Valuing: Balance, nuance, data, thinking, complexity, texture. Eschewing: group think, confirmation bias, party-idolatry and false equivalency
I spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, most recently as the 10th publisher in the history of the Tallahassee Democrat. Now I'm interested in improving the level of discourse, helping people grow their brands and developing marketing strategies.
So I conducted a Facebook experiment on the presidential election. Of course it’s not scientific or anything, but it does provide a window into how folks are thinking.
This was prompted by the palpable anxiety I feel from my social media timelines.
Here was the hypothetical deal I offered to my friends, of all political persuasions:
Biden wins the White House and the GOP holds the Senate.If you had the power to accept this today, would you?
Again, I’m not interested (for the purposes in this experiment) about hearing what you WANT to happen. I just want to know if you would take this deal today to ensure election day isn’t a total loss for your preferred candidate/party either way.
So, the results are in and they very interesting.
I had a Twitter follower suggest that D’s would be less likely to take this deal than R’s. That really wasn’t the case. About 70 percent of both D’s and R’s said they WOULD take the deal.
The primary reason appeared to be that they saw the deal as an insurance policy, so to speak, against the worst case scenario.
What’s surprising to me — and what I think my Twitter follower was getting at — is that Democrats are as nervous as Republicans about this outcome, even though the polling data is clearly favoring a “blue” result.
If you simply approach this as a statistical exercise, and use the excellent polling aggregation/statistical analysis site fivethirtyeight.com as a reference point, President Trump has barely a 1 in 10 chance of winning reelection and the Republicans have just a 1 in 4 chance of controlling the Senate.
A Vegas poker player would look at those odds and say to Democrats: LET IT RIDE!
Clearly D’s are suffering from 2016 PTSD and put a much higher priority on a Trump defeat than anything else. As one person wrote: “less productive result but at least we won’t have someone I view as incompetent, harmful, corrupt and embarrassing in the WH.” Another said: “I won’t be satisfied politically, but my anxiety levels will drop.”
Republican “yes” votes generally just seemed to want to avoid a wipeout: “because it beats losing Senate and the White House and holding the senate would mean agenda is slowed.”
Another observation — for the “no’s” it appeared to be difficult to separate what they WANT to happen from what will actually happen. The D and R “no’s” seemed to be coming more from a place of wanting total victory.
I only had a handful of those identifying as independent respond. One of them, however, succinctly summed up the limits of this experiment: “I’ll roll the dice and take it to the jury, the Voters, and trust democracy.”
There is a quote I couldn’t get out of my head last night during the vice presidential debate.
No, it wasn’t from John McEnroe.
Instead, it was from my daughter’s absolute favorite, has-the-full-CD-set, has-seen-the-entire-series-10-times show The West Wing. In The Ticket (Season 7, Episode 1), longtime chief of staff Leo McGarry is now the vice presidential candidate to young would-be Bartlet successor Matthew Santos. McGarry is walking a rope line as reporters are shouting questions.
He ends up taking a question and butchering it, which goes against the advice given to him by his handler, Annabeth Schott: “If you don’t like what they’re asking you, don’t accept the premise of the question,” directed Schott, played by Kristen Chenoweth.
Of course, this isn’t some novel idea in politics. And we certainly saw it on display last night. But I’m here to at least shine a light on how the premises of tough questions (or heck, even easy questions) CAN be accepted without hurting a candidate.
Let’s start with Sen. Harris, who was asked about her primary campaign pledge to ban fracking juxtaposed against Vice President Biden’s statement that he would not ban fracking.
Instead of dodging her past statements in opposition, what if she had said this:
“Thanks for the question and it’s a good one. Yes, Joe and I have a different view on this. And guess what — there are other things about which Joe and I disagree. Is that the litmus test for running mates, that they have to agree with everything the person at the top of the ticket espouses? That’s not how friendships work. That’s not how marriages work. Well, this is a political marriage. My job is to support my spouse and he to support me. That includes times when we have a different view on something. Senator Kaine’s job was to support the policies of Sen. Clinton if she had been elected and mine is to support the policies of Vice President Biden. I think we have an electorate mature enough to handle a ticket that isn’t in some sort of imaginary state of constant agreement. In my real-life marriage, disagreement with my spouse has made our marriage stronger, not weaker. I’ve changed his mind on things and vice versa. And when we retain conflicting views, we learn to do so agreeably and respectfully, which is a quality I consider to be much more valuable than being sycophantic.Yes, I am personally for banning fracking. President Biden is not. That means the Biden-Harris administration will not ban fracking.”
How about Pence being asked about what a Roe v. Wade reversal would mean in his home state of Indiana. Here was Page’s question: “If Roe V. Wade was overturned what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?” Conspicuously, Pence did not answer, presumably because he doesn’t want to say he would make abortions illegal or doesn’t believe he should.
What if Pence had answered like this: “I have a strong pro-life view on abortion. I want to do everything I can to reduce the number of abortions in America. But I understand this is one of these 50-50 issues. If I was leading an Indiana discussion on what do in a post-Roe v. Wade world I would first seek to find where we could find the most common ground — later term abortions, parental consent and the like. Hopefully, everybody is in favor of reducing the number of abortions. That sounds like a good place to start. You know, this smart guy named Skip Foster has a great new blog — fanaticalmiddle.com — and he recently wrote about a new study that shows “pro-life” and “pro-choice” don’t adequately describe the views of most Americans on this issue. I would want to lead a discussion of how we can see where there is the most agreement and make sure we also consider the laws of unintended consequences.”
Yeah, I know, maybe unrealistic for someone beholden to a pro-life base, but he clearly wasn’t prepared to say “Indiana should ban all abortions.” I would rather him at least try to fashion an answer to the question that is honest than simply move on to some other topic, which is what he did.
A big unanswered questions was directed to Sen. Kamala Harris about “packing” the Supreme Court by adding seats to offset recent and prospective appointments of conservative judges. Vice President Pence asked her during one of his responses although I’m sure it was also on the question list of moderator Susan Page.
Harris (and Biden in the first debate) didn’t even pretend to answer the question, which is clearly one of the most important of the campaign — adding seats to the Court would change 150 years of American tradition, which isn’t to say it’s a good or bad idea, only that it’s a BIG deal.
So, what’s wrong with this answer:
“Thanks, Susan and I’m going to be honest with you, Vice President Biden and I simply haven’t decided where we stand on this. We know it’s a big deal. We know it’s a huge shift in American policy and tradition. And we know the American people deserve an answer on this before the election, especially since so many people have already voted. I promise that by October X, we will hold a press conference and share our position on this matter, either way. Voters deserve to know where we stand on this important issue.”
Honestly, I don’t see how running out the clock on this question is tenable.
Finally, there is one scenario where I think at least delaying an answer to a question would have been appropriate. Think about how powerful it would have been if Pence had opened up the debate this way: “Thanks Susan and thanks to the debate commission. I’m going to answer your question, but first I want to say this. It has taken us far too long to have a woman of color on this stage. Senator Harris, your accomplishments have been breathtaking and the history of this moment should not be lost on any of us. We have a long way to go in this country and on this planet when it comes to providing opportunity for all, but you are living proof that we also have much of which to be proud. I just want to congratulate you on this ground-breaking accomplishment and salute you for success.”
So, you don’t need me to provide another take on the performance of the two candidates. But, as someone who has done quite a bit of moderating of local forums and debates (albeit for much, much, much lower stakes than a presidential debate), I would like to defend those who think Chris Wallace could have done more to stop the train wreck.
I thought he did everything possible to keep things in line. I thought his questions for both candidates were tough and fair. To wit, he held Trump to account on the question of white supremacy and confronted Biden directly on packing the court. And, even given all the interrupting and insults, other policy ground was covered.
The fact that my Twitter timeline featured pretty equal complaining about his impartiality from D’s and R’s tells me he ended up down the middle. Mainly, I thought he fought valiantly to maintain order. To those who thought he should have done more in that regard, my question is: How?
Remember, moderators have no power except the microphone in front of them. And these are pretty important, strong personalities standing on the stage. I thought Wallace was as strong as he could be attempting to control the candidates.
I also want to address the suggestions that moderators should be able to “mute the microphone” as some sort of debate elixir. I’m not so sure about that, as it may allow the Law of Unintended Consequences to raise its head.
Question: Wasn’t the interrupting actually part of the content of the debate? Isn’t seeing how the candidate interact and behave under pressure important, just like their positions on policies? Can you imagine the pushback on a moderator when he/she actually uses the mute button to silence a candidate for leader of the free world?
Let’s look at it from another angle: If Trumps’ interruptions and rudeness were why he lost the debate, why would a Biden supporter want that essentially hidden from debate watchers? Also, is it really realistic to turn debates into a no-interruption zone? I mean, clearly there were TONS of interruptions last night, but that’s not to say there haven’t been any interruptions in debates over the last decades — some of them illuminating and newsworthy.
I understand and share the desire for the types of debates that we all want, but the reality is, utilizing a mute button would likely lead to more problems than it solves. And it actually might provide cover for those who are unable to restrain themselves during debates, perhaps masking a character flaw for which they should be evaluated by voters.
15Matthew Foster, Jon R. Frazier and 13 others5 Comments
Years ago in the news business, a measure of success in the digital world was page views. We all wanted them and measured success based on how many we got.
The page view obsession eventually wore out as we realized this: It was kind of a phony measurement, mainly because we could drive that number with sensational or even salacious content that would appeal to non-local audiences. That in turn, brought traffic to advertisers that didn’t really do the businesses any good.
For example, if in Tallahassee we ran across the story of a three-headed alligator that was eating family pet kittens, that would draw readers from across the globe. But if I’m a local bank or furniture store buying ads on the web site, what good do those eyeballs do for my business?
So we moved on to other more relevant metrics, which wasn’t to say we ignored page views. Local page views are great! But we also wanted to see how long readers stayed on site and how often they returned and stuff like that. That is, we wanted the most relevant info we could find.
I’m suggesting today that COVID “cases” are the page views of the pandemic.
Again, that’s not to say they are irrelevant, but they are not the most useful metric to measure the impact of this deadly, dreaded virus.
This is an important issue to consider as schools start back up and with the backdrop of our local university settings.
Here are the reasons I don’t think cases are the best measure of the impact of the virus:
Not all cases are created equal
Contracting the virus isn’t the worst case — being hospitalized or dying from it is
Cases are tied to testing which we know is imperfect, inconsistently administered and evolving.
Let’s start with “not all cases are created equal.”
According to the Florida Dept. of Health, the state has had just under 50,000 children (ages 17 and under) diagnosed with COVID-19, through Aug. 26. Florida, also as of the 26th, had about 659,000 total cases. That’s 7.6 percent of cases. But under 18-year-olds make up almost 20 percent of the population, according to the U.S. census, so clearly COVID is weighted away from young people in terms of number of cases (at least the ones that have been tested).
But what about severity?
Let’s compare young people to the oldest segments of our population.
And let’s go national so we don’t get any demographic wonkiness Florida might add to the mix.
In the U.S., those 17 and under have made up 8.1 percent of the cases, while those 75 and over have made up almost the exact same amount — 7.9 percent. That’s according to the CDC.
But when it comes to the share of fatalities, a total of 85 Americans in the under 17 age bracket have died — out of the 150,000-plus total — that’s six hundreths of one percent of the total fatalities. For those over 75, almost 79,000 have died, which is 58 percent of the fatalities.
(And let’s just stop right there and say that some of the “they were going to die soon anyway” rationalizations for all those elderly deaths are disgusting. Even if an elderly life is cut short by three months, it’s a tragedy. I’m not diminishing elderly deaths AT ALL. Rather, I am showing how the threat to the elderly compares and how measuring cases can distort the view of how the pandemic is affecting any given community).
Let’s put those numbers another way.
If you divide the number of fatalities into the number of cases for those 75 and older, you get a fatality every 4.3 cases, or a 23 percent fatality rate for cases. For those under 17, it’s a fatality every 4,100 cases or a .02 percent fatality rate.
Here’s the number I’ve been trying to get to. By dividing 4.3 into 4,1000, I get it:
It takes 953 cases in someone under 17 to equal just ONE case in someone 75 or older, when it comes to the risk of fatality.
So, when you see that Florida added X thousand cases in a day — what was the median age of those cases?
One reason Leon County’s fatality rate has been so low is that the median age of a case is 29. Compare that to Charlotte County (lots of retirees) where the median age of a case is 54. Charlotte County has had 110 deaths out of about 2,600 cases. Leon: 33 deaths out of about 6,200 cases.
Here’s the other thing I don’t think we fully recognize and grasp as a society.
Lots and lots of people die every year and more of them are young than we would ever want to imagine.
Here is a chart of U.S. annual deaths for 2020 (actually, starts Feb. 1, which is I guess when COVID data starting flowing, but you get the idea) from COVID and all other causes from the CDC.
I guess I’ve never really thought about the fact that millions of people die every year in America.
What’s really surprising is the 15,000 or so people ages 14 and under who have died this year of all causes. As you can see, COVID victims make up just .3 percent of all deaths in that age range. Even in those over 85, COVID has made up less than 10 percent of all fatalities. (Yes, I know there are disputes about the data and how things are coded — I hear from both sides that the numbers are fudged higher or lower to help one side of the other. Frankly, I don’t think either side is smart enough to pull off that kind of a conspiracy).
So, what’s my point?
First of all, looking at cases is one of the worst metrics to use when analyzing the impact of the virus.
Hospitalizations are a clear signal of a severe case and, of course, death is the ultimate price to pay for contracting COVID.
One telling fact here is from the University of Alabama, which has garnered national headlines recently for COVID outbreaks. More than 1,000 University of Alabama students have COVID-19.
Of those, do you know how many have been hospitalized? Zero. Now, given the delay from the onset of symptoms to hospitalization, that number may or may not start moving.
As an aside, here is a question: Why in the world would you want to send infected college students home, where they interact with all sorts of more vulnerable people while traveling and then while back in their home communities? In a dorm, they are just passing around COVID to a group of people with just a tiny risk of having a severe impact from the disease (I had somebody in health care tell me recently that FSU’s campus will be the safest place in the world by November because it will have achieved its own little “herd immunity”).
This is also why five Notre Dame professors penned a public letter urging the administration to keep on-campus learning, which the university ultimately did.
Second, when looking at the big picture, the risk for young people when it comes to COVID remains very, very small.
Even if COVID death numbers for this age group (19 and under) more than doubles the rest of this year to almost 200, COVID-19 wouldn’t even make the top 10 causes of death for young people (chronic lower respiratory disease took 274 lives in 2018).
On the other hand (a clause you will read a lot on this site), there is still much we don’t know about how the virus affects people, including the possibility of myocarditis (weakness of heart muscle) and possible neurological impacts.
My third point — if you think this is an attempt to oversimplify the issue of attending school or the like, I refer you back to earlier blog postings.
This is still incredibly complicated.
There is still the issue of young people infecting older more vulnerable people. There are still tough questions about how students interact with teachers, school staff and others on campus. And even within the young people cohort are individuals who are at higher risk than their peers, because of underlying health conditions or other factors.
No, this isn’t simple. But that cuts both ways. Merely pointing at case numbers and declaring that being in school is unsafe is also oversimplifying the situation.
And on the other end of the spectrum — what are we doing to protect those elderly Americans who are at such a scarily vulnerable place with COVID?
Finally, you’ll notice there is no politics in here — there are plenty of places you can go to have that conversation. I’m just interested in data and what conclusions and inferences can be drawn from that data. And by the way, lest you think I’m a complete idiot, I’ve had this piece and those like it reviewed by a journalist, two health care professionals as well as the toughest judges of all — family members — pre-posting.
Feel free to chime in with your views, of course. But if you are going to take this down a political path, you are unlikely to get engagement from me on that — I’ll probably only give you a page view.
He’s the radio voice of the Charlotte Hornets, which is interesting to me only because, many many moons ago, I covered the Hornets as a young sports writer in Gastonia, N.C
But I stumbled across Focke in the ESPN top story scroll.
My first thought was: Oh boy, another exposed racist. One signal that the broadcaster must be guilty is that “mistyped” was put in quotations, signaling that his claim is bogus.
So, I go read the story.
The guy was tweeting about the Nuggets-Jazz game (Charlotte didn’t make the playoffs, so he’s providing Twitter commentary on other games) which he was watching.
Instead of typing Nuggets, he typed the N-word. He quickly deleted the tweet.
Hmmmm, I thought. Those words are at least a little similar in construction. So, I looked down at my keyboard.
It turns out that Nuggets and the plural of the N-Word have the exact same number of letters — seven.
It also turns out that only 2 of those 7 letters are different. And they both occur in the same place in the word — the “U” and the “T” in Nuggets are the second and sixth letters as are the “I” and “R” in that most offensive, racist N-word.
Now, let’s look at the keyboard.
Those two letters that are different are ADJACENT on the keyboard. And if Focke was typing on his phone, we know that proximity is even more problematic.
So here is my question:
What’s more likely, that Focke is a closet racist who tried to sneak the N-word in place of the word Nuggets creating a completely out-of-context slur that thousands would see, or that he mistyped two characters, adjacent on the keyboard, which resulted in him posting a slur which he immediately took down?
I did a very little research on Focke — I couldn’t find much because the first four pages of search results are now filled with the Nuggets tweet.
But I didn’t find these two recent tweets:
Does this look like the social media activity of a racist?
I can’t find any other evidence that he has done anything controversial.
Yet, he is suspended indefinitely by the Hornets and is being lit up on Twitter.
And ESPN coyly signals he is making excuses by saying he “mistyped” the word (test: read the ESPN headline without the quotations around “mistyped” and see if it reads any differently or less accurately).
So … maybe Focke is some secret closet racist who types the N-word so often that other words autocorrect to it. And I’m not being sarcastic with that sentence. I know nothing about this guy and I’m not vouching for him. He may, in fact, have typed the N-word often enough that it came up in some sort of autocorrect form.
But absent any other information the FAR more plausible explanation for this tweet is that he simply mistyped something that, by extremely unfortunate coincidence, happened to be a horrific slur (And I must say, it has been fascinating to see the Twitter warfare on this — in particular, the number of African Americans who have defended Focke).
Here are my points:
Before declaring this guy guilty of racism, can we at least be open to other possibilities?
Also, if this was just a typo, have we run out of real racism and racists to ferret out? I don’t think we’re even close. Wasting time on the Fockes of the world not only doesn’t help the cause, it sets it back. I know that Focke may be getting a taste of what it’s like to face discrimination and unfair treatment, but two wrongs have never made a right, and that’s no excuse for ruining a man who doesn’t deserve it, if that is what has happened here.
In fact, based on his tweets, this guy is an ALLY of the BLM movement! Why would anyone want to cancel an ally?
Maybe Focke will be found to have (OK, I can’t help it) Focked up in other ways. If so, cancel away.
But until something more substantial than two key strokes is proven, Focke is not cancel-worthy.
In the meantime, the fight for racial equality should continue, in earnest. One false cancel doesn’t mean there aren’t many hearts and minds to change.
EDIT: Since I’ve written this but before I posted it, Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman was suspended for using an anti-gay slur on the air.
This situation is everything the Focke situation wasn’t. Brennaman spoke the word in a clearly derogatory way. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, it was intentional and clearly a window into Brennaman’s character. He should be suspended (and has been by the Reds) and I can’t come up with a reason why Reds fans should hear him call another game. That is, he should be fired.
So, one hallmark of the post-Floyd era is a movement to tear down certain historical monuments and statues, or at least to push to have them removed.
Generally speaking, I think it’s a healthy thing to reevaluate how history is written and interpreted. In addition to the traditional, moral Golden Rule is a more capitalist version of that axiom: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” The same is true of history.
A typical result is that history is romanticized in the direction of those who authored it.
We know that has led to a glossing over of the horrific plights of all sorts of groups of people, from Native Americans to African Americans and more.
Of course, history has also been known to be quite forgiving — the adulterous behavior of a business or political leader is often forgiven, orover time, in the face of larger accomplishments or contributions to society. Some sins seem to stick more than others, but history tends to airbrush blemishes and highlight the “good side” of historical figures.
The emergence of the “cancel culture” has been a shift in that philosophy. There are some who now believe anyone who ever owned slaves or endorsed their ownership should not be recognized with the historical affirmation of a statue or the like (the same is true of post-Civil War segregationists).
He was the son of a fervent abolitionist, Jesse Root Grant. While Ulysses Grant did not inherit his father’s rabid opposition to slavery, he was hardly comfortable with the institution. He married into a Missouri family of slaveowners in the 1850s and acquired a slave in 1858 from his father-in-law. But Grant couldn’t do it. He couldn’t force the man to work and within a year, he formally granted him his freedom.
You know Grant’s legacy as a general — he ended a long line of Union generals who could not get the better of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, eventually securing Lee’s surrender.
But you may not know the hallmarks of Grant’s presidency – he prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to important federal offices and even created the nation’s first national park — Yellowstone.
Which brings me to my thesis: We should judge our fellow women and men on the totality of their contributions to history.
For me, that means a clear delineation between Civil War Confederate leaders and Union leaders, such as Grant, as well as Founders of the United States.
Let’s take Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President served in a variety of capacities in the U.S. government pre-Civil War (Secretary of War; U.S. Senator, etc.), but none of his contributions were anywhere near as substantial, historically, as his presidency of the insurrection.
And let’s call it what it is, even here in the Deep South — secessionists are, by definition, seditious, disloyal and treasonous. To honor Davis is to honor a failed effort to end the union. Perhaps ending a government’s rule could still be justified, if the cause were honorable, such as the American Revolution, but the cause was not honorable — it was at least in part to preserve slavery as an institution.
That is a monument which should be moved from a place designed for public adoration and admiration, to a venue where history is viewed warts and all, such as a museum or cemetery.
Compared to Grant — well, there is no comparison to me. During an era when slaveholding was widespread, Grant owned a single slave for only a year and couldn’t stomach it. He then spent much of the rest of his life advocating for American blacks, including winning the war that ultimately secured African Americans their permanent freedom, then passing government reforms that increased their legitimacy.
Grant is an analog, in my eyes, to American Founders, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the like. All four owned slaves, around 100 years before the Civil War was fought.
But to view their actions a quarter millenium ago through present-day lenses is a dangerous way to analyze history. Actually, I just defined something called “presentism.”
The nation’s oldest historical society — the American Historical Association — says of “presentism” that it “encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior.”
I’m not going to list the contributions of Washington and Co. to the country they founded, but needless to say they are prodigious and worthy of continued celebration.
“I would say the difference, the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com– complicated individuals– and by our standards– thought about ideas in– in an entirely anachronistic way– they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle– the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.”
I guess this is the problem I have with the “cancel culture” in general — it tends to treat all “crimes” as “social justice felonies” regardless of context such as the era of the offense, or the degrees of wrongdoing. Context still matters, even as we wrestle as a nation with institutional — and blatant — racism.
On the other hand, I understand that some will hold the view that any association with slavery is a “cancelable” offense. I think that is misapplied “presentism,” but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a completely unreasonable view — just one with which I strongly disagree.
Anyway, the “fanatical middle” here is that some monuments should not longer be heralded as homages to heroes, while others should. In other words … NUANCE!
So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow me!
My logic on this starts with clear and unequivocal advocacy for ethnic and racial diversity in newsrooms. I don’t support this diversity as some sort of box-checking exercise. I support it as articulated by the American Press Institute, in its statement on diversity and inclusion:
Diversity is a business imperative. Concentrated efforts to highlight diversity are necessary for reaching new audiences and staying relevant to younger changing audiences. Readers pay attention to the content that speaks to or serves their identity.
Diversity is a journalism imperative. Without accounting for the range of lived experiences, we fail to serve parts of our communities. Journalism, in its truest form, should be produced for the benefit of all, not only those who wield a particular power, class or authority.
I’ve had the honor of working with exceptional journalists of color. At the Tallahassee Democrat, that included people such as reporters TaMaryn Waters, Nada Hassanein and Byron Dobson and editor Andrew Skerritt, just to name a few.
These journalists, on countless occasions, provided key counsel, editing and input on stories, editorials, columns and other decisions. They also provided unsolicited insight on issues and potential stories important to minority communities. We leaned on them (perhaps unfairly) and the newspaper was the better for it.
And, it goes without saying, they were terrific journalists.
So, the reasons for doing everything possible to find journalists of color are detailed in that description — “staying relevant,” “content that … speaks to (readers’) reality,” content “for the benefit of all.”
Why shouldn’t that apply to conservative journalists?
Well, I think I can anticipate some answers to that question, but first, let’s establish that there is a problem.
Exhibit A: Trust in the media.
This look at the Gallup poll over the last 23 years is pretty amazing. In 2000, less than 5 points separated Democrats and Republicans when the question is about trust in media. Today, the gap is 54 points. Just 1.5 in 10 of Republicans have a great or fair amount of trust.
So, you might say, that’s a product of the Trump era. Fair point and more on that shortly, but even back in 2008 the gap had grown to 33 points.
The percentage of journalists identifying as conservative has also plummeted (although, it must be said, research on this subject is — tellingly? — very sparse). Perhaps that’s because there is no longer much doubt of the truth that journalists lean to the left, at least in relation to the rest of the public.
Below is a 16-year-old chart from Pew research. Even back then, the ratio of conservatives in the general public to the press was almost 5 to 1 for national press and almost 3 to 1 for local press. It’s fair to assume that this gap has widened further.
If you are aware of other studies in this area, I’d love to see them.
Now, it’s impossible to have this discussion without referencing our current president.
This front-page editorial penned by the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board summed up my thoughts on then-candidate Trump, when he visited Tallahassee. A key excerpt:
“We worry that your harsh rhetoric … leads to a more hostile environment for journalists.”
There can be little doubt this came to fruition, along with a general decline in American discourse and polarization beyond anyone’s pre-Trumpian imagination. The president’s disdain for journalists and lack of concern for facts and accuracy have been a pock on the face of the republic.
But an unfortunate by-product of this insidiousness has been the apparent unshackling of far too many in the media when it comes to impartiality.
I understand there is an entire separate debate about objectivity in the media — I waged that fight against the late great Steve Buttry, who, despite our disagreement on this issue, was a true giant in our industry.
I’ll save that whole issue for another blog (or 12), but my point is that the combination of a media already leaning heavily to the left and a feeling that unseating President Trump is more important than, well, just about anything, has led to a partisanship in the media that is difficult for me to watch (and I say “watch” because it is most brazenly manifested on cable news).
I hasten to add that it doesn’t matter to me if I find myself agreeing with the opinions of erstwhile journalists-turned-partisan-provocateurs. It still breaks my heart that objective journalism is a casualty. And truthfully, leaders come and go, but journalism should be a permanent bedrock of the republic.
Anyway, on to the anticipated objections.
First objection: “Who cares about this imbalance? Journalists overcome their biases as a part of the job.”
Skip’s response: But try viewing that argument through the racial diversity lens. No one — correctly — accepts the idea that an all-white newsroom can overcome its biases and fairly cover and engage with minority communities. Why do we assume it can be done if the criteria is ideology?
Another objection: You are comparing racial diversity — which is borne of centuries of discrimination, including slavery, to a class of people who are generally powerful, white, patriarchs. Black distrust of the media should take precedence.
That’s a pretty strong point!
But data doesn’t really back it up.
Check out this Pew research graphic from 2018:
African Americans actually have higher trust of local media than whites or Hispanics. Now, this could partly be attributed to ideology rather than race, but it’s still compelling.
But this isn’t my main response to the comparison of ideological diversity to racial diversity.
My main response is — why can’t we have both? Why is it either/or?
That leads me to a brief journey into “both/and.”
My priest recently sent me this amazing piece by Debie Thomas, about the great paradoxes of Christianity.
Thomas ends with this:
” … remember that we are held and braced by a God who is too big for thin, one-dimensional truths — and this is a good thing. It’s not that we hold paradox; it’s that paradox holds us. We are held in a deep place. An ample place. A generous, sufficient, and roomy place. Though we might fear paradox, God does not, and it is in God’s soil that we are firmly planted. We’re safe, even in the contradictions. Messy and weedy for sure, but safe.”
Why can’t we face the truth that we have multi-dimensional problems up and down various spectra, when it comes to newsroom diversity. Minorities are underrepresented and so are conservatives. Can’t we work on solving both problems?
Now, back to the objections ….
Another one: How do you test for someone’s ideology?
For an environmental reporter, the question might be: “What role does the impact of environmental regulations on business play in your coverage?”
For a government reporter, it might be: “Tell me about a story you’ve written on how government red tape had an adverse impact on the economy.”
For an education reporter, it might be: “What have you done to cover home schooling? What stories have you written about successful charter schools?
Let’s face it — there are very few reporters who will be comfortable answering those questions.
Another issue is coverage of faith issues — newsrooms are notoriously a-religious — way out of kilter with the the general public. This 2002 Pew research isn’t exactly on point, but I think it is illustrative:
Again, I’m less interested in the specific finding from 18 years ago than I am the disconnect between the belief of the general public (a clear majority of 58 percent answering in the affirmative) vs. national and local journalists (6 and 18 percent, respectively).
Skip’s theory: American polarization is partly being fed by an increasingly polarized press. (And as a side note, this will be exacerbated by those who argue that “objectivity” is a relic that needs to be discarded). This is all quite unhealthy for the nation’s political environment. Rather than shuttling off conservatives to their own partisan sites, a much more desirable and healthy solution is for legacy and new news organizations to find ways to achieve better ideological balance, even as they are also working on issues of diversity as it pertains to race, ethnicity and other minority groups.
Is this the biggest problem facing journalism? No.
Am I arguing for a massive influx of conservatives to be added to newsrooms? Of course not.
But the few conservatives that exist ought to be treated with respect and our industry ought to find ways to add more.
The beauty of “both/and” is that a problem doesn’t have to be No. 1 on the list to be addressed. It’s a problem. And it won’t be fixed by ignoring it or moving further toward the “partisan-izing” of journalism. I still believe that objective, down-the-middle reporting is attainable and is what many Americans want. But we will never get there in newsrooms where an entire side of the ideological spectrum is under- or even unrepresented.
Even that goofy young editor in the first picture had that one figured out.
I will be anxious to hear your thoughts on this. A reminder: if your aim is to “destroy” my argument or whatever the latest lingo is in World of Angry Social Media, then you’ve come to the wrong place. I understand reasonable people can have a different view than I have on this — just try to present it reasonably. If you aren’t familiar with The Village Square, I’d love to model the discourse in this blog after that amazing organization.