Journalism Loves Absentee Landlords: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist today (busy week!), titled “What Journalists Want From Media Billionaires: Lots Of Money, No Influence.” It would be easy — and semi-accurate — to describe it as a goof or a troll, and some took it that way:

It would be a bit more accurate, however, to classify it as “kidding on the square.” Perhaps it is a function of age, but along lines noted earlier this week, we do seem to be going through a period vaguely like the late 60s or early 70s, in which the young feel entitled to tell the old how to run things without adult supervision. Not surprising really, as both periods feature failing institutions and a resulting widespread distrust of said institutions. That said, one could debate the pluses and minuses of that dynamic for institutions at length.

For those who may find the piece a bit too trollish, I would quote the fictional Pres. Andrew Shepherd:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free” ‘.”

As recently as 1995 this was stirring rhetoric for liberals, classic and modern. Shepherd was Hollywood’s fantasy version of Bill Clinton (and a widower, which maybe contained a message for Democrats in 2016, but I digress).

Does anyone think that today’s Big Media institutions buy into this ethos? Do you think that they believe people not only have the right to kneel during the national anthem, but to criticize at the top of their lungs those who do? Or cheerfully engage those who think such protests are merely bad tactics? Does anyone think a profession where only 7% will admit to being Republican celebrates those who stand center stage advocating that which the vast majority of journalists do not believe will “make the world a better place”? As a general matter, I do not (there are always exceptions and I applaud them).

But most of all, it’s grating that this sort of hubris dares taking offense when their hypocrisy is noted. If Rupert Murdock walked into the Wall Street Journal bullpen today and announced he wanted them all to focus on putting evil banksters out of business, one suspects the staff would cheer, not revolt.

What got left out? I forgot to include WSJ staffers leaking the full interview Gerard Baker conducted of Pres. Trump. And this was pure oversight, as I’m sorta sympathetic to why it was done, despite the obvious insubordination. But that’s the point: the fact that I may be sympathetic does not mean that the move was ultimately not a politically-motivated tantrum that in the longer run keeps the professions reputation in a ditch.

And for reasons of flow, I would up skipping A.J. Liebling’s classic quote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” That’s a hard fact for today’s journalist class, but no less real today.

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It All Comes Down to Turnout: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Huge Spikes In Democrat Voter Turnout Across The Country Should Alarm The GOP,” which surprised me a little because the site does not do much of what is basically data journalism.

These two grafs should give you the overall flavor:

“The 2018 primary turnout numbers should alarm the GOP when compared with recent midterm “wave” elections. Before the 2006 blue wave, Democrats received 54 percent of 24.4 million primary votes. Before the 2010 red wave, Republicans won 56 percent of 28.5 million primary votes. In 2014, the GOP got 55 percent of a lower 23.9 million primary votes.

In 2018, even before the New York primary, Democrats won approximately 53 percent percent of an astounding 35.7 million primary votes. The Democrats have swung to a near 2006-level primary edge amid a 47 percent increase in overall turnout.”

What got left out? Mostly things that went — or would have gone — up front. In the late 20th century, primary turnout wasn’t all that predictive of general election turnout, opening room to hypothesize why it seems to have become more predictive, e.g., polarization and sorting of the voter pool. And more on the sorts of things that may now be embedded in the notion of “competitive” races, i.e., what drives retirements, politicians leaving seats for administration jobs, sheer partisan passion, etc. It just made sense to get to the grafs just quoted quickly to try to hold the reader’s attention.

On the back side, I could have discussed more states, even though most of the undiscussed results were less interesting. The main difficulty in writing this sort of piece, however helpful or necessary, is that they can wind up reading like the weather report, but without animated graphics. This was another reason to get to the scare grafs ASAP.

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Bert and Ernie, Still Not Gay: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Trying To Make Bert And Ernie Gay Makes LGBT Activists Look Insecure,” which is not the headline I would have written (though in fairness I submitted it with a headline someone else suggested). One might make the argument asserted in the headline, but the argument I make at the conclusion of the column is somewhat different. Even after accounting for the desire for clickworthy headlines, I tend to view this as a probable failure on my part to have made my point sufficiently sharp.

What I sought to suggest is that the desire on the part of the LGBTQ to claim Bert & Ernie as gay — an assertion rejected for decades by Sesame Street’s producers — is a reflection of a very specific moment in our culture. Historically less-represented groups are becoming more represented in the popular culture, but the internet age makes older, established intellectual property from the prior monoculture more valuable, incentivizing claims by rising groups on these older properties.  It’s perhaps not an idea that lends itself to an easy headline, especially when it is built on the observation that joking about Bert & Ernie being gay often used to come from latent or patent majority prejudices, making the cultural transition that much more striking.

What got left out? In sketching the evolution of the humor of imputing homosexuality, I skipped the Seinfeld episode that birthed the catchphrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” which I think brilliantly captured both the cultural transition under way at the time, as well as the lingering discomfort with it. Also, while the piece reflects my continuing interest in how the internet fracturing the popular culture has affected our culture and sub-cultures, I had to skip another of my favorite themes. The phenomenon described here also seems to me to be a reflection of the way consumers (esp. younger consumers) view producers as obligated to serve them in very specific ways, e.g., the tendency of college students to believe their schools must serve their psychological needs.  If you read George Gilder, supply-side economics has always been grounded in the idea of capitalism incorporating a measure of altruism in the sense of succeeding when consumer’s needs or desires are met.  But I don’t think he foresaw this particular mutation (reminder: I should effort reading some more recent Gilder).

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The Fall of Rahm Emanuel: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at the The Federalist, “Rahm Emanuel’s Decline Mirrors The Democratic Party’s Identity Crisis.” You may not like him; I certainly don’t. In fact, when he first ran for Mayor of Chicago, I may have given a petition collector the line about not crossing the street to put him out were he on fire.  But that doesn’t mean his successor will be any better, because his fall is about (among other things) the Democrats’ march toward identity politics and “democratic socialism.”

What got left out?  Plenty, because the Byzantine, one-party politics of the Windy City creates endless, weird stories that tend to prevent people from seeing how Emanuel was at least partly a victim of overarching national trends.  For example, outside the city, it may be hard to fully comprehend how isolated Emanuel was even before the Chicago policing mess really exploded with the Laquan McDonald case.  His public schedule was frequently empty, in favor of private meetings with what passes for the donor class here.  The degree to which Emanuel seemed to eschew building grass-roots support is strange even after accounting for the fact that getting people to like him was outside his core skill set.  After all, when he ran for the House, the local news would always run stories of Rahm pressing the flesh on some train platform during the rush hour, even if the coverage had a sort of “man bites dog” feel to it.

More seriously, I could have included much more about Chicago’s scandalous history of police brutality.  The hundreds of millions paid out in settlement in the latter Daley and Emanuel eras reflected the rule more than any exception.  The Wikipedia entry for Chicago police Commander Jon Burge gives only a flavor of the depths of the problem, but perhaps enough to understand how difficult it would have been for Emanuel — or any Mayor — to clean up this stain in the course of a few years.

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Taking the Democrats’ Kavanaugh Clown Show (Slightly) Seriously: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Democrats Have Very Good Reasons To Go Crazy Over Kavanaugh,” arguing that the right should have a moment of sympathy for a left that has only clown show theatrics to deploy when it really matters. At the risk of giving it all away: “At a time in which our politics and our media run through several cycles of outrages, faux rages, and hoaxes daily, the left has at least chosen to dramatize something important.”

What got left out for space? Hardly anything. Sometimes a column virtually writes itself. I ticked off the main points I wanted to make in an email, and when it was suggested I turn it into a piece, it was mostly filling out sentences into paragraphs. To avoid interrupting the flow, I left out a graf about what the Dems might actually want to accomplish with their confirmation hi-jinks. Although I think I have the long-term motive covered, I skip the short-term motive, which likely is the perceived necessity of keeping the party’s base energized for the midterms. Whether that is a good idea on balance may depend on whether the midterms are in fact a base turnout exercise, or whether swing voters still matter. Also, Allahpundit may have been on to something in July when he theorized that “liberals need to use the next few months to show Trump that no hardcore pro-lifer can be confirmed lest it ignite a ferocious backlash.”

The column also discusses the nature of Pres. Trump’s support. Given that regular churchgoers tended to favor Cruz over Trump in the 2016 primaries, there is probably a lot more to be written about religious conservatives’ support for Trump, and particularly the siege mentality many have maintained even after he won. But this column was not the moment for it.

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The Vatican Runs The Clinton Playbook: Liner Notes

As of mid-morning, I have a new column posted at The Federalist, “The Vatican Is Using Bill Clinton’s Playbook To Defend Pope Francis,” which is pretty on-target as headlines go, though the defense is more broad than the current Pope.

What got left out for space? Perhaps a bit of leavening context about the fact that in prior church scandals, the conservatives were more likely to circle the wagons, underscoring the debate here is sadly more factional than would be ideal. Indeed, there’s even a bit of that in the Catholic League’s response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, to the extent William Donahue still matters.

Also left out is the degree to which a “political” lens here is both narrower and broader than the story.  David French wrote about why Catholic scandals affect Protestants, but I’d suggest that it goes further, speaking to the large-and-small-P political problems that will arise if religious institutions begin to be viewed as corrupt (along the lines of my prior thoughts about social conservatives and the decline of institutional power).

I also might have mentioned that an institution based in Italy might be failing to fully grasp how this story is playing in America, if the response there to Weinsteingate is any indicator. Indeed, the reaction to Asia Argento’s allegations might have turned into an aside about the allegations now lodged against her don’t invalidate her original claims as part of noting the ecclesiastical whataboutism of the Church’s defenders. But word limits are what they are.

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Overplaying the Socialism Card: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, asking: “Is Careless Talk About Socialism How We Get President Elizabeth Warren?” And unlike most headlines, the answer isn’t entirely “No,” though it’s certainly not the only way it would happen.  Essentially, the column argues that reflexively calling things “socialist” may have effect on the left similar to what decades of the left’s reflexive accusations of bigotry has had on the right leading to the current political moment. In addition to fueling polarization, the tactic also may backfire in the sense that it plays into a lot of modern ignorance of what socialism is.

What got left out for space? Some details, like Paul Krugman arguing that Obamacare could evolve into single-payer, which is relevant to whether the right was accurate in thinking the bill was socialistic.  The lefties thinking the right exaggerated tend to forget that at the time, there was a big push to include a “public option” intended ultimately to displace the private insurance market.  Or that center-left people like Michael Kinsley also saw the proposal as a government takeover.

Indeed, as Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman wrote recently, lefties now casually throw around ideas found in Engels, the Communist Manifesto, and the Soviet Constitution.  He got a fair amount of pushback for it on social media from lefties who obviously didn’t bother to read his column.  Which reminds me: if you want a discussion of the meaning of socialism, it was the primary topic of a recent Commentary podcast.

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The Democrats’ March Toward Jeremy Corbyn: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Democrats Are Fielding Even More Anti-Semitic Candidates For Congress,” which is probably a bit stronger than I might have put it, but headlines gota headline. It surveys a slate of four new congressional nominees, most of whom have ties to the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, and one of whom has co-written a book which makes Israel seem like SPECTRE.

What did I leave out? I could have turned the conclusion into a meditation on partisanship, because bigotry is also a problem within the GOP these days. And the media’s tendency to treat the latter as an overall narrative while ignoring it among the Dems one of its worst biases, inasmuch as bigotry ought not to be a partisan issue. And that consequently, the partisan focus on the issue by both sides ends up being a mitigating factor that at least gets the issue out in front of the public.

But I’ve written things that brush up against that thesis, at least one of which is linked in the column.  As a writer, I am always thinking about the balance between focusing on themes that I think are important to discuss while trying not to be writing the same three or four columns over and over. Some get away with that, but it seems a rather tedious method of operation.

Also, it would have been nice to have space to do even more of an explainer of BDS, in particular the the fact that anti-Semitic incidents tend to increase on campuses where it takes hold (though again, I’ve brushed up against that in past columns). People like Tlaib are careful enough to frame support for BDS as a free speech issue (as I address in the column). And we always want to be careful to avoid illegal or even undue censorship. But when a movement tries to retreat behind the idea that they are merely criticizing Israel’s policies or government, it is worth noting that this is often not true and theory and that the line frequently gets blurred in reality.

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Jordan Peterson’s Appeal is a Political Paradox: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, re-named “Why The Intellectual Dark Web Should Stick With Culture And Not Shift To Politics,” which is an apt headline, though perhaps Peterson’s name would generate more clicks.  The paradox of Peterson and his fellow travelers in the “Intellectual Dark Web” is that they are reaching people with their conversations and ideas — an essentially political endeavor — while de-emphasizing “politics” (other than to oppose identity politics that turn everything into “politics”).

What got left out?  A bit about how conservative institutions “failed” by never serving this sort of function after classical liberalism was routed from cultural institutions, which regular readers have seen before.  A bit on role technology plays in the phenomenon — how something like the IDW would have been difficult to pull of before the development of streaming technologies.  Perhaps people as different as Paul Harvey and Tom Wolfe could be considered oblique forerunners of this phenomenon, but there’s no direct lineage there, obviously.  And perhaps a bit about how the devolution of journalism into infotainment — particularly the Punch & Judy form of staged conflict on cable news and talk radio — created a space for podcasters both within and well outside the IDW to provide a deeper alternative.  Maybe even a bit about how podcasting might be in a very small way be reviving interest in middlebrow culture in a way not seen since the 60s.

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What Weigel Tells Us About Journalism and Politics: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “How Dave Weigel Made A Career Of Highlighting The Right’s Kooks And Mainstreaming The Left’s,” which is a bit of an overstatement, but headlines gotta headline.  Moreover, as is usually the case, the column is about something a bit larger than the headline might suggest.

Regular readers here know I believe that, in a very general sense, a mass audience is drawn to stories about people before stories about events before stories about ideas.  So my point in writing about Weigel’s career is not really to critique Weigel per se, but to explain larger ideas about American political journalism and politics (as with columns I have written about Joy Reid, Jeffrey Toobin, etc.).

Weigel’s career, at least until recently has been to caricature the non-left by exaggerating the worst elements that attach themselves to conservatism, libertarianism, the GOP, etc.  As such, it was a career that operated as a caricature of American political journalism, the establishment of which otherizes and marginalizes the non-left, and is unduly credulous in conflating the non-left with its fringe elements.

As noted in the column, Weigel and his fellow travelers may view the ascendancy of Pres. Trump as vindication.  But that attitude is another reflection of the left’s problem with their role in the dysfunction of American politics.

I believe in personal responsibility, so the non-left should take the lion’s share of it when they associate themselves with racists, conspiracy theorists, etc.  But as I’ve also noted previously, the left’s exclusionary behaviors and broad smears unfortunately tend to desensitize the non-left to such criticism, while providing media oxygen to inflammatory elements of the non-left (and of the left, by the converse process of normalization).  It’s not pretty, but I take the political world as I find it.  It is an unfortunately widespread phenomenon in American political journalism.  Weigel just tends to personify it more than most, which is how he wound up as column’s focus.

What got left out?  I could have written more about the role of the conundrum in our current free speech debate in this context.  I judge Weigel by his own apparent view that giving people or stories exposure fuels them, regardless of the tone of coverage.  That view is not entirely consistent with the conventional wisdom that the solution to bad speech is more speech.  But it is consistent with progressives’ growing realization that their movement is not consistent with traditional American views on freedom of speech.  And it’s consistent with social studies suggesting that confirmation bias is so powerful that exposing people to contrary evidence can cause people to dig in on their priors.  There was no chance that I was going to resolve that debate in the column any more than I was going to do so here, but at least it’s something you can chew on further in your spare moments.

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