The Boston Globe editorial board appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss. The extremely loud hint came in the form of an announcement that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman would sit down with Auchincloss for a Zoom one-on-one this coming Monday:
Many Globe readers have expressed concerns about the candidate’s past statements and campaign finances, some of which emerged after the editorial board’s deliberations. Readers and voters deserve to know more and hear directly from the candidate. In this conversation, Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will ask Auchincloss about his record on racial justice, free speech, and beyond.
It’s not as if concerns about Auchincloss’ track record weren’t out there. On Tuesday evening, Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, tweeted out a June 27 commentary in the Newton Tab by Bennett Walkes that begins with this rather devastating statement:
While growing up Black in Newton, I’ve dealt with all sorts of racial profiling and slurs. However, no individual has made me feel more unwelcomed, unvalued and unsafe in my hometown than Jake Auchincloss — now a candidate for Congress.
Walkes cites Auchincloss’ support, on free-speech grounds, for the right to fly the Confederate flag — and comparing it to a Black Lives Matter or Pride banner.
Also on Tuesday evening, the Globe published a story by Stephanie Ebbert reporting on a variety of controversies involving Auchincloss, from his remarks about the Confederate flag to his “no” vote on a city council resolution calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump — an inconvenient fact given Auchincloss’ outspoken opposition to Trump. The editorial board is independent of the newsroom, of course; but they read the paper, and this must have come as very bad news.
Auchincloss is one of a large field of Democrats seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Maybe the editorial board will conclude that Auchincloss is still the best choice. But it sounds like they threw in with Auchincloss on the basis of incomplete information.
It’s generally understood that when newspaper editorial boards endorse candidates, they do so as late as possible in order to avoid the perception that their news coverage will be slanted in favor of the endorsee. So I was surprised to see The Boston Globe endorse U.S. Sen. Ed Markey over his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a full five weeks before the primary.
What gives? According to the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, it’s later than it seems: mail-in voting will begin soon, so the Sept. 1 primary date is merely the last day that people can cast ballots. I’d honestly forgotten that, even though I’ve applied to vote by mail.
Short answer: Mail-in voting. Longer answer requires a conversation. No power to shape news coverage but appreciate the vote of confidence.
In fact, as David Bernstein recently pointed out at WGBH News, the two campaigns are engaged in furious get-out-the-vote efforts already. Huge numbers of Massachusetts voters are expected to take advantage of the mail-in option in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.
There’s still a dilemma, though. Because Markey and Kennedy will be campaigning right up until Sept. 1, the Globe’s news reporters will have to fend of complaints of bias for more than a month. The editorial pages at a quality paper like the Globe do not affect news coverage (for example), but try explaining that to the general public.
Should newspapers endorse candidates at all, or is that an outmoded custom? I’ve found that my students are dubious about the merits of news organizations’ telling people whom to vote for. But I think it can be a valuable exercise, especially in situations where an endorsement might really make a difference.
In this case, the Globe endorsement might matter. Markey and Kennedy hold similar progressive views, and readers will sit up and take notice that the Globe isn’t endorsing a Kennedy, as they might have been expected to do — although, as a longtime Globe reader, I can’t say I was all that surprised that they went with Markey.
I was reading a New York Times story about a serious primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib when I came across this sentence: “Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed.” Jones is Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council, against whom Tlaib is running once again. I decided to look a little more deeply to find out what had happened.
Tlaib, as you no doubt know, is a member of “the squad” — four progressive women of color, all Democrats, who were elected to the House in 2018. (The others are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.) What I didn’t know was that Tlaib’s brief political career stands out as an example of what’s wrong with our first-across-the-finish-line method of determining elections.
Tlaib first ran in a special election to replace John Conyers, who resigned following charges of sexual harassment. She came in second in a multi-candidate field. Jones, the winner of the Democratic primary, received 37.7% of the vote, becoming the acting congresswoman. (In Tlaib’s district, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.) Tlaib came in second with 35.9%
A few months later, another primary was held to choose a regular replacement for Conyers. This time, in a five-candidate field, Tlaib finished first, with 31.2%, and Jones came in second, with 30.2% Note that Tlaib’s support had actually dropped nearly five points since the special election. About 69% of voters cast ballots for someone other than Tlaib. But she was declared the winner, which is how it works under our system.
According to Ballotpedia, the 2020 primary, which will be held Aug. 4, will feature just two candidates, Tlaib and Jones, thus guaranteeing that the winner will receive a majority. That’s the way it should be. If no candidate receives a majority, then there ought to be a runoff election between the top two finishers or ranked-choice voting. (I wrote about ranked choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, and other election reforms for WGBH News in 2018.)
In any case, this will be an interesting primary to keep an eye on. The outspoken Tlaib, who’s Palestinian-American, is, along with Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Jones represents a more moderate African American constituency.
At least this time, we’ll have a chance of finding out whom voters actually prefer.
According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.
What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.
Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.
The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.
Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.
The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.
The pandemic was spread not just by germs but by politics. The virus would have killed many Americans in any case. But a demagogue occupied the White House, and measures that could have reduced the number of victims — a ban on large gatherings, for instance, as well as an honest reckoning with the public — were discouraged at the highest levels. In the end, a tragedy that was the result of natural forces was made immeasurably worse by human failure.
You may think I’m describing President Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19. In fact, I’m referring to Woodrow Wilson and the influenza pandemic of 1918. According to John M. Barry’s 2005 book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a considerable amount of suffering and death could have been prevented were it not for Wilson’s messianic mobilization for war.
“America had never been and would never be so informed by the will of its chief executive, not during the Civil War with the suspension of habeas corpus, not during Korea and the McCarthy period, not even during World War II,” Barry writes. “He would turn the nation into a weapon, an explosive device.
“As an unintended consequence, the nation became a tinderbox for epidemic disease as well.”
One example of how Wilson’s embrace of total war worsened the pandemic will suffice. In Philadelphia, the inept public health director, Wilmer Krusen, refused to take action even after the flu began to rip through the city — spread, as was so often the case, by troops being shipped around the country.
At the same time, Wilson’s propaganda chief, George Creel, exerted enormous pressure on Americans to buy Liberty Bonds in order to pay for the war effort — an outgrowth of Creel’s chilling mantra, “100% Americanism.” The newspapers didn’t dare question the official line, which was that the flu was no big deal. And so Philadelphia went ahead with a parade to promote Liberty Bonds, an event that turned out to be a major vector in the spread of the disease.
All told, about 20,000 people died in the Philadelphia outbreak — and, as described by Barry, death from the 1918 flu was gruesome, with victims turning deep blue as their lungs became unable to process oxygen and with blood pouring out of every orifice.
In all, about 675,000 people in the U.S. died from the 1918 flu (the equivalent of nearly 2 million today), and perhaps as many as 50 million worldwide.
By failing to level with the public, according to Barry, Wilson made a bad situation much worse. Barry writes that “as horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror — not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure…. In 1918 the lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into the concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.”
And here’s where the parallels to our current situation are especially telling. Trump wanted to minimize COVID in order to save the stock market — not, as Wilson would have it, to make the world safe for democracy. Nevertheless, both Wilson and Trump played down the seriousness of the invisible enemy that had invaded our shores. As reported by The Washington Post, Trump dithered for more than two months — a time when the threat was becoming increasingly clear, and when steps could have been taken to minimize COVID’s spread.
According to scientists at Columbia University, some 36,000 lives could have been saved in the U.S. if social-distancing had been put in place just a week earlier — on March 8 instead of March 15.
Moreover, although the press isn’t under the threat of censorship today as it was in 1918, Trump has what is essentially his own media outlet — Fox News — which has been spreading disinformation from the start of the pandemic and cheering on the mask-disdaining anti-shutdown protesters who invaded statehouses a few weeks ago. Pandemic disease has become just another manifestation of the partisan divide. The result: More than 110,000 Americans have died, one-quarter of the worldwide total.
The analogies between 1918 and 2020 aren’t perfect, of course. Despite Wilson’s many flaws, he probably couldn’t have avoided entering World War I. The response to the influenza could have been managed better, but there were limits to what could be done during wartime.
Trump, on the other hand, has been an active impediment to anti-COVID measures by spouting false information about drugs and (lest we forget) bleach, by refusing to wear a mask in public and by interfering with state efforts to obtain medical equipment and supplies.
Also unlike 1918, the media are reporting plenty of uncensored, reliable information. The problem today isn’t censorship; rather, it’s a parallel universe of right-wing media more dedicated to advancing Trump’s political prospects than to the truth.
Now we are in the midst of our darkest period in many years, as we deal not just with COVID and economic calamity but with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, a long-overdue response to racism following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and of the deaths of numerous other Black men and women at the hands of police and racist vigilantes. As others have observed, we are simultaneously reliving the pandemic of 1918, the depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of 1968. A better, more just country may come out of this, but that doesn’t make the moment any easier to process.
One aspect of Barry’s book struck me as both unlike and yet resonant with the present crisis. At root, Barry tells a medical detective story, going into great detail about the lives of a small handful of scientists who attempted to find a vaccine and a cure for the flu. Modern medicine was in its infancy then. When a treatment for diphtheria was developed in 1891, it was the first time in history that any disease had been cured. A quarter-century later, the number of eminent scientists called to work on the 1918 influenza outbreak could be counted on two hands.
And they failed.
Today we know so much more — yet our experts have been groping for answers, too, changing their guidance on face masks and warning us that they may fall short in their frantic search for a vaccine and/or a cure.
Barry quotes one of the 1918 researchers, Victor Vaughan, as saying in disgust: “Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th-century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death.”
It’s a lesson in humility and patience that we should keep in mind. After all, the flu pandemic eventually burned out of its own accord. COVID will, too. But coming up with solutions to racism, police brutality and economic injustice, the other unfinished business of 2020, is going to be up to all of us.
The New York Times may be rethinking its decision to publish Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s terrible, offensive op-ed piece endorsing the use of military force to crush the violent protests that have broken out around the country following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Though Cotton’s essay was posted online Wednesday, it doesn’t appear in today’s print edition. And, at least at the moment, you have to scroll to the bottom of the digital opinion section in order to find it.
Should it have run? On the face of it, an op-ed by an influential Republican senator deserves consideration no matter how awful it might be. By tradition, newspaper opinion pages in the United States are ideologically diverse. Though the Times’ editorial pages are liberal, they also feature conservative columnists and, on occasion, provocative right-wing outside contributors like Cotton. Not every piece can or should cater to the views of the Times’ mostly liberal readership.
Editorial-page editor James Bennet defended his decision to run the piece. “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he tweeted. “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”
But not every opinion deserves to be aired. Presumably the Times would not run an op-ed by a white supremacist calling for a return to Jim Crow laws, or a communist who wants to send billionaires to forced-labor camps.
Cotton’s piece isn’t quite that bad. But here are three reasons that it shouldn’t have run.
First, by calling for government-sanctioned violence against protesters, Cotton may be endangering lives. A number of Times employees took to Twitter to blast the piece. The Washington Post reports: “Several tweeted the same message — ‘Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger’ — with a screen shot of the editorial’s headline, ‘Tom Cotton: Send In The Troops.'”
Second, just two days earlier Cotton took to Twitter and demanded, “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” As The Bulwark notes, “The phrase ‘no quarter’ means killing enemy combatants rather than taking any prisoners.” Cotton, a retired Army captain, presumably knows that’s a war crime. Bennet should have told Cotton he had disqualified himself when the senator came peddling his op-ed.
Third, Cotton makes a dangerous, unsubstantiated claim in his op-ed — that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [are] infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” That echoes rhetoric from President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, but there is no evidence of it, according to The Associated Press. Again, where were Bennet and the other editors? As the oft-cited Daniel Patrick Moynihan rule would have it, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.
I thought Bina Venkataraman, The Boston Globe’s editorial-page editor and herself a Times alum, put it well in a thread Wednesday night, writing that “there is a distinction btw a ‘provocative’ opinion that ought to be aired & a dangerous point of view like Cotton’s that already had the largest megaphone in the country: the bully pulpit occupied by the president of the United States.”
She added: “The Cotton oped neither enriches understanding nor offers new ideas — nor does it even break news; everyone paying attention already knew the senator fell in line with the president.”
As a @nytimes alumna and an editorial page editor (as of 6 mos ago) flooded with text messages tonight asking for my view on the Cotton oped, I will venture to comment/THREAD
So no, Cotton’s piece shouldn’t have been published — not because Times readers shouldn’t be exposed to views with which they disagree, but because it was an ugly little screed that failed to meet basic ethical and journalistic standards.
You might think that Twitter would have a financial incentive to cave in to President Trump’s incoherent, unconstitutional threats over the platform’s decision to label some of his false tweets as, you know, false. In fact, Trump’s presence on Twitter is not as big a deal to the company as you might think.
First, we often hear that Trump has 80 million followers. But is that really the case? According to analytics from the Fake Followers Audit, 70.2% of his followers are fake, which is defined as “accounts that are unreachable and will not see the account’s tweets (either because they’re spam, bots, propaganda, etc. or because they’re no longer active on Twitter).”
That’s not especially unusual among high-profile tweeters. For instance, 43% of former President Barack Obama‘s 118 million followers are fake. But it’s important to understand that Trump has about 24 million followers, not 80 million. That’s a big difference.
The bottom line is that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey could probably afford to throw Trump off the platform for repeatedly violating its terms of service. Still, he probably wouldn’t want to risk the outrage that would ensue from MAGA Country if Trump lost his favorite outlet for smearing the memory of a dead woman with his horrendous lies about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.
But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?
First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.
From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.
Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”
Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.
Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.
So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.
We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.
In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”
Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.
The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see this, this and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.
“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”
And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.
Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.
What would better coverage look like?
First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.
Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.
Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.
Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.
Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)
Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”
What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.
QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.
We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.
In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”
By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.
“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”
What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.
What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.
It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.
Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?
Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.
There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.
Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.
Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.
The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.
“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”
Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”
All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.