Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Breaking the laugh barrier

One of the many ironies of the Trump campaign is the way that it has seriously underlined so many of the journalistic conventions that made it possible.

The laugh barrier is the strong taboo that most in the mainstream media have against reacting naturally to absurd statements. Conservatives in particular have become quite adept at using this to defuse potentially embarrassing issues. For example, the assertion that George W. Bush's war record compares favorably to that of John Kerry was laughable, but the people making this argument were reasonably confident that few if any of the interviewers would actually laugh. The objective of this tactic is generally not to convince but rather to shove the topic of into an opinions–differ limbo and move on to more favorable territory.

The laugh barrier is deeply entrenched in our journalistic culture and can withstand remarkable amounts of force, but it does have its limits.

From TPM's Allegra Kirkland:

CNN analyst Bakari Sellers launched into a summary of Trump’s past treatment of black Americans, citing the housing discrimination lawsuits his family was forced to settle for refusing to rent to black tenants and the full-page New York Times Trump took out calling for the wrongfully incarcerated Central Park Five to be executed.

“Donald Trump had nothing do with that!” [Gina] Loudon said.

“Wait, wait wait,” host Don Lemon cut in. “You said Donald Trump had nothing do for taking out ads on the Central Park Five?”

“Donald Trump himself,” she answered. “It was not Donald Trump himself.”

Lemon later showed Loudon a photograph of the ad, which bore Trump’s signature.

Things really dissolved when Sellers asked Loudon to name senior black staffers advising Trump’s campaign.

“You named Katrina Pierson. I bet you can’t name two,” he challenged.

“I could go on all day,” Loudon replied. “Omorosa. I mean I could go on all day. I’m not going to play into your little tester—”

Lemon and the rest of the four-person panel burst into laughter, and apparently some CNN staffers did as well.

“Stop. Stop it y’all. People in the studio are even laughing,” Lemon said.

The Trump campaign has effectively opened a hole in the laugh barrier. The question now is whether or not that gap will still be there the next time we have an election.

Monday, October 24, 2016

An open letter to Brian Beutler and Ed Kilgore

Dear Brian and Ed,

I am a big fan of your work but, after having read your recent pieces on the still unlikely but potentially devastating effects of a Trump election boycott, I would like to suggest that, at least during the next election, it might be worth your while to keep an eye on West Coast Stat Views.

I'm not saying you should come by every day, but at least during the campaign season, an occasional visit might tip you off to some interesting possibilities. For example, you both had columns today on the implication of Trump threatening to boycott the election.

Here's the key paragraph from the New Republic piece.
Thus, the bleakest possible scenario for Republicans isn’t that Trump loses badly and refuses to admit defeat. It’s that he rejects the notion that a fair election is even possible with him on the ticket, and announces he’s boycotting it. His supporters, only a small fraction of whom would have refused to vote for Trump turncoats down the ballot, stay home en masse instead. The Democrats take back the House.

And from New York Magazine:
But down there in the bunker of an embattled, losing campaign, despised by respectable people almost everywhere, a candidate can nourish fantasies of destructive vengeance. Does anyone doubt Trump is capable of ending this election cycle that he has dominated with one last audacious gesture that denies the clean and overwhelming defeat he has earned? The prospect has to occur to him every time he sees a GOP ad urging voters to elect Republicans to exert some control over President Hillary Clinton. That has to be so, so disgusting to him, believe me.

And here's what we were saying last year about the possible consequences of the Republican Party taking extraordinary measures to deny Donald Trump the nomination.

From: Distracted by the large flock of black swans
Monday, December 14, 2015

I don't want to get sucked into trying to guess what constitute reasonable probabilities here – – I'm just throwing out scenarios – – but it certainly does seem likely that, if he doesn't get the nomination and does not choose to run as an independent, Trump will still make trouble and things will get ugly.

Keep in mind, Trump's base started out as the birther movement. They came into this primed to see conspiracies against them. Now the RNC has given them what appears to be an actual conspiracy to focus on.

I don't think we can entirely rule out the possibility of Trump calling for a boycott of the vote to protest his treatment but even if it doesn't come to that, it seems probable that, should we see a great deal of bitterness and paranoia after the convention, the result will not help Republican turnout.

Obviously, Trump did get the nomination, but the broader argument still stands.

You also might want to check out what we said in that same post about the unintended consequences of delegitimizing the election with charges of fraud and rigging.


[I had a really funny title for this post, honest]

But it played off of a Red Meat cartoon and I can't find the original online. This one has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but since I brought up the comic strip...

There are two ways of reading the collapse of traditional data journalism that started about a year ago. Neither of them had anything to do with "listening to the data." (Unless you are seriously off your meds, data never tell you anything; you draw inferences from data. That's an important distinction but we'll have to wait till later to explore in depth.)

What the data journalists were arguing was that, at that early stage of the election, certain other metrics and historical patterns (which not coincidentally happened to support the standard narrative) were far better indicators of primary results than were traditional opinion polls. This preferred set of indicators changed from week to week – – depending on how you count, there were somewhere between five or six of them – – but they always reached the same conclusions.

This could be looked at as a case of extended cherry picking, rummaging through the data until you come up with a statistic that points in a direction that does not upend your worldview. The other way of looking at it (which is not entirely mutually exclusive) is that the arguments had been valid in the past and would have been valid during the primary if things were still the same. In other words, the underlying assumptions about fundamental relationships and mechanisms were breaking down.

The second interpretation reflects much better on the people like Nate Silver who were making the arguments, but it has far more troubling broader implications. If this truly is a case of previously reliable indicators losing their predictive power, then we need to start asking serious questions about the stability of all of our models.

And range of data. We definitely need to talk about range of data.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Saying your opponents won't show up to vote may work as unintentional reverse psychology

[I wrote this Saturday with the intention of posting it Monday, but events are moving rapidly so I decided to bump it up.]

A popular sidewalk stencil in Echo Park.

I don't want to get too bogged down in the details of this specific case which may well come to nothing. The interview could, however, turn out to have legs and, even if it doesn't, it's representative of a larger class of stories.

In a strange way, the official message of the Trump campaign to both supporters and opponents has been "your vote does not matter." For supporters, the message has been that the election will be rigged, and their votes stolen. For opponents, the often explicit and always blatant strategy has been one of suppression and counting on low turnout.

These strategies have a great potential for unintended consequences and when you combine them with other aspects of this campaign such as the uniquely bad standing of Trump among Latinos, African-Americans, and women or the unprecedented imbalance in ground game, you have the potential for some serious synergistic effects.

Under those circumstances, this article by Allegra Kirkland is the last thing the Trump campaign needs to go viral.

Former Arizona governor Jan Brewer declared Friday that Arizona won’t go blue for Hillary Clinton because Hispanic Democrats “don’t vote.”

“They don’t get out and vote. They don’t vote,” she told the Boston Globe when asked if those constituents could help tip the historically conservative state to a Democratic presidential nominee.


Nationally, Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Latino immigrants has also helped boost Clinton’s popularity among Latino voters, with one recent Pew Research survey handing her a 39-point advantage over her Republican opponent.


“It’s wishful thinking on their behalf,” Brewer told the Globe of the Clinton campaign’s efforts to win the Grand Canyon State. “Donald Trump is going to secure the border and that is a very important issue in Arizona.”

Brewer was an early supporter of the real estate mogul who has praised his disparaging comments about Latinos.

After the real estate mogul made his infamous campaign announcement speech denigrating Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” Brewer commended him for “telling it like it really, truly is.”

And there's already evidence that the attempts at suppression are backfiring (this time from Kirkland's editor, Josh Marshall):

We're now seeing numerous examples across the country of extremely long lines and long waits to vote - especially in states which took steps since 2012 to make it harder to vote and vote early. North Carolina is one of the best examples of this. People are waiting three and four hours to vote. It's genuinely shameful that we, as a society, find this acceptable. And yet millions of people are lining up to vote. They are undeterred.

Mormons, Evangelicals and...

Having a Jesuit in the Vatican was always going to be trouble for the GOP. Having a Trump at the top of their ticket at the same time makes it potentially catastrophic.

 David Gibson Religion News Service
 Vatican City

Figuring out why Pope Francis has upended so many expectations, how exactly he's changed the Catholic church in his first year and what he might be contemplating for the future has become a Catholic parlor game that is almost as popular as the pontiff himself.

A single key can best answer all of these questions: Francis' longstanding identity as a Jesuit priest.

It's an all-encompassing personal and professional definition that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brought with him from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and one that continues to shape almost everything he does as Pope Francis.

"He may act like a Franciscan, but he thinks like a Jesuit," quipped Fr. Thomas Reese, a fellow Jesuit who is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter.

In fact, it would be easy to mistake this new pope for a Franciscan, given his emphasis on helping society's outcasts and his decision to become the first pope to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor. Yet he's the first pope from the Society of Jesus, the religious community whose worldly, wise intellectuals are as famous as its missionaries and martyrs.

Indeed, behind that "Jesuit" label lies a centuries-old history and a unique brand of spiritual formation that go a long way toward understanding who Francis is and where he is taking the church.

From his passion for social justice and his missionary zeal to his focus on engaging the wider world and his preference for collaboration over peremptory action, Francis is a Jesuit through and through. And as the first Jesuit pope, he brings sharply etched memories of being part of a community that's been viewed with deep suspicion by Rome, most recently by his own predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

From Ed Kilgore:

One of the pivotal demographic groups Donald Trump is struggling with is Catholics, who often closely represent American public opinion as a whole (Obama won them by 2 points in 2012). You might guess Trump’s “Catholic problem” is largely the result of his manifest unpopularity among Latinos, the fastest-growing category of U.S. Catholics. But no: A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed him running behind Hillary Clinton among white Catholics, a pretty reliable GOP-leaning group for many years.

It is hard to sort out cause and effect here, but Trump continues to blunder in ways that hurt him with Catholics. Trying to show his religion bona fides early in the nomination contest, the mogul talked about eating “my little cracker,” a reference to the Eucharist that probably drew a wince from a lot of Catholics (and, for that matter, Orthodox Christians or some Protestants) who are highly reverent toward the Most Blessed Sacrament. This was the same Frank Luntz interview, moreover, when Trump seemed puzzled at the idea of asking God for forgiveness, which likely offended Christians of every persuasion. Then there was the Sunday when he dropped cash in a communion plate — a pretty dramatic exhibition of his leanings toward the Church of the Golden Calf. That was shortly before he called Pope Francis “disgraceful” for questioning the compatibility of nativism with Christianity.

Perhaps justifiably frantic about Trump’s weakness among Catholics, his supporters tried to make the case that one of John Podesta’s illegally stolen batch of emails showed Clinton staffers betraying a hatred of Catholicism. This claim did not much survive the realization that all of the staffers involved in the brief discussion of Catholicism in question are themselves Catholics. And as conservative Catholic Ross Douthat quickly explained, the “anti-Catholic” utterances in those emails actually reflect differences of opinion between progressive and “traditionalist” Catholics.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I don't have time to discuss how bad this is

AT&T to Purchase Time Warner for $80 Billion in Latest Media Megamerger by Eric Levitz
Good news for anyone who thinks America’s leading telecom companies are too small and powerless — AT&T has agreed to buy Time Warner for more than $80 billion, according to the New York Times. The reported deal, which is largest merger of content and distribution since Comcast purchased NBC Universal in 2011, follows an earlier Wall Street Journal report on Friday that talks were underway.

Even the guy with the axe...

I'm not going to connect all of the dots and risk ruining the punchline, but lots of recent news stories have reminded me of closing reaction of the hitchhiker with the axe.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Do you realize we've been telling these jokes for almost thirty years?

And in all that time, the butt of the jokes has never seen the humor.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Evangelicals and clarifying shocks continued [insert Road to Damascus reference here]

Following up on this, the backlash against evangelical leaders' support of Donald Trump appears to be growing. I think there's a decent chance that Trump may have permanently affected the relationship between the GOP and the evangelical movement.

Here's Scott Jaschik writing for Inside Higher Ed:
[emphasis added]

Liberty University students issued a statement last week criticizing their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for his endorsement of and campaigning for Donald Trump, even after the release of a video of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women (boasts he describes as "locker room talk"). Falwell responded by issuing his own statement, criticizing the students' views but saying that their ability to speak out was "a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas, unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out."

Despite the rhetoric, the university prevented Joel Schmieg, the sports editor of its student newspaper, The Liberty Champion, from running a column criticizing Trump.


Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said via email that he was concerned about any such censorship -- and he added that such censorship simply isn't effective, either. "Of course, Liberty is a private university not subject to First Amendment constraints, but the best private universities voluntarily maintain a hands-off policy respectful of the integrity of independent journalism. Leaving aside the civic and educational benefits of fostering critical-thinking skills on a college campus, it's just self-defeating in the year 2016 to think you can suppress unwanted ideas by tearing articles out of paper newspapers. When you censor an article in the 21st century, you're just guaranteeing it a wider audience. I doubt many 20-year-old sports columnists are being read across the country, but by censoring Joel's column, the university has exponentially increased its impact. There's nothing more irresistible than journalism powerful authority figures don't want you to read."

A spokesman for Liberty, Len Stevens, reached at home Tuesday night, said he heard about the controversy when President Falwell shared with him texts the president exchanged with his son Trey (as Jerry Falwell III is known). The texts confirmed that the university prevented the column from being published, but did not indicate that President Falwell was involved directly, said Stevens. Stevens said that Schmieg's column was "redundant" with another piece and was blocked because of space constraints, as an "editorial decision." Stevens did not respond to questions about how blocking a column critical of Trump might not be consistent with President Falwell's statements about free expression.

Falwell tweeted last night in a way that suggested he made the decision, and he also cited the issue of redundancy.

Schmieg noted that, as sports editor, he has a regular column that does not compete with other pieces for space. As a result, Schmieg said that he had to write another column when his piece about Trump was pulled. "It's not an issue of space," he said.

And here's Jack Jenkins, Senior Religion Reporter at ThinkProgress

Regardless, the censorship accusation comes as Falwell — a prominent leader of the Religious Right — grapples with a growing movement among students to distance themselves from the his consistent support for Trump. One group, Liberty United Against Trump, launched a online petition last week for those who are “disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.”

Falwell has dismissed the group as only a “few students,” but the petition now boasts more than 3,200 signatures — 1,700 of whom used Liberty University email addresses — and organizers insist they represent the larger student body.


The group’s organizers also repeatedly referenced an eyebrow-raising statistic: despite Falwell’s endorsement ahead of the Virginia Republican primary, Trump received a mere 90 votes from Liberty students on election, placing fourth behind Rubio, Cruz, and Carson.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Vivendi, where the shamelessness goes to 11

Via Mark Evanier, we have yet another reminder that, while Hollywood has always leaned toward the evil, executives for the massive mass media conglomerates/walking anti-trust violations are determined to keep pushing the envelope.

This Is Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer is suing Universal parent Vivendi for what he alleges is dramatic and deliberate under-payment of music royalties from the classic spoof rockumentary.

In a lawsuit filed at the Central District Court of California yesterday (October 17), Shearer accuses Vivendi of “fraudulent accounting for revenues from music copyrights” – through Universal – as well as mismanaging film and merchandising rights through UMG sister companies such as StudioCanal.

Shearer co-created the film, co-wrote the soundtrack and starred as the Spinal Tap band’s bassist, Derek Smalls.

He claims that between 1989 and 2006, total income from soundtrack music sales for the four creators of the film was reported by Vivendi as just $98. (Yes, ninety-eight dollars.)

In addition, he claims that Vivendi ‘asserts that the four creators’ share of total worldwide merchandising income between 1984 and 2006 was $81’.


 “Vivendi and its subsidiaries – which own the rights to thousands and thousands of creative works – have, at least in our case, conducted blatantly unfair business practices,” Shearer continued.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if our example were the tip of the iceberg.  Though I’ve launched this lawsuit on my own, it is in reality a challenge to the company on behalf of all creators of popular films whose talent has not been fairly remunerated.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A mean looking kid walking by a row of glass houses with a big ol' bag of rocks -- repost

[The nomination of Donald Trump was made possible by numerous failures of the news media to do its job. Therefore it is useful to look back at how things got this bad. Here's a post we did in 2013 (almost exactly three years ago) where we talked about how Paul Krugman, who would be, by far, the paper's most prescient voice in 2016, was dismissed as a loose cannon by the NYT.]

TPM has a short but fascinating revelation
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said Thursday that a public editor at the New York Times considers liberal columnist Paul Krugman's work to be an ongoing "nightmare."

During a segment on "Morning Joe," conservative historian Niall Ferguson joined Scarborough to pile on Krugman. Ferguson said that Krugman lacks "humility, honesty and civility."

"And there's no accountability," Ferguson said. "No one seems to edit that blog at the New York Times. And it's time that somebody called him out. People are afraid of him. I'm not."

Scarborough then recalled a conversation he had with a Times editor following his televised debate with Krugman earlier this year.

"I actually won't tell you which public editor it was but one of the public editors of the New York Times told me off the record after my debate that their biggest nightmare was his column every week," Scarborough said.
Assuming that Scarborough is on the level (and putting aside Ferguson's self-awareness issues), this would seem to echo the New York Times' reaction to Nate Silver. In both cases, the supposedly liberal staff seemed to take an instant dislike to highly respected liberal writer/researchers who appear to have brought in a large number of traditional and digital subscribers. What's going on?

As regulars have probably guessed, I see this as another result of an increasingly dysfunctional culture of journalism, specifically the way that journalists react to having someone on the inside who ignores the implicit code of conduct.

This is not a left/right matter -- it cuts across pretty much all of the media establishment -- but conservatives have tended to make better tactical use of the rules we're talking about, for instance, using pox-on-both-their-houses conventions to provide cover for unpopular positions. As a result, there are more obvious targets on the right but that's a fairly trivial factor.

Silver and Krugman prompted such a strong reaction not because they were too liberal (despite seeing the world through an overwhelmingly upper class perspective, the NYT cannot be considered a right-wing paper); but because they were insiders who refused to follow the rules of the culture, and who therefore threatened that culture.

Over the past two decades, journalists have fashioned a remarkably self-serving code of conduct: de- emphasizing factual accuracy; embracing a lazy herd mentality with talk of narratives and memes; avoiding tough confrontations through false equivalencies; and passing the buck on keeping their audience informed.

When Nate Silver pointed out both that the data didn't support many of the popular narratives and that the journalists pushing those narratives were contributing nothing, he threatened reputations, business models and the underlying culture of the institutions. The fact that he was right was beside the point; he was ignoring the conventions of the journalistic establishment and there is no greater bastion of that establishment than the New York Times. By the same token, when Krugman points out that "centrist" pundits have a huge personal and professional interest in pushing the "Paul Ryan, serious policy guy" narrative, he was expressing a fact that was widely known but which was not supposed to be said aloud.

The paper has never been exactly friendly to blunt, independent writers with satirical tendencies as Molly Ivins discovered way back in the Seventies, but things have only gotten worse since then. Almost everybody lives in glass houses now and Paul Krugman does not look like someone you'd trust with a rock in that situation.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season!

I'm planning on coming back and elaborating more on this later, but, as frequently noted here and elsewhere, while most commentators have fared extraordinarily poorly over the past year, a handful (including, yes, your not-so-humble hosts) have had a good run. Though they may not have framed it in exactly these terms, pretty much everybody who has gotten it mostly right has approached the election as the final stages of a massive social engineering experiment conducted by the conservative movement.

A key component of this experiment involved setting up radically different information streams for different target audiences. We talked about this before but one aspect that I've always wanted to address but never managed to get to is the way that this dual stream can explain seeming paradoxes in the radically different reactions of different groups of people to the same information.

In order to get a handle on this, it might be useful to think back to that time in psych 101 when the professor brought out the ambiguous pictures.The standard example is the old woman and young woman (originally captioned in a cartoon as  "my wife and my mother-in-law"). For the sake of variety, let's go with another.

The psych lecture would go something like this. Half the class was told to cover their eyes, the other half was shown a series of slides of birds. Then that half of the class was told to cover their eyes and the other half was shown a series of slides of small mammals. After being thus prepared, everyone looks at the following picture and is asked to write down what they see.

For the commentators who took the time to dig through the various media streams and put themselves in the place of each target audience (most notably Josh Marshall), it has been obvious for quite a while that those in the right-wing media bubble have a strong tendency to interpret events in a way that is consistent with the information, framing and narratives of the bubble. Donald Trump succeeded in the primaries because both his arguments and his affect seemed reasonable in the context of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

I'll come back and fill in some more details later but, as much as I want to avoid oversimplifying, this really is pretty simple. The journalists who have come off as sharp and ahead of the curve, have all (as far as I can tell) looked seriously at right-wing media and have asked themselves, if I actually believed everything I just heard, how would I react to the different candidates and their proposals?

This begs loads of questions and I don't want to oversell the explanatory power here, but given all of the overheated rhetoric about how chaotic and unpredictable this election has been, it's worth noting when those getting it right have something in common.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

What they're reading today in Utah

Pat Bagley cartoon from the Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016

A few quick notes:

1. The Salt Lake Tribune is not a particularly right-wing paper (it endorsed Obama over Romney) but it does have the city's largest weekday circulation and it obviously speaks for a substantial part of the population;

2.  The city's other major paper, the Deseret News also came out strongly  against Trump;

3. Just to be clear, the point of this and other recent posts on the subject is not that the Republican Party is about to lose the support of groups like Mormons and evangelicals. I'm just saying that there are signs that these longstanding relationships are growing unstable, which does push some interesting scenarios into the realm of the plausible.

Friday, October 14, 2016

If you're following politics, you need to be following the religious right. If you're following the religious right, you should be following Charles Pierce.

When it comes to the intersection between politics and the Catholic Church, there's no better source than the old Irishman. This bit of territory has become particularly interesting because the religious right and most of the conventional poli-sci wisdom around it evolved under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Vatican is now a very different place, and those differences have already started
destabilizing what a lot of people had assumed were immutable political relationships.

Here's Pierce on the reaction the comments about the Church in the leaked Clinton emails.

Just take that old post I wrote and substitute "Mormon" for "Evangelical"

When two denominations of the same religion recognize sharply different sacred texts, there will always be tremendous tension, particularly when one or both have fundamentalist tendencies. In a sense, the similarities feed the tension as much as the differences do.

With Mormons and evangelicals, the similarities are remarkable. In terms of piety and personal morality, there is a great deal of common ground and in both cases, sincere believers who tend to be conservative face a real crisis of conscience when it comes to supporting the current Republican nominees.
SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Donald Trump appears to have, in his earlier words, "a tremendous problem in Utah" as a new poll shows him slipping into a dead heat with Democrat Hillary Clinton since crude comments he made about women surfaced last weekend.

And along with the billionaire businessman's sudden fall, independent candidate and BYU graduate Evan McMullin surged into a statistical tie with the two major party presidential nominees, according to survey conducted Monday and Tuesday by Salt Lake City-based Y2 Analytics.

"A third-party candidate could win Utah as Utahns settle on one," said Quin Monson, Y2 Analytics founding partner.

McMullin may well have caught lightning in a bottle.

The poll shows Clinton and Trump tied at 26 percent, McMullin with 22 percent and Libertarian Gary Johnson getting 14 percent if the election were held today. Y2 Analytics surveyed 500 likely Utah voters over landlines and cellphones Oct. 10-11 The poll has a plus or minus 4.4 percent margin of error.