Why is America the Greatest Country in the World?
Diversity and opportunity. And freedom. Lots of freedom, freedom is great. I can tell you, I know freedom and I know we have lots of it, more than any other country. And diversity, we’ve almost got that under control too.
But seriously …
If you are like me, the tirade eventually given by the protagonist in the following clip was already formulating in your head for the first two minutes of this scene, and when it spilled out (in a form better than you or I would have managed), you were like “Yeah. Go baby!” (Or words to that effect.)
It is a tirade that is always running in my head, along side another one. The other one has to do with an issue also dealt with during the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (which is now streaming on Amazon Prime, by the way, in case you’ve not see it). That second and related issue is fairness, and how it is a bad thing in journalism.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you well know what we are talking about. False balance. This is where one position is expressed, and a second opposing position is expressed, and therefore (as in, because these two positions were expressed) the press treats them as equal no matter how idiotic one or both may be. Indeed, it is often the case that there are not two legitimate positions related to a given issue. Hell, there are almost never two positions on a given issue, even though the press always insists that there are exactly two positions. Five. One. Three. Seven. Almost never two.
Anyway, have a look. It is about eight minutes long but worth every second, if you’ve not seen it:
I want to spend a moment looking at this problem of the press doing almost everything they do wrong almost all the time.
Why? Because this problem has become the most important political problem of the modern era.
North Korean nuclear arms and ISIL might be the most immediate problems in the news. Climate change might be the most important existential problem the planet has ever faced. Education, jobs, the economy, and all that might be the key perennial issues that come up in every election and affect people at all levels of government. And so on. But the mixture of jingoism (willful avoidance of thought) and the balance and fairness fetish are the reasons that those issues will only ever be dealt with in a half-assed and ineffective manner. It is the reason that people like me, who believe that taxes pay for civilization and the government can do good work, are fed up and are about to turn into full fledged anarchists. Or at least, that is how if feels sometimes. And by sometimes I mean almost all the time.
And this comes to a head because Donald J. Trump is a legitimate and respected candidate for President of the United States.
Did I just say “respected” and “Donald Trump” in the same sentence? Yes, yes I did. I did it because it is true and not true at the same time. Trump is either only barely respected, or simply not respected at all, by almost everybody, including his own party elite. He is seen as a lose cannon, a threat, a huge problem, an enormous mistake. But every single day the press, which consists of people who can’t believe that they are in a position where they have to cover Donald Trump as though he wasn’t a joke, treats him with the respect he deserves as a presidential nominee. They do this at the very same time that they treat Hillary Clinton — who was a family and children advocate, the designer of our first stab at a 20th century health care system (a century overdue), a very effective and highly respected Senator from New York, and an accomplished Secretary of State, and a few other things — like a child that is always acting badly and requires constant admonishment.
Let us pause for a moment and blame the Patriarchy
Let me digress for a moment, to underscore this point. Hillary Clinton is a woman and Donald Trump is a man. Hillary Clinton is a highly accomplished and qualified candidate for President of the United States who is being treated, as I just said, like a child whom you expect to constantly be in trouble, and that you are constantly ready to correct or punish. And by “you” I mean that awful fourth grade teacher who was always picking on that one kid who never seemed to get a fair break. And by the awful fourth grade teacher, I mean Matt Lauer. And I’m using Matt Lauer to stand in for All Of The Reporters.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the man running for president, is a clown.
A joke. A rising dangerous fascist. A crook. A liar. A person with a weak grasp on reality.
A litigious bastard. (So I’ll add that these are all things Trump has been accused of, who really knows?)
Trump represents everything that is bad about a bad political philosophy. He is the perfect product of the willful ignorance and the calculated walling off of reality that have become central to Republican philosophy and tactics. He is absolutely the last person in the world that should be allowed anywhere near the White House. But he can lie, cheat, bully, incite violence, and generally do things that individually would instantly end a political career, again and again, several times a week, and continue to be “respected” by the press. As I’ll explain in a moment, Trump’s respect from the press is not because he is a man. It is for a different reason, and that is the focus of this post. But the difference between the way Clinton and Trump are treated is because of their different genders, and this is sexism in the Fourth Estate (by all sexes of reporter, producer, and editor, with only a very few exceptions) demonstrating itself to be shockingly ingrained and intractable. We have a seemingly unfixable patriarchy in this country.
Fisher’s Principle of Sex Ratio and Why the Press Is Stupid
And now back to the main point, the answer to a question I know many of you have been asking yourselves, in one form or another, for a long time. Why are the two main political parties so close in representation in government? Why are most elections so close? Why are opinions on various issues, even when one side is clearly utterly bogus and the other side so clearly correct, almost always close to 50-50, or at least, in the 60% to 40% range? Why is the balance of opinion about policy or candidates so near the middle so much of the time?
Fisher’s Principle is an idea that was initially applied to explain the apparent fact that sexual reproduction produces a 1:1 ratio of males to females. Never mind that fact that most species, it turns out, probably don’t do this, and that the ones that do, do so because they are physiologically constrained to do so. It was still a good idea because it works in some cases, and is internally logical. The idea is also related to, and probably intellectually basal to, some very important game theory. And, for our purposes, it explains a lot about why the press is essentially incapable of doing its job, and why civilization is, at this moment, teetering on the edge of collapse because of that.
Here’s the idea. You are an organism concerned, rightfully, with your Darwinian fitness. You are about to have an offspring. You can have a male or a female.
So you do a marketing study. You find out that all the organisms in the next generation, into which you are about to launch your offspring, will be seeking a mate. Marketing theory tells you that if one sex is rare, it will be more valuable. So, you estimate the sex ratio of the next generation. The only way to do this, of course, is to assess the current sex ratio. You find out that a particular sex is more rare, and thus, individuals of that sex are more valuable, and that is the sex of offspring that you produce.
But, of course, all the other organisms of your kind are doing the same thing, so that rare and valuable sex is now flooding the market. So, the other sex becomes more valuable, and individuals start producing them. So the market shifts back the other way.
Owing to overlapping generations, some randomization of timing of information flow and decision making, and all that, the kind of organism you are, as a result of following Fisher’s Principle of producing the sex of higher value, ends up with about a 50-50 sex ratio.
Now, you are a newsroom producer or an editor. There are many stories out there, and for every story, there are multiple points of view. For a political story, things are simple. There are two points of view: left vs. right, or Democratic vs. Republican, or whatever.
Think of it more precisely. There aren’t just two points of view, but there is a population of sound clips or quotes reflecting those points of view that you can use. You note that the general consensus is starting to move towards a particular point of view. It makes sense that we implement a certain policy, and more and more opinons are shifting that way.
So, now, you have two choices. One is to mainly report that one policy is being converged on by almost everyone, and is likely to become the policy guiding future legislation and action. Then you move on to the next story. But anyone in news will tell you that is not a story. Hell, anyone in fiction will tell you it is not a story. There is no conflict, no gap between obvious outcome and what actually happens, in that story.
To make this a story, you need to do something other than the obvious. And that is easy to do. You pull out the sound bites or quotes or position papers that reflect the shrinking minority view, and lead with that. You appear to give equal time to two opposing views, but really, you are not being fair. You are placing the emerging consensus view, the smart view, the correct view, and the shrinking everbody-knows-this-is-nowhere view, next to each other and treating them with the same level of attention and respect. You treat the emerging consensus unfairly by pretending it is not an emerging consensus, and you give the bullshit view an unfair break by pretending it is not bullshit.
But by doing so, you are producing an offspring that is more valuable because it is more rare.
And, at the same time, you are telling a better story. Never mind that it is bordering on fiction, never mind that it involves unfair treatment of the truth, never mind that there could be real world negative consequences of this selfish strategy, never mind that this treatment of the news demonstrably slows down or reverses the progress of civilization. Never mind that people suffer and die. The important thing is, you protected your ratings or your readership, and if you played it well, maybe improved them. And that is your job. Good job. Never mind the consequences.
So that explains why we can have two political parties, one relatively smart and thoughtful and often ready to govern (I don’t want to sanctify the Democratic Party, but they are better at all these things these days) and the other stupid, mean spirited, and wrong on almost every single issue, and not just wrong, but Michele Bachman level wrong. Sarah Palin level wrong. Donald Trump level wrong!!
Elections are a special, and cleaner, case. Elections have numbers, polls, that tell the press two things. First, what are the genders of possible offspring? Normally the two genders are Democratic and Republicans, but occasionally a third option shows up and can be a factor. Then, within the contest among the worthy opponents, the press can keep track of the relative worth of stories benefiting each of these entities. Which side should be pushed forward from behind, which side should be knocked down a bit, to keep both close to the middle, near an optimum value, so that the overall story (who is winning a race, is the new health care plan legal, should we had off to a particular war) remains commercially viable?
For example, when one candidate is consistently ahead of another, a major news outlet can simply manipulate a poll so that the reverse looks true. Like when CNN essentially lied the other day to suggest that Trump was pulling ahead of Clinton.
There are two major negative consequences that arise from this behavior, other than trampling on and killing the truth and all that. First, a candidate that should never win has a chance of winning. The only reason Donald Trump has any chance of winning this year’s election is because major media benefits from the race being close. Remember that, if he wins. Remember who to blame.
The other consequence is actually more insidious. In order for the press to keep a bogus candidate in the running, they have to report bogus positions and bogus policies with a straight face, and this in turn, shifts the window of credibility for those policies into the realm of reality. Over time, people can say things that they could never say before and remain credible, and positions can be put on the table that our civilization left behind decades or centuries ago. We could not talk about rounding up people with a certain physical appearance or religion because of the lessons we learned from the Nazis. Now we can talk about these things again. We can pretend that criminal misconduct by a candidate is not important, or that another candidate broke the law many times when she never actually did.
That is Andrea Mitchel’s fault. And Chuck Todd. And the rest of the reporters.
This is a feedback system. More extreme candidates engender more extreme policy excursions, which in turn allows more extreme candidates to throw their sombreros over the wall.
There are cracks forming. Mainstream news reporters who actually would lean towards a Republican candidate (or enjoy participating in bashing Clinton) are suddenly dropping their jaws and rolling their eyes, or just pointing out that they are fed up:
And endorsements out of right field for the lefty are starting to question the basic stability of the two party system.
But it may be too late for the press to redeem itself now. They have placed Donald Trump very close to the White House, for their own self interest, and in so doing, are dangerously close to burning the house down. People talk these days about the collapse of the Republican Party. Fine. But what we really need is a tear down and replacement of how the Fourth Estate conducts itself. Mostly, the press is good at patting itself on the back, giving itself awards, and throwing huge collective tantrums when their integrity and freedom are questions. But now, those very people who would normally defend the press are increasingly less likely to come to their defense, and are starting to demand reform.