Because They Can

There’s an old joke:

Q: Why do dogs lick their own genitals?
A: Because they can.

The modern Republicans function on the same principle. It sees no cost to hypocrisy, it says that it can do whatever it wants, and if you try to stop it, there’s always a 2nd Amendment Solution threat to toss around like a grenade with the pin removed.

Under Barack Obama, the deficit was a major threat to our future. It was stealing bread from future generations to prop up silly programs (like roads and bridges!) today. And then, the clock struck midnight, Trump entered, and lo! cutting taxes to create a massive deficit is what all the cool kids do.

What would happen if they defied illogic and stood up to dumbassery?

  1. They would be primaried, losing 30-60% of the challenges
  2. The alt-right boneheads that replaced them would also lose 30-60% of their races

So, the GOP would be in a temporary setback, until the voters realized that getting creamed in the legislative races doesn’t do them any good and would inevitably moderate.

What does happen, instead?

  1. They adopt alt-right dumbassery
  2. They remain viable enough to slip farther into the pit of doom they will soon call home (and if we’re not careful, we all will as well)

Even now, before the Democrats take the gavel in the House, parts of the news media are back to treating Trump as a normal president. They think, wrongly, that being bested at the polls might make him face the music. There are takes along these lines:

  • Dems should prioritize legislation over investigation
  • Trump seeks to cut deals with the Democrats

To the first, it’s a false dichotomy. There will be investigations. There will be legislation. Those are both jobs of the Congress when it’s operating properly. Moreover, they go hand-in-hand. You have to investigate in order to legislate properly.

As to making deals, that’s part of the job, too. Not just with the president, but with other legislators, with the minority. There are a thousand deals done in Washington per day (including Xmas!), but almost no good (and only a little evil) comes of most of them.

Why does the news media fall back to the same worn narratives at each stage of the disaster of Trump? Because that’s their reflex, their muscle memory. They are working off a parametric equation that says something like:

  Republican president
+ Republican Senate
+ Democratic House
——————————————————————
  Democratic cooperation

It’s the same reflex that was at work when they did a wholly-inadequate job questioning the intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It’s the same reflex that couldn’t properly deal with Trump in 2015-6. This is an industry that had tape ready to roll as soon as President George Bush’s death was announced. It’s not the investigative journalists that are the failure in media, it’s the rank-and-file paper-pushers that are merely providing a nice Muzak-esque environment for advertisers.

Which is the same God damned thing that the rank-and-file Republicans (and plenty of Democrats, to be sure) are doing for all sorts of dubious organizations and industries.


There’s a reason that the odds of Paul Ryan coming out in favor of doing something about climate change jump from 0% to at least 50% as soon as he is out of office. It’s the same one, over again. He can’t say that in the House, he has to wait until he’s a civilian. It takes time to sober up from the years-long binge on campaign adrenaline. The scent of lobbyist cologne and perfume does wash off, but it lingers awhile.

Media and Political Bias Isn’t Binary

Nor is it just news media bias. As we saw with the recent revelations in the New York Times story, it extends to (anti-)social media as well (see The New York Times: 14 November 2018: Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Mathew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas: “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis”). It also happens in non-news programming.

There is a tendency to believe that if the media is biased against conservatives, it can’t also be biased against progressives. This is clearly false, as bias is anchored on difference, and the media has its own political culture to defend.

The media is biased against conservatives in some ways, and some of those biases are reasonable; for example, being pro-environment and therefore biased against those who are indifferent, at best, to the environment. But the media is also biased against progressives, seeming to believe that math works differently when it applies to money, and therefore that a universal healthcare system is rainbows on roses and whiskey-toting kittens.

The right-wing uses this effect as a handy political signal. They made hay of the IRS looking for political groups in social welfare clothing. They made hay of (anti-)social media having a bias. But we know in both cases that the IRS also targeted progressive groups and that Facebook has a bias against progressive criticism.

The constancy of the “Democrats in Disarray” narrative is such that you could set your watch, if you still wore one. The media dutifully revives the notion of the “fiscal conservative” like it’s a civilian costume on a superhero. Poof! Where did the tax-slashing big-spending party go? Nobody here but us arch-penny-pinching conservatives.

We saw the ultimate absurdity of this media tendency on several occasions in Trump’s first year or so. He would read a speech, and the media actually thought it was worth pretending he was presidential. They still give enough gravitas to him, merely for occupying the oval office, that they’ll print his lies as headlines.

Media bias is a thing. It comes in many forms. Not all of them are unreasonable, but every one of them is acknowledgable, and those that aren’t reasonable should be discarded.

To Combat Fake News, Give People More Media Control

Whether it’s Sinclair’s five minutes of hate, Alex Jones’ rants, Russian Federation bots’ tweets, Assange’s leaks, or Fox News’ commentators’ lies, one of the biggest problems today is bad information, media pollution.

And there’s an open question of how to deal with it all. Well, to deal with some of it. Really, it depends whom you ask.

But the best solution is to empower people by giving them greater control over what they read and watch, how they read and watch it, and how they share content with others. That’s a heavy lift, as the same lack of control that empowers the bad actors helps the media conglomerates to exert influences that pad their own pockets.

Copyright law badly needs an update for the modern world, where it’s easy and useful to share content beyond what the strictures of existing law allow. Having greater control over hardware and software that enables media access would shake up the marketplace while letting users spend their finite time more wisely. There is much work needed here, and there is little impetus for the incumbents to roll up their sleeves.

This past week on at least one cable provider The View and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had their listing data screwed up. That meant that at least some users’ DVRs failed to record James Comey’s book promotions. It’s almost certain to be a screw up in the listing distribution chain, but it is an example of media pollution that people who have paid for the privilege may have missed content they wanted to see. They could jump through hoops to see the interviews, but it’s not in their preferred format or at their preferred time.

The technology industry could have a hand in empowering viewers, but the FCC blocked a proposal to force cable companies to grant access to third party hardware. For whatever reason, the Apples and Googles of the world did not lobby hard enough to make it happen. Missed opportunity. These talking-listening hubs they sell for homes would be much more useful if they allowed for interaction with the real main home hub: the television.

On websites like Twitter and Facebook, the limited access they give their users to filter and augment the feed means that people are forced to dig, scrounge, or put up with so many bad behaviors. Every single time I search on Twitter, I’m bound to find at least one tweet with every hashtag under the sun trying to advertise some stupid thing (or porn).

Now, you say, back when newspapers were the thing, people didn’t have control. But newspapers, I say, weren’t endless streams of data. Paracelsus says the dose makes the poison, and high-volume media vehicles like Twitter increase the dose considerably.


The media companies that aren’t thrilled about the likes of Trump, Fascism, and the Anti-American Way should give more power to the viewer. Make it happen. It’ll make you more money in the long run, and it will help to thwart bad actors like Sinclair in the meantime.

The Midterms, 2014

Federal Hall, the original meetingplace of the US Congress.
Engraving of Federal Hall By Robert Hinshelwood, 1855

You may have heard, the United States Senate will be in Republican hands until at least 2016. You may have heard, it was a bloodbath, a slaughter. One of the two is true, the other is silly.

In 1972 or 1980 the presidential elections could arguably be called slaughters. Republican presidents elected by huge margins (Nixon by about 23 points and Reagan by about ten). But in the 2014 midterms, although the Republicans picked up a number of seats, the spreads were not at levels to be called pummelings.

The media, for their part, don’t care. If a boyscout helps an old lady cross the street, the media would call it a mugging for the ratings. The media is a waste of our time. The result, predicted in advance, was acted as a surprise by the media. There were a few surprises, but all within the margins of prediction.

And now the media trots out their analyses of “what went wrong” or “what went right.” Tries to distill some lasting wisdom from what amounts to business as usual.

In the nine closest races for the United States Senate, the average margin was 4 to 4.5 points. With a turnout likely in the mid-30s, that means if we ever get people to actually vote the results could be wildly different. But it also means that among the close races, where the balance of seats actually changed hands, there was no overwhelming preference.

In other words, the media interprets local elections as though voters have national intentions. They try to pack into the voting public ideas of intention that do not fit there. They harm voter motivation by making it seem like the people who voted against the winners of various races might as well have gone out and flown kites all day.

But that’s not how our country functions. A close race means no mandate. It means that while the balance of power might have swung in the smaller body, all the people continue to be represented. Republicans and Democrats with slim margins, should represent their constituents. Those with big margins should, too. But the media won’t say that.

Even in no-contest states, where the margin might be 20 or even 30 points, where the mandate is clear, there are still a lot of people that voted against the winner. And they should still be represented. The media conflates popular choice of representation with a parlor game where the winner is endowed with only the power of her winnings and not responsibility to use them wisely.

Not so. The duty is to govern, the oath is to do so. The media needs to get its head on straight. They have a bizarre split narrative chalking up the ballot initiatives to being a consolation prize, while painting the elections as a drastic repudiation. People just want a functional government, and the ballot initiatives that passed in most states make that clear.

Let’s just hope the Republicans are smarter than the media. If they are, they may actually prove themselves worthy of their victories.

What should they do? Tax reform. Clear the code out, fund the IRS properly and modernize it. Why they won’t: most of their biggest donors reap huge rewards from the arcane code and broken bureaucracy of the IRS. They want reform (to them meaning tax cuts), but it’s unlikely they want real reform enough to forgo a rate cut to get it.

Financial regulations. Protect the economy from the offenses that caused the recession. Why they won’t: the Democrats barely tried, the Republicans won’t even make an attempt. If they did, they wouldn’t know where to start.

Immigration reform. Build some good-will with hispanics while making for a more robust worker visa program that strengthens the economy. Why they won’t: their base might vote for them less enthusiastically.

Health care reform. The ACA could use some improvements, not abolishment. Why they won’t: they aren’t interested in issues that affect the average citizen, and their base hates the ACA for no good reason.

Climate change. They could introduce some modest legislation that would not be what’s needed but would be a first step. Why they won’t: their party’s position is that it doesn’t exist.

Bolster women. They could strengthen laws protecting women against violence and improving wage-parity. Why they won’t: their base is the employer class, and stronger women means stronger workers, which is seen as dangerous to employers.

Bolster education. Reduce the cost of college, improve the quality of primary schools. Why they won’t: modern businesses think education grows on trees, they don’t train their workforce like they used to, and they certainly don’t want to pay to educate competitors’ workers through public education.

What, oh what, will the Republicans do? This is their chance to step away from the ledge. To actually accomplish something. Even something modest would be a welcome change. The next two years will either be their comeback or their epitaph. Ball is in their court.

Rubbernecking

To rubberneck or not to rubberneck. Care about the latest pop culture scandal? The latest murders by terrorists? By a state? The political gaff that might end a career? Nude celebrities? How much of rubbernecking is about curiosity? Moral superiority? Schadenfreude? Money for the advertisers? Bragging rights?

Cultural phenomena are participatory. Even those that steer clear of them are participating as the steelnecked eyes-forward crowd. For another, they inevitably color other aspects of life, so in some cases becoming unavoidable.

I still hold to my definition of general news as something that raises a general issue in society (and therefore can be discussed in that context). Subculture news is any news that isn’t applicable to the whole society. Sporting news, business news (where it’s about specific industries and not their impact on society at large), etc.

Most open source news does not pertain to the public, but Heartbleed did. It raised the specter of insecurity due to lack of maintenance of infrastructure. As have countless other scandals, which is to say there is an accumulation of evidence that as a society we need to place greater focus on secure computing.

The problem with these bleed-through stories comes in how they get retargeted. The media knows our buttons, and if they can retarget a story that might provoke social change to one that will simply devolve into a frenzy, they will shamelessly spin away. A story that should drive improved security might sink to the level of schoolmarmery, imaming about immorality. A story about a politician running away from home to join the Wall Street does not obtain scandal, but is framed as local hero makes good.

So even if you rubberneck, what you see is not what happened. What you see is the antibiotic-fed, deboned, technicolor TV dinner version. The camps do not look in on each other, to try to understand or find the process of events developing. They simply rely on stereotypes and facts be damned. They don’t need facts, they buy pesticides to kill facts. Infacticides.

The first step is to make sure you have something to look at. The rules are just like writing fiction. Give them a question, give them a conflict, some sort of tension they want resolved. Is there a bad guy that we can pretend to hunt down and bring to justice? It’s a narrative form.

The second step is to just keep pointing to that first step. If you get closure, great. If not? Well you can still pump the story for awhile yet, until something better comes along. It won’t matter to the readers or viewers or listeners. They love a randomized reinforcement schedule. You’ll have them hooked indefinitely.

So rubberneck with caution, if at all. You don’t want to give them a chance to addict you to their fantasy reality version of the world. Arm yourself with the question, “does this really matter to me?” If you find out that it doesn’t, don’t ask for your money back, just walk away.