Us and Them and Decline Porn

In “Decline Porn,” Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman argues that “[i]n the nation’s elite political media, an initially well-meaning effort to understand the voters who handed the president the keys to the White House has morphed into something closely resembling exploitation.”

I hadn’t planned on writing about this, as I tend to think there is a large measure of truth in it.  But I found myself asking why I agreed with it.

At the outset, I probably agreed because I had written previously about why such coverage was likely doomed to fail.  The New York Times already had tried what Jonah Goldberg called “gorillas in the mist” coverage of conservatives in 2003-04, only to find themselves blindsided by 2016 (though stereotypical Trump voters are less conservative than many Republicans).  Iowahawk’s hilarious “Heart of Redness” skewers similar coverage from the Washington Post after Pres. Bush’s re-election.

Ironically, it’s the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri who provides the comedic version of Rothman’s argument in 2017, jabbing both the journalists sojourning into the Trumpian hinterlands and the people interviewed by them (whether she meant to jab her colleagues is debatable, but the effect is the same).

It’s not entirely fair, however, to portray the media as having become fascinated with the decline of rural American towns only after the election.  There were similar anthropological pieces before the election, because the media knew the path to any Trump victory would run through the Rust Belt.  This was discussed frequently.

Moreover, related stories, like the opioid epidemic that seems concentrated in Trump-friendly regions, received extensive coverage during the 2016 cycle.  This coverage was mostly sparked by Gov. Chris Christie’s moving speech on the issue — one that inspired candidates as far apart as Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton to weigh in.

That the media did not start this coverage recently, however, does not mean that it is not on some level exploitative.  Rothman posits that such coverage isn’t particularly useful absent statistical or empirical context, absent debate over how to fix the problems of such people.  Again, my impulse is to largely agree.

OTOH, when I read coverage of the problems of Chicago’s West and South sides so lavishly produced by elite outlets like the New York Times, I find I could offer a similar critique.  The media’s coverage of police shootings tends to be similarly lacking in context or solutions.  The media’s reliance on this arguably exploitative genre is more equal opportunity than it might seem at first blush.

The reason people — and conservatives in particular — may not immediately pick up on this may be that we subconsciously expect the left-leaning establishment media to be more exploitative of the problems of the non-white underclass, given their usual orientation toward Democrat-centric identity politics.

Conversely, there would be a tendency to reflexively impute suspect motives when left-leaning outlets turn to address the problems of the white underclass, particularly given how late they have been to this party (and often hostile to authors like Charles Murray who were earlier to the party).

So while I tend to agree with Rothman, I find myself doing so from the perspective that perhaps he’s drawing back the curtain a bit on some larger issues.

The unstated premise of this mode of coverage (regardless of sympathetic or exploitative intent) is that the mission of the so-called elite media inherently focuses on “national” political coverage.

An essentially progressive media will tend to assume that it has the expertise and skill necessary to provide the breadth of coverage necessary for a nation as vast as the United States.  Yet for all of the progressive fetishization of diversity, so-called elite journalists have a distinct knowledge problem here.  They generally aren’t well-equipped to understand Englewood or Fishtown.

As a result, these scribes generally can do little beyond bear witness, however imperfectly.  This is endemic to most journalism, tbqh.  We just notice it more when the subjects are sensitive and controversial.  And we tend to notice it through whatever personal and political lenses we bring to the viewing.

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Don’t Know Much Tax Policy

Sub-head: The Mortification of Sam Cooke.

As Tax Day approached, the Washington Post and NPR were among those publishing pieces on Americans’ ignorance of tax policy.  The headline of the WaPo piece conveyed the general attitude: “People don’t like paying taxes. That’s because they don’t understand them.”

In fairness, the author of the WaPo piece doesn’t actually make that claim.  And it would be a line of argument more absurd than claiming that the reason people don’t like visiting the dentist is because they don’t understand the purpose of doing so.

NPR went so far as to commission an Ispos poll to quantify our ignorance.  But the poll may say as much or more about the likes of NPR or the WaPo as it does Americans’ knowledge of tax policy.

Indeed, as one reviews the poll results and NPR’s analysis, you might wonder: “If only there were people whose job it was to inform the public about public policy…”

NPR starts by noting that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was basically correct in observing that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income tax, but people seem to have forgotten it.  Perhaps that’s because the establishment media is only interested in this sort of statistic when it can be used as a cudgel against a Republican.  Left-leaning journalists don’t highlight the number of people who don’t pay individual income taxes.  Stop the CMSes.

According to the poll, a majority of Americans also think low-income people pay too much in income tax, despite most of that 45-47 percent being low-to-middle income.  Again, you could see why a left-leaning media is largely uninterested in correcting that misconception.  But NPR helpfully conjectures that maybe people would support even more tax transfers to the poor, “regardless of how the current tax code looks.”  So why do we care whether Americans know these details again?

NPR then had Ispos a true or false question: “For the highest earners, the percent of federal income taxes they pay now is significantly higher than it was in 1980.”  NPR seems to have deduced after the fact that this was a bad question.  If “percent” is taken as the “rate,” the correct answer is “false”; if “percent” is taken as “share,” the answer is “true.”  That doesn’t stop NPR from choosing the former as the “correct” way of reading the question in its accompanying graphic, which tells you how NPR saw it before they got the answers.

However, if the point is to demonstrate an ignorance of tax policy, the real question is why NPR cares about the marginal tax rate for the highest earners.  Individual income tax revenue as a share of GDP was an identical 8.7 percent in 1980 and 2015 (the last year for which we have final figures), despite the top marginal rate being 70 percent in 1980 and 39.6 percent in 2015.  And the share was lower in the 1950s, when the top marginal rate was 90 percent.

The top marginal rate does not come close to telling the story, given the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code.  And the remarkable stability of individual income taxes as a share of GDP over the decades since WWII might have a story about economics and politics to tell NPR, however much the staff may not want to hear it.

Instead, NPR would like to spin its cherry-picked statistic as a tale of income inequality instead of a tax code that has become far more progressive — one of the most progressive tax systems in the world.  That’s far more comforting than facing the possibility that there is a practical limit on how much one can tax “the rich” to fund an ever larger and more intrusive government.

NPR also reaffirmed that Americans overwhelmingly agree that “The tax rate on income from work should be lower than the tax rate on income from wealth.”  NPR added: “This is another result that might make the richest Americans squirm,” because apparently making “the rich” squirm is the true aim of American tax policy.

If NPR was truly interested in our collective ignorance about tax policy, they might have asked how many Americans understand that capital gains taxes are: not indexed for inflation; a double tax on income; and encourage present consumption over future consumption.  Or that U.S. cap gains tax rates are above the average for other developed nations.

NPR’s poll then finds 49 percent of Americans think 75 percent of the federal government’s revenue comes from personal income taxes (when it’s really about 47 percent).  NPR then notes: “Of all the taxes Americans pay, income tax probably requires the most thought. After all, payroll tax comes automatically out of each paycheck. Sales tax is imposed at the cash register. And so on.”

If NPR wants to complain about Americans’ ignorance about taxes, it might have considered whether government prefers less transparent, more automatic taxes — withholding payroll taxes being the classic example — precisely because politicians want Americans to be ignorant of how deeply they’re reaching into our pockets.

Lastly, NPR is miffed that the GOP’s efforts to rebrand the estate tax as a “death tax” is effective in making it less popular, especially among Democrats.

Of course, the progressive bias of the media is not the only reason outlets like NPR don’t really want to cover tax policy in depth.  I’ve previously invoked the old adage that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  It’s much easier to draw an audience obsessively covering the circus atmosphere of the Trump administration, or a doctor dragged off an airplane, or the doctor’s lawyer’s press conference than tax policy.

Moreover, I suspect the establishment media privately thinks as I do:  that public opinion on taxes is basically governed by the notion of “I would prefer that someone else pay more taxes, while I pay fewer.”  This extends to the olds burdening the youngs with a future higher tax burden to support their entitlement programs.  The establishment media really doesn’t want that to be the big story.

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“Fake News” Checking and Fake “News Checking”

You may have read that Google plans to include “Fact Checks” of its news search results, much as Facebook has taken to doing with its news feeds.  And like Facebook, Google is farming out the job to so-called “fact-checkers” including Politifact, Snopes and the Washington Post.

The left-leaning biases of these organizations is well documented, but let’s briefly review them.  Politifact is essentially forced run lengthier explanations to justify the site’s disparate treatment of Left and Right, and treated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton quite differently, despite consistent polling showing most voters found them both dishonest and untrustworthy.

Most recently, Politifact retracted a 2014 article that found Obama Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s claim that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria to be “Mostly True.”  Politifact handed out that rating despite the fact that there were discrepancies in the accounting and some stockpile sites lacked even an agreement for inspection.   It turns out that the assurances of Democrat politicians and global bureaucrats are assertions, not facts.

Snopes hires as fact-checkers alumni from various left-wing news sites like Raw Story.  And they are not very transparent when asked about their practices.  So it’s not surprising that the Snopes coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal contained only a few fact checks, almost all of which reviewed claims other people made about it, rather than Clinton’s numerous and obvious false statements about it.  Even The Guardian managed to fact-check Hillary.

As for the Washington Post, consider that the WaPo discontinued fact-checking during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats also held large majorities in Congress.  Fact-checking resumed at roughly the same time a GOP Congress regained control in 2011.  The Washington Post sees itself as speaking truth to power…unless it’s untrammeled Democrat power.

Indeed, the Washington Post recently exercised no editorial control when Dana Milbank published a column based on claims about judicial filibusters less accurate than claims which previously had been awarded two and three Pinocchios by the WaPo fact-checker.  This approach is fact-checking for thee, not me.

None of this is surprising because so-called “fact-checking” is not so much about establishing facts but imposing a particular Truth.  And it is not about being restrained by their own Truth as it is about imposing it upon the Other.

While I do not agree with BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith on everything, he is certainly correct to note (as Charlie Sykes has) that left-leaning Big Media is desperate to try to retain the “gatekeeping” power they enjoyed in the pre-internet age.  They, with the help of complaining left-wingers, have managed to cajole some of the biggest players in the internet media cartel into helping them.

I suspect that trying to impose authority rather than earning it will merely perpetuate the cycle of distrust that has already brought the media to new lows.

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The Insanely Low Stakes of Trump’s Steaks

Pres. Trump apparently likes his steaks extremely well done.  The punditry about this has been extreme, but not well done.  The commentary more resembles the fattiest tartare you’ve ever tasted.

First, there were the the mopes like Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter, the Washington Post‘s food critic, and the occasional random food blogger recoiling in horror from Trump’s vulgar taste, exacerbated by his use of ketchup.  It was of course suggested that Trump’s gauche dining habits were in some way a metaphor for his parochial and close-minded politics.

Then there were the conservatives.  Some of the movers and shakers in conservative media, the thinkers, even one of its most elegant writers appeared on some of the right’s most respected and influential platforms to defend Trump’s dietary habits, or at least to note that others would see it as an asset.

And many smart conservatives shared those columns on social media, nodding their heads at the notion that lefties’ hysteria about Trump was largely a matter of aesthetics.

Yet righties found it scandalous that then-candidate Barack Obama passed up a the campaign ritual of a Philly Cheesesteak in 2007.  And notable that he was the sort who ate arugula…and kale.  It was a metaphor, you see, for his effete liberal sensibilities and politics.

Does the Trump/Obama comparison simply reflect the long-simmering populism of the GOP?  In a word, no.

Righties also had great fun with Bill Clinton’s appetites for fast food and… women with big hair.  They were a metaphor, you see, for the decadence and generally low class of the Democrats, not to mention the seeming grubbiness of the Clintons’ scandal-laden politics.  So inferior to the patrician Pres. George H. W. Bush.

Of course, the Democrats also have done this before Trump.  Ronald Reagan supposedly liked jellybeans — a childish indulgence that reflected a simpleton who once co-starred in a movie with a chimp.  Etc., etc.

This is what happens to people who never get out of the marinade of partisanship.  It’s what drives otherwise normal people to take insane conspiracy theories seriously.  It’s the sort of thing people will look back upon with mild embarrassment, should they ever bother to reflect.

The temptation will be to justify spending time on Trump’s steak by framing it as an example of anti-Trump hysteria.  But if you pass a man on a street corner wearing a sandwich board and ranting about the Freemasons, do you stop to loudly counter him to other passers-by?  No, you don’t.  And you know why you don’t.

The other temptation will be to denigrate the Left by supposing lefties’ objections to Trump are significantly aesthetic.  To be sure, many liberals preferred Trump to Cruz and Rubio during the primaries.

But he’s Pres. Trump now.  His picks for his Cabinet were significantly Republican and often conservative.  His Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, compares favorably to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump and a GOP Congress are rolling back some regulations.  And while the House GOP’s AHCA strikes me as a lame effort to marginally roll back Obamacare, Democrats will see it as the wrong sort of wealth distribution.

Moreover, Dems clearly have opposition on the merits to some of the more uniquely Trumpian policies, such as the “extreme vetting” of refugees and the expansion of immigration enforcement (even though it falls short of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric).

It’s pretty obvious that the Left’s opposition to Trump is not significantly driven by his tastes (or lack thereof).  Those tastes are just another target of opportunity for them.  But the people responding seriously to these trivial pursuits are not doing themselves or their audiences any favors.

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Had This Been President Clinton… (Likely a Continuing Series)

The WaPo’s Josh Rogin reported that during the tumultuous rollout of Pres. Trump’s EO on immigration for the Middle East, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly planned to issue a waiver for lawful permanent residents, and refused a counter-instruction from White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Rogin, however, failed to seek comment from the White House.  According to an appended “Editor’s Note,” WH spox Sean Spicer stated that “Stephen Bannon did not travel to see Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on the evening of Jan. 28.”

Plenty of folks on the right then swarmed onto social media to claim that the story was false, just like Rogin’s earlier piece overhyping resignations at the State Dept. — a story that even Vox’s Zach Beauchamp called “very misleading.” Ouch.

However, the problem with comparing the two stories should be obvious to anyone who remembers the Clinton Administration.  Spicer’s response is precisely the sort of lawyerly quasi-denial the Clinton White House would issue whenever controversy arose.

Indeed, had a Clinton White House issued a response like Spicer’s, folks on the right would be noting that he did not deny the key facts in the story: (a) Kelly planned to issue the waiver; (b) Bannon instructed him to not issue the waiver; (c) Kelly rebuffed Bannon and issued the waiver; and (d) Bannon and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller lost the ensuing debate about excluding key Cabinet officials from the EO process.

Had this been the Clinton White House, righties would have noted that an Administration waging #WAR on the media certainly would have denied those reported facts if they thought they could get away with it.

Had this been the Clinton White House, righties also would have observed that the denial extended only to the question of whether Bannon traveled to see Kelly, as opposed to telephoning, for example.  And they would have joked — in their best voice impressions of Bubba himself — that “it depends on what the meaning of ‘evening‘ is.”

As HotAir’s Allahpundit observed: “American politics increasingly feels like a novel whose events are retold by two unreliable narrators, Trump being one and the media being the other. ”  Those who focus on the media’s manifest failures (and they are myriad) while accepting Clintonian verbiage from the Trump White House may be setting themselves up for a fall later.

Update: On Feb. 7, Politico reported that Kelly called the WaPo piece “a fantasy story”; The L.A. Times quotes him as claiming “Every paragraph, every sentence … was wrong.”  He also told Rep Kathleen Rice, “I work for one man.  His name is Donald Trump, obviously.”  A skeptic might take that as a dig at Bannon.  And in context, Kelly is clearly playing a good soldier falling on his sword.  He’s a man taking the blame for something in which he played no part.

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