The truth can hurt—tell it anyway

One of my first jobs after graduating from college was hosting a weeknight radio talk show in Austin, Texas.  This was the early 1980s and Austin was both politically and socially a very liberal town, yet over time I found a higher-than-expected percentage of conservatives among my audience on a radio station that played rock and roll the rest of the day.  I did interviews when an interesting guest was available—Madalyn Murray O’Hair came to the studio one night, had Timothy Leary on the phone once—but often it was an open line to talk about, and debate and argue, topics in the news.  I enjoyed the give and take with people who had a different opinion and were willing to make their case, and to listen to mine and respond on the merits.  I fancied myself left of center but not crazy; I had more than one caller who complimented me for being funny and so reasonable…for a liberal.

This was as a new American conservatism was eclipsing the old one: William F. Buckley, Jr.’s worldview was being subtly undermined and overwhelmed by the Moral Majority appeal to right-thinking Christian evangelicals who were urged to get involved and install their religious beliefs as secular law.  America was a Christian nation after all, they were told, so it was the right thing to do; any fancy intellectual arguments, or any point of view that sprung from a differing interpretation of the will of God, could be safely ignored.

And here we are.  Give the radical right credit: they played the political game on its own terms, they played it smart, and they won.  A lot.  We have the same American states, same U.S. Constitution and structure of government, and at least on the surface we have the same tradition of respect for the rule of law, for freedom of speech, for individual liberty and societal responsibility, as we did forty or more years ago.  But it’s not the same.

I try to be optimistic.  I believe that each new generation of Americans is more committed than the last one to the “liberal values” of racial and gender equity and equality, and the free exchange of ideas, and freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, and that the fearful closedmindedness at the heart of the professional patriots of today will force their movement to wither and become the appendix of the American political system: present, but useless.

But in the meantime, I think the far right senses that its time is running out, and it’s desperately grabbing at any opportunity to maintain relevance and power, going all out to fortify their calcified beliefs in law and install like-minded judges to protect those gains.  Here in my state of Texas this week, a state legislator who is running in the Republican primary for attorney general has initiated “an inquiry into Texas school district content,” which is to say, he’s using his state house committee to investigate the books that public schools use to teach our kids.  (The vice chair of the committee says the panel never took a vote on this; she learned about it from a local school official.)

Attached to [Matt] Krause’s letter was a 16-page list of books published from 1969 to 2021 that included “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Other books on the list deal with issues of race, gender identity and sexuality.

The Fort Worth Republican asked school leaders to identify where copies of the listed books were located in school libraries and classrooms and the amount of money districts had spent on them.

He also asked districts to identify any other books or content that address human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or any material that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

The far right is very good at creating a villain where none existed, then using that villain to whip up fervor among those who don’t know any better.  Think Joe McCarthy, but with a broader canvas.  In this case, appealing to the good Christian souls who don’t have a racist bone in their bodies to battle the evildoers who would indoctrinate the innocent little schoolchildren of Texas into thinking the unthinkable: that the racism of the present as well as of the past, including not just the toleration of human slavery but the promotion and protection of it in law and custom, has tangible effects that all we experience today.

Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinions…how they act on them is another thing.  In the Washington Post this week, Michael Gerson makes the point that only one side in the current ideological dispute in America is threatening the future of our country:

In a country of 330 million people, one can find plenty of anarchist rioters, Marxist college professors and administrators who use tolerance as a club to beat those they deem intolerant. But judging their threat as equivalent to that of the populist right is itself a threat to the country. At some point, a lack of moral proportion becomes a type of moral failure.

My main concern here is with previously rational and respectable conservatives who are providing ideological cover for the triumph of Trumpism on the right. Often some scruple prevents them from joining fully in former president Donald Trump’s gleeful assault on democratic legitimacy. So their main strategy is to assert that leftist depredations against democracy are equivalent. If both sides have their rioters and petty autocrats, why not favor the rioters and petty autocrats whose success will result in better judges?

But here’s the rub: By any rational standard, both sides are not equivalent in their public effect.

Only one party has based the main part of its appeal on a transparent lie. To be a loyal Republican in 2021 is to believe that a national conspiracy of big-city mayors, Republican state officials, companies that produce voting machines and perhaps China, or maybe Venezuela, stole the 2020 presidential election. The total absence of evidence indicates to conspiracy theorists (as usual) that the plot was particularly fiendish. Previous iterations of the GOP tried to unite on the basis of ideology and public purpose. The current GOP is united by a common willingness to believe whatever antidemocratic rot comes from the mouth of an ambitious, reckless liar.

Only one side of our divide employs violent intimidation as a political tool. Since leaving the presidency, Trump has endorsed the view that the events of Jan. 6 were an expression of rowdy patriotism and embraced the cruel slander that the Capitol Police were engaged in oppression. Turn to Fox News and hear hosts and guests referring to a coming “purge” of patriots, alleging that the left is “hunting” the right with the goal of putting conservatives in Guantánamo Bay, and speaking of “insurgency” as a justified response.

Only one political movement has made a point of denying the existence and legacy of racism, assuring White people that they are equally subject to prejudice, and defending the Confederacy and its monuments as “our heritage.” This is perhaps the ultimate in absurd bothsidesism. My side suffers from economic stagnation and the unfair application of affirmative action. Your side was shipped like coal and sold like cattle; suffered centuries of brutality, rape, family separation and stolen wages; and was then subjected to humiliating segregation and the systematic denial of lending, housing and justice. Who can say which is worse?

Gerson is not the first to make this point; it needs to be made more often, with volume and clarity.  This is not a “both sides of the story” thing where you intimate that the two sides just have a philosophical difference of opinion.  And here, journalism has let us down.

The practice of journalism in America has changed over the centuries, if not necessarily evolved and improved.  I come out of the post-Watergate era of journalism education, which taught us to get “both sides” of a story and not favor one over the other.  It was not that a reporter could not have a personal opinion on a topic, it was just irrelevant—the goal in writing a story was to uncover facts and context and assemble them into a narrative for the reader so he or she could better understand an issue and come to their own opinion about it.

Of course, the truth is there have always been more than two sides to most stories, and any reporter’s worldview influences how they go about the uncovering of facts and context.  Editors are there to help smooth that out so the final product is accurate, and fair, and enlightening.  But in the end, the journalism is done for the benefit of the customer: the reader, the listener, the viewer.  We sure as hell are not there to campaign for any politician, yet for generations politicians and their supporters have accused reporters and their employers of being unfair: if you write bad things about me, you’re against me; you’re biased.  It doesn’t matter whether the “bad things” are in fact true, or that the reporter or the paper routinely publish “bad things” about all candidates from all parties.  (From our perspective, those are all good stories!)

But over the years, some outlets—many of them—developed a preemptory defense against accusations of unfairness: report facts, but don’t add context that leads to a judgment about the participants; then they can’t accuse you of being unfair.

Of course, they still can and do make the accusation, so the strategy is flawed on its face.  But in a tragic example of the law of unintended consequences, that acrobatic effort to produce “neutral” journalism is failing the customer.  As Jackie Calmes writes in the Los Angeles Times, in the case of national politics today it is failing the country.

I started to chafe at false equivalence a quarter-century ago, as a congressional reporter amid Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. One party — his — was demonstrably more responsible for the nasty divisiveness, government gridlock and norm-busting, yet journalistic pressure to produce seemingly “balanced” stories — pressure both ingrained and imposed by editors — prevented reporters from sufficiently reflecting the new truth.

By 2012, as President Obama dealt with the willful obstructionists, conspiracists and racists of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, political scientists and long-respected Washington watchers Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put the onus for the dysfunction squarely on the GOP in their provocative book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” Significantly, they implicated journalists: “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers.”

The ascension of Donald Trump four years later should not have been such a surprise. With his continued hold on the Republican Party in the Biden era, Mann and Ornstein’s admonition is truer than ever.

Yes, it’s critical for political journalists to remain fair and balanced, in contrast with the right-wing network that cynically co-opted those adjectives. And, yes, variations on the word “lie” justifiably made it into the mainstream — something I never thought I’d see, let alone write — to describe what comes out of Trump’s mouth whenever his lips move. Sadly, that was progress.

(snip)

This is a Republican Party that is not serious about governing or addressing the nation’s actual problems, as opposed to faux ones like critical race theory.

Healthcare costs, child care, climate change, income inequality, you name it — Republicans don’t even acknowledge the problems, let alone propose solutions. Statewide candidates from Nevada to Virginia echo Trump in claiming that addressing (nonexistent) election fraud is, as he put it in another statement Wednesday, “the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”

Republicans in Congress scandalously opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, which threatened them as well as our democracy. They won’t support a must-pass increase in the nation’s debt limit, despite the trillions of debt that they and Trump piled up. Yet it was Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, who came in for pundits’ rebuke last week when he lambasted Republicans for flirting with a default, just after they’d allowed a temporary debt-limit measure to pass. What was he supposed to do? Celebrate the Republicans’ “bipartisanship” in defusing, only until December, the dynamite they’d lit under the economy?

On Saturday, the Senate’s most senior Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, gleefully accepted Trump’s endorsement for reelection at a rally in Iowa where Trump repeatedly lied that he’d beaten Biden. The next day on “Fox News Sunday,” the second-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, repeatedly refused to say that the election was not stolen from Trump.

Democrats can’t be expected to deal with these guys like they’re on the level. Nor should journalists cover them as if they are.