Trusting the Media

watching TVIt is an unfortunate truth that the majority of Americans are poorly informed about national and world affairs. Newspapers are folding all over the country and even the major television networks are having problems attracting loyal followers. When people do become aware of certain issues it is largely through a few sound bites, video clips, or comments by celebrities that fail to provide much depth.

As Robert G. Kaiser, the former Senior Editor of the Washington Post, stated in an extended Brookings Essay this past summer,

Today’s young people skitter around the Internet like ice skaters, exercising their short attention spans by looking for fun and, occasionally, seeking out serious information.

Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided, which included national, foreign and local news, business news, cultural news and criticism, editorials and opinion columns, sports and obituaries, lifestyle features, and science news.

The same can be said of televised reporting. Much of what does appear on the national networks is of poor informational quality. Yet it is quite revealing to see how much trust viewers place in the information presented by these broadcasters.

A Cooperative Congressional Election Survey done in 2006 showed that 77.5% of Republicans thought Fox News gave the fairest coverage of national news. CNN came in second with only 4.2%, and all others fared far below that. This shows either incredible trust by conservatives in Fox News reporting or incredible distrust of the other networks.

Independents, on the other hand split their favourability ratings between Fox News (30%), PBS (21.4%) and CNN (15.7%) while Democrats preferred PBS (29.5%) and CNN nearly equally (27.2%). MCNBC received much smaller rankings among both Independents and Democrats, and only 4.0% of Democrats trusted Fox News..

survey-foxA more recent survey done in June of this year by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), showed similar results. Their survey focused mainly on attitudes toward immigration reform, but included questions on the respondents’ news preferences. When asked which television new source they trusted most to give accurate information about politics and current events they answered as follows:

trust_in_television_news_sourcesWhat do these charts tell us? They basically confirm that most Republicans who tune into network news coverage favor Fox News over all other sources, while both Democrats and Independents tend to trust a broader variety of news sources. [It’s nice to have solid data to back up these things.]

tv cartoon 1A further question needs to be asked: Just how trustworthy are these news sources that shape voters’ opinions? This summer PunditFact reported on its latest fact checking of statements made by network news personalities and their guests on various television networks. The results are rather discouraging.

foxpunditOf the statements made by various pundits and commentators appearing on Fox News that they decided to fact check, they found 60% of those statements to be either False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, while only 18% of statements were categorized as True or Mostly True. That’s what happens when political punditry substitutes for news content and “infotainment” replaces real news analysis.

On the other side of the political spectrum, MSNBC didn’t do a whole lot better.

msnbcpunditA full 46% of the statements they fact checked were found to be either False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, while only 31% of statements came out as True or Mostly True.

CNN, on the other hand, came out much better with only 18% of the statements they fact checked being False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, and 60% of statements being True or Mostly True.

cnnpunditNevertheless, these numbers overall are horrible. Is it any wonder, then, that a Gallup poll released this September reported that Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly” is at an all-time low of only 40%?

Gallup1That is the principle reason why I do not watch American (so-called) news programs.

On a related matter, Gallup notes that Americans historically have believed the new media as a whole to be “too liberal” rather than “too conservative.” But that is changing, as in 2014 Gallop recorded “the sharpest increase in the percentage of Americans who feel the news skews too far right since Gallup began asking the question in 2001.”

Gallup3When one breaks down the overall percentages by political orientation, it is found that 71% of Conservatives believe the media are too liberal, which might explain their distrust non-Fox News messaging. Liberals talk a lot about conservatives operating within a self-contained “media bubble” in which they only tune in to views that reinforce their own ideas. That can be true of some liberals too, but remember that they do not tend to lock themselves in to only one news source or one point of view.

Nevertheless, as Kaiser states in his lengthy essay cited earlier,

Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press show that increasing numbers of American get their “news” from ideologically congenial sources. The news media are fragmenting just as American society is fragmenting—by class, by region, by religious inclination, by generation, by ethnic identity, by politics and more.

tv cartoon 3Kaiser also laments the disappearance of the kind of balanced in-depth reporting that used to characterize the print and broadcast media.

“[F]or those who continue to want access to that kind of product, there is no right to reliable, intelligent, comprehensive journalism. We only get it when someone provides it. And if it doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.”

Veteran CBS news anchor Dan Rather is another critic of present-day television journalism. In a recent interview with The Star he stated that,

[O]ver the last 15 to 20 years … [t]he standards of what is accepted as quality journalism have dropped precipitously. … There was a time when, if you were covering foreign news that meant you sent reporters to a place to actually cover it. Now, so often covering international news is, “Put four people in a room and have them shout at one another.”

Another very revealing exchange occurred recently when Dan Rather along with former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan were guests on CNN’s Reliable Sources program. When Ratigan suggested that to keep audience share the networks should “play up more culture and less Washington,” Rather jumped in and said, “[N]obody is asking me but if I were running either one of these outfits, I would do away with a lot of money spent on graphics and in-house opinion giving, and do deep digging investigative reporting …” – at which point Ratigan interrupted and said, “That’s why they’re not calling you, Dan.”

It’s sad to see solid, probing, and fact-laden news journalism passing from the scene in this way and being replaced with celebrity commentators in the place of real news anchors.

Lame Duck or Prizefighter?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonIn the months leading up to the U.S. midterm elections President Obama seemed to be sitting on the sidelines. Supports looked in vain for any sign of movement on a host of pressing issues including immigration, the XL pipeline, climate change, net neutrality, tax reform and economic policy.

The president recognized the massive wall of opposition from his Republican critics that awaited any action he might pursue on those issues. And so, he waited it out. He held off taking action on these matters until after the midterm elections were over so that Democratic candidates would not get caught in the cross fire.

But now Obama seems to be coming out of his corner – not defeated, but invigorated, saying in effect, “Bring it on.”

Obama - lame duckTonight Obama will inform the nation of his immigration policy to be implemented by executive order. Astonishingly, the major networks have refused to broadcast it – shouldn’t the “liberal” media be jumping at the chance to grant him this exposure? Instead, people will get selected “sound bites” broadcast later on – reflecting someone else’s take on his address.

Impeach ObamaI am sure Obama’s Republican critics will immediately start howling about Obama’s executive orders, demanding his impeachment – even though Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush instituted similar immigration changes by executive order during their administrations. (What? You mean the conservative media isn’t reporting this?)

According to the analysis I have read, Obama has full constitutional authority over deportations and how they shall be carried out. A recent article in the New Republic by Erwin Cherminsky, the Dean of Law at the University of California and Sam Kleiner, a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project, state,

One thing is clear: The president has the constitutional authority to decide to not proceed with deportations. It has always been within the president’s discretion to decide whether to have the Department of Justice enforce a particular law.

They explain,

A president may choose to not enforce particular laws when deciding how to allocate scarce resources or based on his view of the best public policy. Few object, for example, when the Department of Justice does not prosecute those who possess small amounts of marijuana, even though they violated the federal Controlled Substance Act. There are countless federal laws that go unenforced. In 1800, then congressman and later Chief Justice John Marshall stated, the president may “direct that the criminal be prosecuted no further” because it is “the exercise of an indubitable and constitutional power.”

They note that, “The president’s broad prosecutorial discretion has been repeatedly recognized by the courts.” Furthermore,

This prosecutorial discretion is even greater in immigration because the treatment of foreign citizens is inextricably intertwined with the nation’s foreign affairs, an area especially under the president’s control.

In fact, they report that

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981[P]residents of both parties have tailored immigration policy to their own goals. In 1987, the Reagan administration took executive action to limit deportations for 200,000 Nicaraguan exiles, even those who had been turned down for asylum. Similarly, President George H.W. Bush in 1990 limited deportations of Chinese students and in 1991 kept hundreds of Kuwait citizens from being deported. President Bill Clinton regularly used his power of prosecutorial discretion to limit deportations; in 1993 he gave 18-month extensions to Salvadoran residents, in 1997 he limited deportations for Haitians, and in 1998 he limited deportations to Central American counties that had been devastated by hurricanes.

220px-George-W-BushPresident George W. Bush also took major steps to limit deportations on humanitarian grounds. In 2001, he limited deportation of Salvadorian citizens at the request of the Salvadorian president who said that their remittances were a key part of their nation’s economy. The Bush administration embraced prosecutorial discretion and ordered the consideration of factors such as whether a mom was nursing a child or whether an undocumented person was a U.S. military veteran in making the determination on whether to order a deportation.

Obama’s conservative opponents will no doubt howl in protest and will dire utter threats over Obama’s actions. They will seek to mobilize their base and bring in a flurry of donations to help “take Obama down.”

But they will lose in the end. And the Latino community will remember who it was that attacked them and who defended them when the next election rolls around.

Obama boxing poseTo use a boxing metaphor, the bell has rung on “Round 1” in the post-election battle. Both parties are moving to the center of the ring poised to do battle, and the sparring has begun. It should be interesting to see who flails in the wind and who ends up landing the decisive blow.

Photo credit: AP

The Latest Republican Strategy: Ceding the Playing Field

In my last post I argued that the American political landscape has shifted so far to the right in the past few decades that the Democrats under President Obama are now actually a little to the right of where Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon stood half a century ago. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that even the former arch-conservative warrior of the 1960s, Barry Goldwater, would be seen as far too moderate for Republicans today. And Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for President in 1996 stated in an interview this past weekend that he wouldn’t make it in the Republican Party of today.

This shift to the right can be referred to as a “ratchet” effect. As Republicans move further to the right, the Democrats move over to occupy the new “middle” ground. Then, in the next election cycle when Republicans move even further to the right to differentiate themselves from Democrats and their policies, the Democrats once again move to the right to claim the newly vacated “center.” I am not the only one to notice this principle.

Two years ago, Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post:

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonPresident Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.

This past weekend Klein returned to that theme in a new article for The Washington Post when he stated,

Over the last few years, the Republican Party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic Party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative.

Policy Platforms

Klein shows how this has happened in terms of three major policy platforms that he claims have dominated American politics in recent years: 1) a comprehensive health care plan, 2) a cap-and-trade plan to control environmental pollutants, and 3) a realignment of tax rates.

In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans staked out in the early ’90s — and often, well into the 2000s.

1) Consider comprehensive health care:

us_cities_health_careThe individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. … The conservative Heritage Foundation soon had an individual-mandate plan of its own, and when President Bill Clinton endorsed an employer mandate in his health-care proposal, both major Republican alternatives centered on an individual mandate. By 1995, more than 20 Senate Republicans … had sponsored one individual mandate bill or another.

In 2006 Governor Mitt Romney implemented an individual mandate health care plan in Massachusetts. Even Newt Gingrich supported it. However, when a nearly identical health care plan was passed by the Obama administration, Romney, Gingrich and virtually all Republicans denounced it and called for its repeal. Today, Klein notes,

[Republicans have] abandoned every idea even vaguely related to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, they pretty much abandoned all ideas related to universal coverage, or even big expansions of coverage. They decided some of them were downright unconstitutional.

2) With regard to climate change, Klein states,

coal-power-plant-usThere was a time when Republicans were leading the way on ideas to fight climate change [e.g. President George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act of 1990]. The first cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions was introduced into the Senate by Sen. John McCain. The McCain/ Palin ticket included a cap-and-trade plank. Some Republicans, like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, supported a carbon tax.

However,

There’s no serious support in today’s Republican Party for doing anything about climate change. … Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want a cap-and-trade plan or a carbon tax or even money for renewable energy research.

3) With regard to adjusting tax rates, Republican President George H. W. Bush initially resisted tax increases. But he eventually realized that they would be necessary. In his 1990 budget he struck a deal with Democrats composed of roughly half tax increases and half spending cuts. He said at the time,

george-bush-2-300It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement and mandatory program reform, tax revenue increases, growth incentives, discretionary spending reductions, orderly reductions in defense expenditures, and budget process reform.

Today’s Republicans have adamantly rejected George H. W. Bush’s approach to balancing spending reductions with increases in tax revenues. Instead, they raise the mantra of “No new taxes” and insist that all spending reductions come from cuts to entitlements and discretionary spending alone.

Klein also reminds us of the abrupt recent reversal in Republican attitudes toward economic stimulus.

GeorgeWBushHIjoBack in 2008, President George W. Bush pushed for and signed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. In 2009, there were a variety of Republican stimulus plans. Back then, Republicans could believe in deficit-financed stimulus during an economic downturn. Today, that would get you driven out of the party.

What are we to make of these reversals in Republican policy? In his earlier essay, Klein noted that

The normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas fail in practice. But that’s not the case here. These initiatives were wildly successful. Gov. Mitt Romney passed an individual mandate in Massachusetts and drove its number of uninsured below 5 percent. The Clean Air Act of 1990 solved the sulfur-dioxide problem. The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.

Rather, it appears that as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals.

Ceding the Playing Field

As incredible as it sounds, today’s Republicans have abandoned the very economic policies that they once crafted – simply, it would appear, to deprive President Obama of any chance of bi-partisan success. Obama has from the beginning tried to work “across the aisle” in proposing policies that are based on Republican models and could reasonably expect some measure of Republican support. Instead, Republicans have disowned and denounced their own policies, as Klein puts it, “adopting a stance of unified, and occasionally hysterical, opposition” toward Obama and what they claim is the president’s “true” agenda – an agenda which certainly must be radically different from their own traditional policies.

two_party_system_xlargeAs Republicans continue to paint themselves into an increasingly extremist conservative corner, the range of options for the Democrats continues to expand. Although one hears repeated cries from Republicans that Obama is a dangerous radical socialist taking the country in the wrong direction, the President has instead claimed the moderate political center recently abandoned by most Republicans. The Democrats have adopted successful policies implemented by previous Republican administrations and now claim them as their own. While Republicans narrow their base to appeal to “true” conservatives, Democrats become free to expand their base to include many more moderate and independent voters.

It is not difficult to see where this will end. By retreating from the political main stream, the Republican Party is increasingly marginalizing itself and losing credibility. Unless it choses to change direction, it may soon speak for few beyond the radical fringe and cease to be a viable political party.

America’s Shift to the Right

One often hears conservative critics of President Obama objecting to his ‘radical’ agenda and the dangerous direction he is taking America. I have always been puzzled by this view. I find nothing in Obama’s policies that seems radical or that takes America in a direction Republicans themselves did not want to go at an earlier time.

The problem with these charges is that they fail to take into account the acute shift to the right in American politics over the past few decades. At one time the Republican Party contained liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, just as the Democratic Party does today. Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon represented the moderate Republican camp in their time.

After the Johnson presidency Democrats began to rebrand themselves in the 1970s as a more centrist party in hopes of picking up more of the conservative vote. They largely abandoned their earlier alliance with labour groups, for example, in hopes of gaining greater support from the business community. As they did so, Republicans moved further to the right to distinguish themselves from the Democrats.

RATCHET-2The net result has been referred to as “the ratchet effect” in American politics. As Republicans moved further to the right, the Democrats shifted to hold the new “middle” ground. In the next election cycle when the Republicans moved further to the right to appeal to their conservative base, the Democrats also moved further to the right to hold the newly vacated “centre.”

After more that four decades of this ratcheting to the right, President Obama is being called a radical, liberal socialist for promoting policies that are actually somewhat to the right of those followed by the last truly moderate Republican presidents, Eisenhower and Nixon.

Does this seem far-fetched? Consider the following:

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959During his two terms as president, Eisenhower continued the pre-war New Deal programs of the Truman era, expanded Social Security to cover an additional 10 million workers, created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, launched a massive stimulus program targeting infrastructure (the Interstate Highway System), desegregated the military, initiated the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and signed them into law, maintained high taxation rates, and cut the defense budget by 27 percent.

Richard_NixonPresident Nixon supported affirmative action and instituted the Clean Air Act. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate safe working conditions. He expanded social Security benefits.

He introduced a minimum tax on the wealthy and championed a guaranteed minimum income for the poor. He even proposed a health reform plan that would require employers to buy health insurance for all their employees and proposed subsidized payments for those who could not afford it. His health reform program failed due to Democratic opposition; today the Republicans would defeat it.

football-fieldIf President Obama’s initiatives mirror those of the moderate Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, where does the Republican Party stand today? As some respected political pundits have put it, using an analogy to football,

While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

Barry GoldwaterIs this an unrealistic assessment? Consider this: Barry Goldwater was the great conservative opponent of the moderate Republicans in the 1960s. In 1964 he defeated both moderates and liberals such as Nelson Rockefeller to win his party’s presidential nomination. It was the first time in decades that the nomination had gone to a staunch conservative rather than a moderate establishment candidate. But Goldwater’s views were seen as far too extreme for the times and he was defeated in a landslide, losing to Lyndon B. Johnson.

By the 1990s the political landscape had shifted far to the right and Barry Goldwater was now judged to be so moderate in his views that other Republicans ostracized him. As The Arizona Republic reported at the time,

In 1996, Barry Goldwater sat in his Paradise Valley home with Bob Dole and joked about his strange new standing as a GOP outsider. ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Dole, who was then facing criticisms from hard-line conservatives in the presidential campaign. ”Can you imagine that?”

BobDole_bioBob Dole was himself the Republican nominee in the 1996 presidential election. He still considers himself to be a conservative in the traditional sense. This past weekend Chris Wallace interviewed the 89 year old Dole for the FOX News network and asked him,

Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could you make it in today’s Republican Party?

And Dole firmly replied,

I doubt it. … Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it.

There is something very strange going on when former Republican Presidents and conservative Republican Presidential candidates find themselves much too moderate for the Republican Party of today. I will have more to say on this in my next post.