens. This is a student government kind of proclamation stating what exactly?

    ISABELLA CHOW (BERKELEY STUDENT): Yes, so, the main bill that I abstained from opposed Trump’s proposed reform to Title IX and specifically one clause where a person's gender is defined as a person's biological sex. Now the bill that I abstained from, not only did it say, you know, we support freedom from discrimination and harassment for all individuals and especially LGBTQ individuals, but at the end there clauses that asked me to promote and LGBTQ identity and lifestyle and to promote organizations whose primary purpose is to promote the LGBTQ identity and lifestyle. And I said because of my Christian views and because I represent the Christian community on campus, I cannot fully support this bill.

    INGRAHAM: OK, so and for that, being a Christian and being unapologetic, you were labeled some pretty terrible things. The Daily Californian said the following: “Isabella Chow made transphobic and homophobic statements during an ASUC meeting, publicly dismissing the identities of individuals on campus. Chow’s language erased and dehumanized individuals,” et cetera, et cetera. How do you respond to that? Did you dehumanize people because of your faith?

    CHOW: Yes, I’d like to go back to my original statement on the senate floor on October 31. And what I said was, one, I think that discrimination and harassment is never ever OK. But where I cross a line between, you know, where I can protect you as an individual and where I can promote your identity is a very fine line for me to walk, right?. And so my response is, I don't see a conflict between being able to accept, love and validate you as an individual and yet not fully agreeing with how you choose to identify yourself sexually.

    While Chow framed the issue as simply about her decision not to vote on the measure, The Daily Californian’s editorial board wrote:

    She chose to abstain from voting on the resolution — and then went beyond simply removing herself from the conversation. Chow, a former member of the Student Action party, also chose to voice her personal — and highly problematic — interpretation of Christian scripture, stating that any “lifestyle” outside of male and female and heterosexual identities was not “right or safe.”

    The rest of the segment involved Ingraham lamenting the fact that people will call you a “hater” for saying that you disagree with who they are.

    “I think where they are coming from,” Chow told Ingraham, trying to reflect on what her critics think, “is because we can't understand how you can love us and not accept our sexual identity, therefore, we’re going to say your words about love and acceptance are completely worthless. And we are just to take your words about not accepting us and twist that to mean you are a hater and a bigot.”

    It’s odd that the most watched news station in the country devotes time and energy to things like student government, as there’s certainly no shortage of newsworthy stuff happening in the world. It’s moments like these when Fox shows itself for what it really is: a conservative advocacy organization.

    Later that evening, Fox host Shannon Bream interviewed Robert Oppedisano, a Florida gym teacher who claims that he’s being mistreated for opposing his school’s policy to allow a trans boy to use the boys’ locker room, and his lawyer, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver. Liberty Counsel is another extreme anti-LGBTQ group, and Staver regularly traffics in extreme rhetoric such as comparing LGBTQ people to pedophiles and saying that trans youth experience higher rates of suicide because they are defying God.

    From the November 20 edition of Fox News’ Fox News @ Night:

    SHANNON BREAM (HOST): We are talking about Pasco County, FL, and they actually had a school board meeting today where this came up. A lot of people, Robert, showed up on your behalf to speak out. So let’s clarify a little bit about what happened. There is a student who was born biologically female, now identifying as male, wants to use the boys locker rooms and restrooms in the school. What were you told about having to watch or supervise or be involved with this process in the locker room?

    ROBERT OPPEDISANO (PASCO COUNTY PE TEACHER): I was told that this student was going to have full access to the locker room, that it was my job to supervise, and that it was her right to be able to use any part of the locker room, whether it be the locker room, the open showers, or the bathroom.

    ...

    BREAM: The school departments are saying, “We don't know exactly what to do. We are trying to do our best. We have to think of the rights of these trans students.” But others have said, “What about the parents, what about the other students, the boys in this locker room, what about their privacy rights?” What position are you in now with regard to this case?

    OPPEDISANO: I was told that the parents and the students had no rights, just this -- the female student. She was the only one to have rights in there. I had mentioned something that they could get sued, and they said, “We are the largest employer in Pasco county. If we get sued, it's no big deal.”

    BREAM: OK. Mat, I want to give you a chance to respond to something, that is in Pascocounty’s  best practices guide for working with LGBTQ individuals. This one has to do with questions about whether students come to a teacher or someone to say, “I'm uncomfortable, I don't feel safe because a transgender student is in my bathroom or locker room area.” They are told this, quote: “A student's discomfort does not trump a transgender students right to use the school facility that is consistent with their identified gender identity. If it’s a comfort issue, you may offer an alternative facility to the students experiencing discomfort.” So, here they are saying if a student doesn't want the trans individual in their locker room area, they are the ones who need to leave. Is that a solution that works?

    MAT STAVER (CHAIRMAN LIBERTY COUNSEL AND OPPEDISANO’S ATTORNEY): That is not a solution that works and in fact in this particular case, you’d have to have all the boys  go to some other place because this girl undressed in front of these boys and the boys came running out. They were disturbed that a girl was in their locker room undressing. So apparently, only that girl can use the boys facility and now all of these boys that ran out have to go someplace else. That’s not workable. That same guideline that they have also says that you should not, in fact you are not authorized to let the parents know what’s happening with their son or daughter in these situations.

    In recent days, far-right websites like Lifesite News, The Daily Caller, and The Federalist have been pushing this issue hard, citing information almost exclusively from Liberty Counsel’s complaint, which claimed that the teacher was being persecuted for his refusal to monitor the locker room. Their headlines, which include language like “School Punishes Male Teacher For Refusing To Watch A Naked Girl In The Boys’ Locker Room” and “Male Gym Teacher Allegedly Punished by School for Refusing to Watch Girl Shower,” are more than just misleading: They’re lies and outright propaganda.

    As with so many of the too-shocking-to-be-true stories about trans people you’ll find in far-right media, local reporting rebuts the motivated smearing by conservative groups. In Oppedisano’s case, the Tampa Bay Times tells a different story, quoting the district’s superintendent:

    Superintendent Kurt Browning told the board Tuesday that the internet is "burning up" with misinformation.

    "I want the board and the public to be clear. The teacher coach has not been disciplined at all, in any way shape or form," Browning said, noting the Chasco Middle administrators have monitored the locker room for Oppedisano, whom he called an excellent teacher.

    Students "do not undress in the locker room," Browning continued. "There are showers but no one takes showers. … There have not been any issues on this at Chasco Middle."

    He said the district provides services to all students who need them, as do districts throughout the nation. He called upon School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso to explain the legal framework for the district's procedures and rules relating to transgender students.

    These conservative groups fought hard against the Obama administration’s attempt to clarify what Title IX meant when it came to the treatment of transgender students. The Obama guidance would have put an end to many drawn-out lawsuits brought against schools or students. The argument against it has been that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is almost never the right way to dissuade discrimination (ignoring that the country has “one-size-fits-all” rules when it comes to discrimination on the basis of religion, race, disability, and so on).

    A February 2017 piece at The Federalist argued the case for schools to make their own policies when it comes to trans students. And in the letter announcing that the administration had rescinded the Obama-era guidance, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (née Prince) wrote, “This is an issue best solved at the state and local level.” Yet, when states and districts do try to provide solutions to accommodate trans students, groups like Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) swoop in to mount a public pressure campaign and file lawsuits against districts that won’t change their rules to be anti-trans. The heavily funded groups bank on the fact that most school districts won’t want the bad press or have the funds to spend defending their policies. Both the DeVos and Prince families have donated substantial amounts of money to ADF, in particular.

    It’s reasonable to be sick of hearing about bathrooms. I am a transgender person. Believe me when I say that I am sick of hearing about bathrooms and locker rooms. But the reason these stories are still in the news, that this continues to be talked about at all, is because the groups that claimed they wanted these issues to be handled at a local level don’t seem to actually believe the argument themselves.

    But for Fox News to air both of those segments on the one day in a year set aside to mourn people killed by those who believe the negative stereotypes about trans people they hear on networks like this, that’s just shameful.

  • Foreign media outlets keep showing how to cover politics in the age of Trump. Will U.S. outlets learn their lesson?

    Access journalism and softball interviews fail the American people. U.S.-based media need a reality check.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    “Trump returns to his dangerous lying about elections, makes up story about massive voter fraud he says has cost the Republicans victories...and falsely adds that you need a ‘voter ID’ to buy cereal,” Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale tweeted about a recent interview between the president and The Daily Caller, an outlet Dale called “horrific.”

    Dale, who is known for his meticulous fact checks on Trump’s statements to the press and at rallies, was right: The interview with The Daily Caller was riddled with unchallenged errors and nonsensical statements. For instance, he lied about his border wall and about his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He claimed that undocumented immigrants were voting in California and that Massachusetts residents had been bused into New Hampshire during the 2016 election, flipping the state to Hillary Clinton’s favor. He accused people of voting twice by putting on disguises and changing clothes and, as is almost always the case, he also peppered his responses with half-truths and exaggerations.

    Daily Caller editor Amber Athey responded to Dale’s criticism with a tweet of her own: “Why don't you let American outlets handle interviewing the president?”

    Maybe U.S. outlets, including mainstream organizations, simply aren’t up to the task of holding the powerful accountable.

    The Daily Caller has a conservative bent, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this was a friendly interview. After all, one of the two people conducting the site’s interview with Trump was “lib-owning” enthusiast Benny Johnson, a serial plagiarist and publisher of conspiracy theories.

    But it’s not just the Daily Callers, Fox Newses, and Breitbarts of the world that give members of the Trump administration and its surrogates a pass. Even the most mainstream, nonpartisan news outlets in the country often let the administration spread rumors and outright misinformation during interviews without follow-up.

    For example, take a look at Trump’s October interview with The Associated Press. At one point, an AP interviewer asked if Trump had any plans to pardon Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. During his response, which trailed off into a comment on Russians who had been indicted for hacking Democratic National Committee emails, the president said, with absolutely zero proof or explanation, “Some of [the hackers] supported Hillary Clinton.” Rather than question him about this bombshell accusation, the interviewers moved on to their next subject: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia. At another point in the interview, Trump repeated well-known lies about a law requiring the U.S. to separate undocumented children from their parents at the border and another about members of the military receiving a raise for the first time in 11 years. On both occasions, there was no pushback from the interviewers.

    Another example comes from Trump’s recent on-camera interview with Jonathan Swan and Jim VandeHei of Axios. During the outlet’s November 4 HBO special, Swan asked Trump about his campaign promise to end birthright citizenship, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (emphasis added).

    DONALD TRUMP: You can definitely do it with an act of Congress. But now they're saying I can do it just with an executive order. Now, how ridiculous -- we're the only country in the world where a person comes in, has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits. It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. And it has to end.

    But we’re not actually “the only country in the world” with birthright citizenship. While Axios does note on its website that there are, in fact, more than 30 other countries that offer birthright citizenship, people who saw the viral Youtube clip likely wouldn't know this, as neither Swan nor VandeHei corrected the false statement at the time. 

    Last week, a video of journalist Mehdi Hasan interviewing Trump campaign adviser Steven Rogers accumulated millions of views on social media. The video shows Hasan, who hosts UpFront and Head to Head on Al-Jazeera English and writes a column for The Intercept, asking a series of questions about: birthright citizenship, Trump’s claim that there were riots in California, and a frequent Trump lie about American Steel announcing plans to open new plants in the U.S. when it has done no such thing. Unlike the aforementioned examples of journalists passing on the opportunity to push back on false statements in real time, Hasan continued following up on the same issue until he got something resembling an honest answer out of Rogers.

    MEHDI HASAN: He said during the campaign that there’s six to seven steel facilities that are going to be opened up. There are no -- U.S. Steel has not announced any facilities. Why did he say they’ve announced new facilities? That’s a lie, isn’t it?

    STEVEN ROGERS: No, it isn’t, because there are a lot of companies opening up -- there are steel facilities that are going to be opening up or I think they actually, one opened up in Pennsylvania.

    HASAN: Sorry, Steven, that’s not what he said. I know it’s difficult for you. I know you want to try and defend him.

    ROGERS: No, it isn’t difficult for me.

    HASAN: Well OK, let me read the quote -- let me read the quote to you. “U.S. Steel just announced that they’re building six new steel mills.” That’s a very specific claim. U.S. Steel have not announced six new steel mills. They have said they’ve not announced six new steel mills mills. There’s no evidence of six new steel mills. He just made it up. And he repeated it. He didn’t just say it once.

    ROGERS: Look, I don’t know of what context these statements were made, but I can tell you this, the president of the United States has been very responsive to the American people, and the American people are doing well. Look, people can look at me and say, “Steve Rogers lied --”

    HASAN: The American people can be doing well, and the president can be a liar. There’s no contradiction between those two statements.

    ROGERS: I am not going to say the president of the United States is a liar. I’m not going to do that.

    HASAN: No, I know you’re not! But I’ve just put to you multiple lies, and you’ve not been able to respond to any of them.

    It’s not a matter of partisanship, either. In the past, Hasan has grilled Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes over U.S. intervention in Syria and Obama adviser Derek Chollet on the former president’s foreign policy legacy. 

    It says a lot about the state of U.S. journalism that Hasan’s clip got attention for just being the type of interview journalists everywhere should be conducting.

    Journalist Mehdi Hasan Brilliantly Grills Trump Official On President’s Lies,” read one HuffPost headline. “Al Jazeera Host Pummels Trump Adviser With Examples of His Lies: ‘The President Lies Daily,’” read another over at Mediaite.

    In July, BBC journalist Emily Maitlis won similar praise after forgoing softball questions in favor of something a bit more substantive when interviewing former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. So used to friendly interviews, Spicer characterized the questions -- which included queries about the infamous Access Hollywood tape, Spicer’s lie about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, and about how he could both care about democracy and serve as the “agent” for a president who repeatedly lied -- as “extreme.” Maitlis told The New York Times, “That is what we do: We hold people accountable in robust interviews. It was not about me versus Sean Spicer at all.”

    In an exchange with me via Twitter direct messages, Hasan offered tips to journalists at U.S.-based outlets. On brushing off bad-faith accusations of bias and resisting the impulse to preserve access, Hasan borrows from a conservative catchphrase: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” He writes:

    If journalists are posing tough but factual questions, then who cares how conservatives -- or liberals, for that matter -- feel about that? U.S. conservatives, of course, have a long, tried-and-tested history of 'playing the ref' and pressuring media organizations to soften their coverage with bad-faith accusations of liberal bias.

    One way around this is for interviewers to establish reputations for being tough with politicians from across the spectrum. Only a handful of U.S. cable news interviewers do this -- Jake Tapper and Chris Wallace, off the top of my head. But they're still not tough enough -- especially with Trump administration officials and supporters who like to tell brazen lies live on air.

    But being a tough interviewer isn’t without its downsides. For instance, in June 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed then-candidate Trump. Tapper grilled Trump about his comments that Judge Gonzalo Curiel -- who was presiding over a case involving Trump University -- had a conflict of interest in the case because his parents were Mexican immigrants and Trump wanted to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The interview, which aired during the June 5 edition of State of the Union with Jake Tapper, left Trump looking foolish and unable to defend his Curiel comments. The interview was hard-hitting. Trump has not given another interview to Tapper in the more than two years since.

    Hasan has thoughts about how journalists can avoid the access trap, but it involves a bit of teamwork. He wrote: “Unless all interviewers toughen up their act, it'll be very easy for politicians to pick and choose between tough and soft interviewers and decline requests from the former.” That is to say, journalists all need to up their games.

    He and his team on UpFront devote a lot of time to researching the people and issues they plan to discuss in advance. The team will watch past interviews the guest has done to see “what works and what doesn’t.” Importantly, they think realistically about how much ground an interview can or should cover in the time allotted. It’s an important question: Is it better to cover a dozen topics with zero follow-up questions, or does it make more sense to really drill down on three or four questions? The answer is probably the latter.

    “It's not rocket science: if you can't be bothered to prepare, to turn up for an interview equipped with relevant information, with facts and figures, don't be surprised if you're unable to hold an evasive guest to account,” writes Hasan. “Despite what Kellyanne Conway might want you to believe, facts are facts and facts still matter.”

    “Also: you're not there to make friends. You're there to speak truth to power. Don't be charmed, don't be bullied, don't be distracted. Focus,” he adds. “And if you let your guest get away with a brazen lie, in my view, you're complicit in the telling of that lie.”

    On-air interviews are rare opportunities for politicians to show how brave they really are. Voters should expect elected officials to take risks and to be able to defend their positions in unscripted environments.

    A good on-air interview can tell the voting public more than any debate or print interview ever could. Hasan explains:

    Interviews on television are one of the few times that a politician has his or her feet held to the fire in a sustained or coherent way. Print interviews tend to be softer, and done in private. TV debates between candidates tend to be an exchange of hackneyed and partisan talking points. A TV interview is an opportunity to perform a robust interrogation of a politician's views, positions, policies and statements. If it's not probing and challenging, what's the point of it? Why bother doing it?

    News consumers and voters should encourage politicians to take on the toughest interviewers they can find. Politicians who can’t explain and defend their policy positions are politicians who probably shouldn’t hold office at all. So long as interviewers are fair, fact-based, and focused on relevant issues, there’s no reason a tough interview isn’t also one that can win over both skeptics and supporters. Friendly interviews have their place, but they’re not especially helpful when it comes to giving voters the information they need to make informed choices about who they want representing them.

    Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that presidents and other politicians will seek out the easiest, most slam-dunk interviews they can book. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, the Trump campaign forged an agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group to air exclusive (and exceptionally friendly) interviews with Trump.

    The 2016 election demonstrated not just that candidates were afraid to take the risk of engaging in difficult interviews, but also that journalists were afraid to offer them.

    A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that during the 2016 presidential election, there wasn’t a whole lot of policy being discussed. According to the report, 42 percent of all election media reports were dedicated to horse race coverage, with 17 percent focused on controversies. Just 10 percent of all election coverage was centered on policy issues.

    Perhaps news and entertainment have become too intertwined, with too much focus on viewership and not nearly enough emphasis on what should be the primary goal of informing the American people. Infotainment simply does not make for an informed electorate, and it’s a shame that we live in a world where interviews like Hasan’s are the exception and not the rule.

  • Right-wing media and Trump Jr. peddle debunked, years-old story about illegal voters in Florida

    And one fact-checker explains what she did to fight back.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Is it true that “nearly 200,000 Florida voters may not be citizens?” No, but that didn’t stop some prominent conservative social media accounts -- including that of the president’s son -- from spreading a since-debunked 2012 story making that claim.

    To understand how this happened, it’s good to know a little background about Florida’s brush with “anti-fraud” initiatives in recent years.

    In May 2012, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced a partnership between the Florida Department of State and Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to remove possible noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls ahead of that year’s election. The departments would cross-check data with each other for voter inconsistencies, flag them, and send them to the state’s Supervisors of Elections for review and, if needed, removal of registrations.

    It was a massive debacle. What began as a review of roughly 2,600 possible inconsistencies at the time the partnership was announced had ballooned to nearly 182,000 names within days. That’s when NBC Miami ran with the somewhat sensational headline “Nearly 200,000 Florida Voters May Not Be Citizens.”

    But the system was embarrassingly rife with false positives, leading to a lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens who were removed but actually eligible to vote. In the end, out of those 182,000 names, just 85 were found to be ineligible -- an error rate of 99.95 percent. The following year, the state enrolled in Crosscheck, the interstate anti-fraud program championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Similar to the results of Florida’s 2012 in-state program, Kobach’s Crosscheck program also “gets it wrong over 99 percent of the time,” a Washington Post analysis concluded. In April 2014, Florida exited the Crosscheck program, only to later accidentally release the partial Social Security numbers of nearly 1,000 Kansas voters

    In all, the “nearly 200,000 Florida voters may not be citizens” story turned out to be just 85 ineligible voter registrations. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

    This week, as conservative media push the unfounded idea that the current election in Florida is being “stolen,” this old story that confirmed all their worst fears seemed too good to be true: And it was.

    We know by now that most people simply don’t read past the headline of stories they see in their social media feeds. And headlines suggesting that there are an equivalent number of noncitizens voting illegally in Florida as there are people living in Tallahassee are eye-catching. That would be outrageous to people on any end of the political spectrum. But even based on the facts known at the time, the story wasn’t quite accurate.

    Rounding “nearly 182,000” up to “nearly 200,000” is a needless inflation of even the most sensationalized true version of the story, and saying “voters might not be citizens” suggests that these people have actually voted -- when the numbers actually refer to voter registrations. Both points probably could have been more artfully and accurately addressed in the original headline. Also, the word “might” is doing a lot of work here.

    It’s those small embellishments that made the story perfect for the era of weaponized headlines.

    The NBC headline, as some might say, aged poorly. And here’s how it spread:

    On November 10, the link was shared in a number of pro-Trump Facebook groups. On Twitter, the story got a boost from Instapundit, a conservative account which has more than 105,000 followers:

    A bit later, David Wohl, attorney and occasional Fox News guest, shared it on Twitter to his more than 26,000 followers.

    By the next day, commentator and conspiracy theorist Pamela Geller had published a blog post, in which she put the entire text of the NBC report, swapping out the article’s actual publication date (May 11, 2012) with November 10, 2018.

    Harlan Hill, a member of the Trump 2020 campaign advisory board, tweeted, “200,000 non citizens voting in Florida!?!? But I thought Democrats said voter fraud was a myth? We have got a SERIOUS problem on our hands. #StopTheSteal #MAGA”

    Then, in a since-deleted tweet, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk wrote, “This is an absolute disgrace to our country. Foreign interference in our elections. Every single one of these people should be arrested, deported, and never allowed reentry. RT to spread this!”

    And finally, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the link out, adding, “Amazing, but not shocking at all anymore.”

    Townhall.com also published a story on the topic that, while updated, still maintains that “200,000 non-citizens might have voted in the state's elections” in 2012.

    While it’s hard to put the #FakeNews (like, you know, actual fake news) toothpaste back in the proverbial tube, one woman tried, and she was actually kind of successful at it.

    Brooke Binkowski is a former managing editor at Snopes, and she currently runs the fact-checking site TruthOrFiction.com. When she saw the post begin to spread, she took quick action. First, she tweeted at people who might have known the article was old and didn’t accurately represent how that story concluded but shared it anyway “for approval and to fit in,” hoping to convince them to delete their posts and stem the spread of misinformation.

    “That headline hijacks intellect and goes straight to the amygdala if you’re fearful,” she tells me over a Twitter direct message. “‘Oh no! 200,000 non citizens trying to STEAL OUR ELECTION! they're gonna turn this country into a banana republic!’ and whatever else people think when they're too busy to click on the story.”

    When that didn’t work, she called the NBC station that ran the original story in hopes of getting the staff to update the article to reflect that it isn’t a current story. She explained the situation as best as she could, asking the station to add “STORY FROM 2012:” in the headline so it would show up in shares across social media.

    “Clickbait is one thing, but when you are actively interfering in what should be an open electoral process -- as I said in my email to them -- that’s quite another,” she adds. She continued:

    People don't realize how much damage buffoons like Jacob Wohl and Gateway Pundit and Donald Trump Jr. and all the rest of those people can do. They push this completely idiotic stuff and then it gets laundered by bots and turned into a story that's used to influence policy. It's now crystal clear that's what they are doing and that it is semi-coordinated, that there's a network of people who are pushing all this information to make it seem respectable, and they are mixing a little tiny bit of truth in to make it seem plausible.

    NBC Miami did end up updating the headline, adding “2012 Election:” at the very beginning. It also added an editor’s note at the top of the article:

    Editor’s note on Nov. 12, 2018: This story was published in May 2012.

    The initial list of 180,000 names was whittled to 2,625, according to the Florida Department of State. The state then checked a federal database and stated it found 207 noncitizens on the rolls (not necessarily voting but on the rolls). That list was sent to county election supervisors to check and it also turned out to contain errors. An Aug. 1, 2012, state elections document showed only 85 noncitizens were ultimately removed from the rolls out of a total of about 12 million voters at that time.

    While the story continues to be shared on social media as fresh news, the updated headline and editor’s note do seem to have had the effect of cooling its spread among influencers. Plus, the added context, including the disparity between “nearly 200,000” figure and the actual total of 85, has given people a way to quickly understand the facts of a somewhat complicated local story.

    Binkowski stresses that it’s important to understand that there are a lot of people who simply are not making statements or arguments in good faith. “If you are a news person, please be aware of this cycle and your massive responsibility. If you are a news executive, please pay your journalists a living wage,” she said, noting that “they are up against something new and nightmarish and trying to inoculate the world against it and could use all the support they can get.”

  • Just days after Democrats retake the House, conservative commentators insist that they’re doing it all wrong

    Conservative commentators are offering Democrats the same old advice: Move to the center.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the tendency among conservatives, particularly of the “Never Trump” variety, to blame liberals and progressives for their own decisions. The idea behind it was pretty simple: Members of the conservative media suggest that if Democrats just made teeny-tiny changes, they could expect a windfall of support from right-leaning independents and disillusioned Republicans. They play the role of Lucy van Pelt, assuring Charlie Brown Democrats that this time would be different, that this time they wouldn’t pull the electoral football away at the final moment and would actually check the box for Dems who heeded their advice. Lulled into a tepid trust, Charlie Brown would declare, “This time I’m gonna kick that football clear to the moon!” before Lucy would pull the ball away, as always.

    With the 2018 midterms behind us, I want to revisit this concept and one very specific narrative that’s emerged in the post-electoral wake. That narrative is, simply put, that Democrats have veered too far to the left and need to make a strategic shift to the center if they’d ever like to retake power.

    The New York Times has a fantastic visualization, “Sizing Up the 2018 Blue Wave.” The data, as of publication on Wednesday morning, showed that while Democrats were able to flip 30 House seats from Republican to Democratic control, 317 out of the 435 congressional districts voted more Democratic than in 2016. Overall, the average district across all races shifted 10 percentage points left. (Since the Times published its analysis, results have further improved for Democrats.) It’s hard to say with any certainty what this suggests either political party should do in terms of strategy come 2020, but it’s also hard to firmly conclude, as Weekly Standard contributing editor Charlie Sykes did on MSNBC, that “the future for Democrats is, in fact, to move toward the center.”

    The math just doesn’t add up on the “move toward the center” messaging.

    On Fox News, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar made three separate pleas for Democrats to avoid moving “too far to the left.” His analysis appeared to hinge on his claim that unabashed progressives Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Andrew Gillum all lost their respective races. (In fact, as of this writing, both Florida and Georgia are still counting votes.) What makes this type of electoral interpretation all the more frivolous is that there’s little reason to believe that O’Rourke, Abrams, and Gillum didn't fare well because they weren’t closer to the center.

    The Associated Press declared Republican Ron DeSantis the initial winner of the Florida governor's race, beating Gillum by just 0.4 percentage points in a close contest that may be heading for a recount. In the state’s race for Senate, incumbent and moderate Democrat Bill Nelson (GovTrack’s 2017 Report Card has Nelson pegged as the third most conservative Democrat in the Senate) trails challenger and current Florida Gov. Rick Scott by 0.2 percentage points. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples look, but it’s pretty close, and looking at these two statewide Florida races would seem to suggest that the ideological gap between Gillum (who Kraushaar might say is “too far to the left”) and Nelson (who seems to be the type of candidate analysts like Kraushaar would have wanted in Gillum’s place) was negligible when it came to vote totals.

    In Abrams’ bid for Georgia governor, she ran so close to Secretary of State Brian Kemp that it’s more than two full days after the election and CNN has yet to even call the race. As of this writing, Kemp’s lead over Abrams is just 63,198 votes. To put this in perspective, the last time a Democrat came this close to winning the Georgia governorship was 20 years ago, when Democratic nominee Roy Barnes beat Republican Guy Millner. 

    And in Texas, when Ted Cruz first ran for Senate in 2012, he handily defeated Democratic opponent Paul Sadler by 16.1 percentage points. In the run-up to that election, Sadler received an endorsement from The Dallas Morning News, which called him a “moderate Democrat” who could “continue a legacy that puts the state first, rewards civility and embraces moderation and bipartisanship.” In 2018, O’Rourke lost to Cruz by just 2.6 percentage points.

    But on Fox, Kraushaar pointed to the Senate as the place where Democrats blew it for not being moderate enough. Looking at the nine states that had been listed as toss-ups by The New York Times -- Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas -- it’s hard to see exactly how, through any reasonable analysis, that it was progressives that cost Democrats the chance to regain power. I’ve already addressed O’Rourke making Texas unexpectedly competitive, but beyond that, Nevada’s Jacky Rosen took a surprisingly progressive stance on immigration as she flipped the seat from red to blue, and in New Jersey, scandal-plagued Sen. Bob Menendez handily won re-election (he has a track record of being on the more progressive end of the Democratic caucus). The only moderate Democrats who did come away with strong showings were Sen. Jon Tester, winning re-election in Montana, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, whose race for Arizona Senate was still too close to call as of Friday. Beyond that, moderates didn’t do so well: Nelson might lose in Florida, Phil Bredesen lost in Tennessee, Joe Donnelly failed to win re-election in Indiana, and Claire McCaskill was ousted in Missouri.

    This narrative isn’t supported by facts, but that’s not stopping right-leaning and conservative media from pushing it hard.

    Fox Business anchor Connell McShane questioned whether Democrats need to be more “pragmatic” if they hope to win in 2020. “If you want to win back some of those independents in the middle, and some of those Democrats that voted for Trump in 2016, you’ve got to be very, very careful that you don’t just cater to the liberal base,” Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody cautioned during a recent episode of The 700 Club.

    But what lesson was there for Republicans to learn? Simply go further to the right, apparently.

    “As we watched [the results] unfold, all I could think of is, what in the world were these candidates thinking? Because in so many instances, they had separated themself from rather than embracing the Trump agenda,” said Lou Dobbs on the November 7 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight. “Most of those who bucked the president on immigration, they crashed and burned!” said Laura Ingraham during the November 7 edition of The Ingraham Angle, calling lockstep support of the president’s hard-line immigration policies “a deciding factor.”

    On the one hand, Democrats should move to the right because you can’t elect an extremist, and it’s important to understand that not all districts around the country are the same. On the other, Republicans need to become mini-Trumps or suffer the consequences. Am I getting that right?

    It’s almost as if this isn’t meant as an altruistic gesture to help Democrats defeat Republicans at all, and rather it’s just a clever way for conservative pundits to try to push the nation’s politics closer to their own ideals.

    That couldn’t be the case -- or could it? Thankfully, the world has Meghan McCain. On the November 7 edition of The View, McCain laid out some of the same move-to-the-center rhetoric heard elsewhere, but it’s at the very end that she gives away the game a bit.

    MEGHAN MCCAIN: The serious lesson for Democrats also is that Republicans are not going to vote against their own agenda and against their own interests. Meaning, I think there’s an impression sometimes, if you don’t watch Fox News, that all Republicans if you’re against Trump or you have issues with his rhetoric that automatically I have somehow morphed into a liberal, that every ideology and principle I have ever agreed on, the principles that make me who I am, the conservative that I am, have flown out the window. And all of a sudden, I’m a Democrat. That is not the case.

    Republicans are going to vote for their own agenda and they did a lot last night, especially in Senate and gubernatorial races. And I think the Democrats that were really competitive were the ones that were more moderate. So that is a lesson I would take away.

    SUNNY HOSTIN: That was disappointing to me, actually, because when you look at the Republicans --

    MCCAIN: Of course it’s disappointing. You’re a Democrat. It’s not disappointing for me. I’m a Republican. I’m going to end up voting for Republicans, and there’s a way to differentiate Trump from candidates.

    On Twitter, CNN’s Amanda Carpenter, a self-described conservative and former staffer for Sens. Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint (R-SC), offered a similar point of view:

    “I can’t believe it. She must think I’m the most stupid person alive,” says Charlie Brown.

    The idea that there’s some level of conservatism that Democrats can achieve in hopes of pulling in Republican voters is a myth, and Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District is proof.

    IL-03, which covers some of Chicago’s southwest side and surrounding suburbs, is about as reliably Democratic as it gets. The district hasn’t been held by a Republican since 1975. For the past 25 years, it’s been held by the Lipinski family -- Bill from 1993 until 2005, and his son Dan from 2005 until today. In the past four elections in which the current Lipinski faced off against a Republican in the general election (he ran unopposed in 2016), the Republican challengers won 35.4 percent, 31.5 percent, 24.3 percent, and 21.4 percent of the vote, according to Ballotpedia.

    In this year’s election, Lipinski’s Republican opponent, Arthur Jones, received 56,350 votes, or 26.5 percent. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this number. In fact, it falls neatly in the middle of the previous range.

    The one thing that is out of the ordinary: Lipinski’s opponent was a Nazi.

    Now, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, You know, you can’t just call everyone you disagree with a Nazi. Let me be clear: He’s a literal neo-Nazi. In a 2012 interview with Oak Lawn Patch about plans to run for Congress, Jones said, “As far as I’m concerned, the Holocaust is nothing more than an international extortion racket by the Jews. It’s the blackest lie in history. Millions of dollars are being made by Jews telling this tale of woe and misfortune in books, movies, plays and TV. The more survivors, the more lies that are told."

    Oak Lawn Patch continues, describing him like this:

    A member of the Nationalist Socialist Party in his younger days, Jones took part in the Nazis’ march on Chicago’s Marquette Park in 1978. While he doesn’t deny nor repudiate his “past affiliations,” he says he votes Republican “90 percent of the time.”

    “Philosophically, I’m a National Socialist,” Jones said. “Officially, I don’t belong to any party except my own, the America First Committee.”

    Finally making it on the ballot in 2018, Jones racked up a lot of attention for, well, being a Nazi who ended up running unopposed in that district’s primary and winning the nomination.

    On Twitter, Illinois’ Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, urged people to vote for “anybody but Arthur Jones,” adding, “Nazis have no place in our country and no one should vote for him.” The Illinois Republican Party told the Chicago Sun-Times, “The Illinois Republican Party and our country have no place for Nazis like Arthur Jones. We strongly oppose his racist views and his candidacy for any public office, including the 3rd Congressional District.” The right-leaning Chicago Tribune editorial board said not to “accidentally vote for the neo-Nazi.”

    Easy enough: Don’t vote for the Nazi. But then people voted for the Nazi.

    This was a perfect time to test the theory that if Democrats run centrist candidates, they’ll win over Republicans when the Republican nominee is, say, a Nazi. For a Democrat, and especially one representing a reliably blue district, Lipinski holds many extremely conservative positions. He is anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigration reform. A proud “Blue Dog,” Lipinski is about as close to being a “Democrat In Name Only” as possible.

    This could have been a slam-dunk, 100 percent to zero. So why wasn’t it? Like Meghan McCain said, Republicans are “going to end up voting for Republicans.” (The opposite is also true.) When the Sun-Times caught up with one Jones voter, she told the paper, “If I’d known I would not have voted for him. I regret it.”

    Sadly, for many people on both sides of the aisle, their vote isn’t as much about a candidate’s ideology or specific positions as it is about the tiny “D” or “R” next to their names. I have no advice for political parties or candidates, but I would urge political media figures to dial it back on half-baked analysis that always just so happens to support their personal political worldviews. It does none of us any favors. Perhaps it’s best that rather than trying to prescribe who candidates should be and what they should believe, we let candidates tell and show us who they are. It’s certainly a more productive use of our platforms.

  • Headlines can’t handle Trump’s lies, so it’s time to rethink them

    Quoting the president requires context. Fitting that into headlines and social media posts is a problem.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It’s no secret that the president of the United States has a tumultuous relationship with the very concept of objective truth. Whether you call them lies or falsehoods, or simply chalk them up to his businessman bravado, anyone working in media knows by now that Trump’s statements should probably get a bit of scrutiny before being blasted out to the world as breaking news. Still, despite knowing this, news media continue falling into the same trap of publishing what the president said without providing relevant context. This week’s news around his expressed desire to end birthright citizenship (something that he campaigned on beginning in 2015) provided a prime example of how not to cover him.

    Across the country, headlines like “Trump says he will sign executive order banning birthright citizenship” from The Hill and “Trump Says He Will Void Birthright Citizenship Law Through Executive Order” from NPR spread like some sort of digital cancer extending from the web to the chyrons of news shows. The most egregious example probably came from Axios CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei, who tweeted, “Exclusive: Trump to terminate birthright citizenship.”

    Another unfortunate tweet came from The Associated Press. The since-deleted tweet read:“Trump wants to order the end of birthright citizenship: ‘We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and that baby is essentially a citizen of the United States.” And while it’s true that he did say that, it was a false statement in itself. At least 30 other countries grant citizenship to anyone born within their borders. Not including that crucial bit of context in the tweet only amplifies Trump’s lie.

    Perhaps past presidents could be trusted to tell the truth about their own policies. It's not clear whether Trump even knows what's in his own.

    In spring 2017, as Republicans pushed their “Obamacare repeal and replace” bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), through Congress, Trump gave an interview to CBS’s John Dickerson in which he claimed, “Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I just watched another network than yours, and they were saying, ‘Pre-existing is not covered.’ Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I mandate it. I said, ‘Has to be.’”

    The AHCA, like all GOP health care bills, would have weakened the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing conditions protections and allowed insurers to price people out of the market or exclude coverage of specific conditions. What Trump said simply wasn’t true, yet headlines that simply reported what he said were standard fare across political media: “Trump on health care: Pre-existing conditions will be covered” Politico wrote, “Trump guarantees coverage for people with pre-existing conditions in health care bill” CBS declared, and “Trump says coverage of pre-existing conditions will be in healthcare plan” The Hill stated.

    There are dozens of similar examples of headlines on any number of topics Trump has commented on since he took office. While the headlines themselves may technically be true -- since they report what Trump actually said -- omitting the fact that what he said was not true makes them misleading.

    Journalists need to grapple with an uncomfortable truth: Most people read only the headlines.

    Many of the examples mentioned above do note within the articles that Trump’s claim mentioned in the headline is false. Unfortunately for journalists, the overwhelming majority of people who see a headline won’t actually click through to read the article (a single-digit click rate is pretty standard on Twitter). Just think about how often you’ve scrolled past an article shared on social media, not clicking it, but still registering what it said. Sure enough, a 2016 study estimated that 59 percent of the time someone retweets an article, they actually never clicked on it first.

    Now, one could argue that it’s the responsibility of news consumers to better vet their sources and actually read articles. That’s totally fair! Still, there’s a question of why news producers should make it harder to get accurate information. Maybe omitting a tiny bit of context in the headline will create a “curiosity gap,” a deliberate effort to boost clicks by not telling the whole story in a headline. The curiosity gap was popularized by Upworthy (full disclosure: I worked at Upworthy between 2015 and earlier this year), but it was meant to draw people in to stories they otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in, not for use in straight reporting.

    For more insight on headlines and where things went wrong, I reached out to Eli Pariser. Pariser helped popularize the idea of “filter bubbles” in his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think. Currently a fellow at the New America Foundation, Pariser co-founded Upworthy in 2012.

    Part of the issue, Pariser suggests, is the medium itself: “Unlike with a physical product, the headline [of an online news article] lives separately from the content and needs to be evaluated on its own.”

    Trying to distill a complex breaking news story into about 100 characters is a big challenge, leading Pariser to suggest “rethink[ing] headlining in general.”

    Algorithms rule the media world, but they have a history of rewarding the wrong things.

    Earlier this year, former Snopes Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski gave me a valuable tip during an interview.

    “If you're reading, viewing, or listening to a story that's flooding you with high emotion, negative or positive — whether it's fear, rage, schadenfreude, amusement at how gullible everyone else is — check your sources,” she told me.

    There’s even some evidence that the stronger the emotion a headline evokes in the reader, the more likely people are to share it with others. So while more straightforward headlines from sources like The Associated Press or Reuters might best help convey what actually happened in any given situation, it’s sites like Breitbart, The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, and The Federalist that tap into readers’ emotions. In turn, those sites get more shares, and as a result, get further boosted by algorithms designed to reward active engagement.

    So long as social media algorithms reward engagement, it’s hard to fault any profit-driven media outlet for playing along. Seeing a headline that contains an obvious lie or omitted context, such as The Hill’s “Trump says migrant caravans are ‘larger’ than reported” can tap into those sharable emotions (anger, rage, disgust, and so on), continuing to incentivize flawed coverage.

    Getting outlets to publish accurate headlines without sensationalist flourishes could be tough.

    As an industry, media is in a really rough spot. Pew Research Center found that newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017. In a highly competitive industry, publishers need to find whatever edge they can get or risk going out of business. Optimizing headlines and photo choices for the most clicks, shares, and engagements possible is a big part of that. Going against the grain by trying to restore trust in media -- which dropped from 54 percent in 2003 to 41 percent in 2017 -- could destroy media outlets as a business before their impact is felt.

    I suggested to Pariser that maybe a large outlet with enough funding to stay afloat indefinitely, perhaps a paper like The Washington Post, can take the lead in setting new best practices for headlines. Or perhaps the Twitters and Facebooks of the world could be convinced to better factor in whether a headline is omitting key information or leaning into sensationalism when making changes to their algorithms.

    Pariser’s not sure of the best response to deceptive headline practices, but he thinks the focus should be on establishing and encouraging industry-wide norms: “My guess is that this has more to do with encouraging greater adherence to norms and journalistic culture than to any particular set of rules, which will always be game-able and have exceptions.”

    Trump's rise has shown media are ill-prepared to handle a serial liar as president.

    Have past presidents lied? Absolutely. But none have lied as frequently about topics big and small as Trump has. This calls for a new approach to journalism, top to bottom. In a September 2017 post to his PressThink blog, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen explained that journalists have failed in acting as a check on the presidency, normalizing Trump’s abnormality in the process.

    Maybe journalists have been afraid to hold Trump to the same standards they held past presidents to because it would paint the picture of someone in way over his head with little understanding of, or desire to do, the job he was elected to do. That type of coverage, while honest, might sound biased against him, and so they give him a little extra leeway than they would have with, say, a President Clinton or President Cruz.

    Rosen has his own theory:

    If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.

    In other words, he believes media treat Trump with kid gloves because their job is only as prestigious as the office they cover -- and in the Trump administration, the realistic assessment of that prestige level could be “not very.” I emailed Rosen to ask him whether it even matters what the motivation is behind padded coverage. Here’s what he had to say:

    The motivation matters if we want to understand why it's happening and what might bring a change. For example, if the pattern is just about placating conservatives, well, conservatives are never going to be placated, so we may as well consider the pattern permanent. But if, as I believe, the press is attached to an image of the presidency in which they have a kind of psychological investment, it's possible that they can realize this investment is leading them astray in the case of the Trump presidency. I am not saying that is likely, or that it is happening now. But you asked, does the motivation matter? I think it does.

    Echoing a point Pariser made about the disconnect between print and digital, Rosen said he believes sloppy headlines to be the result of a “cultural lag,” with digital publications hanging onto the tabloid tradition of going a bit over the top for effect, to get people’s attention, or to sound clever. He points to the famous “Headless body in topless bar” as an example of using a headline to draw a reader in:  

    It was probably never harmless, but it was certainly thought harmless, and generations of reporters learned to say, ‘Hey, I don't write the headlines’ when there was criticism. There was always a wink, wink, nudge, nudge element to this practice. When newspapers went online it was ported over to the new cultural space without a lot of thought. That was not smart.

    Changing these old habits might be hard, but in the meantime, Rosen suggests encouraging use of the “truth sandwich” approach to social media and headlines: Say what’s true, then say what’s false, and then say what’s true once again.

    It may not be perfect, but it’s a start.

  • Sore winners and the sidelining of a shared reality

    Right-wing media’s selective empathy can create disastrous long-term effects on the political climate.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Even though their party has control over the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future, conservative media paint a perpetually dire picture of their movement. Viewers and listeners are bombarded with messages signifying conservatives’ role as scrappy underdogs whose successes come in spite of a system rigged against them.

    Looking to a recent example, conservative commentators Diamond & Silk (Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) have spent the better part of 2018 claiming that Facebook has discriminated against them for their political leanings. What actually happened was that Facebook had briefly marked the duo’s page as violating the company’s then-new monetization policy. Though their page was quickly restored, the narrative had already taken hold: Facebook hated conservatives. In the coming months, the two testified before a House committee about their experience of being persecuted for their political beliefs by a tech company out of control and were given plenty of airtime by Fox News.

    Did it matter that there wasn’t an ounce of truth to their claim? Apparently not. It worked, marking the second time since 2016 that Facebook caved under easily debunked claims of anti-conservative bias.This time around, Facebook created a task force headed by then-former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (he would later return to the Senate to serve out the remainder of John McCain’s term) to study the issue, inviting zero left-of-center groups or individuals.

    Yes, publishers saw a pretty massive drop in referral traffic coming from Facebook as a result of changes to its algorithm -- overall, traffic is down nearly 50 percent in the past two years -- but that’s been an across-the-board change, not a targeted decline on the basis of political ideology. In fact, data show that conservative sites are still performing quite well. In September, Fox News ranked as the largest U.S.-based publisher on Facebook (based on likes, shares, comments, and reactions to stories). CNN, The New York Times, and HuffPost took the next three spots, followed by The Daily Wire, The Washington Post, and Breitbart News.

    If the story isn't true, then why push it so hard? Because without that underdog status, the anger that fuels conservative media wouldn't exist.

    There’s a reason why stories of anti-conservative bias, whether real or not, get played up a whole lot across conservative media. By reinforcing the audience’s idea that they are part of an oppressed minority on the precipice of being wiped out of existence, media can sidestep questions about how effective their party’s actual policies are at improving their lives. A great example of this has been the nonstop hype around a caravan of migrants making its way through Central America and Mexico. There’s no policy, just fear -- which is exactly what the Fox News midterm strategy happens to be.

    On Monday, the Twitter account for Fox News’ Fox & Friends First shared the story of a Twitter user going by the name @RealFrankFromFL:

    First politicians, now Americans! A man is now claiming that he was denied service at a restaurant just for wearing a Trump t-shirt. Do you think Americans are tired of the Left’s mob mentality & tactics like this?

    Frank’s story, in which he claims he and his family were denied service at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, because he was wearing a Trump T-shirt, had been picked up by conservative blogs The Gateway Pundit, Conservative Tribune, and BizPac Review. There’s no way to know how much of the story is accurate, but it served the purpose of reinforcing the idea that Trump supporters are a persecuted minority.

    You can see this play out on repeat with the way Fox News covers stories about conservatives, members of the Trump administration, Trump supporters, police officers, or members of the military being denied service somewhere.

    In October 2017, Fox gave a sympathetic interview to the co-owners of Cup It Up American Grill in Tucson, AZ, after the restaurant closed following backlash to a Facebook post in which they praised Trump and slammed “political correctness.” After three Republican interns were allegedly booted from an Uber for wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, the trio was invited to tell their story on The Ingraham Angle. In December, after a group of MAGA hat-wearing Fordham University students were told to leave their campus coffee shop for intimidating other students, Fox gave their story a little boost, as well. These stories are absolutely fair to report on; it’s in the contrast to how media outlets tend to cover events that paint progressives in a sympathetic light that it becomes clear that the same standards of what is considered newsworthy are not being applied.

    And good luck finding conservative sites that provide similarly in-depth, sympathetic coverage to stories about the viral video showing two black women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s (Fox did not cover the story on air); or the gay couple denied service at a Washington flower shop (Fox has actually covered this extensively dating back to 2015, but its framing has been, as it so often is in anti-LGBTQ discrimination cases, that it’s the shop owner who was the wronged party); or the man denied service at a restaurant for wearing an anti-Trump T-shirt. And in the instances in which discrimination against marginalized groups is covered in detail, conservative media outlets tend to side with the people doing the discrimination -- such as in the case of Aaron and Melissa Klein and their fight for the right to discriminate against gay couples at their bakery.

    Hyping the idea that the world is rife with discrimination against core conservative constituencies, while simultaneously ignoring the challenges other groups face (often at the hands of members of those core conservative constituencies), helps them build on their “No Country for Old, White, Christian Men” brand -- all the while complaining that people on the left are the ones actually indulging in victimhood culture. I jokingly refer to this tactic as doping at the Oppression Olympics.

    When viewers do hear about stories of actual oppression, there's little incentive to care.

    In fact, they might even cheer it on. Maybe this is just giving the left “a taste of its own medicine,” or the people being targeted have been so ignored or vilified that they’re not even registering as human beings worthy of rights anymore. I fear that we will soon see just how numb the country and the world, collectively, have become to the plight of others.

    On October 21, The New York Times reported on a leaked Trump administration memo proposing a radical redefinition of the terms “sex” and “gender” as they apply to federal nondiscrimination law. The goal, it would seem, would be to eliminate these protections for transgender individuals. According to the Times, the memo would define “sex” as “a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” One’s legal sex would be based on someone’s original birth certificate “unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

    This is big news with even bigger implications for trans people like myself. For the past several decades, the definition of what’s covered under the federal ban on sex discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations -- and whether that would include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity -- has been a hotly debated topic, finding its way to federal court dozens of times with varying outcomes. In recent years, especially, things seemed to be swinging in favor of LGBTQ people being protected under existing law. Should the administration implement this memo as a new rule under the Department of Health and Human Services (the agency where it has been circulating), it would almost certainly invite a quick legal challenge that would likely end up in front of an increasingly Trump-friendly Supreme Court. At stake is trans people’s ability to access health care without being turned away on the basis of their gender identity. If the definition were to spread to other agencies, as it likely would, it could result in trans people no longer being able to access identity documents that match our gender, effectively legalize discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and obliterate any expectation of privacy in public.

    Conservative media has a time-tested, two-pronged approach to tackling marginalized groups: Ignore and then attack.

    After Trump confirmed that the administration was “looking at [defining gender] very seriously,” on October 22, Fox News began covering it on shows like Shepard Smith Reporting, Special Report with Bret Baier, and Fox News @ Night With Shannon Bream. The next day, Camille Paglia appeared on The Story with Martha McCallum for a segment on the move. Paglia has been a critic of what she calls the “transgender wave” and the quest for legal protections. In a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard, she said, “No one deserves special rights, protections, or privileges on the basis of their eccentricity,” referring to gender identity. Tucker Carlson invited Tammy Bruce to come on his October 23 show. In 2015, Bruce compared being transgender to self-identifying as a dog. Neither Hannity nor The Ingraham Angle mentioned the report, though the hosts of both shows have offered some less-than-enlightened commentary on the topic in the past. While slightly antagonistic, Fox’s coverage of the memo was pretty tame, despite playing host to anti-trans critics.

    It was in the realm of conservative websites that the memo received the type of hero’s welcome one may have expected.

    Science Wins Trump Administration Proposes Transgender Policy Based on Biology,” blared a headline from The Daily Caller. Another article by the outlet, about trans actress Alexandra Billings, seemed to go out of its way to call the Transparent star by masculine pronouns as many times as possible.

    In National Review, David French wrongly suggested that the memo would simply be a rollback of an Obama administration overreach (it would actually be much more than that) and praised the policy as “standing athwart a lawless redefinition of biological reality and quite appropriately yelling stop,” while Ben Shapiro said the administration “restored some sense of sanity” to Title IX interpretations.

    Meanwhile, Breitbart News reveled in the fear and sadness trans people and our allies expressed in the wake of the news with assertions like “The policy would protect Americans’ civil rights from the transgender ideology” and headlines like “Hollywood Unhinged Over Report Trump Admin May Eliminate Gender Ideology.”

    The former story included the bizarre claim that “[transgender] ideology has been loudly supported — and heavily funded — by a small number of men who demand the government force Americans to say they are women, amid criticism that those ‘transgender’ men are heterosexual men who desire to mimic women.” Another author at the site wrote that this “is not the first time that the Trump administration has angered the increasingly powerful transgender lobby.” The first portion of the statement makes sense, as Trump has taken a number of anti-trans steps during his time in office, but if there’s a “powerful transgender lobby,” that’s news to me.

    We live in worlds split from reality, with context washed away in the name of a politically agreeable narrative.

    It’s hard to build empathy when you’re shielded from the people you’re supposed to be empathizing with. That may actually be part of the strategy. An October 2017 NPR poll found that 55 percent of white American believe that there is anti-white discrimination in the country. Just two months earlier, a Public Religion Research Institute poll reported that while 48 percent of Republicans believe that Christians face  “a lot” of discrimination, and 43 percent said that about white people, just 27 percent believe black Americans do. For comparison, for Democrat, those percents were 21, 19, and 82, respectively.

    The political divide has become a reality chasm. Consumers of conservative media are shown stories of people being told that there is a 20-minute wait for a table at a local Ruby Tuesday as a grave injustice that proves the world is out to get them. They’re told that anyone wishing them “Happy Holidays” is attacking their religion. They are made to feel that jabs by late-night comedians or awards show hosts are an “all-out attack” on their belief system.

    But what of the black child shot and killed for playing with a toy gun? Well, maybe that was his parents’ fault, they might think. Or trans people denied medically necessary treatment on the basis of their gender? Well, that’s for their own good, readers could reasonably conclude. Or stories of Muslims racially profiled, placed on a watch list, or just treated with general suspicion wherever they go? They might have seen a video saying that the majority of Muslims are extremists, so hey, can’t be too careful now.

    Political media have, without a doubt, played a huge role in leading ideological factions to their respective places in the world. There’s certainly a sense that along the way, we lost our grip on a shared, objective truth. If there’s hope of undoing the damage, it’s time media make the spread of fair, contextualized news a major part of their mission.

  • 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.