The Media Is Broken

And not for the reasons you think.

Those of us in journalism primarily do one thing: cover events. We report and opine about events like election campaigns, wars and crimes. A lot of the events we cover are decisions — a decision to reform health care or write a tweet — so we tend to congregate in the cities where decision makers live. The internet has sped up the news cycle. Now we put more emphasis on covering the last event that just happened. But it’s still mostly events.

But a funny thing has happened to events in this era. They have ceased to drive politics the way they used to. We’ve seen gigantic events like impeachment, the Kavanaugh hearings, the Mueller investigation and the “Access Hollywood” tapes. They come and go and barely leave a trace on the polls, the political landscape or evaluations of Donald Trump.

Events don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.

Do you want to predict how a certain region is going to vote in the 2020 presidential race? Discover who settled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. If the settlers were from the East Anglia section of Britain, then that region is probably going Democratic. If the settlers were from the north of Britain, that region is very likely to vote for Donald Trump.

Do you want to predict how a state is going to vote? Find out how that state voted in the 1896 presidential election. As Washington University political scientists Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have observed, 22 out of the 23 states that voted Democratic in 1896 had turned Republican by 2000. Similarly, 17 of the 22 states that voted Republican in 1896 had turned Democratic by 2000. The parties have flipped regions.

Do you want to predict how an individual is going to vote? Ask a simple question: Is she urban or rural?

Geographic and psycho-sociological patterns now overshadow events in driving political loyalties and national electoral outcomes.  

There’s a more precise way to put this. An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

When a whole country sees events through a similar lens, then you don’t have to think a lot about the process people use to make meaning. It’s similar across the land. But when people in different regions and subcultures have nonoverlapping lenses, the process by which people make sense of events is more important than the event itself.

For reasons I don’t understand, we’ve had an epistemic explosion over the past few decades. Different American regions and subcultures now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psycho-social categories have hardened.

We in the media will continue to cover events, which, of course, is absolutely necessary. But with some noble exceptions (I’m thinking of Thomas Edsall of The Times and Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic), we underreport on how meaning is made in different subcultures. You can’t make sense of reality without that. Often we throw up our hands: “Can’t these people see the facts?!?” I’m as guilty as anyone.

In this new context, I’m curious to know how lenses get crafted. For example, intersectionality is a lens that was created by theorists decades ago and is now a way of seeing that many people use to organize their view of reality. How did that happen?

I’m curious to know how a man in rural Idaho who has lost a son to suicide and a brother to fentanyl sees the impeachment hearing. How does he make meaning of that event in real time?

I’m curious to know how you can change another person’s lens. Can you do it by writing and talking or do you have to move her to a different place and immerse her in a different reality?

I’m curious to know how power inequality shapes people’s lenses. As Jonathan Rauch suggests in the current issue of National Affairs, ideological polarization is not on the rise, emotional polarization is on the rise. We don’t necessarily disagree more. We perceive our opponents to be more menacing. We see more fearfully.

The big difference for those of us in media is that the main story is not only where the decision makers are creating events. It’s also and maybe more so in the eyes of those doing the perceiving.

Obviously, in this era it’s even more important to have a news organization that is ideologically, culturally and geographically diverse, so you can surface and explore the different unconscious ways groups see.

It’s also important to ask different questions. It’s not enough to simply ask people’s opinions through polls and interviews. Epistemology is deeper than opinions. It’s found through deeper probing.

This is a wonderful opportunity for us to think about our jobs in more profound ways. The core insight is that in a hyper-pluralistic society you can’t know people in other groups until you know how they know you.

Why the Anonymous Trump Official’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Matters

In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.

.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.

..  “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”

.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.

.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.

.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.

.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,”

.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?

.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.

.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”

.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”

.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.

 

MS-13 Isn’t the Problem Trump Says It Is

In reality, MS-13 members make up a fraction of Border Patrol arrests and a small part of gang activity in the United States. While the group has committed brutal murders on Long Island, there is no evidence that the gang is increasingly sending members into the country.

..  Rather than a nationwide threat, the group is being used as a political tool used to “turbocharge the xenophobia that underlies the debate around immigration

.. MS-13 members, some 10,000 in number, make up less than 1 percent of the approximately 1.4 million gang members in the United States, according to F.B.I. estimates. Other gangs are several times larger.

.. MS-13’s numbers are stagnant, too. While precise size estimates are hard to come by, authorities have used the same figure of about 10,000 members for over a decade. (The F.B.I. estimates the gang has between 30,000 and 50,000 members around the world.)
.. Far from menacing cities across the country, as Mr. Trump has suggested, the gang’s presence is concentrated in Long Island, Los Angeles and the region outside Washington.
.. In addition, most MS-13 recruits are not migrants but teenagers who live in the United States and are alienated from their communities
.. In those areas, the gang may be the only group that provides a sense of identity
.. Policymakers in Central America have argued deporting criminals from the United States has exacerbated gang problems abroad, ultimately worsening crime in the United States.
.. While MS-13 began in the 1980s as a small and unorganized street gang in Los Angeles, some evidence suggests the group expanded in Central America after the United States began deporting illegal immigrants — many with criminal backgrounds — with greater intensity in 1996. Experts have described this process as “exporting” American-style gang culture to Central America.

.. Poor prison conditions in those countries may have also helped MS-13 become larger and better organized
.. By 2008, law enforcement found evidence that MS-13 leaders in El Salvadoran prisons were ordering assassinations in Washington while making plans to unify gang groups in the United States.

MS-13 was a gang fueled by deportation, not immigration,” Dr. Leap said.

.. Trump uses MS-13 as a political tool

At a rally last month in Nashville, Mr. Trump once again linked MS-13 to his political opponents. He has said on Twitter that Democrats are “weak on crime” along the border and are “protecting MS-13 thugs.”

.. Mike Huckabee, tweeted an incendiary picture of MS-13 members, likening them to the campaign staff for Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.
.. MS-13 has entered the national conversation because of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration agenda, not because it has become more threatening, Dr. Cruz said. Because of the gang’s association with Central American countries that Mr. Trump dislikes, “it’s the perfect group for him to blame,” he added.

Is Trump All Talk on North Korea? The Uncertainty Sends a Shiver

“Knowing each of them personally, I am certain they are counseling operational caution, measured public commentary and building a coalition approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Stavridis, a retired admiral, said in an email. “But controlling President Trump seems incredibly difficult. Let’s hope they are not engaged in mission impossible, because the stakes are so high.”

Christopher R. Hill, a former ambassador to South Korea who served Republican and Democratic presidents, argued that the comments could badly undercut Mr. Trump’s ability to find a peaceful solution to the dispute, playing into Mr. Kim’s characterization of the United States as an evil nation bent on North Korea’s destruction and relieving pressure on the Chinese to do more to curb Pyongyang.

“The comments give the world the sense that he is increasingly unhinged and unreliable,” said Mr. Hill, the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

.. Yet current and former senior officials said it was clear that Mr. Trump would continue his brinkmanship, particularly his belligerent tweets, no matter what his advisers do or say. One former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy workings, said nobody, including Mr. Kelly, could control the president’s social media utterances, despite what his military advisers thought about them.

The tweets most likely have forced Mr. Mattis and Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other national security officials, to spend a significant amount of time on the phone reassuring counterparts about Mr. Trump’s intentions.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies argue that his behavior is strategic, a way of telegraphing to North Korea — and to its primary patron, China — that the United States is taking a tougher line under this administration. There may be wisdom, they argue, in spurring fear and confusion in the mind of a leader who frequently relies on both.