Should Real News Be a Utility, Like Water and Electricity?

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Like people in towns across America, I’m watching my local newspapers die.

Every few months, it seems, they lay off more staff, while announcing a new digital initiative that’s somehow supposed to make up for the fact that they just can’t afford to report the news any more.

No one wants to pay for it.

After all, look at all the “content” we can get for free, much of which looks like news.

The trouble is, though, so much of it isn’t. Real news can’t be created by digital magic. It requires the time-consuming work of humans — trained ones — digging into what’s going on, weighing competing versions of the truth, and giving the rest of us their best version.

It’s never perfect, and sometimes it’s very far short of that. But it’s so much better than any alternative. Democracy literally depends on it, as Thomas Jefferson said:

The way to prevent [errors] of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…

Do not be too severe upon the people’s errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and assemblies, judges, and governors, shall all become wolves.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

But in our modern, digital world, news doesn’t pay, and so, especially at the local level, it’s going away.

That could be seen as good news for people like me, whose job it is to try to get stories into the media. With fewer reporters in the way, that’s getting easier all the time. More and more papers will run a well-written press release unedited.

But I hate it. I don’t want an easier job, if it comes at the expense of a functioning democracy.

To save democracy, we must save news. We can start with local news, which is what matters most to most people (nationally, we have some government funding of public broadcasting, but it’s unlikely we’ll see that expand any time soon).

I have an idea: why not make local news a utility? Charge a small user fee to all the people in a city or county who benefit from more honest institutions – and that’s everybody, of course. The money collected would fund an independent news utility, charged with doing what healthy newspapers always did: holding the powerful accountable.

If this only funded one such organization per locality, that wouldn’t be as good as what we used to have: cities often had several daily papers. But it would be a lot better than what we’re heading towards in city after city — no newspaper worthy of the name.

What about TV news? That business is struggling too, but it’s still better off than newspapers are. And as TV has traditionally done with newspapers, it could leverage the original reporting done by the news utility.

We can’t do without clean water or reliable electricity. Maybe it’s finally time to recognize that the same is true of accurate information.

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Skip the Gut Check, Democrats: The Problem Is Hiding in Plain Sight

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Following a shock loss to what looked like the worst presidential candidate in history, many Democrats are agonizing over what policies they need to change in order to win back voters.

They needn’t bother: policy has almost nothing to do with it. Democrats can go left, right, more populist, less populist, or stay put.

Because for policies to make a difference, voters have to know what they are. And in every election, Republicans begin with a big gimme: millions of people are voting for and against things that don’t exist.

We’ve heard a lot over the years about the right-wing media bubble, and, more recently, the plague of fake news in social media feeds.

But for some reason, most analysts — and many Democratic politicians — seem to assume all this misinformation magically disappears in the voting booth. Most of the post-election debate seems to be about substantive factors that supposedly explain why otherwise reasonable people voted for Trump, like economic anxiety, fear of terrorism, or resentment of elitism. It’s like we have a rational investors theory of voter behavior.

But missing from the discussion is the big bloc of voters who were simply making a mistake, based on bad facts.

Consider just some of the reasons some people cite for rejecting the Obama legacy that Hillary Clinton ran on: “soaring deficits,” “job-killing economic policies,” “uncontrolled borders,” and “rising crime.”

None of these things is real.

Graph showing dramatic decline of violent crime since 1992.

  1. “Soaring deficits.” Actually, the deficit under President Obama has plummeted in every fiscal year except the most recent one. But in 2013, according to Pew, only 12 percent of Republicans knew the truth, and only 29 percent of Democrats – misinformation is leaky. The debt has in fact gone up, but that’s inevitable all the while you’re reducing deficits until you get them to zero, like Bill Clinton did.
  2. “Job-killing economic policies.” In fact, Obama holds the record for uninterrupted job growth, with more than 15 million jobs created to date, and has cut unemployment in half from its 2010 peak. But a 2015 Bloomberg survey found that 53 percent of Republicans believe unemployment has gotten worse. No doubt many are also unaware that corporate profits have set new records, the S&P 500 is up more than two and a half times, and inflation has been less than half the post World War II average, among other good economic news.
  3. ”Uncontrolled borders.” The truth is that illegal immigration has declined under Obama, while border enforcement, including deportations of criminals, has greatly increased. Meanwhile the data show that first generation immigrants, including ones here illegally from Mexico, commit less crime than native born Americans. But Pew found that 50 percent of Trump supporters believe undocumented immigrants are a serious crime threat that calls for more border security.
  4. “Rising crime.” In the real world, violent crime has been falling steadily since 1992. It’s now at the lowest level since 1970. But 79 percent of Republicans (65 percent of Democrats) think it’s rising, according to Gallup.

There are lots of other examples, like the fantasies that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, climate change is a Chinese hoax, or Hillary deliberately let our people die in Benghazi.

Millions of Americans have been convinced of such things. In other words, millions of Americans are casting misguided votes.

If ballots were being altered, that would be a big story. In effect, they are.

As Obama told Bill Maher recently, “If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either.”

What to do? Obama provides a clue here too.

Because despite facing the same reality handicap, he won twice.

That means he was able to connect with some voters who otherwise would have voted against him based on faulty information (it goes without saying that some who did so were well-informed and just honestly disagreed with him).

How? By out-communicating the opposition.

People believe falsehoods because they feel true – Trump gets away with all his whoppers because they sound (and probably are) so authentically unfiltered.

What makes Obama a great communicator is that he can make the truth feel true: he connects the head and the gut.

And that’s the gut check Democrats need.

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How to Win Every Argument You Ever Have: Be Willing to Lose

Bust of Socrates

A bust of Socrates at the University of Western Australia, Crawley (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

As we mark the first post-Trump Thanksgiving, the best advice about arguments might be to try not to have them, at least for today.

But knowing they’re probably inevitable, now seems like a good time to share the ultimate secret to winning them. In fact, with this secret, I can promise you that you’ll win every single argument you ever have, from here on out.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Be willing to lose, and you never will.

Surprise! Winning is not actually the point of an argument. The point, although it can be hard to guess from our Facebook feeds, is to advance knowledge. And if your goal is more knowledge – and why wouldn’t it be? – you’ll never lose.

Because even if you lose, you win.

On the other hand, if you never lose, you never learn.

And how could that be a real victory? “Hurray! I’ve never learned a thing! In me, knowledge remains stalled forever!”

If you want to be a great arguer, emulate one of the greatest, Socrates: focus on questions, not answers. The answers will take care of themselves.

Now maybe you think I’m just asking you to be impossibly virtuous. So let me divulge that this practice also has a sneaky side benefit: if you can be genuinely open to new facts, if you can – and this is crucial – change your opinion in the face of those new facts (stay with me now), you’re likely to become more well-informed.

And the more well-informed you become, the more reality is going to be on your side.

And that’s the best ally you could have.

Because reality – even in the age of Trump – has a way of winning in the end.

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Branding Bannon: How to Protest a White Nationalist in the White House

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Democrats in Washington have registered strong objections to Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his senior White House adviser.

Will their protests make any difference? So far, it looks like no: as the minority in both houses, Democrats have little leverage, and media attention is already fading.

But here’s something that might work, and it borrows a page from Trump’s own playbook: brand Bannon.

Democrats, and everyone who cares about equality, should give him a new name: White Nationalist Steve Bannon.

And pledge never to refer to him as anything else.

This idea is of course similar to Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” — but with an important difference: it’s not an unsupported slur, it’s a simple statement of fact.

Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has become a hub for the bigots of the white nationalist alt-right, running stories such as this one:

Headline and image of confederate flag from Breitbart news story praising the Confederacy

A Breitbart News story repeated the racist lie that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.

Some people who know Bannon — sorry, I mean White Nationalist Steve Bannon — claim that he personally is not a bigot (though his ex-wife, among others, disagrees).

I might say that’s a distinction without a difference — but what White Nationalist Steve Bannon does is actually worse than just being a garden variety bigot. Most bigots are ignorant. White Nationalist Steve Bannon, an alum of Harvard, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Navy officer corps, knows exactly what he’s doing.

Imagine what he could do in the White House.

The great thing about always and only saying “White Nationalist Steve Bannon” is that it’s a protest that would meet him every time he appears anywhere, and need never end.

Unless, let’s hope, his term in government ends, hopefully before it starts.

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A letter to a friend who voted for Trump

Also published at Huffington Post.

Dear _____________,

We wouldn’t be friends if we didn’t see the best in each other.

It’s because of that that I need you to help me understand what you just did.

I know you’re not a bigot. If we disagree on some social policy question, it’s never because we disagree about equality, only about the best way to achieve it.

But you just voted for a bigot. Please don’t tell me he isn’t one. Ask any black, brown, or Muslim friends or colleagues you have how they feel about Trump’s five years of promoting the racist birther lie, founding his campaign on the false claim that Mexican immigrants are a threat (you do know they have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans, right?), pledging to ban all Muslims (lower-than-average crime rate there, too), or aligning with white nationalism?

If they learn you voted for Trump, they may never look at you quite the same way again. Can you tell them that you did?

If so, how?

Read more in The Huffington Post…

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A Year of Trump: Awful at the Start, Worse Now

Donald Trump photo by Gage Skidmore via, Creative Commons licenseThe other day I realized that I’m coming up on a year of writing about Donald Trump:

His ignorance, racism, his narcissism, and — perhaps explaining it all — his disturbingly baby-like mouth.

Here’s the collection (so far) at the Huffington Post:

Here’s How Wrong Trump Is: Immigrants Commit Less Crime

Trump Has Exposed GOP Racism

Scarborough: A ‘Generational Opportunity’ to Reform the GOP by Fighting Trump

The Real Reason Fox News Is Going After Trump
Aug 10, 2015

If Trump’s as Smart as He Says, He’ll Withdraw Now — Here’s Why

Bigots Aren’t Ashamed of Being Bigots, But Why Aren’t They Ashamed of Being Cowards?12/9/2015

Who Says Trump Is Smart?

Suicide Mission: In Embracing Trump, the GOP May Finally Stop Him — And Destroy Itself

The Sweet Smell of Trump

Baby Donald Just Needs His Bottle

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Baby Donald Just Needs His Bottle

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Just look at his mouth.

Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon

It’s the mouth of a hungry baby, lips permanently pursed for a nipple.

Now look at his hands. See how they flail about — they’re not just the size of baby hands, they move like the hands of a baby in distress.

Back to the face. Flushed, yelling, eyes screwed shut.

A hungry, hungry baby.

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes narcissistic personality disorder. WebMD says:

Parents who put their children on a pedestal and shower them with endless praise can plant a seed of narcissism, a recent study found…

Then again, the opposite is true, too. Children who are ignored or abused tend to be self-centered almost as a survival instinct.

Whether, as an actual baby, Donald Trump got too much nursing, or not enough, we can’t know. But in grownup Baby Donald, we see the symptoms all too well. As a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, Baby Donald will:

Think about himself most of the time and talk about himself a lot
Crave attention and admiration
Exaggerate his talents and achievements
Believe he’s special
Set unrealistic goals
Have wide, fast mood swings
Have a hard time taking others’ feelings seriously
Strive to win, whatever it takes
Fantasize about unlimited success, money, and power.

We don’t have to give him the presidency.

Just give him his bottle.

Image credit: Michael Vadon (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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The Sweet Smell of Trump

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Con artist. Demagogue. And yes, in many ways, a fascist.

It can seem incredible that such a man is the front-runner for one of our two major parties.

But as shocking as Donald Trump may be, we’ve seen his type before. The trouble is, we Americans forget our history — and that enables his rise.

Back in the 1930’s, there was Father Charles Coughlin. A Canadian-born Catholic priest, Coughlin started out as a progressive who supported FDR’s New Deal, before using his nationwide radio program and magazine to promote anti-semitism, Mussolini, Hitler and, like all such people, himself, above all.

In the 50’s, we had Senator Joe McCarthy, who built his power by whipping up mass hysteria about communists and homosexuals supposedly subverting the U.S. government and army.

By 1957, the toxic mixture of celebrity, fear-mongering, hatred and phony patriotism — which shocks us so in Trump — was already familiar. Familiar enough to shape the plot of a Hollywood classic, “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

“Success” tells the story of an unprincipled, self-aggrandizing gossip columnist and power broker named J.J. Hunsecker, a character based on the real life Walter Winchell.

Check out this scene, with Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco. Witness Hunsecker’s greed, dishonesty, violence and narcissistic identification of himself with the nation — and just try not to think of Donald J. Trump.

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#ObamaAndKids — My Contributions

Photos of President Obama with kids (many taken by the great White House chief photographer, Pete Souza) range from heart-warming to just plain wonderful. So, like so many others, I love the #ObamaAndKids hashtag that’s trending now. It led me to go back through my own photos of Obama, looking for these ones.

Barack Obama meets three little boys, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets three little boys, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Barack Obama and a little boy, Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and a little boy, before a speech at Michigan State University, Oct. 2, 2008

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama meets a little girl, following a speech in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Sept. 8, 2008. In his connection with her, we can see why there are so many wonderful #ObamaAndKids photos: he wholeheartedly loves children, and they can tell. (Meanwhile the Secret Service agent over his shoulder is doing his job, making sure even she is no kind of threat.)

A little girl who has just met presidential candidate Barack Obama, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. Photo by Spencer Critchley for Obama for America.

This little girl had just met presidential candidate Barack Obama at Labor Day picnic in Monroe, Michigan, Sept. 1, 2008. He had signed a shirt for her, which she was now wearing.


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Suicide Mission: In Embracing Trump, the GOP May Finally Stop Him — And Destroy Itself

[Also published at Huffington Post.] For decades, the GOP has been playing its base for suckers, by running the Grand Old Play: pander to the small-government, traditional-values rubes, and then get back to real business: serving business. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne traces the history of this “serial betrayal” in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong.

But after falling for it over and over, the marks are finally waking up to the con — and they’re out of their minds with rage.

That’s why so many of them support Donald Trump, who by any traditional measure is an insane choice for a presidential candidate.

Donald Trump by Gage SkidmoreBecause Trump isn’t a candidate in the traditional sense. He’s a giant middle finger to the GOP establishment. Even his hair says “F*ck you.”

And it’s why the establishment can’t say anything to undermine Trump’s support.

It’s the cost of spending decades teaching people not to trust you — especially if you also spent those decades rebranding reason as “liberal bias.” No argument will get you out of paying that bill.

So the establishment seems to be giving up the fight. Instead, it’s making a tentative, nose-holding move towards Trump. It’s a move made not in surrender, but in desperate hope: GOP elites pray that for all his populist posturing, Trump is really just a more flamboyant version of the Grand Old Play.

They’re trusting that eventually Trump will drop the act. As Bob Dole says, “He’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” After all, deals are what Trump has done throughout his checkered business career. He’s cut them with Democrats, Republicans, Saudi princes, mob-affiliated contractors, whomever, as long as it he thinks he’ll come out ahead (though he’s often been wrong about that). To get the deal done, he’ll say whatever he needs to.

Trump admitted as much in his recent interview with the New York Times editorial board:

Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

So maybe the GOP can cut its own deal. But let’s step through what happens next.

There are four plausible scenarios party leaders need to plan for:

1. Trump loses the Republican primary to a relatively sane alternative, i.e. not Ted Cruz or one of the other extremist (but unlikely-to-win) choices.

2. Trump loses the Republican primary to Ted Cruz (again, God forbid).

3. Trump wins the primary, but loses the general.

4. Trump wins it all (oh please, God forbid).

You could argue that if the elites embrace Trump, any of these scenarios works out better for them.

Scenario 1. The establishment embrace damages Trump’s brand (and he’s nothing but brand), helping him lose, they hope, to a more palatable candidate. Then the Grand Old Play can proceed more or less as it always has.

Scenario 2. Trump still loses, although after vanquishing one demon, the GOP has summoned a worse one in Cruz. As nutty as Trump is, he doesn’t want to tear down the system that made him wealthy. But Ted Cruz has shown he’s willing to tear down anything that isn’t Ted Cruz. I’ll leave exploring this nightmare for another time, but for now, let’s assume the party would try to adapt its Trump strategy to Cruz.

Scenario 3. After Trump wins the primary, the party’s reputation is beaten down even more for a few months, since it is now officially led by a global and historical embarrassment. But at least the suffering would end in November!

Scenario 4. If a (I hesitate even to write it) President Trump does in fact turn out to be a deal-maker, the GOP establishment does everything it can to run a non-catastrophic presidency. It surrounds Trump with regents who know what they’re doing, prevents him from actually wielding power, and keeps him happy by flattering his Titanic ego (huge but fragile, like the ship).

You can see how to the GOP, embracing Trump might look, if you squint really hard, sort of clever.

But it turns out to be a kamikaze strategy: all the party can win is full ownership of its destruction.

Under each of these scenarios, the rage of base voters will go beyond extreme. This time, finally, they were promised the end of the betrayals. But once again, betrayed they will be, either by the party, Trump, or both. Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans will recoil from their party’s apparently limitless cynicism.

The GOP, left with no valid claim to either its base or its mainstream, will just finish splitting into pieces.

There is another choice, though, unlikely as it may seem. Republican leaders could show true leadership. They could repudiate Trump, Cruz, and all forms of extremism, and make a brave stand for principled conservatism.

They would still be likely to lose. But they would lose with honor. And on that, they could begin to rebuild.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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