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Status Quo Bias Is a Hell of a Drug

[ 53 ] March 1, 2017 |

trump_n_mitt

Charlie wrote an excellent preemptive critique of the fawning coverage Trump’s ability to put on a suit and read a combination of platitudes and shameless exploitations off a teleprompter that Paul noted below:

It some point in the last week or so, the nation’s cable teevee news directors apparently decided to declare Tuesday to be National Bar Lowering Day. The president* was going to give his first speech to Congress! And the cable newspeople decided that this historic moment warranted all day coverage! This came complete with tiny countdown clocks in the corner of the screen and a tsunami of purely speculative analysis, all of it on the sub rosa theme, “Do You Think He’ll Bite The Head Off A Chicken Or Not?”

Make no mistake. If El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago manages to get from a subject to a verb without spraining his ankle, we are going to hear much more than we should about pivots, and reboots, and the political genius of Mike Pence, The Great Conciliator. It will all be stuff and nonsense, but the people dealing it out will do so quite convincingly because a lot of the people dealing it out are terrified of the truth: that, on his best day, the president* is an ill-prepared lout and, on his worst, well, maybe he’ll blame Barack Obama for his bad press, or he’ll blame somebody other than anti-Semitic goons for attacks on Jewish cemeteries and bomb scares at Jewish pre-schools.
[…]
A couple of times this week, I have heard alleged journalists express dismay that what we may be living under at the moment is a “failed presidency.” The panelists all agreed that this would be a catastrophe for the country. Now, as a citizen, I can see their point, I guess, although I’m more afraid that a Congress under Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will succeed. As a journalist, this attitude revolts me. We are not supposed to care whether a president fails or not. Our job is to chronicle how and why the president fails and inform the public in the (perhaps vain) hope that the public will do better at electing a president the next time. We certainly are not obligated to prop up a failed president just because he got elected once.

In the wake of Bush v. Gore, Mark Tushnet wrote a short, brilliant essay about the various strategies that the legal academy would use to avoid the obvious implications of the Supreme Court lawlessly concluding a contested election along nakedly partisan lines. The felt need to see the Supreme Court as a legitimate institution, or that the public see it as such irrespective of whether this legitimacy is merited, is strong. It’s not always as naked as Larry Lessig making a bad argument as an oral advocate because if Antonin Scalia was a partisan hack rather than a Principled Jurist his whole life would be a lie, but it’s a powerful tendency.

And so it is with the presidency and the political press. Many pundits have a strong need to tell themselves that American political institutions are fundamentally OK when they very clearly aren’t OK. And, needless to say, the media was one of the institutions that completely failed and played a major role in producing a political crisis in 2016, so normalizing the Trump Show is self-serving as well.

…Also a crucial point:

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  • humanoid.panda

    What’s really funny about the sordid affair is how funny spins are.

    Yesterday, Trump was devastatingly effective because he is a real person not politician talks like Joe six pack after a few.

    Today, Trump is devastatingly effective because he uses big words and highlights the widow of a fallen soldier.

    • Gwen

      Cue the inevitable “Trump will be a two-term president because YOU LIBERALS just don’t understand!”

      I didn’t see the speech because I was in class. I’m taking an accounting class at the local community college, in part for fun (it’s not work) and in part because I want to quit my job and start a small business, and I have no intention on filing for bankruptcy, unlike a certain President who shall go nameless.

      After the fact though I noticed several trends:

      * CNN seemed to be gushing all over themselves. The headline last night made me think that Trump had personally rescued a cat out of a tree, swam the English Channel, landed on the goddamn moon and then moon-bounced 99 yards for a touchdown.

      * NY Times was more or less neutral.

      * None of my Facebook friends’ opinions of Trump has changed in the slightest.

      • CNN has got to be deeply uncomfortable about being accused of actual journalism recently. I’m sure it’s a relief for them to be able to return to their core competency of sycophantic blather.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    As I wrote in a previous thread, a large portion of the Washington punditocracy treat their role as a combination of geisha and cheerleader. It’s the reason that I always thought dismissal of Mark Steyn as nothing more than a theater critic was flawed. When you boil it down, that’s essentially what most of the Village media and press are: they critique the theater of politics not the substance.

    • CaptainBringdown

      Ironically, TV critic James Poniewozik seems to get it better than most pundits.

      The character he was playing this night was not the angry boss who might fire someone, but the executive who needed to reassure his shareholders.

      For at least a year, Trump-watching pundits have been like forlorn bird-watchers scanning the sky for the appearance of the Great American Pivot. Judging by the pundit round tables after his speech, Mr. Trump gave them, for a while, reason to think it had returned. That has happened before. “At the right time,” he told NBC’s “Today” during the campaign, “I will be so presidential, you will be so bored.” Since then, America has been a lot of things, but not bored.

      But history suggests we wait to declare the pivot achieved, at least until the congressional crowd has cleared and Mr. Trump has gotten his phone back for a while.

      • Sev

        “the congressional crowd”

        Looking at all these older, stern white men crowded around Trump after the speech was a throwback to what self-confident, wrong-headed authority looked like in my childhood. The Patriarchy.

      • Emmryss

        This whole thing about “pivot,” what does it even mean? That was then but this is now and everything he’s said and done up to this very moment is cancelled out, doesn’t matter, forget it, because “x” just came out of his mouth?

  • Lit3Bolt

    My take is that they knew the audience watching would be predisposed to Trump, and thus altered their coverage accordingly.

    Hey, conservatives buy Cialis too!

    My main disappointment is all the HOT TAKES from the Democratic/centrist commentarii such as:

    1. “Dems need to take Trump seriously now.”
    2. “Dems need to stand for something now.”
    3. “Dems need to stop worrying about optics and more about policy.”
    4. “Dems need to have a better narrative and a party vision.”
    5. “Dems need to stop being on the defensive.”
    6. “Dems need to stop focusing on Trump and Russia.”
    7. “Dems need to do only what Matt Bruenig says.”
    8. “Dems need to stop being inept and follow my natural wisdom.”

    and my favorite:

    9. “Dems need to stop fighting among themselves,” say Dems who viciously fight among themselves.

    Feel free to add your own. The media is manufacturing this into a BIG DEAL, and I see no need to join in the reactions to reactions to reactions. I’m just glad we didn’t waste A-list political talent in the response. That was all Democrats needed to do last night.

  • NewishLawyer

    On-line media, blogs, and monthly magazines are being harder on Trump and the big players in the media.

    I gotta think that this is because 24 hour news and to a lesser extent the big dallies (as they exist in the 21st century) are more heroin-addicted to “access” and they also need “access” for their financial well-being.

    24 hour news repeats a lot of stories but they also need a fairly endless stream of new content and they need it several times a day. Plus it is boring to have the same anchor people be seen over and over again. You need to have them interact with the powers that be or someone else. So this gives politicians and their staffs really strong sticks.

    But blogs and on-line media are relatively newer and seemingly get their power and money from taking an outsider stance. You don’t have to be as aggressive about it as Gawker media but it seems like since blogs and the monthlies don’t have access built into their images, they are free. Or their bill paying structures. Places like the New Yorker and The Atlantic don’t seem to see themselves as Washington insiders but as deep diggers in long form.

    But the Big Media are for-profit corporations first and foremost and they are always going to be more velvety with politicians. There will always be Krugmans and Charlie Blows in big media but the money people will always have the final say.

    • guthrie

      Also online media and blogs are exploiting the improved communications of nowadays, as opposed to 40 years ago when you might see it on TV, or you might read about it in the newspaper the next day, but you certainly couldn’t actually stop and think and write about it for millions to see the next day, unless you were actually mainstream media.
      I.e. the biased centrist fuckers in the mainstream media are not representative of most people, and with the internet etc a better selection of opinions can be heard.

  • NewishLawyer

    Plus I wonder how many journalists see themselves more as white-collar professionals over truth-tellers and holders of accountability.

    • Woodrowfan

      “all of them Katie.”

      • CaptainBringdown

        I’d go with none of them. Because they’re as bad at telling the truth to themselves as they are to others.

      • LeeEsq

        Not all of them. Some journalists see themselves as family-friendly presenters of frothy morning entertainment or as Republican propagandists.

        • One of the things that is notable about Charley Pierce is that he goes out and does some reporting. There are a few others

  • NewishLawyer

    The other bias that I have seen is a lot of expressed concern/pearl clutching over the fraying of the commonwealth and/or the problem with the Big Sort.

    Now I know people making these statements of expressed concern and I think a lot of them are sincere. I think they really do worry about the bonds that bring us together fraying.

    The problem is that I think they have a hard time making the leap to wondering whether bonds of commonwealth are worth keeping or not because as you note, status quo is a hell of a drug and no one really knows what would happen if we decided against it. Would we be like Belgium when they could not form a government? Would we develop into something where there was a variant on Quebecois sentiment? Would the US end?

    The solution to me always seems to be “Liberals, please take it on the chin” and ignoring the old idea that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

  • Dilan Esper

    I’m not sure diversity is really the issue here. Van Jones was praising the speech on CNN last night.

    I think it’s what George W. Bush called (in one of the only turns of phrase where he ever really said anything useful and intelligent) the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

    The media covers politics as a horse race. There are many reasons they do this, and they aren’t all ideological “suck up to power” reasons, either. They also do it because that’s actually what a fair number of viewers want. Part of covering politics as a horse race is that you are always measuring politicians from where they were yesterday, last week, last month, last year. Which means if things were going poorly and you do slightly better, that will always count as a win.

    And lest anyone say only conservatives get the benefit of this, it isn’t true. Bill Clinton got the benefit of this sort of coverage both when he started making deals with Gingrich in 1995 and when he came back from the Lewinsky scandal in 1998-99.

    • LeeEsq

      This seems like a pretty spot analysis Dilan. People on this blog and other political blogs might want journalists to do “their job” and tell citizens the truth about Trump but a lot of people see politics differently. They like it as a horse race and team sport even if that might not work out so well in practice.

      • My local paper ran a story yesterday about some Trump voters. It was a bit different from the usual thumb-sucker about white victims of the 21st Century economy– these folks were pretty much mainstream Republicans from one of the most affluent suburbs in the region, and the story was set in what used to be a joint where grain shovelers went after their shift and is now the sort of joint where the bartenders make their own infusions and mix cocktails with eyedroppers and serve them with beef jerky swizzle sticks or dry ice or some such.

        I think the thrust of the piece was supposed to be that these assholes are just regular old Buffalo folks, but what jumped out at me was that the people interviewed parroted Trump applause lines as though they were connected to reality (undocumented persons commiting crimes, terrorists coming in to blow us all up, Sweden!!!!, the usual) without any pretense of fact checking. I reckon that can be waived away by saying, Well, these people believe that, but I am pissed off at what seems to me to be a dereliction of journalistic duty.

    • McAllen

      The media covers politics as a horse race. There are many reasons they do this, and they aren’t all ideological “suck up to power” reasons, either. They also do it because that’s actually what a fair number of viewers want. Part of covering politics as a horse race is that you are always measuring politicians from where they were yesterday, last week, last month, last year. Which means if things were going poorly and you do slightly better, that will always count as a win.

      Sure, but this is not unrelated to the lack of diversity in media.

      • Dilan Esper

        While I definitely want Washington media to hire more women and minorities, I have also seen and heard plenty of women and minority pundits over the years and I haven’t seen a lot of difference.

        The basic problem is, in addition to the desires that Lee articulated (that viewers want to know who is up and who is down, and how their “team” is doing), there’s also a problem that one note coverage is not very interesting. They don’t want to run the same story every day. Now maybe they should. But they don’t.

        We see this in campaigns, where even in landslide elections such as 1984 and 1988, the coverage was breathless down to the end, with all sorts of speculation as to how the trailing candidate could turn it around.

        There’s always going to be a huge media bias towards portraying movement. He’s shifting. He’s turning it around. He exceeded expectations. (And if the President is more popular, he’s hit his peak, there are warning signs, it was good but it wasn’t up to his usual high expectations, etc.)

        There are all sorts of good reasons to hire women and minorities to cover politics. But unfortunately, it’s almost certainly not going to change this situation (as the Van Jones thing demonstrates).

        • LeeEsq

          Seconded. The hope is that more minority and women pundits and journalists would mean basically having liberal bloggers on television. Minority and women pundits are going to have many of the same neurosis and professional beliefs that white male journalists have though. Being a minority or women doesn’t provide automatic immunity from the negative parts of your career’s culture.

    • Randy

      The media covers politics as a horse race. There are many reasons they do this, and they aren’t all ideological “suck up to power” reasons, either.

      The point that it’s what the viewers want is a good one, even though every talking head on the TV will deny that ratings dictate their coverage.

      There is also sheer laziness. What’s easier: reporting poll numbers, or making, say, health care policy understandable?

      I’m also going to add insecurity into the mix. The media is so afraid of being thought “biased,” that they will contort what they present as news into unrecognizable shapes, just so the most vocal audience acts like they still love them. Why else would we see fearless reports kids getting sore backs because their school backpacks are too heavy?

      • CP

        I’m also going to add insecurity into the mix. The media is so afraid of being thought “biased,” that they will contort what they present as news into unrecognizable shapes, just so the most vocal audience acts like they still love them. Why else would we see fearless reports kids getting sore backs because their school backpacks are too heavy?

        The irritating thing about this is that it’s not even “their audience.” The loud and angry people that they’re afraid will call them biased bailed on the mainstream media for Fox News long ago (and is increasingly not even satisfied with Fox News). It’s not as though groveling to them is winning any of them back. No matter what happens they’ll continue to bray on about “liberal media” that they never watch.

      • NewishLawyer

        Here is the thing. A lot of people think of me as a fairly independent person who does not really bow to peer pressure but a lot of people also think I am ornery and cantankerous and wish I would have an on and off switch about when my independent streak comes on or not.

        So I can be a bit of a Grinch even about cultural Christmas (think of Willow’s line about Being Jewish on Buffy when Cordelia asks about her Christmas plans). I’ve had atheists get angry at me for not going along-get alonging with cultural Christmas.

        The same comes at parties or bar nights when people are asking why am I not refilling my drink as soon as one is done. I’m apparently very good at glowering and saying “because I don’t want to” and this intimidates people from time to time and people get taken aback.

        But then there are times when people seem to appreciate by ornery side.

        I imagine it is the same with media and wondering “why do you have to be so disagreeable all the time?”

        It takes a lot of emotional effort and strength to be an outsider who can always say no.

        People generally thought that Socrates was a bit of a dick probably. Gadflys can be burdensome and not always right themselves.

    • nemdam

      Bill Clinton got positive coverage from these two events because he became more popular after them. They were showdowns with Republicans in which the public sided with him. If Trump repealed Obamacare after an intense fight and got more popular as a result, he would rightly get positive media coverage as well.

    • Gwen

      Many parts of the media frequently feel obliged to engage in political costume drama.

    • Jon_H11

      I don’t know if the analogy is that pertinent for others, but in engineering we refer to this focus on the change from yesterday (or point to point changes) as opposed to overall trend or state (say a moving average) as a “high-pass filter”. High pass filters tend to cut out the true signal and return the noise.

      The 24 hour new cycle is basically a high-pass filter.

  • LeeEsq

    A media with more non-white and female journalists and pundits would more likely be more critical of Trump’s speech but a decent number of them would have inhibited the same professional neurosis that NewishLawyer outlined. Journalists do not necessarily see themselves as brave truth-tellers, muck racking crusaders, or holders of accountability but as white collar professionals doing something. Minority journalists that advance far enough in their career to be a pundit are highly likely to have these neurosis because they are more similar and pleasing to their bosses.

    Even during the Golden Age of the News (TM), journalists would do infuriating things. There is clip of Walter Cronkite giving an interview to a literal puppet, a character in some early kid’s program. Light-hearted entertainment has always been a part of journalism, especially TV journalism. This is not going to change any time soon if ever.

    • humanoid.panda

      See Dilan’s point above: Van Jones is a African American, and is a leftist (I think), and yet he was, maybe, the worst offender last night. The problem is that of genre: people think about presidential speeches as a form of pageantry, of king speaking to his parliament, so they are going to judge that event from the point of view of how the pageantry worked. And sure, calling out a widow so that camera can cath her crying is good pageantry! But this is a tiny part of the president’s job.

      • humanoid.panda

        And on some level, I think I get where Jones came from: there is a real danger that Trump can’t do the ceremonial parts of his job, which are important. (can you imagine him comforting victims of mass shooting?). So, yesterday, he showed that he can do at least a little of the emotional work of what he expect from a president, which is a good thing, I guess. The problem is that framing it as “he became President that moment” is simply idiotic.

        • LeeEsq

          Trump hobnobbed with the rich and famous for nearly all of his adult life. I assume that he is capable of doing the ceremonial parts of his job right when he wants to or sees it to his advantage to do them right. When it is not to his advantage to do the ceremonial part right or he is lazy, Trump will be his usual self.

          • humanoid.panda

            But that’s the issue: he can’t control when and where he need to do this stuff. Some a-political nut shoots up a school. You gotta go out and play-act empathy, even if you don’t give a shit, because our president is also the head of state. Can he do it? Can he do it even though he feels that anti-gun people don’t like him?

        • mds

          (can you imagine him comforting victims of mass shooting?)

          Hell, I haven’t seem him even acknowledge the closest thing to a mass shooting so far, since the perpetrator was one of his base instead of an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim refugee.

      • NewishLawyer

        I’ve never watched a State of the Union speech. I always read about them in the media and prefer to read the transcript. This was true for every President of my life including my adult life.

        But a lot of my friends, all liberals, seem to think it is a mandatory civil virtue to watch these speeches and the counter-speech.

        I don’t understand this. The modern State of the Union speech is old but was still a relatively recent invention. There is nothing in the Constitution that states how the President is supposed to give Congress an update. He or she could file a 300 page report with Congress and the Constitution would be fine with it.

        The State of the Union is more about the President speaking to the people than anything else and the people fall for it.

        Then again, I might be ornery.

        • LeeEsq

          Wilson was one of the few and most likely the first American Presidents that realized the Constitution had some serious flaws and that parliamentary systems work better. Which is kind of ironic given that he was one of the most racist Presidents but hated a Constitution that was written in part to protect slavery and the power of slave states. Still, he saw the flaws in the system.

          The bad side of his admiration for parliamentary politics is that he loved the rituals and ceremonies of British government and tried to implement them in the United States. The State of the Union address was supposed to mimic the British monarch’s speech at the start of Parliament.

        • osceola

          There is nothing in the Constitution that states how the President is supposed to give Congress an update. He or she could file a 300 page report with Congress and the Constitution would be fine with it.

          And that’s exactly how it was done in the 19th century. The president told his cabinet to each report what that department did last year, and he compiled it all and sent it to Congress.

        • liberal

          Agreed. It’s idiotic.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Even during the Golden Age of the News (TM), journalists would do infuriating things. There is clip of Walter Cronkite giving an interview to a literal puppet, a character in some early kid’s program. Light-hearted entertainment has always been a part of journalism, especially TV journalism.

      See also Goodnight & Good Luck, where one of the subtle recurring things is Murrow having to agree to do additional puff piece interviews with celebrities in exchange for being allowed to continue pursuing his harder hitting news pieces.

      • Dilan Esper

        “Person to Person”, I believe, got much better ratings than “See It Now”.

        I think the film lets Murrow off the hook some, though. He was known to ENJOY “Person to Person” because, like many political journalists to come after him, he was a starfucker. (This has plenty to do with why the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become so awful. And I’m actually supportive of Trump’s decision not to attend.)

        Jonathan Winters once did a dead-on parody of “Person to Person”, btw.

        • efgoldman

          “Person to Person”, I believe, got much better ratings than “See It Now”.

          My mom always loved that show.
          And yes, Uncle Walter interviewed a puppet; and J Fred Muggs, a chimpanzee, was a regular on the Today show – which was then controlled by the news division of NBC (All three morning shows, and all TV broadcast news programs, now come under the entertainment divisions.)

      • LeeEsq

        I’m going along with Dilan and going to argue that Murrow probably enjoyed these interviews with celebrities a lot more than Goodnight & Good Luck portrayed. Unless Cronkite is a very good actor, he seemed to have a lot of fun interviewing the literal puppet.

  • randy khan

    I feel like there is a certain quality to the response to this speech that partakes of Samuel Johnson’s comment on women preaching.

  • Crusty

    The Trump administration goes back and forth between offering a malevolent president and no president. No president is frightening, so when he shows up as a president and not as a twitter troll or overgrown toddler, there’s a tendency to overlook the malevolence so as to achieve the comfort of not feeling like there’s no president.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    the Washington Post’s daily email update leads with a fact check of Trump’s speech “Most presidents try to be sure their speeches to Congress closely adhere to the facts. Not Donald Trump”

    of course, farther down the page, Van Jones’s rave review is mentioned and earlier on someone’s twitter that Cillizza dweeb was whining “why *can’t* I say it was a good speech?”

    so yeah, status quo

  • Joe_JP

    The speech (debate etc.) as a pivot move is standard stuff by now and it’s like an obligatory plot point to toss in there.

    As a journalist, this attitude revolts me. We are not supposed to care whether a president fails or not.

    Like judges, journalists aren’t robotic types, but humans who live in a certain culture and society.

    And, I think even Charlie Pierce would treat presidents somewhat different, including giving them a bit more of a benefit of a doubt before concluding let’s say they are criminals than the average person. Maybe not, but seems sensible since a president as a criminal (or a failure) is a greater thing to determine. So there is a different level of proof.

    It’s something of a matter of degree. At some point, “propping” up is wrong. If he’s a failure, he is a failure. Trump is not a marginal case here. Anyway, media has their tropes too.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StatusQuoIsGod

  • nemdam

    The pundit reaction to this speech is more or less why Trump is president. They will forgive every transgression as he gives them something to talk about. Today it is ever elusive “pivot”.

  • (((Malaclypse)))

    Christ, I wish the Very Serious People praising this speech would go look at David Duke’s twitter feed and ask themselves why Duke feels just as good about it as they do.

    “Normalization” is today’s word of the day.

    • farin

      Because David Duke is an — admittedly rough — authentic voice of white working-class economic anxiety, which is what cost Hillary Clinton the election and gave President Trump his mandate.

      …or some even dumber shit that only a worthless garbage heap like Chris Cilizza could even imagine.

  • Baron Von McArgleBargle

    On the positive side, a few things remain unchanged:

    1. Trump has no discipline and self-control. Even though pundits are desperate to write the narrative that “Trump started out shaky, but he is turning it around”, the sheer weight of Trump’s inner psychology will continue to force him to do stupid things. He will have fucked all this up by the weekend, if not sooner.

    2. Trump did nothing to temper his bigoted, anti-immigrant stance. He used the death of a soldier as an effective cover and, because this is America, it worked, complete with a picture of the widow staring up into heaven. And yet, he’s still a bigot and that will always come out, especially when there isn’t a dead soldier or police officer for him to hide behind

    3. He and the Congress are about to have a nasty, three way fight (President, Ryan group, Conservative group). This speech will be forgotten in short order.

    This is a happy blip for Trump and it won’t last. Character is destiny. We should keep our chins up. He will get more victories in the coming months and years, but we will still come out ahead in the end.

    • Karen24

      This is the correct reaction. Last night he avoided farting audibly and is now the second coming of Lincoln. HIs polices still range from non-existent to mass-extinction-event horrible; focus on those and hammer away. As for the fallen soldier, his dad is livid and blames Trump. Talk to dad and leave the widow alone.

      • Thom

        Remember when W’s post-9/11 speech was the best speech ever given by an American politician., or probably any leader ever? That was how it was reported. Has anyone ever referred to that speech again?

  • witlesschum

    The only sane way to deal with an administration like Trump’s who lies constantly beyond the bounds of formerly acceptable political spin is just stop reporting anything they say. There’s no sense in paying any attention to any of Trump’s utterances, it’s like the head of John the Baptist (in the Invisibles comic anyways) which just speaks gibberish that’s pleasing to whoever hears it.

    Journalists should treat Trump like journalists treat the cranks who show up at every city council meeting to carry on about whatever they think they’re on about. Only report on them if they do something newsworthy, but never report on what they say because it’s unimportant. Don’t carry his speeches live, only report what he says to catalogue the lies, etc.

    That’d be the only way to avoid violating the trust of your audience, but I don’t expect this will be done.