Last night, I read an article on vox.com about the dual narratives of the “right wing” vs. “liberal” medias, respectively, and it got me thinking about the news problem this country has. And not just a news problem, but an “us vs. them” perspective on telling stories about what’s going on. I intentionally chose the word “stories” because no matter which news source you’re looking at, chances are you’re getting a narrative that’s been focused through a particular lens. Certainly some sources do a better job than others of cutting out the editorializing BS and painting a more balanced picture, but none is perfect.
I say this as someone who considers herself liberal on the political spectrum, but who abhors the institutions of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. (Just going to get that out of the way first thing – I’m pretty left. I actually hate that the state in which I live has closed primaries because I greatly dislike having to be registered as a member of a particular party in order to participate in all levels of democracy, but that’s another – but somewhat related – issue entirely.) I also say this as someone who has been trained as a lawyer and recognizes the intense power of narrative in convincing an audience (judge or jury) and who similarly recognizes the need to be deeply skeptical of taking almost anything at face value. I think we should probe any news story we read, and check and double-check its claims to the best of our ability. That’s time consuming, exhausting, and a pain in the rear, yes. But it is necessary.
After I posted the above-linked article on my Facebook page, I received a comment that resonated with me:
“A very graphic demonstration of how consensus, not words, creates meaning. Mainstream media and the putatively “liberal” Democratic party have been sailing along for a long time as though all their statements were true and all their elisions of fact were appropriate. Anybody not a member of those groups could see the bias toward self-justification in all they did. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Different information is deemed significant and different facts are elided. Maybe more important, the judgments about context are contradictory. On the one hand, Clinton’s email lapses with classified info are forgivable; on the other, Trump’s mentioning classified info to Russians is. If you believe Clinton is a “good guy,” you believe the former; if you believe Trump is a “good guy,” you believe the latter. The only way OUT is for each side to respond, directly and thoroughly, to the other side’s reports, to what is done, not to what is said. I have yet to see that happen.”
“The judgments about context are contradictory.” There’s so much hypocrisy in this country that we are drowning, but we only see it in the people with whom we disagree. And the voices of reason in the middle keep getting drowned out because their stance isn’t “sexy” enough, isn’t necessarily aggressive enough, and doesn’t spark the wild “us vs. them” fervor that is apparently as critical to us these days as staying hydrated. That middle stance is also uncomfortable because it is a stance that tends to make most people feel defensive about their views, and nobody especially enjoys that.
It is possible to be critical from a single rooted point and to avoid logical leaps and somersaults to justify contradictions. For example:
Objectively, I think Hillary Clinton was guilty of a very big lapse of judgment with respect to her emails, private server, etc. I don’t think there’s an excuse for someone of her intelligence, at her level, to do what she did. I hold her to a very high standard (no, not because she is a woman, but because she held a prominent, powerful position, with a lot of responsibility. Seriously, ask me about the standards to which I hold the men in Congress. Most are failing miserably). Regardless of whether anything important got out, the decision to flout protocol was a poor one. (And I don’t care if every other politician ever has done it. It doesn’t make it less bad – it just means more people have done a bad thing.)
Objectively, I think Donald Trump is guilty of releasing all kinds of classified information to the Russians (and maybe even guilty of treason, although no one really knows what to do with the treason law in this country because it’s been pulled out and dusted off so infrequently), and I think he’s an egotistical buffoon of enormous proportions. I think he’s doing illegal things every chance he gets. He’s a compulsive liar.
I don’t think I am the only person out there (in fact, I know I am not) who holds both of these views simultaneously. But the media is not publishing stories like this that contain, as their center, an objective guidepost. E.g., breaking protocol, leaking information, is bad. Both Clinton and Trump have done this. Ergo, both have done bad things. (I shouldn’t have to say this, but saying both have done bad things does not mean that both levels of bad are exactly the same.) The media is not universally critical.
Instead, everything gets twisted through weird rationalizations that ultimately lead to spin that would make anyone quirk an eyebrow in disbelief. It is beyond frustrating to me. Frankly, I don’t really understand how or why we’ve gotten to this place. I suppose some of it is because it happened relatively slowly and we didn’t have an administration as completely batshit bonkers as this one to really rev up the engines and shine a light on our narrative problem. But now that it’s spotlit, I think we’ve got to come together and figure out how to fight it.
One thing that needs to be done – as pointed out in the comment – is for each side to fully address the assertions of the other. Just like in court. One should never, ever ignore an allegation at risk of having it be taken as truth. In this way, both the right and left media are in cahoots. Neither challenges the other. Instead, they each go off, parallel to one another, and anyone who doesn’t start trying to unpack the contents of each and has just chosen to be allied with a particular source, can very easily avoid ever hearing anything published by a source that he or she doesn’t read. And now it’s gotten so bad and there’s so much misinformation floating around that having those challenging discussions is going to be terribly difficult.
Right now, we – as the consumers of news – are forced into the position of addressing each assertion (which, as I pointed out above, is time consuming, exhausting, and a pain in the rear). And that should not be our job. That is *supposed* to be a journalist’s job. Instead, we have parrots. It makes me especially angry because I think it’s lazy and I think we are all being taken advantage of. It is a privilege to have the spare time to unravel a given news story and now our news sources are trying to (at best) cut corners or (at worst) manipulate us. And they know they won’t be held culpable because NO ONE HAS THE TIME TO DIG THROUGH EVERYTHING WITH A FINE TOOTH COMB.
I try to go through things with a fine tooth comb when I can and I still get things wrong. And I’m pretty privileged as far as finding the spare time to do this goes.
We should all be mad about the way media is failing us.
We should also all be horribly angry with both of our political parties. Not even because they are hypocrites of the highest order, but because they (1) don’t care about any of us, and (2) might even actually hate democracy (and prefer that all power be consolidated unto themselves).
Here’s an article that gets at what I’m talking about: The Gospel According to Mitch by Maximillian Alvarez. It’s about Mitch McConnell, but gets to the heart of our politics problem (but it’s also good reading if you love to hate Mitch).
These meatheads are playing a game and they are using us as their pawns to be manipulated. I think many of us recognize this, but…we actually need to absorb it. Because if we “know” it but don’t act any differently based on this information, then it doesn’t really matter that we know because we’re still complicit with our “elected” representatives – who we don’t even like.
Our elected officials are showing up for their own interests. Not ours. “There is power, and there are obstacles to attaining power. These, and nothing else, are the coordinates of politics.” That is the root of the matter. Humanity, morality, right vs. wrong, objectivity, these things don’t matter. All that matters is power and the things that stand in the way to achieving this. And guess what? A lot of what stands in the way of achieving power are the pesky almost 324 million of us citizens who are charged with electing those in power. So what does that mean? Our political parties have a vested interest in figuring out how to manipulate the heck out of us. BOTH parties have this interest. They employ different tactics, but I would argue the end game is the same: consolidation of power at least cost/highest gain to the top percenters of this country.
As Alvarez writes in the article: “We are educated by the fantasy that our politicians are true public servants. Whether by their own honest intention or the simple limits of their job, their power is held in check as a public trust. In this view, political leaders are employed to serve their constituents, but they may be corrupted by power along the way to achieving their goals. In reality, though, power is the only real goal remaining in our evermore nihilistic national politics.”
Our political system currently operates to preserve the pecking order, this consolidation of power, the wealth. It does not operate for us and it is not, at this point, even truly operated by us. Look at how we are forced into a two party system that leaves most of the population wholly disillusioned (and even refusing to vote). How often have we said or heard that our vote is not being cast “for” a candidate but rather, “against” the opposing candidate? How often have we joked about “holding our nose and voting.” Stop and think about that for a minute. That’s insane. That isn’t democracy. That’s being forced into something we don’t want and that’s exactly how our political system likes it.
Chris Hedges wrote a terrific piece on Trump being a symptom and not the problem in our current political state. In it, he points out the blowback that occurred following the “excessive democracy” of the 1960s. The high level of political involvement and general pushiness of the populace scared the heck out of our would-be rulers and they began working to dismantle the true functionality of our democracy. Hedges writes that these political elites “locked the citizens out of government. And by doing so they made sure that power shifted into the hands of the enemies of the open society.” He’s right. Our power, our true power as a voting public is sorely limited. It has just enough trappings of democracy clinging to it that we aren’t all out rioting in the streets. Instead, we merely grumble to one another and talk about holding our noses and voting.
THIS IS SUCH A PROBLEM.
And the media (the reason I started this post in the first place) is furthering this agenda, whether intentionally or not (although, I’d err on the side of intent, given the identity of the owners of our media sources). By refusing to engage with one another, refusing to challenge competing narratives, they effectively splinter the population and keep us in two encampments who, to some degree, lack the tools or ability to engage with one another. The media cherry picks facts to support its context (or twists facts to match a desired story, or just makes implications that lead the absorbing public to one conclusion or another). By running parallel to one another and never crossing, our media sources cement the existence of our political parties and increase the difficulty for the general public of examining them critically and taking note of their misplaced priorities and manipulations.
So, dear reader, help me think up a name for the new political party we need. The one that seeks to get the heart of the matter, that tries to cut through BS to find the fact, that avoids being defensive in favor of listening to the people. The party that brings back that “excessive democracy” of the 1960s that so terrified the political elite. The party that says “shut up, now you listen to US.” What do we call it?