It’s almost Election Day. Thank goodness, right? Wrong.
Of course, it’ll be nice to have this election cycle behind us. Of course, I’ll implore you, like seemingly everybody these days, to go out to vote; it’s important and a sacred thing that too many of us take for granted.
But I don’t think a lot of the unpleasantness of the world we’ve seen under President Trump’s administration is going anywhere any time soon.
I spend my time reporting on education. As a result, I spend more than an average amount of time talking to high school students. Recently, I’ve been talking to social studies teacher at one of the local high schools here in my little corner of Wyoming to hear about how they’re handling their classes in a moment of history. That’s not to be hyperbolic; every election year, for a social studies teacher, is a reminder that what’s going on in the world today will soon be content for future classes. Elections make that more real than many news events.
In talking to the teachers, I’ve heard over and over again how important it is to teach media literacy and push the kids to scrutinize their media for bias. I wholeheartedly agree with that approach; media literacy is an important thing, especially for a generation of students that lives on its mobile devices, just a click away from less-than-reputable news.
But there’s a point to which I think the system is already broken, to which even a well-intentioned objective like sussing out media bias is not enough to combat this particular moment.
One teacher created a lesson for her students of comparing interviews, both conducted by 60 Minutes, of President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Her hypothesis was simple: It’s the same news outlet, so this is a perfect instance to assess perceived bias.
But in a community so predominantly supportive of President Trump (multiple teachers made reference to this reality, so it’s not just my opinion of the town), a focus on journalistic objectivity still didn’t reach the students in any effective way.
A student told me that it was clear that Leslie Stahl didn’t like President Trump and was committed to preventing him from a normal interview, which the student equated with political punditry on Stahl’s part.
There’s a not insignificant portion of the country likely to agree with the student; I’ll concede that much. But they would be wrong.
Never did the teacher nor the student consider a seemingly foundational question: Did the current President of the United States not deserve tougher questions than a challenger who hasn’t been active in politics for the past four years? As a pandemic rages and the nation struggles with its collective response, why was it indicative of “bias” when Stahl asked President Trump, “Are you ready for some tough questions?”
President Trump made a scene by objecting to tough questions, to which a normal person might ask, “What did you really expect would happen when you signed up to run a country of 320 million people?” President Trump was allowed to frame Stahl as biased when she simply stated the most basic tenet of journalism aloud: “We can’t air things that we can’t independently verify.”
The student didn’t see it that way. Nor the did teacher. So desperate to appear neutral to the students (and more importantly, the students’ parents), she didn’t encourage students to expect more from their president and to applaud journalism in its truest form. The student seemed bothered that President Trump wasn’t given the freedom to say whatever he wanted, and most sadly, the student thought that was somehow broken journalism.
President Trump has, with his cries of fake news and journalists are the enemy of the people, opened a wound that will not likely heal in the near future. For the sake of democracy, that is a troubling development, but too few people seem to see it that way. Even the well-intentioned ones like that teacher.
Ten Worth Your Time
Olivia Nuzzi is always excellent in her reporting at New York magazine, but her recent piece on the infrastructure of political reporting and anonymous sources is a brilliant meditation on the system and her role in it. It’s a starkly meta-assessment of the art of the very reporting she’s been doing for a while now. It was published shortly before news broke that the Trump administration official known simply as “Anonymous” revealed himself to the world, and it grapples with the very DNA of a system that encouraged us to supposedly care about sources like “Anonymous” in the first place. Here’s an example of her self-awareness:
You’ve read the stories that result from what these mysterious hordes of Republicans have to say about the pickle they’ve gotten themselves into with this president. The split between the official line and the whispered one is so dramatic that the phenomenon of rampant quiet discontent has been a subplot of the entire administration. There have been so many of these stories, in fact, you’ll likely recognize the formula: Trump does or says something at odds with conservative principles or common sense or basic decency; Republicans in positions of power are asked to respond, and they do their best to offer the usual nonresponse responses; but Republicans whose identities remain secret tell reporters that, in private, everyone is mad at the president, they think he’s an idiot, he’s screwing up, whatever. Liberals and moderate media critics get together to roll their eyes at this grand display of cowardice, enabled by reporters like me who live for drama and are thus part of the problem, while the president’s supporters cry fabulism or conspiracy or both. My own self-serving justification for granting anonymity to Republicans connected to or able to provide insight into this White House is simple: If the choice is between being lied to on the record or told the truth “on background” (the technical term for anonymity), I will choose the truth every time — even though every time I choose the anonymous truth, I make it easier for this system of secrecy to continue. Actually, that’s too generous. It’s more truthful to say I’m part of a system that enables political leaders to have it both ways, to indulge in ugliness and irresponsibility and to distance themselves from their own actions. The press provides the alibi as it prosecutes the case.
Nuzzi’s piece is centered on a Republican that used to be common in Washington, D.C. Perhaps even still is popular in D.C. An establishment type, small-c conservative, pro-business, etc. The source in her article talks as if there are tons like him, and that Trump’s embarrassing incompetence could lead to a defeat on Election Day and a resulting dismantling of the Republican party. But I’m not so sure how much stake I put in that assessment. Out here in Wyoming (and in pretty much every other state in which I’ve lived — Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri) it seems overwhelmingly abundant that the Republican party, for better or worse, is now the party of Trumpism. This article in The New Yorker reckons with where the Republicans go from Trump, whether it’s now or in another four years.
The New York Times argues there is now an intellectual history of the Trump era, as two books — one written as a meta-analyses of many of the books written during and about the time of Trump’s presidency and the other a panoramic view of the impeachment trial of President Trump — are surely just the tip of the spear when it comes to authors studying and trying to make sense of this administration and America’s fascination with it.
Ben Smith’s New York Times media column recently described the early days of the Hunter Biden/Tony Bobulinski story (or non-story, as it were). It’s a discussion that ventures into graduate school media theory territory with all its talk of media as gatekeepers, and it explains a process of which I think journalists everywhere can be proud.
There are probably tons of stories like this sad and infuriating one from WIRED about the small town of Forks, Washington, and it’ quick slide toward an unruly mob. It’s a real-life instance of social media’s ugly influence on our lives. After rumors about busloads of antifa protesters arriving to cause trouble, one mixed-race family just happens to drive their bus into the town at the worst possible time. What follows is a depressing tale of social media fear-mongering and thoughtless herd mentality.
Skip Hollandsworth’s second installment of “Tom Brown’s Body,” the story of a high school senior who goes missing and the mystery of his disappearance left behind for the small Texan town where he lived and died, is even better than the first (which I’ve written about before). It picks up speed and profluence, since the stage-setting was done in the first installment. You’ll get to the end of it and hate the brilliance of Texas Monthly’s decision to serialize the story. There’s an element of the same evil from the WIRED story: social media can wreak havoc in a small town.
If small towns are a running theme in these recommendations, you can’t miss this book review from The New Republic about a town in New Hampshire that experiments (and fails) with the notion of creating a Libertarian utopia. The failure was epitomized by the influx of Black bears, and if the review is any indication, the book will be immensely readable. Stealing a quote from a friend to whom I’ve already shared this story: “I can tell early on that I’ll be rooting for the bears in this story.”
The Mandalorian is back for season two on Disney+. If you’re not watching, you’re missing out. Baby Yoda is the salve this weary world needs.
If Emily Nussbaum hadn’t stepped down from her role as television critic at The New Yorker, I’m sure she’d have some frustratingly smart take on The Mandolorian. I have no doubts about that assessment because I’ve been enjoying her criticism in her book, I Like to Watch. The audiobook is read by the author, and she has a pleasant speaking voice that handles her own writing with a familiarity that feels like it should be the only way audiobooks should sound. Reading her work makes me want to be a smarter consumer of television, and I that’s perhaps the highest praise I can bestow on a critic.
Speaking of inimitable critics and wondrous writing, The New York Times’s Wesley Morris, formerly of Grantland and a Pulitzer-winning stint at The Boston Globe, wrote about a quarantine/pandemic fad that’s particularly relevant as we move into Movember: his mustache. It’s the epitome of an essay, a perfect reminder that beautiful writing and a relevant message need not wait on some huge event. Essays can be written about literally anything, and what sounds like it would be just a mindless exercise in reflecting on his facial hair is actually a deeply moving study of masculinity and Blackness.
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