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Trump vs. the Media vs. the Truth and the Rest of Us

The battle between President Donald Trump and the ancien regime media continues to escalate, and just like his election campaign against Hillary Clinton we’re watching without a rooting interest. Once again both sides are embarrassing themselves with false claims and phony outrage and actual incompetence, and we’re just hoping that it somehow works out for the rest of us.
Most of the media have continued to do the same dreadful job they’ve been doing over the industry’s past several decades of declining circulation and ratings and ad revenues and public approval. Since Trump’s election the most established newspapers and news broadcasts and all sorts of more fashionable internet outlets have issued reports that required extensive corrections or outright retractions, there’s been an unabashed antagonism even in the supposedly straight news sections that can’t help but raise questions about objectivity, and by now even the most casual news readers have noticed that they’re getting all worked up over the same sorts of things they spent the Obama years writing about approvingly or ignoring altogether. They’re the same smug and self-serious bores they’ve always been, too, and still don’t seem to realize how badly it’s playing.
Yet Trump provides them plenty of fodder for a whole lot of gleefully negative but indisputably reporting, “tweeting” and extemporizing on-video claims that are easily disproved and endlessly corrected by the careful explanations of his underlings yet never fully retracted. They range from the petty, such as his continued insistence that the size of his inauguration crowd was bigger than all the evidence or any logic would support, to the potentially more consequential, such as his claims that a rigged election system cost him the popular vote and that Russia had certainly had nothing to do with him winning the electoral vote. Although the ancien regime media missed yet another bet by objecting to Trump’s Muslim-banning executive order by insinuating that it was motivated by “Islamophobia,” still not realizing how badly that old shtick is playing, they were able to generate plenty of pristine copy about how ineptly it was written by political hacks without the input of any of those top people that Trump promised to surround himself with, and how it wound up confusing all the bureaucrats downstream and causing all sorts of fuss for perfectly nice people and ending up with a lot of legal wrangling, and Trump referring to the “so-called judge” who issued an injunction and lots of people on the left and right noting that the judge is so called because he actually is a duly-appointed-by-a_Republican-and-confirmed-by-a-bipartisan-congressional-majority judge, and so far we’d score it all about even for both teams, with the rest of in the hole.
Trump’s next offensive was against the media’s alleged lack of “Islamophobia,” which he’s shrewd enough to know that most Americans and all of his supporters understand as a reasonable concern about Islamist terrorism, and he botched that persuasive argument by claiming that there’s a widespread media collusion that ignores acts of terror. Had he argued that many of the media are slow to acknowledge an Islamist motivation to an act or terror and when forced to try to underplay that fact of the story he would have had some basis for the claim, but instead he had his staff issue a hastily-assembled list of terror strikes that the media had “underreported.” The established papers and networks were happy to show the ┬álist included several major terrorist attacks in Europe and Australia and the Middle East that you surely heard about if you’d turned on a television or radio or opened a newspaper or called up any sort of news web site in the days afterward, many more that were Muslim-on-Muslim killing in some geopolitically unimportant country by inconsequential gangs involving a small and numbingly routine number of victims. None of them were that white guy who shot all those black people in a South Carolina church or the white who shot up that mosque in Quebec, one of them was apparently some crazed homeless guy killing some tourists in an Australia hostel and the parents of the victims are “tweeting” their apparently real outrage that Trump has politicized the murders to gin up policies they don’t support, and it also didn’t include the “Bowling Green Massacre” that a spokeswoman claimed most Americans didn’t know because it was underreported, but which was in fact entirely unreported by it had not happened.
All in all we’d call that round another draw, and once again we can’t see that turning out well for the rest of us. By now most of the country seems to have chosen which side they’ll believe without bothering to carefully consider any of the facts or other alternatives on offer. By now we know way too many people who think that reptilian alien shape-shifters aligned with the Illuminati have something to do with it, way too many more who think the truth is whatever they find on their side of great cultural and economic and political divide and that everyone over on that side is lying, and that crazy liberal academic notion about objective reality being a mere social construct to maintain the establishment that can be deconstructed by the right mumbo-jumbo seems to have been adopted by our putatively conservative and proudly anti-intellectual president.
With no rooting interest to preoccupy we continue to grasp for objective reality, another one of those old-fashioned beliefs we bitterly cling to in these uncertain times. Our old college pal Pee Wee lives in the Washington, D.C. area and remains a Facebook friend, and he went down to look at the big protest on the Mall the day after inauguration and posted about a cop he talked with who said he’d also been on the job the day before and that the protest was far better attended, and even though Pee Wee’s a lifelong liberal we’ve never known him to lie about anything, and we’re pretty darned sure he’s not part of any Illuminati conspiracy, so we figure that Trump is overstating his crowd size and can’t help worrying about his apparent insecurity about matters of size. We also have to admit that even the most multiculturally sensitive media have all wound up acknowledging that sure enough yet another major terror occurred somewhere in the world, but we’re still hoping for a more reasoned and maybe even more intelligible argument from Trump that Islamist terrorism remains a reasonable concern.
In the meantime, we’ll be sticking to the facts as best we can find them and continue to criticize our media brethren and gleefully ignore that pudgy-faced provocateur and Chief White House Strategist Steven Bannon’s demand that we shut up. Go ahead and hate the press all you want, and much of the time you’ll be well justified in doing so, but at this point we’re mainly hoping that the freedom of the press survives this mess.

— Bud Norman

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Beyond Debate

The most disheartening story we encountered in the past month concerned the little-noticed world of college debate, which was once a stubborn outpost of rigorous intellectual exercise but apparently has since degenerated into just another territory of trendy academic nonsense. We found this alarming partly for personal reasons, as the old style of scholastic debate was a favorite pastime of our otherwise wasted youth, but also for more pertinent reasons, as the same degeneration is so painfully apparent in the quality of the modern world’s real-life debates.
Way back in our playing days high school and college debate taught how to formulate a logical argument and state it persuasively, among many other things. Intensive research about the topics chosen for each season was required to bring home those cheap trophies and silver cups and the satisfaction of prevailing in verbal combat, and we wound up knowing enough about subjects ranging from the criminal justice system to international trade to learn how very complicated they are and how very badly they are often managed. The sport taught us the basics of economics and political theory, how to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of particular policy proposal and compare its potential benefits to its inherent risks, and to consider the myriad of intended consequences that could always be found in even the most appealing ideas. Teachers, colleagues, competitors, and the thick stack of books we we devoured taught us enough about the social sciences to convincingly question the methodology of almost all of it. Debate taught how to spot a logical fallacy, and for showing-off purposes it even taught the Greek classifications for many of them. It taught us to question sources, a knack that came in handy during years of toil in the media, and to question underlying assumptions and check the results. Like everyone else that we know who took part back in those days, who are by and large a remarkably successful lot, we regard scholastic debate as by far the most educational experience of our education.
Nowadays, according to The Atlantic Monthly, collegiate debate competitions are teaching is distinctly different lessons. The magazine reports that the most recent final round of the Cross Examination Debate Association’s championship featured two teams that chose to ignore the chosen topic about presidential war powers and instead argue about an alleged war by the United States government against poor black communities. Instead, according to The Atlantic Monthly, “the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like ‘nigga authenticity’ and performed hip-hop and spoken word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during (a competitor’s) rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. ‘F**k the time,’ he yelled.” Such antics have prevailed in recent years, according to the magazine’s account, with an Emporia State University team winning the previous year’s championship with “Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely (ignoring) the stated resolution, and instead (asserting) that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.” The once-venerable Atlantic Monthly reports this as an exciting new development in an article headlined “Hacking Traditional White College Debate’s White Privilege Problem,” which goes to show that an alarming decline in standards is not restricted to collegiate debate.
A jaded scribe at the conservative Weekly Standard read the same article and cynically concluded that at least collegiate debate has become up-to-date, as personal memoir and rap music and screeds about race and class and gender and all the other fashionable concepts are the way arguments are won in contemporary America, and it pains us to concede he has a point. In all of our conversations with people outside our coterie of fellow right-wing bastards over the past many years we have found that facts and logics and such petty matters as results are of little avail in persuading people. During a recent discussion about out-of-wedlock births the woman we were talking with demanded the names of any pregnant teenagers we currently knew before she would even consider our opinions on the matter, as if knowing a presently knocked-up 16-year-old might make us more enthusiastic for bastardy, another friend was offended by the suggestion that the United Auto Workers bear any responsibility for General Motors’ recent woes resulting from the company’s faulty ignition switches just because they own the company as a result of the government’s sweetheart bail-out deal, and anecdote trumps data every time. One of our more right-leaning pals recalled attending a public forum on gun control where a woman gave a heart-rending account of losing a son to a gun accident, ergo more control is needed, and admitted with some frustration that there was no arguing with that fallacy. Of course, almost any logical argument seems to be negated the white maleness of the person making it. Logic itself is a white male construct, after all, as evidenced by those Greek classifications that the nerds use to show off, and is therefore a tool of cultural oppression or some such academic cant. As crazy as it sounds, though, the last two presidential elections were won by personal memoir and rap music and screeds about race and class and gender, even though the results were starkly apparent by the second one, and our country now proceeds with policies derived from these ideas rather than facts and logic and results.
The results, we expect, will not be beneficial. Quaint notions about facts and logic and dispassionate analysis and adherence to time limits and standards of acceptable language might have been originally discerned by those pesky dead white males, but so were the laws of gravity, and anyone who thinks his “nigga authenticity” renders such intellectual constructs irrelevant is invited to test that theory by walking off a tall building. Alas, the degeneration of public discourse threatens to take us all on that metaphorical plunge.
One of the better sources of news and opinion on the modern media landscape is the estimable Powerlineblog.com web site, and we were not surprised to learn that its authors were veterans of the old-time college debate circuit. They shared our disheartened response to The Atlantic Monthly’s report, and noted that while the college debaters of the old days were in fact a very diverse group of people in terms of race and class and gender and individual characteristics they were all privileged to have learned from the best of the world’s civilization rather than its latest crazes. It’s a shame that the current crop of debaters won’t enjoy the same privilege, and that the rest of the country will suffer the consequences.

— Bud Norman