SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2021
Sonny and Loreen call C-Span: We're constantly struck by the problems our liberal tribe encounters as we try to create a workable liberal logic.
Consider a letter in today's New York Times. The writer is discussing the role the mainstream press should play at this perilous time.
The letter refers to this recent column by Ross Douthat. For us, it was the rarest of such columns, in that 1) we could understand what Douthat was saying, and 2) we agreed with his general view.
For now, let's focus on the logic of today's letter. Here it is, in full:
To the Editor:
Ross Douthat says the primary mission of the press is to provide an accurate description of reality, to be truthful and neutral. But being “neutral,” especially in today’s political climate, can result in inaccurate descriptions of reality and in untruths.
At present, the extreme segment of the Republican Party has an enormous influence and is an existential threat to our democracy. The extreme segment of the Democratic Party has far less influence and so, regardless of what you think of its ideas, does not pose the same threat to our democratic way of life. A false equivalency in coverage provides an untruthful and unrealistic picture of current affairs.
I’m sick and tired of hearing from acquaintances and others that politicians and political parties are “all the same.” They are not. It’s dangerous for the press to be “neutral” rather than truthful and realistic.
That's the full text of the letter. We can't help noticing this:
We agree with the general view described in the letter's first sentence. We agree that providing "an accurate description of reality" is the press corps' principal task.
That has long been a widely held view. Our question would be this:
How do we get, in the space of one paragraph, from "an accurate description of reality" to "a false equivalency in coverage?" How does being accurate (and "truthful") lead us to being false?
The writer believes that our current "politicians and political parties" are not "all the same." More specifically (but also somewhat fuzzily), he believes the current Republican Party presents "an existential threat to our democracy" while the current Democratic Party does not.
Presumably, he's referring to Donald J. Trump and Trumpism, and to the apparent craziness which often resides in such parts.
Our question, again, would be this:
If Trumpism is full of wild misstatements—modern liberals, and mainstream journalists, prefer to describe such misstatements as "lies"—how would "an accurate description of reality" lead to "a false equivalency?" Why wouldn't "an accurate description of reality" lead instead to a mainstream journalism which featured endless examples of Trump's wild misstatements, with few or no corresponding reports about such behavior by Democrats?
In fact, that's what mainstream journalism has largely looked like in the past five or six years. Our press has been full of such reports about Trump. He still received 74 million votes in last year's election.
Back to our basic question! How does the letter writer move so quickly from "accurate / truthful" to "false?" He gets there because of a third word he attributes to Douthat—that third world being "neutral."
According to the letter writer, Douthat wants the press to be accurate and to be truthful—but also to be neutral. That third word leads the writer to picture a "false equivalency," in which journalists pretend that the two parties are just alike.
Douthat does refer to "neutrality" three times in his column. But when he does, he's imagining circumstances in which journalists decide that they shouldn't be truthful and accurate—that they should refuse to report the shortcomings of Trump's opponents, to the extent that such shortcomings exist.
Should journalists behave that way? Especially if we're facing an existential threat, that is a matter of judgment.
In his column, Douthat says that abandonment of "neutrality" tends to be counterproductive, and we tend to agree.
That said, the letter writer, perhaps understandably, is in a state of high tribal dudgeon. Along the way, it seems to us that his logic is rather unclear.
Such lapses of logic tend to be general over the liberal world. We note a similar lapse today in Jesse Wegman's new column.
Oddly, Wegman seems to think that the purpose of fact-checking is to persuade Trumpian propagandists—in effect, GOP "party leaders"—to stop making wild misstatements.
Wegman says he's come to see that this will never happen. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that the more useful purpose of fact-checking is to peel away a segment of the Trump-voting "rank and file."
(This will be most likely to happen if the fact-checking is presented in a respectful, empathic way.)
Douthat's column is in part a response to Professor Jay Rosen. We were struck by a bogus idea which seemed to suffuse Rosen's half of this subsequent colloquy with Douthat. That's the idea that the mainstream press can somehow control what the electorate thinks.
In the face of the power of the pro-Trump press, the mainstream press corps can't necessarily do that! Rosen finally notes this fact very late in his piece, but that false assumption seems to drive his perfectly understandable sense of frustration every step of the way.
We liberals are having a very hard time constructing a liberal logic. We sometimes seem to think there's some magical way that we, or the mainstream press, can somehow gain control of the political situation.
Especially given our lack of perfect insight, that's magical thinking—a dream.
Our giant nation is splitting in two, and one of those two tribes reviles us. In order to understand why that is, consider the first two phone calls this morning to C-Span's Washington Journal:
SONNY FROM MISSOURI: Hi, good morning! I have been listening to all kinds of news from all over the world. I do not just listen to Fox or CNN. So people who tell the truth—[indecipherable name], Dr. Lee Merritt, Peter McCullough—these people tell the truth. Everyone else is essentially lying. You know that omicron is weaker than all the other variants, even though it is more transmissible. But the original coronavirus is only .03 mortality rate. This is all brainwashing. Arrest Fauci, save Infowars! Alex Jones was right!
LOREEN FROM CALIFORNIA: Good morning! I would just like to say that every American that is not vaccinated is being very un-American, and they're scum as far as I am concerned.
Loreen stopped talking at that point. Jesse asked follow-up questions.
"There is no reason why coronavirus should be running rampant in this country," Loreen told Jesse at one point. "It's all because of these Trumpers that are throwing a tantrum because Donald Trump lost and he didn't get credit for the virus."
For the record, Sonny and Loreen aren't part of the mainstream press corps. That said, these first two calls help explain the phenomenon which Professor Rosen, at least to our ear, hasn't quite come to terms with.
Dear Blue People, listen up! Their sons and their daughters are beyond our command! We can't fact-check their claims and call them names and command them to vote as we tell them.
In our view, the mainstream press corps should be truthful and accurate. In terms of its basic reporting, it should also be "neutral," at least in the way Douthat described.
We liberals should learn to stop loathing The Others in the ways we so plainly do and pretty much always have.
We're not inclined to agree with Sonny's assessments. But he may be the guy who will stop his car and help you change your flat tire next week. He very well may be the person who will stop and help you do that.
A giant society can only function based on comity and consent. In the end, a giant society can only function on a sense of shared values and sentiment, on shared respect and some sense of joint purpose.
Fact-checking can't force The Others to see things the (admittedly perfect) way we do. That's simply not how "the beloved community" or the human race actually works!
There but for fortune: "Sonny lives on a farm / In a wide-open space?"
That's the story Mary Black told—though also, of course, Sonny's mother, on the album A Woman's Heart.
To check your capacity for pure human feeling, we'll invite you to just click here. It seems to us that we liberals can boost our logic and our empathy.