Terry H. Schwadron
July 28, 2020
By now, we all understand that following public affairs news has turned into a daily series of partisan litmus tests.
No longer is any statement, action, court decision, op-ed column, congressional speech simply information. Every utterance is being judged constantly by a Talmudic review of how well its words reflect a pro- or anti- bias towards the subject at hand as held by the reader, not the speaker.
The forceful, challenge this week by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling out institutional misogyny after her verbal assault by Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho is a good case in point. All parties can agree that the speech itself was brilliant and sharp, timely, well-spoken in asking all of us to look anew at our own speech as action that can hurt.
As an aside, I believe her policies, to which Yoho was objecting, are right in connecting poverty, violence and disease.
Those on the right attacked the speech and its coverage in the news as everything from “cancel culture” overreach to wrong, and those on the left attacked The New York Times for using adjectives and language that did not sufficiently promote a feminist cause — overlooking that it wasn’t institutional bias, but eroded editing procedures meant to look for words that may be pregnant with unintended meaning.
It is impossible these days to see a report about federal agents deployed to Portland and other cities apart from a fusillade of commentary alternately about a perceived explosion in our cities or the birthing of martial law by Trump thugs on American citizens 100 days before an election.
My beef: We’re in danger of losing the bigger picture in seeking affirmation of personal views in the wording of every statement in the newspaper or the court decision or some random tweet by Donald Trump. My current hope is that we can step back just for a moment before shooting off opinions to look at the context.
It is clear, for example, that we are facing a crisis of unchecked presidential power in deploying federal agents against Americans and that we have people who want to provoke that response, that we have a society filled with layered instances of sexism, racism, and feelings of blame for Others, that we have a pandemic out of control with a good number of Americans unwilling to take precautions to stop it.
Sometimes, we just need the information about what happened first. There’s always time for opinions in the next cycle of reflection.
Conformity for Thinking
That a U.S. Supreme Court would rule 5–4 that Nevada was not unfair in extending coronavirus restrictions against churches (following its earlier 5–4 ruling) already shows us that there is heavy division here. Is it really necessary for Twitter to rain on this decision as if it is separate from a whole series of rulings that seek to so narrow questions as to make them almost impossible to determine the state of American values? Is it effective?
Instead of considered thought, we have Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, insisting no nomination for the Court proceed without a guarantee vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. We’re losing the idea that this is about an individual’s right to decide — and for people more widely to disagree.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist with whom I often disagree, noted recently that conformity and partisan loyalty have replaced actual debate. “For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. . . In some ways the left has become even more conformist than the right,” he wrote.
“Now the boundaries of exclusion are shifting again. What we erroneously call “cancel culture” is an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well.”
Earlier in the Trump presidency, the issue was when and how to label out-and-out fictions from the White House “lies” in print. Now, everything said about Trump, by Trump, by Trump critics is a “hoax,” and we have recounted the public misstatements beyond 20,000.
Social media is filled with simplified overstatement matching the sloganeering that has replaced actual effective policy-making by our government leaders. As often as not, the posts I see even from some acquaintances reflect comment on only half the information that had prompted the comment. No, Joe Biden, a church-going Catholic, didn’t say we should be teaching the Islamic faith in school like catechism, he said we should be teaching about Islam, as in social history. If you want to comment against that, fine, but why pick on just the words that suit your pre-conceived bias?
Even Trump acknowledged this week, to my surprise, at least, that he often regrets retweeting others whose posts he said he had not fully read before resending. Then don’t send them, Mr. President.
My Own Bias
Having spent a lifetime in newsrooms, I am biased towards rigor in actual information-gathering and presentation. I dislike both the sloppiness that becomes more evident in news broadcasts and websites with the dismissals of 11,000 newsroom employees in this year alone. I am biased towards labeling of opinion and commentary, as opposed to news. And I maintain my bias towards the need to provide context.
Trump has targeted media because they raise questions — as they are supposed to do. Trump believes that his words should not be challenged.
But Trump followers and foes each believe that every word should be not only challenged, but buttressed in the public media with adjectives and language that promote the case they want to promote. The baseball game has a score, but these days, no baseball score is sufficient. What is important is how the team decided to handle kneeling before, during or instead of the national anthem, or whether the score would have been different without absences of particular players for coronavirus concerns,
We recognize on a wider basis that generally speaking, Fox offers programming that airs commentary that support Trump, but that does not mean every news story carried there does so. It depends on what Trump has said or done.
I can maintain my personal value set and still take in information that may challenge those values. Why can’t we all?
Where’s the emoji for “this is more complicated than an emoji can express”?