Gather ’round the keg and let Paul Ryan explain why hurting the poor is freedom

Paul Ryan. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s slide in the public eye from policy wonk to partisan hack was a long time coming. But it finally reached its bottom during the past few weeks in two revealingly smug displays of insolence.

The first came in the form of Ryan’s prediction that a report by the Congressional Budget Office would show that fewer Americans would be insured under his plan to replace President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

“The one thing I’m certain will happen is CBO will say, ‘Well, gosh, not as many people will get coverage.’ You know why? Because this isn’t a government mandate,” Ryan said in a television interview. “So there’s no way we can compete with, on paper, a government mandate with coverage.”

Sure enough, the CBO reported that 24 million more Americans would go without coverage under Ryan’s plan than under Obamacare. And Ryan pronounced himself to be delighted, saying his legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they can afford.” As for all those millions of people who would go without health coverage, well, you know, freedom.

Ryan’s second offense came last week in the form of a public conversation with Rich Lowry of National Review. In a classic “Not The Onion” moment, Ryan shared with Lowry his excitement at the prospect of slashing health care for the poor:

So Medicaid, sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg…. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. We’re on the cusp of doing something we’ve long believed in.

Ryan was so proud that he posted the video on his own website, Speaker.gov. It speaks volumes that he feels so comfortable in his assault on poor people that he can crack frat-boy jokes about it in front of an audience.

Not too many years ago, Ryan was regularly described as the intellectual leader of conservative Republicanism. He was a reader of books — well, OK, Ayn Rand novels. He discussed complex policy issues as though he knew what he was talking about. And he thoroughly bamboozled much of the punditocracy.

In late 2015, shortly after Ryan deigned to become House speaker in response to the importunings of his leaderless party, Eric Alterman of The Nation dug up some choice quotes. Jacob Weisberg of Slate had referred to a Ryan plan to reform (that is, gut) Medicare as “brave, radical, and smart.” David Brooks of The New York Times wrote that Ryan had “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion.”

According to a 2012 profile of Ryan by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, the liberalish uberwonk Ezra Klein of The Washington Post — who later founded Vox — was also not immune to Ryan’s charms. Klein praised Ryan’s radical budget-cutting plans as “a more honest entry into the debate” than typical conservative boilerplate. MacGillis also observed: “Once you earn a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, it’s almost impossible to lose it.”

Gradually, Ryan has managed to lose it. Without question, Ryan’s slide began after he accepted Mitt Romney’s offer to be his running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ryan was demolished during his debate with Joe Biden — a far more intelligent man than he is generally given credit for, but someone who, unlike Ryan, has never been described as an “intellectual.” It was an embarrassing moment for Ryan, and one from which he has never completely recovered, despite his rise in the Republican hierarchy.

Some observers have always been onto Ryan’s act. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which really does qualify him as an intellectual — has described Ryan as a “con man” and worse. Charles Pierce of Esquire regularly refers to Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.”

Now Ryan is putting the finishing touches on his proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. As I write this, he is making changes to mollify conservatives who don’t think the measure goes far enough and moderates who think it goes too far. It will be quite a trick if he can pull it off. But as Robert David Sullivan of the Jesuit magazine America put it in a discussion on Facebook, “Paul Ryan is the Julia Child of making policy drafting catastrophes look barely presentable enough to swallow.”

Which is perhaps the ultimate irony of Paul Ryan. Even though he has been revealed as more an ideologue than an intellectual, even though his clenched-teeth alliance with President Trump has diminished him, he may be on the verge of his greatest triumph — a triumph that will line the pockets of the rich and harm the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Ayn Rand would be so proud.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

A major new study finds that political polarization is mainly a right-wing phenomenon

Stephen Bannon: From Breitbart to the White House. Photo (cc) 2017 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A major new study of social-media sharing patterns shows that political polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals — and that the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse.

Though the report, published by the Columbia Journalism Review, does an excellent job of laying out the challenge posed by Breitbart and its ilk, it is less than clear on how to counter it. Successfully standing up for truthful reporting in this environment “could usher in a new golden age for the Fourth Estate,” the authors write. But members of the public who care about such journalism are already flocking to news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, locally, The Boston Globe, all of which have experienced a surge in paid subscriptions since the election of President Trump. That’s heartening, but there are no signs that it’s had any effect on the popularity or influence of the right-wing partisan media.

The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media, examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.

The authors of the study refer to their findings as “asymmetrical polarization,” and they point to some deleterious effects. The Breitbart-led sites were able to push the traditional media into focusing on Trump’s favored issue — immigration — and to frame it on their terms: overwrought fears about crime and terrorism. Clinton, on the other hand, was defined mainly by scandal coverage in the form of her use of a private email server, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the Clinton Foundation. The authors of the study, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts of Berkman and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT, write:

It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails), familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.

Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, writing about the study earlier this week, recalled talking with a Trump voter in Pennsylvania who said she didn’t support Clinton because “I didn’t like how she stole those emails and it got people killed in Benghazi” — a perfect storm of misinformation.

But Sullivan’s prescription is unsatisfying. “There’s another way that the traditional press has allowed right-wing media to flourish — by moving too far to the left itself,” she writes. Though it’s true that studies show most mainstream journalists are liberal, she offers little evidence suggesting that the situation has changed much over the years, although longtime media observer Tom Rosenstiel did tell her that there are fewer Republicans in newsrooms than there used to be.

Besides, in contrast with the partisan right-wing media, mainstream journalists are dedicated to the proposition that facts should be verified and errors corrected. Let’s not forget that it was the Times that exposed Clinton’s email habits — an overblown story that almost certainly cost her the presidency when FBI Director James Comey reopened his investigation on the basis of zero evidence barely a week before the election.

Then, too, the kinds of people who share stories from Breitbart on social media are politically engaged in ways that the average Trump supporter is not. But never fear: the right-wing media machine is there for them, too. The current issue of the National Enquirer features two front-page photos of Trump and the headlines “How I’m Cleaning Up Obama’s Mess!” and “Amazing Secrets Behind Triumphant Capitol Hill Speech.” (Also: Michael Jackson was murdered.) I would quote from the Trump story, but that would require me to read it.

What’s at issue here is not just asymmetrical polarization but asymmetrical news consumption. The left and the center avail themselves of real journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is essentially political propaganda — all the while denigrating anything that contradicts their worldview as “fake news.”

Doing a better job of listening to criticism and being open to change, as Margaret Sullivan suggests, is always a good idea. But it is hardly going to give rise to a new “golden age.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe editor McGrory defends placement of BMC ad atop front page

The print edition of today’s Boston Globe includes a banner advertisement that appears above the nameplate at the very top of the page. The ad, for Boston Medical Center, promotes that institution’s addiction services. The placement is unusual enough to have prompted a message to the staff late Monday night from Globe editor Brian McGrory.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Re-reading Anthony Lewis’ ode to the First Amendment in the age of Trump

We are at a frightening moment. To refresh my understanding of what the First Amendment truly means, I recently re-read Anthony Lewis’ magnificent 2007 book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.” I’m glad I did. The late New York Times columnist, who was married to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, was a giant in his understanding of and reverence for the right to speak and write freely.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

As the media swoon over the new, improved Trump, a few facts to keep in mind

Just a few quick observations I hope you’ll keep in mind as the media go into full swoon over President Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday night.

  • Trump’s denunciation of anti-Semitic attacks and other hate crimes was welcome and long overdue. But any media outlet that doesn’t point out that Trump seemed to blame those incidents on the Jews just a day earlier (a favorite theme of David Duke’s, by the way) is doing you a disservice.
  • In calm, statesmanlike tones, Trump once again whipped up fear and hatred against immigrants, this time by promising to establish a registry to call attention to crimes by undocumented residents. Never mind that the data show they are less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. As Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe tweeted:

  • The most genuinely moving moment of the night came when Trump recognized Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in Yemen recently. CNN’s Van Jones was so impressed that he said, “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.” I won’t question Trump’s sincerity. But don’t forget that Owens was killed in a botched, hastily approved raid criticized by, among others, Sen. John McCain, and that Owens’ father is so angry with the president that he refused to meet with him. In other words, there’s a lot more to this than met the eye of viewers who were tuning in last night.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Fake news! What it is, what it isn’t and how to avoid it

creature

Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving several talks on fake news. I put together a simple handout that I hope will help people sort out what’s real from what isn’t, and I thought you might enjoy having a look.

Fake news: False or wildly misleading stories created by for-profit content farms. The goal is to go viral and attract as many page views as possible in order to generate ad revenue. Examples: Right Wing News, Occupy Democrats.

Solution: Take away their ad money (as Google is trying to do) and label them as fake when your Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mildred share them (as Facebook may do).

False news: Error-laden or deceptive stories created by ideologically motivated media organizations. The goal is to persuade and to affect public discourse. Examples: Fox News Channel, The Huffington Post.

Solution: The First Amendment is the best weapon for exposing false news. Our democracy is based on the idea that truth will ultimately prevail over falsehoods in the marketplace of ideas.

Real news: Stories produced by news organizations that practice journalism as a “discipline of verification.” The goal is to inform the public as truthfully as possible. Errors are corrected. Example: The mainstream media (for the most part).

Solution: Support real news by subscribing to newspapers (either in print or online) and donating to public media.

Before you share a dubious-looking news story …

  • Ask yourself if there seems to be something fishy about it.
  • See if you can find anything about it at Snopes.com, the leading source of information on fake news and urban myths.
  • Check the source — is it a respected news organization or a website you’ve never heard of before?
  • Google some keywords from the article to see if any other news organizations are reporting the same story.

Worthy of your support

Journalism that holds powerful people and institutions to account is expensive. At newspapers, which provide most of our public-interest journalism, advertising no longer pays the bills. Some news organizations that deserve your online or print subscription dollars:

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Boston Globe
  • The Boston Herald
  • Your local newspaper
  • And consider donating to public media

If you can’t afford to pay for news

There are multiple sources of reliable free news. There is no need to fall victim to fake news just because you can’t afford to pay for a newspaper subscription. Examples:

  • NPR, heard locally on WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM). You can also read national and international news for free at npr.org, and regional and local news at wbur.org and news.wgbh.org.
  • “The PBS NewsHour,” which also has a great website at pbs.org/newshour.
  • “Frontline,” also on PBS, for in-depth documentaries.
  • The evening network newscasts (CBS, NBC, and ABC).
  • The Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com).
  • The Guardian, which has a U.S. edition (theguardian.com). Note that The Guardian is seeking donations and offers subscription options as well. But it is still free for the moment, and it is one of the world’s great newspapers, on a par with The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

Talk about this post on Facebook.