How The Press Created FrankenTrump and Ruined Civilization

Why is America the Greatest Country in the World?

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-8-08-58-amDiversity and opportunity. And freedom. Lots of freedom, freedom is great. I can tell you, I know freedom and I know we have lots of it, more than any other country. And diversity, we've almost got that under control too.

But seriously ...

If you are like me, the tirade eventually given by the protagonist in the following clip was already formulating in your head for the first two minutes of this scene, and when it spilled out (in a form better than you or I would have managed), you were like "Yeah. Go baby!" (Or words to that effect.)

It is a tirade that is always running in my head, along side another one. The other one has to do with an issue also dealt with during the first season of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom (which is now streaming on Amazon Prime, by the way, in case you've not see it). That second and related issue is fairness, and how it is a bad thing in journalism.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you well know what we are talking about. False balance. This is where one position is expressed, and a second opposing position is expressed, and therefore (as in, because these two positions were expressed) the press treats them as equal no matter how idiotic one or both may be. Indeed, it is often the case that there are not two legitimate positions related to a given issue. Hell, there are almost never two positions on a given issue, even though the press always insists that there are exactly two positions. Five. One. Three. Seven. Almost never two.

Anyway, have a look. It is about eight minutes long but worth every second, if you've not seen it:

I want to spend a moment looking at this problem of the press doing almost everything they do wrong almost all the time.

Why? Because this problem has become the most important political problem of the modern era.

North Korean nuclear arms and ISIL might be the most immediate problems in the news. Climate change might be the most important existential problem the planet has ever faced. Education, jobs, the economy, and all that might be the key perennial issues that come up in every election and affect people at all levels of government. And so on. But the mixture of jingoism (willful avoidance of thought) and the balance and fairness fetish are the reasons that those issues will only ever be dealt with in a half-assed and ineffective manner. It is the reason that people like me, who believe that taxes pay for civilization and the government can do good work, are fed up and are about to turn into full fledged anarchists. Or at least, that is how if feels sometimes. And by sometimes I mean almost all the time.

And this comes to a head because Donald J. Trump is a legitimate and respected candidate for President of the United States.

FrankenTrumpDid I just say "respected" and "Donald Trump" in the same sentence? Yes, yes I did. I did it because it is true and not true at the same time. Trump is either only barely respected, or simply not respected at all, by almost everybody, including his own party elite. He is seen as a lose cannon, a threat, a huge problem, an enormous mistake. But every single day the press, which consists of people who can't believe that they are in a position where they have to cover Donald Trump as though he wasn't a joke, treats him with the respect he deserves as a presidential nominee. They do this at the very same time that they treat Hillary Clinton -- who was a family and children advocate, the designer of our first stab at a 20th century health care system (a century overdue), a very effective and highly respected Senator from New York, and an accomplished Secretary of State, and a few other things -- like a child that is always acting badly and requires constant admonishment.

Let us pause for a moment and blame the Patriarchy

Let me digress for a moment, to underscore this point. Hillary Clinton is a woman and Donald Trump is a man. Hillary Clinton is a highly accomplished and qualified candidate for President of the United States who is being treated, as I just said, like a child whom you expect to constantly be in trouble, and that you are constantly ready to correct or punish. And by "you" I mean that awful fourth grade teacher who was always picking on that one kid who never seemed to get a fair break. And by the awful fourth grade teacher, I mean Matt Lauer. And I'm using Matt Lauer to stand in for All Of The Reporters.
This is a picture of peaceful female protestors being pepper sprayed by the patriarchic police state. This is a picture of peaceful female protestors being pepper sprayed by the patriarchic police state.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the man running for president, is a clown.

A joke. A rising dangerous fascist. A crook. A liar. A person with a weak grasp on reality.

A litigious bastard. (So I'll add that these are all things Trump has been accused of, who really knows?)

Trump represents everything that is bad about a bad political philosophy. He is the perfect product of the willful ignorance and the calculated walling off of reality that have become central to Republican philosophy and tactics. He is absolutely the last person in the world that should be allowed anywhere near the White House. But he can lie, cheat, bully, incite violence, and generally do things that individually would instantly end a political career, again and again, several times a week, and continue to be "respected" by the press. As I'll explain in a moment, Trump's respect from the press is not because he is a man. It is for a different reason, and that is the focus of this post. But the difference between the way Clinton and Trump are treated is because of their different genders, and this is sexism in the Fourth Estate (by all sexes of reporter, producer, and editor, with only a very few exceptions) demonstrating itself to be shockingly ingrained and intractable. We have a seemingly unfixable patriarchy in this country.

Fisher's Principle of Sex Ratio and Why the Press Is Stupid

And now back to the main point, the answer to a question I know many of you have been asking yourselves, in one form or another, for a long time. Why are the two main political parties so close in representation in government? Why are most elections so close? Why are opinions on various issues, even when one side is clearly utterly bogus and the other side so clearly correct, almost always close to 50-50, or at least, in the 60% to 40% range? Why is the balance of opinion about policy or candidates so near the middle so much of the time?

Fisher's Principle.

Fisher's Principle is an idea that was initially applied to explain the apparent fact that sexual reproduction produces a 1:1 ratio of males to females. Never mind that fact that most species, it turns out, probably don't do this, and that the ones that do, do so because they are physiologically constrained to do so. It was still a good idea because it works in some cases, and is internally logical. The idea is also related to, and probably intellectually basal to, some very important game theory. And, for our purposes, it explains a lot about why the press is essentially incapable of doing its job, and why civilization is, at this moment, teetering on the edge of collapse because of that.

Here's the idea. You are an organism concerned, rightfully, with your Darwinian fitness. You are about to have an offspring. You can have a male or a female.

So you do a marketing study. You find out that all the organisms in the next generation, into which you are about to launch your offspring, will be seeking a mate. Marketing theory tells you that if one sex is rare, it will be more valuable. So, you estimate the sex ratio of the next generation. The only way to do this, of course, is to assess the current sex ratio. You find out that a particular sex is more rare, and thus, individuals of that sex are more valuable, and that is the sex of offspring that you produce.

But, of course, all the other organisms of your kind are doing the same thing, so that rare and valuable sex is now flooding the market. So, the other sex becomes more valuable, and individuals start producing them. So the market shifts back the other way.

Owing to overlapping generations, some randomization of timing of information flow and decision making, and all that, the kind of organism you are, as a result of following Fisher's Principle of producing the sex of higher value, ends up with about a 50-50 sex ratio.

Now, you are a newsroom producer or an editor. There are many stories out there, and for every story, there are multiple points of view. For a political story, things are simple. There are two points of view: left vs. right, or Democratic vs. Republican, or whatever.

Think of it more precisely. There aren't just two points of view, but there is a population of sound clips or quotes reflecting those points of view that you can use. You note that the general consensus is starting to move towards a particular point of view. It makes sense that we implement a certain policy, and more and more opinons are shifting that way.

So, now, you have two choices. One is to mainly report that one policy is being converged on by almost everyone, and is likely to become the policy guiding future legislation and action. Then you move on to the next story. But anyone in news will tell you that is not a story. Hell, anyone in fiction will tell you it is not a story. There is no conflict, no gap between obvious outcome and what actually happens, in that story.

To make this a story, you need to do something other than the obvious. And that is easy to do. You pull out the sound bites or quotes or position papers that reflect the shrinking minority view, and lead with that. You appear to give equal time to two opposing views, but really, you are not being fair. You are placing the emerging consensus view, the smart view, the correct view, and the shrinking everbody-knows-this-is-nowhere view, next to each other and treating them with the same level of attention and respect. You treat the emerging consensus unfairly by pretending it is not an emerging consensus, and you give the bullshit view an unfair break by pretending it is not bullshit.

But by doing so, you are producing an offspring that is more valuable because it is more rare.

And, at the same time, you are telling a better story. Never mind that it is bordering on fiction, never mind that it involves unfair treatment of the truth, never mind that there could be real world negative consequences of this selfish strategy, never mind that this treatment of the news demonstrably slows down or reverses the progress of civilization. Never mind that people suffer and die. The important thing is, you protected your ratings or your readership, and if you played it well, maybe improved them. And that is your job. Good job. Never mind the consequences.

So that explains why we can have two political parties, one relatively smart and thoughtful and often ready to govern (I don't want to sanctify the Democratic Party, but they are better at all these things these days) and the other stupid, mean spirited, and wrong on almost every single issue, and not just wrong, but Michele Bachman level wrong. Sarah Palin level wrong. Donald Trump level wrong!!

Elections are a special, and cleaner, case. Elections have numbers, polls, that tell the press two things. First, what are the genders of possible offspring? Normally the two genders are Democratic and Republicans, but occasionally a third option shows up and can be a factor. Then, within the contest among the worthy opponents, the press can keep track of the relative worth of stories benefiting each of these entities. Which side should be pushed forward from behind, which side should be knocked down a bit, to keep both close to the middle, near an optimum value, so that the overall story (who is winning a race, is the new health care plan legal, should we had off to a particular war) remains commercially viable?

For example, when one candidate is consistently ahead of another, a major news outlet can simply manipulate a poll so that the reverse looks true. Like when CNN essentially lied the other day to suggest that Trump was pulling ahead of Clinton.

There are two major negative consequences that arise from this behavior, other than trampling on and killing the truth and all that. First, a candidate that should never win has a chance of winning. The only reason Donald Trump has any chance of winning this year's election is because major media benefits from the race being close. Remember that, if he wins. Remember who to blame.

The other consequence is actually more insidious. In order for the press to keep a bogus candidate in the running, they have to report bogus positions and bogus policies with a straight face, and this in turn, shifts the window of credibility for those policies into the realm of reality. Over time, people can say things that they could never say before and remain credible, and positions can be put on the table that our civilization left behind decades or centuries ago. We could not talk about rounding up people with a certain physical appearance or religion because of the lessons we learned from the Nazis. Now we can talk about these things again. We can pretend that criminal misconduct by a candidate is not important, or that another candidate broke the law many times when she never actually did.

That is Andrea Mitchel's fault. And Chuck Todd. And the rest of the reporters.

This is a feedback system. More extreme candidates engender more extreme policy excursions, which in turn allows more extreme candidates to throw their sombreros over the wall.

There are cracks forming. Mainstream news reporters who actually would lean towards a Republican candidate (or enjoy participating in bashing Clinton) are suddenly dropping their jaws and rolling their eyes, or just pointing out that they are fed up:

And endorsements out of right field for the lefty are starting to question the basic stability of the two party system.

But it may be too late for the press to redeem itself now. They have placed Donald Trump very close to the White House, for their own self interest, and in so doing, are dangerously close to burning the house down. People talk these days about the collapse of the Republican Party. Fine. But what we really need is a tear down and replacement of how the Fourth Estate conducts itself. Mostly, the press is good at patting itself on the back, giving itself awards, and throwing huge collective tantrums when their integrity and freedom are questions. But now, those very people who would normally defend the press are increasingly less likely to come to their defense, and are starting to demand reform.


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Excellent post and amazing clip from 'Newsroom' which I hadn't seen before. Thanks for posting.

By Ash Jogalekar (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

By comparing the 50/50 denial of reality of the US media with a "Fisher’s Principle", you kinda suggest that it is an immutable law of nature. I do not think this is the case, the press used to function better and functions better in other countries.

As a law Fisher’s Principle would amplify all minority opinions. This is clearly not the case, only the extreme positions of the corporate elites are amplified.

Getting money out of politics would help in making the US press more sane. Once US politics becomes more moderate and reality-based, a stronger public media could lift the quality level of the media, like it does in Europe.

Somehow we should also get money out of the press, but that is hard to do while also protecting the freedom of the press. The least we can do is to break up the big press conglomerates and also making them independent of other corporations.

Typo: But what we really need is a tear down and replacement of how the Fifth Estate conducts itself. (also in key words)

The Fifth Estate is Science. The press is the Fourth Estate, like you also write in the beginning.

By Victor Venema … (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

Victor, note that Fisher's Principle is not a immutable law of nature in nature, where it was first proposed, which I made clear. So, I don' think it would be that easy to mistake anything I said as suggesting that, especially in light of the fact that I did not suggest it!

Fisher's principle as a law will absolutely NOT amplify all majority opinions. Nothing of the kind follows from it. It amplified opinions that have more value. And, many opinions get value because they are contrary to the emerging consensus or obvious truth, because consensus and generally accepted truth are not conflict generating generating. It is not at all difficult to imagine valueless minority opinions.

Also, as I discuss briefly but at this time to not expand on a great deal, there is going to be a tendency for the number of sides of an issue to reduce to 2. This is partly due to the two party system (which is a two, not three or more, party system for other reasons). But it is probably due to the power in discourse and story making of the dialectic as a conflict generating system that can be controlled. There can be more complex systems, but they will usually emerge as combinations of dialectics.

I agree that addressing the problem of money in politics is key. That is a parallel and different issue. Interesting idea of getting money out of press. Another idea noted by Sorkin in that series: why didn't the government insist that the one hour of information required to have air time be some how money free? Or paid for?

Thanks for the check on the estate. I always get my estates wrong!

To paraphrase Captain Kirk's line when Bones gave him a Finagle's Folly: "That's... one of your better posts." And I've seen that video clip before, but it still strikes a chord.

Do you know the name Edgar Pangborn? He was a writer and composer, lived in upstate New York. Years ago I read his second novel A Mirror for Observers (publ. 1954) and I just finished reading it again. I consider that fortuitous, because its plot seems to parallel our current campaign in a number of ways.

I'm going to throw a longish quote from the novel at you (from pages 111-112). But first, let me set the scene. This concerns a fictional campaign in the year 1972. The Organic Unity Party is running on a jingoistic, racial purity platform. Its nominal head is Joseph Max, a demagogue somewhat resembling Donald Trump. These are the written words of the novel's protagonist, Elmis, describing the political situation as he sees it:

"Nobody laughs at Max. That frightens me. The public is hardened to seeing his fanatical puss on the front page, telescreens, newsreels, always a bit sallow and sweat-shiny when they catch him without makeup, a bad caricature of John C. Calhoun with nothing of Calhoun's honesty or personal gentleness. When, last year, Max developed a flopping cowlick—damn the thing, nobody laughed. He saves his juiciest venom for the newly formed Federalist Party. I haven't made up my mind about them. seems to be nothing disingenuous in the movement and much sense, if they'd tone down the doctrinaire certainty of their one-world members. They sometimes lose sight of their own good premise, that difference-within-union is the essence of federalism. Toward the Democrats and Republicans Max has only contempt—he says they are on the way out and that's that. They make the mistake of paying him back in his own coin or trying to ignore him out of sight. The Republicans have been fresh out of ideas since '968, when the Democrat Clifford got in (and how wrong I was about '64! Would have lost my shirt, only I'm not the type.) Rooseveltian splash followed by Wilsonian bubbles. I sometimes wonder if he knows his aspirations from his elbow."

In fairness, I'm glossing over the backstory, which Pangborn uses to throw the larger problem — human ethical and intellectual deficiencies — into sharp relief. That backstory is the reason the Organic Unity Party does something not even Trump would ever dream of doing. But my point in quoting this is that the shortcomings you note in today's political process were long in developing and won't be corrected in one election cycle. However, we can certainly make a start, and campaign finance reform, if it can be accomplished, would be a great first step.

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

You, sir are lost in the regurgitation of a falsity facility...Bunch of hog wash piggish bacon, frying on the treason of a corrupt system, the far right and left are the same bird. Trump is a Republic Independent.. What Lincoln was... You miss us and only use others stat's you are lacking an original thought; thoughts taught in placing word style of writing on old facts, is the fissures to a play rewritten... plagiarism is all that is taught.. Citing work already done, is never learning something new, just making an ideal more finite, never better, just harder to learn new terms... Education, is a lost casue, look at what you all are doing to math, like how many steps to do basic subtraction... You just want to make money on never letting kids grow up... Did you know the average enlistment age of the soldiers who fought in the civil war was 15-16, but that is not even true, they had no way to verify at that time.. all of our founders where younger and smarter than any of you... they wrote, what you cannot even regurgitate it write.. Trace the origins of the Lib and Eral... will explain while the Liberal Arts are dead cause of you all want money, over educated populace, in the causation to the correlation of you all being indoctrinated to think you know something knew, with what you stole from the dead... #PiecesOfPeaces #TrumpTrain #SemperFidelis #KillaryKills

By Christopher Al… (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

Christopher W.: Thanks very much, and an excellent link up there with Panghorn.

Not so much upstate, he retired to Bearsville and died there. That's "Greater New York" to true upstaters (he was born in the city, went eventually to Harvard, lived around in New England, etc.)

I had forgotten about his writing, very good stuff and very influential though mostly indirectly on the following generation of science fiction and fantasy writers. I've not read that book. I will have to do so.

He is seen as a lose cannon...

An inspired typo - and, let's hope, an accurate augury!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

Coherent thought and jibberish. Let compare and contrast and have truly unqualified but good-looking people speak vaguely about these two sides of the sounds coming from pie holes with more sounds coming from pie holes. Mmmmm... Media. Got any more?

Greg Laden, sorry.. just find it odd to be an actual literate fellow. I do follow the "rite" no ones writings. I read them for my oh understandings and compare them to old texts of people whom first talked about them. The doctrine you are using has been called many things are used to do only one.

Stifle the eiffel, or steal the Liberties that came her to bring the horrors out of the deeds of the French's. Others countries or nation states have lied and wait. Great Nation's know that these United States will never be conquered even by the Not so free press. Second buy the lobbyist with the liverpools. then control the grinds of all the gears with a slow evoking stoking shimmer of glamor. The whole time tainting the food while driving a wedge in the businesses to make two tears of a system. Last, euthanize and compartmentalize the whole time. All these things have been and used since the first ruling kind, to be animals and think the bark can ever byte the bits of good hearted men.

I ask you where did you learn your two one two? Twas, the downfall of any 411. Never bring dry ink to a wet ink fight

Where are your family ties to, how old is your blood line, and your endowment? my 911 is always the integer to any written writings in rotes of little notes feebly.. Thanks for giving me, some time to ponder om the Ezra to the pun of these cliff notes. Peace be with you always and forever. I love to have words with limited introspective tends... Thanks again, to learn in any light is best on the dark of rights of leftist pundits never relearn.. TTYL....>

By Christopher Al… (not verified) on 25 Nov 2016 #permalink