Moore: Blame the Media?; well, maybe, but...not so fast...


I have seen reports of polls that indicate Roy Moore could be in serious trouble in the Alabama Senate race (last week at FiveThirtyEight, Is Roy Moore Losing?). Others show him hanging on to a shaky lead (Thursday at The Hill, New poll: Roy Moore up 5 points on Dem opponent). I am inclined to respect analysis by the folks at FiveThirtyEight while maintaining a healthy skepticism about polls generally. So how much faith can we have in any particular poll or agglomeration of polls anyway? Here is what Nate Silver has to say in a piece explaining how FiveThirtyEight rates pollsters:

The short answer is that pollster performance is predictable — to some extent. Polling data is noisy and bad pollsters can get lucky. But pollster performance is predictable on the scale of something like the batting averages of Major League Baseball players.

Let me take that analogy a bit further. In baseball, there isn’t much difference in an absolute sense between a .300 hitter and a .260 hitter — it amounts to getting about one extra hit during each week of the baseball season. (How FiveThirtyEight Calculates Pollster Ratings)

The FiveThirtyEight piece refers to polls by a number of polling organizations, including JMC Analytics, which conducted the new poll reported at The Hill. I don't know that we can say more than that the tight. My gut feeling is Moore. I will be pleasantly surprised if I am mistaken and Jones wins.

Be that as it may, the topic I would like to bandy about today is how it is that Moore's candidacy has not been summarily flushed down the toilet given the breadth and credibility of the charges leveled against him. The prospect that this character could well be elected to the US Senate or even dogcatcher should be bizarre to the point to being unfathomable, but it isn't. I daresay few of us will be surprised if he wins.

Moore's supporters fall into two camps, with some spillover, some overlap. The president has a foot in both. The faction headed by Alabama governor Kay Ivey and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway professes to believe the women accusing Moore of some pretty dark deeds but are willing to overlook his transgressions because, what the heck, they (Republicans) need his vote. Among them are individuals who acknowledge that they cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat under any circumstances however odious the alternative because they are convinced that Democratic policies and programs are destroying the country, just as I am convinced that the Trumpist-Republican agenda is doing just that. I have not seen any polling data looking at how many of this bunch lean toward sitting out the election and how many plan to hold their collective nose and vote for Moore, charges of predation be damned. This could affect the outcome and seems a reasonable question to pursue. I'd be interested in hearing about anyone who is doing so.

The other camp is not bedeviled by the need to rationalize or justify their support for the good judge. They flat out reject the accusations. This is not surprising. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in July showed "lackluster trust in the nation’s institutions." Some might say that "lackluster" is putting it mildly. The survey had the media with even less credibility than the president, or public opinion polls for that matter. The scorecard went like this:

Americans divide in the trust they have that elections are fair. 50% have confidence in our voting system and 47% do not. Fewer have confidence in the Trump Administration, 37%, public opinion polls, 35%, the media, 30%, and Congress, 29%. These proportions are little changed from a similar survey released in March.

A few days ago the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll was cited by Matt Latimer at Politico (Want to Know Why Roy Moore Might Win? Blame the Media.), where he argues that the media itself is responsible for the widespread belief in Alabama and elsewhere that the charges against Moore are "fake news." Conservatives' disregard for mainstream news organizations, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and the rest, is rooted in longstanding liberal bias and the consequent unfair, partisan treatment of conservatives. Now Politico is one of my go-to sources for news, analysis, and opinion. The reporting there strikes me as credible. I accept that Latimer, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, is writing in good faith. I even buy that there is something to what he says, but he makes way too much of it as an explanation for the sorry state of affairs he himself describes "where a president of the United States can just declare 'fake' news he doesn’t like—and largely get away with it." I would question how "largely" he gets away with it except among a subset of conservatives who make up his base and are a minority of the population, but let's put that aside for the moment.

My own take, contra Latimer, is that some of the profession's leading practitioners, reporters and pundits alike, are insufferably arrogant, cocksure, and blind to their own biases. Many are of the liberal persuasion and more than a few are prone to come off as condescending toward people whose perspective is at odds with their own. The best of them though make an earnest effort to adhere to principles of objectivity. The more reflective know this is an impossible standard but hold to it as an important principle nonetheless.

Latimer offers several polls, surveys, and columns by way of example to buttress his thesis. Here he cherry-picks from some and neglects to mention that others come from sources that tilt decidedly to the right, which does not necessarily mean that they are wrong, but it is something to take into account.

...the real reason for a situation that allows the Roy Moores and Donald Trumps of the world to rise above mere laughingstock status is that the media has totally lost its connection with a large portion of the nation, almost all of them conservatives. Worse, the media has become what Trump and allies refer to as "the opposition party"—and, as such, a most useful foil for the Trump administration. ... For many years...the media—and by that I mean the major networks, most major newspapers and cable news programs outside of Fox—has displayed a vexing double standard against conservatives. ... Although Obama veterans surely see it differently, the press corps offered largely favorable coverage of the Obama years—at least when compared to Republican administrations. Plenty of surveys bear that out. Such as this one [Washington Post: "Study: Obama got eight times more positive coverage than Trump in first two months."; note: this comes from the "liberal" Post]. And this one [The Pew Charitable Trusts: Media Metric: Obama's 100 Days of Press]. And articles such as this one [The Hill]. And this one [by Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post columnist who it might be noted leans to the right]—this one, too [the conservative Washington Free Beacon]. Conservatives do remember, however, the endless attacks on Reagan’s mental abilities, on George H. W. Bush’s alleged out-of-touch elitism, and on his son’s various verbal miscues and alleged racial insensitivity.

The first thing that jumps out is that two of the pieces come from The Washington Post. Doesn't that run counter to Latimer's assertion of liberal bias? Next comes the report from the Pew Charitable Trusts on April 29, 2009:

As he marks his 100th day in office, President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House, according to a new study of press coverage by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Bill Clinton is a Democrat, albeit of a centrist bent and one with plenty of problematic baggage. Is that not at all relevant? There are all sorts of reasons why Barack Obama enjoyed positive media coverage during the early months of his presidency, not least that he was the nation's first black president. That was kind of a big deal. And he was young, dynamic, handsome, and articulate. He and Michelle Obama offered as fine a pair of role models as any exponent of "family values" could ask. Or so it seems to me. None of this slowed some on the right from demonizing him from the outset and casting doubt on his legitimacy as president, foremost by questioning his citizenship, a project at which the current president was front and center. I will allow that some of this was a matter of honest disagreement about policies and principles of governance, but some was about race.

Going back further, and trusting my recollection here, so subject to correction, I am not sure that Jimmy Carter received all that much favorable press during his presidency, although that changed with the exemplary life he has led as an ex-president.

I do not doubt for a moment that the Moore dead-enders, Trump's base, perceive the mainstream media much as Latimer describes. But are they justified? And doesn't that matter? The Post pieces alone provide at least a sliver of evidence that the mainstream media makes some play of even-handedness. The big muckety-mucks who head up the media giants are sensitive about charges of liberal bias and at some pains to present both sides, as they say, even when it means providing a reputable forum for purebred, blue-ribbon artists working in the medium of horse manure, e.g., Newton Leroy "Newt" Gingrich.

Serendipitously I came across an August 1972 interview with Hunter Thompson where he makes a relevant observation about supporters of George Wallace in the 1968 primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for president:

It's the kind of people who I saw in a place like Serb Hall in Milwaukee, this really rabid, relatively rabid...crowd that had come out there for no other reason than to see Wallace. They told me that they were there because he was the one person in American politics who really made sense when you cut through the bullshit and get things done. They wanted to get the truth back. As much as I was appalled by it, the whole mood, I was struck by the intensity of the feeling. There are people in this country who really feel that they are not only left out, but the world is deaf to them. (Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, p. 10)

This sounds like Trump's base. These people have been with us a very long time. Going back to the late sixties a hardcore, mega-rich subset of the conservative movement, typically also devout libertarians, cultivated this mindset and doubled down on the paranoia and sense of being either ignored or persecuted by liberal establishment elites. The Koch brothers, the DeVos family, and their comrades seized the day after the McGovern debacle in 1972 and the Carter years and came to exert an outsized influence on the parameters of debate about politics, social concerns, taxation, and so on through their own so-called think tanks and media apparatus that offer no pretense at objectivity or even-handedness. Along came Gingrich and anti-tax, anti-government zealot Grover Norquist. Under Gingrich's scorched-earth approach, Republicans painted ideological opponents as unpatriotic, immoral, godless, liberal heathen, the enemy pure and simple, with whom compromise was tantamount to apostasy. Norquist said his goal was to cut government to the size where you could drown it in the bathtub. They found an audience among wealthy individuals who believe that government is the only thing that stands between them and greater wealth, people convinced that government is all that prevents them from joining the ranks of the wealthy, and those who bought into the Reagan doctrine that government is the problem, whatever the problem may be.

It goes further back. The Ku Klux Klan revival in the 1920s was not just a matter of racism directed at blacks, though that was a big part of it, especially but not solely in the South. Demagogues raged against Jews and other immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. They wanted no part of them in this country. Klan members of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage were not crazy about Catholics either. Douglas Hochschild's review of two new books about the Klan was another serendipitous find (Ku Klux Klambakes, The New York Review of Books, December 7, 2017). This stuff was news to me:

"For ten years, from 1922 to 1932," writes Gordon [Linda, author of The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition], "the majority of all Oregon's elected officials were Klansmen, and opposition was so weak that Klansmen ran against one another." In the mid-1920s, the majority of representatives elected to Congress from Texas, Colorado, and Indiana were Klan members, as were two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court [Hochschild fails to identity the justices].... From Wilson through Hoover, no president disavowed the Klan.

Hochschild points out an interesting development that did not happen during the Depression years of the 1930s, which you might have thought would provide "the classic fuel for movements like the KKK." Why not? Hochschild asks rhetorically.

One answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, despite its shortcomings, was a far-reaching and impassioned attempt to address the nation's economic woes and injustices head-on, with a boldness we've not seen since then. It gave people hope. Another answer is that although FDR made many compromises with southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress, he was no racist. The more outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent proponent of anti-lynching laws and of full rights for black Americans. The tone set by the White House matters: it creates moral space for others to speak and act.

Indeed, the tone set by the White House does matter. This has more than a little to do with media coverage of our current president. Whatever liberal bias may infect some prominent news organizations and journalists, there are reasons why Donald Trump gets a lot of negative press. Not all of it comes from liberals. Prominent conservative pundits and activists like Bill Kristol, George Will, and Ross Douthat, along with Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse in the Senate, have been highly critical of the president and questioned his fitness for the office, with no discernible effect on Trump's hardcore supporters. Corker, Flake, and Sasse have been roundly lambasted for speaking out.

The mainstream media makes for a convenient bogeyman. It comes from the left as well as the right, with the left has zeroing in on the way corporate interests, PR, and the bottom line factor into what is reported and how, while the right has conniptions about liberal bias. I am not an apologist for big media. The Post, the Times, and the rest get things wrong out of greed, venality, and the simple capacity to mess up that goes with being human. Big-name bloviators with not a doubt in their military minds as to their own genius do quite well by themselves, becoming in effect brands of their own. They can be annoying. To be fair, they do provide fodder for little-name bloviators such as your oft humbled scribe. But they are not just stooges of the oligarchy, nor do they make up some demonic, monolithic leviathan bent on steering the country toward socialism.

Liberals and progressives routinely beat up the Democratic establishment and the dread coastal elites for not reaching out and trying to understand people in the heart of the country. They have a point insofar as Democrats and the liberal intelligentsia have performed miserably on this score. But they are fighting an uphill battle. A lot of resources have been poured into campaigns to foster bigotry and paranoia among those who feel themselves dispossessed, disrespected, and squeezed out of a weird new world that is spinning out of control, upending verities and commonplaces of daily life that everyone took for granted not so long ago. People abandoned by the twentieth century, left behind on meager strips of land or in small towns where high school football games on Friday night and church picnics all fried chicken and casseroles are social affairs that matter, now find themselves washed up on the strung-out beaches of the twenty-first, well it's no wonder they are put out by it all. I feel that way myself some days.

You can go back to Plato and probably beyond that for recognition that "the people" are susceptible to demagoguery. Trump is a gifted demagogue and shameless about it. I do not know how you get through to men and women who are convinced that he is speaking to and for them and their concerns. But you cannot put that world view down to reaction to the bias of liberal heathen in the media any more than you can dismiss Trump's diehard supporters as a hopeless bunch of rubes who don't know enough to know any better. It runs deeper and murkier than either portrayal.

I recall a conversation some years ago, back in the 1990s, with an old friend over coffee at Café Diem on N. Highland in Atlanta, just down from Ponce de Leon Avenue. She was one of those wackily intelligent types that seem to cross my path, or I cross theirs, the kind who may not always have both oars in the water at the same time, as another old pal would put it, but heck, that can be said of many of us. I have my own moments. She was the kind who could draw me into conversation about Horkheimer and Adorno and the Frankfurt School. These days I don't seem to have many people like that to bat ideas around with at some coffee joint or tavern. Maybe that is just as well. I have not given much thought to that zany Frankfurt bunch in ages. I don't know what I would have to contribute. But I would listen. At any rate, apropos of something or other we were talking about, I made the offhand remark that I was getting to be too bourgeois, to which she replied, "David, you couldn't be bourgeois if you tried." To this day I cherish and take comfort in the compliment.

The point of the anecdote, if there is a point beyond blundering about as I try to bring this thing to a close without leaving it hanging or degenerating into blatant gibberish, is the apparent futility of all the talk about reaching out and understanding and finding common ground with one another. Against that remains my stubborn conviction that people of good will can hold starkly different and even diametrically opposed views about the most fundamental matters and that empathy is possible. That's all I have right now.

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David Matthews

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