The Great American Outrage Industry

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As mentioned in a previous post, almost everybody has heard about the NFL protests spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick. And almost everybody has heard from people who consider Kaepernick an ungrateful un-American bratty commie librul traitor who is, somehow or other, being disrespectful to America’s military veterans. But relatively very few people hear that a great many veterans are in fact quite supportive of him and the other protesters. Why this discrepancy?

In a nutshell, it’s because social media (and to a very large and increasing degree, media, period) is not fueled by messages of support. It’s fueled by outrage, which has proven to be a highly profitable industry over the past few decades.  A certain flatulent radio personality whose name rhymes with “hush” was the pace-setter for this industry starting in the eighties; but even before him, it was pioneered by the likes of Wally George, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey, and going way back, Father Charles Coughlin.

Purveyors of outrage aren’t primarily concerned about how accurate their claims are. Nor are they concerned about how cherry-picked their facts are, nor how slanted their presentation is. Their big overriding interest is provoking a reaction. And they will even nudge that reaction along by raising their voices, pounding on their desks and, in general, behaving like charismatics at a tent revival. It’s not about information or ideas. It’s all about rage and hate.

This has always been the case. But in more recent times, the gods of demagoguery have plunked a huge gift into the laps of the propagandists and manipulators. Social media, and particularly Facebook, are in many ways the ideal vessels for the dissemination of toxic ideological bullshit. This is brought home quite forcefully by a couple of recent TED talks.

In one of them, geek philosopher Tristan Harris discusses how tech companies are competing for dollars by competing for your attention. And the most effective way to get and keep your attention is to promote outrage.

 

The other TED talk comes from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who warns that we are building a dystopia just so consumers (that’s us) can click on ads. That, for social media itself, is the real payoff — the promotion of advertising. When teamed with the demagogues’ campaign to foster outrage, it’s a powerful combination that manipulates public opinion and action to a greater extent, and in more subtle ways, than most of us would ever imagine.

 

What complicates the situation even more is that at present there is, as at no other time in memory and probably in U.S. history, legitimate reason, especially for Americans, to be outraged.  The nature and the actions of the current regime in Washington, as well as the social forces that allowed it to seize power in the first place, are more than enough to make us fume.  But here’s the problem. There is, among much of the American public, a tendency to dismiss such outrage, thanks to the Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.

If you mention how disturbed you are by the current White House Occupant, his supporters are likely to respond, “Well, hey, we put up with Obama for 8 years, so you will survive T—p. Get over it.”

Of course, that’s the hugest false equivalence in the galaxy.  A typical sin for which Obama was savagely attacked was using the wrong kind of mustard on his hamburger. No, really. In contrast, the current W.H.O. is calling Nazis “very fine people” and bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with a puerile pissing contest. But you will get nowhere with his supporters trying to point out these differences. And you will certainly get nowhere expressing outrage.

You’re likely to find that your Facebook friends fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, there are the full-fledged members of the Cult Of Trumpery — who, when you vent about the current W.H.O. will promptly respond that they’re delighted and relieved to have a real  president for a change, after that socialist Muslim Kenyan atheist, and besides, emails Benghazi make America great again.

Then on the other hand, there are those who have their eyes wide open — perhaps too much for their own peace of mind. They’ve already been on the receiving end of a great deal of disturbing information, so much that they feel shell-shocked, and may even be tuning it out to the point of taking a hiatus from social media.

But that’s exactly what the current regime is counting on. They benefit greatly when the public is either uninformed or docile or preferably both.

It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure. You want to help people stay informed, but you don’t want them to become so numb that they no longer hear what you’re saying. And you don’t want them to dismiss you as just another angry voice in a whole beehive of them.

So yes, go ahead and post troubling information on Facebook. But be very selective — realize that most unpleasant news will be something that your friends already have heard or easily can find out. No need rubbing it in. Stick to highlighting tidbits that few people would be aware of otherwise. Temper them with hope, humor and good will. And spread them out, separated by unrelated social media posts like… well, photos of your cat doing tricks or something.

Above all, avoid delivering huge chunks of unremitting outrage. Remember that when you do, the beast is feeding off your angst. And that beast is getting very fat indeed.

 

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Vanessa and Her Media Bias Chart

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As my  schedule puts me behind in posting original material, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to a lady named Vanessa, if you’re not already familiar with her. She is an attorney in Colorado who writes a modest little blog called All Generalizations Are False, with which I am quite impressed.  Its centerpiece, at least for the time being, is a chart that lays out bias and reliability among the major U.S. media outlets.

We live in a very visually-oriented world. You can hear and read a lot about media bias, but for many people, nothing helps sort it all out like this visual aid, which is informative, easy to follow, and pleasing to the eye.

It’s likely that anyone who sees it will quibble about the accuracy of the placement of one or more of the outlets thereon. I myself would have placed National Review both farther right and farther down the scale of reliability; but then this is based on my own personal experiences with it and its editor (which I really must tell you about one day) rather than a systematic examination such as Vanessa has conducted. She notes that she has received more feedback about CNN than anything else, and she even devotes a separate post to this.

There are also other posts on her site worth reading, mostly concerning observations about the media. I have found Vanessa’s writing to be consistently informed, insightful and eloquent. I look forward to reading more of it.

The 10 Dumbest Responses to the Hurricanes (So Far)

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Disasters like the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and the fires on the West Coast, seem overall to bring out the best in people. But there are always some people for whom such events bring out, if not the worst behavior, certainly very far from the optimum. And unfortunately, the United States of America currently has a great many such people in positions of influence. Thus, we’ve had our sense of decency assaulted and insulted with the following:

1. Ending D.A.C.A.

This may not sound like a direct response to hurricanes. But they provided a convenient smokescreen for this despicable decision to be revealed, a distraction from some of its sheer dishonesty and awfulness. That’s a familiar pattern for this despot, as it has been for many other despots. Furthermore, it’s worth noting two other things. Ending D.A.C.A. will be another horrific blow to many people who have already been dealt a horrific blow by the severe weather. And some of these individuals have been among the first responders and rescuers — or will be among the repair and restoration personnel — before they get shipped back to where their parents came from.

2. Mr. Showman

After receiving a great deal of flak for a superficial visit to Texas that didn’t entail actually getting within spitting range of the unwashed masses, the putative president finally made an appearance in the vicinity of the damage in Texas, where he commented to the assemblage of media, supporters and protesters, “I want to thank you for coming out.” And rather than express condolences or concern or even resolve to rebuild and persevere, he uttered the immortal line for which his administration is destined to be remembered: “What a crowd, what a turnout.” At least this time he didn’t attack the media or Obama or Hillary.

3. The Not So Great American Photo-Op

Needless to say, he wanted to make sure the media cameras (you know, the ones that always ignore him) captured him “helping out” in the relief effort. So he staged what surely has to be the most comically, painfully embarrassing photo op in the long, sleazy history of American politics. Standing by a truck being loaded up with supplies, looking like a duck out of water or, more accurately, a tycoon out of his gold-plated office, he briefly laid his hands on containers that were being handed to him — containers that he very easily could have just walked over and picked up himself. And oh yes, he told the driver of the pickup (to whom he handed an apparently empty carton that was nothing but a prop) to “have a good time”. No, really.

4. Other fake news

Harvey opened the floodgates on Photoshopped photos and phony stories to go with them. Some of them were harmless and silly, like the shark on the highway — a story that actually was recycled from a few years ago. But others are more malicious, such as a photo purported to show members of Black Lives Matter blockading (“blackading”?) the delivery of relief supplies. The story was, of course, quite false; it was accompanied in some cases by a photo from a protest in Atlanta in 2016 and in others by a photo from Boston in 2015 (and the believers didn’t seem to notice that the two photos were extremely different).  By the way, BLM’s actual response to the disaster was, shall we say, not quite as reported.

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Meanwhile, supporters of the “fake news” president, wanting to attribute to him the real-life heroics Al Gore displayed after Katrina, circulated fake photos of him in a boat handing his red cap to a man in the water (a vital supply, don’t you know) and even, I kid you not, wading in the water to rescue two cats. Which is no doubt the kind of things he does every day.

5. The looting loopiness

As usual in the aftermath of these events, there were a few individuals who salvaged goods from the wreckage; a scant handful of them may have created some additional wreckage in order to obtain salvage. But the number was incredibly small, especially when you consider that Houston has a population of over 6.5 million.  Nonetheless, right-wing news outlets tried to create the impression that a widespread plague of looting was descending upon the soggy city — and that the perpetrators were all rather dark-skinned. Well, perhaps the latter point is important, since it’s often skin tone that determines whether an act of salvage is designated as “looting” or merely “finding”.

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6. Not good

Ah, but it’s been a couple of minutes already since we’ve said anything about the guy in the White House. We certainly don’t want him to feel neglected — he might develop a fragile ego or something. So how about another one of his verbal gems.

{Hurricane Irma) looks like it could be something that will be not good.

7. All a matter of branding

And while we have him in front of the mic, let’s let him muse about the things he considers most crucial at this juncture.

If you talk about branding, no brand has improved more than the United States Coast Guard.

8. Who needs science? We got slogans

Scientists have an annoying habit of providing facts that don’t support people’s ideologies. And thus it was that they reported climate change was apparently a factor that worsened these storms. But of course the punditocracy would have none of it.  They reminded us that climate change is nothing but a librul conspiracy in order to convince people to… well, do something (read, maybe?). And them librulz just love catastrophic weather because it helps them promote their heinous agenda (like scientific literacy, maybe?). One perennially flatulent radio talk show personality whose name rhymes with “hush” not only made this proclamation, but also proclaimed that scientists and “lubberals” were crying wolf over the impending Hurricane Irma — just before he evacuated his Florida home in order to keep his smug ass from being blown away by a nonexistent hurricane.

9. Okay gang, don those tinfoil hats

Not only do they believe that them librulz love deadly hurricanes, many of them believe that them librulz and their evil accomplices (i.e. scientists) actually create them through geoengineering. More than one nutjob floated this idea in the media — including at least one from whom the putative president acquires much of his “information”.

10. Evangelical Eschatological Ecstasy

Of course, there’s also another factor they point a finger to. Just when you thought Christian arrogance had already reached its nadir, a bunch of folks start declaring that these hurricanes never would have happened if only people prayed more. These biblical scholars apparently never heard of a character called Job. In any case, they are divided into two schools of “thought”: those who think the destruction is a bad thing because it means the nation has turned away from God; and those who believe it’s a good thing because it mirrors biblical “prophecy” about the approaching end of the world.  Quite often, these schools of “thought” are both present within the skull of the same fundamentalist. Some of them even added for good measure that the hurricanes are punishment for taking down Confederate statues, which God apparently really wants to keep standing to pay tribute to His holy cause of slavery.

Maybe for once the evangelicals actually have a point. When millions of Americans believe that hurricanes are caused by a failure to pray, and by the removal of Confederate statues, but believe that climate change is a myth, maybe The End really is near.

 

The Swiftboating of CNN: “Working the Refs”

 

 

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He’s at it again. Apparently immune to self-humiliation, a certain self-described “citizen journalist” with a long history of producing dishonest and deceptively edited videos has released another one. His previous efforts have gotten him arrested, sued, forced to pay $100,000, and repeatedly debunked and proclaimed a sham even by (some of) his fellow right-wing fanatics. But he still gets plenty of media exposure for being a fraudulent hack, so he still keeps doing it.  And this time he has a target that his fans are particularly eager to pounce on: CNN.

It’s astounding, and slightly amusing in a perverse way, to hear how often people peg CNN as a staunchly “liberal” network, whatever that means. Mention to one of your right-wing friends or relatives what a cesspool Fox “News” is, and chances are the Pavlovian response will be something like “Oh yeah? Well what about CNN?” During the recent presidential campaign it was common for reactionaries to refer to it as the Clinton News Network. And the current White House Occupant himself, who simply parrots brainlessly whatever he hears from the loony fringe media, has declared the network to be “fake news” and barred it from media conferences.

All of which is supremely ironic; CNN is also a frequent target of criticism by Media Matters, which is devoted to exposing “conservative misinformation”.  In fact, almost every day, Media Matters documents at least one instance of right-wing bias at CNN — evidently the highest frequency of any non-Fox media source. Furthermore, CNN has hired two of the White House Occupant’s lackeys as commentators. And lest we forget, it gave us a decade or so of Lou Dobbs, who, while nominally a centrist, railed against President Obama in a manner reminiscent of Father Coughlin railing against FDR, and now has found a home at Fox. CNN also has offered a frequent platform to the likes of George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer, William Bennett, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, and even Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter.

Of course, the network also has its instances of left-wing bias. But that’s just the point. Whatever its shortcomings may be as a journalistic source (and it does indeed have some) it’s rather balanced ideologically.  The Pew Research Center ranked it slightly left of center based on the ideology of the average viewer:

Network bias

And bear in mind that such a criterion as viewership probably makes CNN seem more left-leaning that it really is, since progressive (“liberal”) viewers face more limited options — as witness the domination of the media landscape by a rabid Fox,  which sends other networks scrambling to match its strides.

So why would the right-wing punditocracy single out such a relatively middle-of-the-road network to externally brand as the flagship of the legendary (and largely mythical) librulmedia? Simple: precisely because it is relatively middle-of-the-road. Establishing CNN as a benchmark for “liberal bias” by playing up its leftward tilts and ignoring its rightward tilts, the manipulators hope to utterly discredit anything even slightly left of center.

Immediately after the fraudulent anti-CNN video was released, White House spokesbot Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that any media criticizing her president is “fake news” and in almost the same breath urged everyone to watch the video, “whether it’s accurate or not”. The head can’t stop reeling from the bombardment of irony these days.

Meanwhile, the White House exploited the video in a fundraising letter (Fundraising?? Wasn’t the point of electing a pampered billionaire so the president wouldn’t be so dependent on the public’s money?), citing it as proof that CNN is “pushing phony news stories to boost their ratings, rile up their (wait for it) rabid liberal base, and take us down”.

It’s a tactic that Eric Alterman describes nicely in his book What Liberal Media?, which is well summed up in a column at The Nation. (It is Alterman, by the way, from whom I have borrowed the strikingly appropriate term punditocracy.) He quotes then-chair of the GOP Rich Bond:

If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.

Right-wingers have carried this strategy to outrageous extremes. They howl about the “liberal bias” of the media any time there is a news report that does not reinforce their narratives and beliefs. It’s all part of a strategy to work the refs, shift the goalposts and tilt the playing field. And it’s paying off handsomely.

The ultimate objectives in crying wolf over the librulmedia are twofold: first, to bully media outlets into being even more right-leaning than they already are, and second, to have mainstream news outlets branded as radically leftist in the mind of the public; and by comparison, then, an unhinged right-wing outlet like Fox will be perceived as … well, fair and balanced.  And we’ve already traveled very far down that Orwellian road.

 

Gleanings from Social Media

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Like most other people today, I spend a certain amount of time perusing social media. Not because I particularly enjoy it, but because it’s a good source of material for this blog. But the down side is that the impression one gets from such outlets is that the present human condition, and the outlook for the human race, are very bleak indeed.

I know someone who literally believes the earth is flat. Literally. She posted the above photo on Facebook not long ago, and declared that the concept of a round earth is a myth promoted by the Great Conspiracy to turn us into mindless drones. And the astronauts? They never really went anywhere. The government has expended billions of dollars and millions of man (and woman) hours and even several lives to advance a “myth” that nearly everyone has already believed for centuries. Oh and she also believes that chemtrails are used to control us, that global warming is a myth, that vaccines cause autism, and probably that Obama is still trying to take away her guns.

I wish I could tell you that she’s alone, but there are many others out there too. Most of them spreading an endless supply of misinformation that swarms the Internet like a plague of locusts. What is perhaps even more troubling is that even the positive and accurate information circulating out there in the hivemind paints a rather grim picture.

For instance, another link I saw posted from the website Daily Kos offers an illuminating explanation for the way “conservatives” in particular are so frequently ensnared in the web of what used to be called fake news before that term was stolen. Basically, right-wing manipulators are playing a game of telephone. And whatever the participants hear, they believe. Unshakably. And permanently.

As yet another link explains, any attempt to introduce verifiable facts to a devotee of alternative facts results in what is called the backfire effect:

As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But, beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information “backfires.” When people don’t agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less. In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it’s actually going to make things worse.

Wow. If this is true, and given everything else that we’ve seen on Facebook et al, what conclusion can we draw except that we’re all doomed?

Well, someone else online posted at least a glimmer of hope. And it comes from comments made 300 years ago by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, whom we’ve encountered before:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true….People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

In short, if there is any hope at all of encouraging the delusional to actually realize that they are delusional, it lies not in challenging their delusions, but in humoring them as far as possible. That may sound like a slender thread of hope. But it may be the only thread we have. At least if the culture of social media presents an accurate reflection of society at large.

The “War On Christmas” in 4 Minutes

I regret that I didn’t discover it until Christmas Day, but Jesse Dollemore has a nifty little video that addresses the silly “War On Christmas” narrative that surfaces every year around November.

Dollemore shows a clip of Donald Trump proclaiming to an adoring throng that “we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” (Does that mean he’s going to issue an imperial proclamation that everyone must say it?) And clips of the talking heads at Fox “News” reacting in a manner that (honest to Pete) brings to mind teenage girls screaming over The Beatles.

They declare that their War On Christmas has been won now that Trump is elected, and because of him people are starting to say “Merry Christmas” again (as if they’d been prohibited from doing so up until now), and even ask “When was the last time you heard a politician say” the taboo magic phrase.

Then, after presenting a few actual facts on the matter, Dollemore serves up a clip of President Obama wishing Americans a Merry Christmas 16 times — and Michelle Obama twice.

When was the last time you heard a politician say “Merry Christmas”? Depends on how much you’ve been paying attention.

 

What I Learned From the Media About Clinton and Trump (and the Media)

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So it’s a choice between “two evils”, two candidates who are pretty much equally flawed . That’s been the official media narrative about the 2016 election for many moons now, supposedly supported by a constant stream of soundbites. But actually listen to the soundbites, and this is what they really say:

Clinton is an “old 68 or 69”. Trump is a “young 70”.

Clinton (who has been married to the same man more than 40 years) has a rotten marriage and is surely impossible to live with. Trump (currently on his third marriage) has a “blended family”.

Clinton (whose statements have been found of questionable accuracy 27 percent of the time, and more accurate than those of any of her opponents) is a chronic pathological liar. Trump (whose statements are at least questionable 69 percent of the time, and are often verifiable, outrageous whoppers) is “very creative with the truth” while “telling it like it is”.

Clinton (on the basis of breathless speculation) is a “crook”, an unscrupulous “lawbreaker” who should be locked up. Trump (who has a long history of verifiable corruption) is a “rule breaker”.

The Clinton Foundation (despite no evidence of wrongdoing) still continually “raises questions”. The Trump Foundation (which has been fined by the IRS and may be investigated for fraud) hardly raises an eyebrow.

By running attack ads that quote her opponent’s own words, Clinton is being nasty, divisive and vicious. By rehashing long-discredited rumors and allegations about his opponent, Trump is being bold, direct and plain-speaking.

Clinton (whose unflappable poise and whose grace under extreme fire are legendary) is “grating”, “shrill”, a “witch”, a “bitch”, a “cunt” – at least when she isn’t busy being “robotic”, which probably isn’t when she’s laughing or smiling or smirking too much. Trump (who interrupted her as many as 51 times during the first debate and has threatened and condoned violence against dissenters) is a “strong leader” who “takes control”.

Clinton (who has cooperated with years of very thorough, blatantly partisan investigations) is “hiding something”. Trump (who refuses to release his tax returns) is a straight shooter and a “genius”.

Clinton (who  has decades of distinguished experience in government in various capacities) carries “baggage”. Trump ( who has zero government experience, zero training in law, and little or no knowledge of the Constitution, but does have a long history of shady business practices) is a fresh face, a maverick, a Mr. Smith.

Clinton (who worked her way up from humble beginnings and has always concerned herself with the less fortunate) is an “elitist”. Trump (who was born rich and has devoted his life to becoming richer) is a “blue collar billionaire”. No, seriously.

Clinton (who has defended the Constitution for decades) is anti-American, a traitor. Trump (who has campaigned on pledges to violate the Constitution and international treaties, and has repeatedly insulted veterans and POWs) is a super-patriot.

The most important things about Clinton are emails, Benghazi, emails, The Clinton Foundation, emails, her laugh, emails, her hairstyle, emails, her dress, emails, her marital troubles, and emails. The most important thing about Trump is his “message” – whatever it may be.

So what conclusion do all of these bread crumbs lead to? Don’t be silly. They prove that the American mainstream media have an overwhelming liberal bias and they’ve gunning for Trump while pimping for Clinton. After all, the liberal media themselves have told us so, many times. So has Trump. And most Americans believe it. So that settles it.

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