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.

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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.”

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James Comey is back. And this time his FBI is taking aim at Trump’s inner circle.

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.
James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

FBI Director James Comey, who did more to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign than anyone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is back. Investigations are under way into the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia — and leaks from those investigations are one of several factors in the chaos that has defined Trump’s presidency. As we all wonder what will come next, it’s a good time to take a look at what Comey has wrought.

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Here’s why Boston should care about the massive Entercom-CBS Radio merger

Photo (cc) by Gratisography
Photo (cc) by Gratisography

There was a time when the merger of two massive radio chains would have occasioned apocalyptic warnings about corporate media monopolies. Yet the announcement earlier this month that Entercom and CBS Radio would seek to combine their forces into a nationwide 244-station chain — with huge implications for Boston — barely created a stir.

Yes, both The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald had some fun kicking around the possibility that the city’s two big sports stations, Entercom’s WEEI (93.7 FM) and CBS’s The Sports Hub (98.5 FM), could wind up under the same roof. But we seem to be many years past the time when we worried about the effect of out-of-state ownership on local communities. It was a topic I wrote about repeatedly in the ’90s (here’s an example from 1997), and now it’s yesterday’s news.

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More on why Trump is right to want to eliminate nonprofit speech restrictions

Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

President Trump last week promised to repeal a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. As he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast in his characteristically bombastic style, he would “totally destroy” the ban, pushed through Congress in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon Johnson.

The proposal, predictably, was met with opposition by many observers, who argued that such a move would threaten the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

But religious leaders — and everyone — should be able to speak freely without fearing that their words will cost them money. Somehow the republic managed to survive until 1954 without those free-speech rights being abridged. There is no reason to think that restoring those rights will be our downfall today.

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Anti-Trump conservative pundits come to terms with Trump’s ‘American carnage’

Photo via WhiteHouse.gov.
Photo via WhiteHouse.gov

In assessing the dawn of the Trump era, there are plots. There are subplots. And there are sub-subplots. Among the more intriguing of those sub-subplots is the fate of the conservative commentariat under a Republican president who is not conservative and whom most right-leaning pundits fulminated against during the past year and a half.

President Trump has the Fox News Channel, of course. I caught just enough Friday night to see Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson smirking and backslapping over their guy’s rise to power. Some post-Roger Ailes chaos aside, the enduring popularity of Fox may prove to be more than enough to offset the influence of conservatives who are appalled at the prospect of a president who exudes demagoguery as well as several varieties of nationalism, including economic and white.

Other than Fox, though, Trump has received little support from conservatives.

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Northeastern students’ multimedia projects are published by WGBH News

Flooding at Long Wharf during the King Tides in mid-November gave Bostonians a preview of climate change. Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker; filter by BeFunky.
Flooding at Long Wharf during the King Tides in mid-November gave Bostonians a preview of climate change. Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker; filter by BeFunky.

WGBH News, the online arm of Boston’s largest public media organization, published nine multimedia projects from my Digital Storytelling and Social Media class this past fall. From oyster farming in Wellfleet to activism aimed at assisting immigrants in Greater Boston, Northeastern journalism students hit the streets and back roads to report, write stories, take photos, and shoot and edit videos.

Here is what you will find by our students at WGBHNews.org:

  • Janine Eduljee: “Despite Long Lines, Early Voting Proved To Be A Hit In Massachusetts”
  • Timothy Foley: “Poetic Justice: How Boston Pulse Is Helping Students Find Their Voice”
  • Mayeesha Galiba: “Mass. Coalition Fights To Promote The Rights Of Immigrants And Refugees”
  • Elise Harmon: “New England Activists Rally For Victims Of Violence In Syria”
  • Christie Macomber: “Standing Up For Standing Rock: The Harsh Realities Of Environmental Racism”
  • Alexandra Malloy: “In Wellfleet, An Oyster Farmer’s Life Is Dictated By The Tides”
  • Gwendolyn Schanker: “Seeing Is Believing: Using Multimedia To Tell The Climate Change Story”
  • Rowan Walrath: “Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns Hit Boston’s College Campuses”
  • Elle Williams: “Standing Up For Black Lives: How Asian Americans Are Showing Their Solidarity”

Many thanks to Peter Kadzis, who edits the WGBH News site, as well as to the web folks who made it happen: Brendan Lynch, Paris Alston, and Joshua Eaton.