Reality-based journalism in the US

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

* USA Today comparing Republican climate change delusionism to birtherism and saying

The latest scientific report provides clarity that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It paves a path to a future fraught with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, shifting agricultural patterns, droughts and wildfires.

* The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

* Even GOP house journal Politico draws the formerly off-limits link between “skeptics” and “deniers”, regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

The precipating event, I think, was Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate. The timing was brilliant, and indicative of political skills that seemed to have deserted Obama for some time. By the time he acted, it had become clear that the majority of Republican supporters supported birtherism (at least verbally) and that no-one in the Republican Party (or among conservatives more generally) was prepared to confront birtherism head-on as a racist delusion. The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”. That position sounded safe, but looked awfully silly in retrospect, especially when Donald Trump took the credit for it.

The killing of bin Laden a few days afterwards set the seal on things. As Scott McLemee observed, Obama seemed to be making life difficult for himself in his quest to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting US populace. The desperate attempts of Republicans to claim that it was their policy of torture that made Obama’s success possible looked even sillier given their longstanding endorsement of, or acquiescence in, birtherism.

Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of events, minor in themselves, and unlikely to have counted for much in the past, that fit the frame “Republicans=delusion”.

* The release of yet another authoritative report on climate change by the National Academy of Sciences

* The exposure of massive plagiarism and other misconduct in the work of Edward Wegman, lead expert in the attack on the climate change “hockey stick”

* The massively publicised predictions of a Doomsday rapture, which have permitted general mockery of a belief that (minus the nomination of a specific date) is held by lots of Americans[2] and almost certainly the majority of the Republican base

* The debate over budget policy, the Ryan plan and the debt ceiling, in which the Very Serious Centrists (a group exemplified, until very recently, by Jacob Weisberg) took a hammering from real experts like Krugman, who could work with numbers rather than being taken in by rhetoric.

Once the frame is in place, examples can be multiplied indefinitely (evolution, DDT, bogus US history, “Climategate”, the Breitbart scams etc etc). Moreover, thanks to blogs and work like Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, both the framework and the material required on most individual topics is ready to hand. So, no great intellectual effort is required to fit any particular story into this analytical framework. That’s important given that most journalists (like most people) aren’t too keen on intellectual effort.

And, there is no obvious way back for the Republicans or for the US right more generally. The great majority of the conservative/propertarian intellectual apparatus (thinktanks, commentariat, blogs) has been actively engaged in peddling delusions (most notably on climate change and economics) and none[3] has been willing and able to mount a consistent defence of reality. The few who have tried to do this on individual issues (for example, Bruce Bartlett on economics) have been read out of the movement in short order, and have mostly found themselves questioning their conservative position more generally.

So, the shift in the Overton window shouldn’t prove too difficult as far as analysis and op-eds are concerned. On the other hand, as Jay Rosen has been tweeting today it’s a big challenge for political news reporters are concerned. Rosen says

Political journalism exists so that politics can be reality-based… right? But if one of the parties isn’t, the press circuits get fried.

Rosen is an acute observer, and I respect his judgement, but I think he overstates the case here. As he implicitly admits, the press routinely treats as presumptively false claims made by any political group that lies outside the Overton window. And for the Murdoch media (Fox, WSJ etc) that includes the Democratic Party. There’s nothing technically difficult about writing political news stories with the premise (implicit at all times and explicit when necessary) that the subject is either deluded or dishonest.

The real problem is that such a shift will mean the end of what has been a united front of the journalism profession against everyone else (most obviously bloggers and other outside competitors). This front was seen in operation when the Obama Administration tried, early on, to take a stand against Fox and was threatened with a general boycott. Objections to Fox lies were seen as a political attack on the press as an institution. Of course, the political right has long had it both ways, exploiting mainstream adherence to conventions of balance and ‘objectivity’ (not to be confused with willingness to state objective facts as such), while disregarding these conventions.

As Rosen implies, a world in which one party is actively hostile to reality is a world in which there is no such thing as “the press”. Rather there is a pro-reality press and an anti-reality press, and it’s up to the audience to determine which is which. It’s no doubt a reflection of my perennial optimism, largely unjustified by the events of my lifetime, but I see the pro-reality side gaining the upper hand at last, and the advocates of centrist objectivity finally being forced to recognised this.

A pro-reality journalism will inevitably be hostile to the Republican party and its intellectual apparatus, but that doesn’t mean it should fall into the trap of reflexive support for the Democrats. The point is to report the truth, and report lies as lies, without falling into the equal and opposite traps of ‘balance’ and partisan loyalty.

What of the implications beyond the US? In all the English-speaking countries, there is a large section of the conservative commentariat (most obviously, but not exclusively, the Murdoch Press) whose business consists mostly of importing and retailing Republican/conservative/propertarian ideas. If these ideas become the subject of consistent ridicule in their home, they will be steadily harder to sell abroad.

Nevertheless, the political consequences of a shift to reality-based journalism won’t be entirely beneficial. The delusions on which the Republicans rely are a cover for the class interests of the very rich, and for the tribal loyalties and hatreds of their base. Blowing the cover may well produce an even cruder politics of interests and tribalism. And, as I’ve argued before, the centrist managerialism of leaders like Obama (or for that matter, most of the current crop of social democratic politicians) doesn’t provide the genuine hope needed to counter the politics of tribalism.

fn1. I plan a long post on this false equivalence or tu quoque argument Real Soon Now.
fn2. There are lots of references to polls by Time and Newsweek suggesting that majority of Americans belief in the Rapture, but the second-hand reports of the questions seem too vague to allow this inference
fn3. Counterexamples accepted with gratitude

54 thoughts on “Reality-based journalism in the US

  1. Then again, what’s worse: journos who are failed politicians or politicians who are failed journos.

  2. Yeah … but (always a but), Osborn was, well, weird, wacko, lazy and stupid. To throw your lot in with him I really question Uhlmann’s judgment. Maybe he saw himself as the power behind the throne? Who knows. Still, very strange. I notice there is no mention of this in his official ABC biography.

  3. Abbott endorsed Uhlmann only recently, in the sense that he pointed refused to complain about ABC bias with regards to current journalism on 7:30, ABC News, Lateline, Four Corners, ie the news and current affairs section of ABC TV (free-to-air). When I read of that and then saw the footage (of Abbott), I wasn’t aware of Uhlmann’s ticket as an independent, or that he was pursuing a range of agendas including killing bills that were labelled “pro-abortion”, or “pro-euthanasia”, or “pro-injecting-room”. I’m guessing now that this is why Abbott thinks Uhlmann is fair and balanced—after all, they both have similar views with a common Roman Catholic bent. Far from Uhlmann bending over backwards to not be seen as a Labor stooge (which could be the default assumption, based on his marriage to Gai Brodtmann (Canberra)), he is fairly cosy with the neo-con or at least conservative Liberal party elements. Perhaps he can shake this off and be more neutral in his journalism as he claims he can; his interviewing style will need some major tune-up though.

  4. As an example of sudden turns towards reality, Adam Creighton of the CIS had a piece in Crikey yesterday advocating for higher wages and pointing out that “95% of Australia’s nine million or so taxpayers have taxable incomes below $130,000 a year”- though to be fair to the CIS’s non-reality-based credentials, I’m not sure that he realised that’s what he was advocating.

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