Trump is Exactly What We Wanted

Photo credit: Tony Webster via / CC BY-NC-ND
I was not a Trump skeptic when he entered the race. I didn’t know how far he’d get, but I knew he’d be a big factor, and as he plowed ahead and stayed on top, I was also not one of those who thought he’d implode. His support, I believed, was rock solid, with a floor that other candidates couldn’t match. But I don’t think I could ever really articulate why he would do, and has done, so well.

Then I read this interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Huffington Post by Howard Fineman, and it all made sense. Fineman writes:

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into — and exploit — every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

And Goodwin tells him:

Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.

This all rings more truthfully to me than the idea that Trump is some kind of political savant. I do think he’s probably smarter than his competition in a number of meaningful ways, but a better and broader explanation of his success is that his shtick happens to align perfectly with the way the news media produces content today.

The media and Trump are equally obsessed with horse race poll numbers. The current news paradigm is to churn out content with every tiny, potentially interesting development, and Trump practically gives off spores of content fodder. The news media delights in conflict, especially personal conflict, and the potential for controversy or the possibility of offenses given. Again, Trump provides and provides. And I assume that this is half because he’s playing all of us, and half because it’s just what he is. We the audience demand vapid, garbage content, and Trump gives us exactly what we want.

Here’s a subject that Fineman and Kearns don’t cover: the electorate to which Trump is appealing. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat-Trump, some leftward counterpart that has Trump’s bravado but fights for social and economic justice. No, Political Trump is a product custom made for an electorate stoked into rage and fear and happy ignorance by the very party that now fears the Trump takeover. The GOP primary electorate has been primed for a candidate like Trump, whether the party knew it or not. They’ve been fomenting paranoia about Obama, minorities, women, “religious freedom,” Iran, Muslims, and whatever else you can think of, and they’re shocked that perhaps some chest-thumping candidate might swoop in and, confidently and joyously, embody those paranoias.

Trump is a man of our times. Goodwin in the interview with Fineman says that deeply researched print journalism is what could have better exposed and explained someone like Trump, “because [of] the way sentences work.” There’s something kind of perfect for that. In an age of clumsy tweets and Facebook memes, the antithesis of whatever it is Trump is, might be “the sentence.”

Mars One is Amway-Meets-Heaven’s Gate

In November I wrote about an investigative piece by Elmo Keep on the Mars One initiative, which is supposed to be screening candidates for a one-way mission to Mars in the next decade. Go read that post to get caught up. (And read all of Keep’s original article, which is amazing.)
In my post, I compared Mars One to the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

In other words, Keep’s reporting showed that at best, Mars One is a well-intentioned idea, as I put it, built like a house of cards. At worst, it’s a weird and cynical scam, the goal of which is unclear.

Alas, I think the needle may be tilting strongly toward the latter.

Keep is back with a follow-up piece, in which she profiles Mars One candidate (and top-100 “finalist”) Dr. Joseph Roche. What he reveals is that Mars One is less of an Underpants Gnome project, and more of a for-profit cult. From Keep’s piece:

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Get people to sign up to be “chosen” for a mythology-worthy (and mythical) voyage to martyr themselves for science and the human race and whatnot, and thereby pressure them to pay into draping themselves in the brand, and funneling their own money back to the project. The candidates, one presumes, really want to be chosen for the mission, to be seen as enthusiastic, committed, and worthy, so they buy into the “points” system as a way to show their devotion. It sounds like Amway meets Heaven’s Gate, or a short-term Scientology. It’s a snake oil rapture story dressed up as noble science.

And as Keep points out, the mainstream media coverage of Mars One has been almost entirely uncritical. How can it be that there’s been only one journalist who’s bothered to do more than be awestruck by the project’s audacity?

Religion often promises immortality and, at its worst, preys upon people’s need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, all for the enrichment and empowerment of those pulling the strings. Mars One thinks it found a way to do that without the need for a deity, without an invisible heaven. Instead, it just pinpointed Paradise as the dusty red planet 140,000,000 miles away, and held out its collection plate.

The Loudest Voice is a Bawling Baby

Frank Rich:

…these days Fox News is the loudest voice in the room only in the sense that a bawling baby is the loudest voice in the room. In being so easily bullied by Fox’s childish provocations, the left gives the network the attention on which it thrives and hands it power that it otherwise has lost.

And this is largely why I don’t watch The Daily Show or shows on MSNBC anymore. We get it, Fox is full of backward morons. They’re the Westboro Baptist Church of media. They love it when you waste your time hating them.

It’s part of a larger problem, like what can make Twitter so tiring — the constant, frenetic need to be offended or feel bullied by someone, and the high horse one gets to climb when they call it out.

Don’t feed the trolls, whatever their form. Don’t read the comments. Rein in the snark. Get a grip, and pick the battles that are actually worth fighting.


The Facts, Not in the Flow

Jeff Jarvis:

. . . I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all reporting to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

NBC’s Chuck Todd, responding to criticism that the news media has not corrected the rampant, cynical proliferation of misinformation about the Affordable Care Act:

What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”

You see the problem here.

(The Jarvis quote is not a response to the Todd quote, it’s a reaction to a different circumstance entirely, but they sure attached themselves to each other in my mind.)

I mean, it’s a law on the books, right? The idea that it is not journalists’ responsibility to report what’s true, but simply to narrate a rhetorical contest, well, it’s nauseating. We can’t tell you the truth because one party in the battle is poor at marketing? Really?

It’s no wonder we’re as deeply un- and misinformed as we are.

Triceratops Never Existed. Wait, Yes it Did.

I have a problem with this headline from the National Post, which says, “Triceratops never actually existed, scientists say.” Oh no!

But it’s not what the scientists say. According to that very article.

They actually say:

After studying 29 triceratops skulls, the scientists discovered the bone was thinning in the same area where the torosaurus’s holes were. Evidence began mounting as they counted the growth rings in the bones and discovered all the triceratops skulls were from young dinosaurs. What’s more, juvenile specimens of the torosaurus have never been found. They concluded the dinosaurs were actually the same, with the horns and ridge changing shape as the lizard matured.

The piece even concludes (emphasis mine) with, “Scientists will now reclassify all torosaurus as triceratops.” So, in other words, there’s still Triceratops. Triceratops always existed, not “never,” and now it’s Torosaurus that “never existed.”  

I know, I know, click bait. But come on. It’s the opposite of what the article’s actually about!

He Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

The Nate Silver saga: Silver leaves the New York Times for ESPN, and the Times’ public editor says, essentially, we didn’t want him anyway:

I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that….His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” . . . I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.

Kevin Drum is agog at this attitude:

Even for those of us who are pretty cynical about political reporting, this is astonishing. If I were editor of the Times, I’d do whatever it took to find out who those three are, and then fire them instantly. Whoever they are, they shouldn’t be trusted to cover the pig races at a country fair, let alone write about politics for the most influential newspaper in the country.

Paul Waldman sees the disconnect between all parties:

The trouble is, many political reporters have come over the decades to think that “Who’s going to win?” is in fact the question they should be asking; indeed, many of them think it’s the only question they should be asking. So it’s no wonder that when people like Silver come along and turn out to be able to answer it using an entirely different set of tools than those the journalists have spent their careers mastering, some react like petulant children.

The long and the short of it is that if Nate Silver, a guy who relies on facts and data rather than manufactured drama, if he didn’t “fit in” at the Times, that reflects far more poorly on the Times than on Silver.

But maybe the Times can now allocate more resources to important stories like the fact girls college girls like hooking up, or the trials and tribulations of rich kids whose parents buy them whole apartment buildings.

We Asked for This

The NSA snooping story is fishy. Here’s Ed Bott at ZDNet:

. . . a funny thing happened the next morning. If you followed the link to [The Washington Post‘s] story, you found a completely different story, nearly twice as long, with a slightly different headline. The new story wasn’t  just expanded; it had been stripped of key details, with no acknowledgment of the changes. That updated version, time-stamped at 8:51 AM on June 7, backed off from key details in the original story.

Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”

David Simon, meanwhile, gauges the reaction:

You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.

Nope. Nothing of the kind.

And how is that then? It appears that an already-existing, already-controversial program has been given a Hollywood style treatment. Bott again:

The real story appears to be much less controversial than the original alarming accusations. All of the companies involved have established legal procedures to respond to warrants from a law enforcement agency or a court. None of them appear to be participating with widespread surveillance.

So what went wrong with the Post?

The biggest problem was that the Post took a leaked PowerPoint presentation from a single anonymous source and leaped to conclusions without supporting evidence.

And now back to Simon, who tries to put things into sane perspective, reminding us that the collection of call records and the scraping of emails is not the same as surveillance and recording, if for no other reason than that there’s not enough human and computer power to take on such a massive task.

There is a lot of authoritarian overreach in American society, both from the drug war and the war on terror.

But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks. After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation.  . . We asked for this. We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Simon does acknowledge in a later post that there is a substantive difference between the Verizon phone records being given to the government, and the kind of monitoring that PRISM does to Internet activity, which requires more oversight than it currently has. But this is still not really news.  

I’m trying to keep my own apathy about this in check, as I imagine what my reaction would be if there were a Republican administration running the executive. I assume I’d be presuming guilt and nefarious intent. I hope the fact that I am far less freaked out by the current administration running such an operation (which, again, turns out to be nothing new anyway) will inform and mitigate any future knee-jerks.

We simply can’t each have ubiquitous presence and expression on the Internet and also expect airtight privacy for all of our activity. We just can’t. As Simon says:

We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Of course we do. So let’s pick which one is more important to us, or more accurately, let’s adjust the dials to the mix of privacy and security that better suits us — based on what this thing actually is, not simply as it’s portrayed. We asked for this, and maybe we don’t like what we got. So let’s ask for something else. 

Mike Daisey vs. The View From Nowhere

Mike Daisey, in a Facebook comment thread, confronts a former CNN vice-president with the press’s blindness to its own sickness, in the wake of CNN’s much-derided coverage of the Steubenville rape trial:

This is an absolutely perfect example of a story that tells all the facts in front of these reporters, and they have totally failed to tell the truth of the story.

To the rejoinder, “Kindly tell me your journalism training,” Daisey responds:

And here would be the bullshit part where the experts, who have clearly fucked up the story, demand everyone else’s credentials as though it is still 1978. Cheap and tacky. My credentials are that I’m a goddamn conscious citizen.

And thus we find ourselves once again at the root of the broader problem: A failure of imagination on the part of many in the press establishment to recognize that transcription is not the same as telling the truth, and not the same as seeking or arriving at the truth. I’ve talked about this before in the context of the tech press’s inability to stomach the license taken by screenwriters or Daisey himself in his theatrical work. But it’s a problem with the entire industry, and it’s an industry that is on its way to being upended by the growing number of savvy news consumers who demand, and the reporters and outlets that can deliver, more than recitation.

Internet Comments vs. Knowledge

Apparently, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like Internet comment sections. Neither does science. From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

In an experiment . . . about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

And as though to echo the previous post’s title, “Comments. Boy, I Don’t Know”:

“I hope you’re not going to ask me, ‘What should we do?'” she said, laughing. “Because I don’t know.”

I think I do. Don’t have comments sections.