On the Pitfalls of the Paranoid Style of Political Media

His effort to amass [evidence] has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter. – Richard Hofstadter

This is a criticism of Karl Rove, though it was written a decade before he was born, in Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style of American Politics. Rove’s famous cognitive dissonance-induced meltdown, after Ohio was called by everyone including FOX News for Obama, is a telling performance of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter’s quote could easily apply to much of FOX News itself. Rove is only the most extreme and visible example – a symbol of what FOX has become, and a warning to other partisan media outlets.

Paranoia is what happens when political media not only cynically spins its own narrative, but then begins to actually believe everything it says. Paranoia, not the clinical term but the political sense, is a suspicious and grandiose belief that one’s culture is being attacked by a hostile world. Paranoid theories are supported by a selective set of facts, or as Hofstadter appropriately said, “at least… what appear to be facts.” In the last two months, FOX’s style of political coverage became increasingly paranoid, as it mired itself in suspicion of mass anti-Romney bias and finally spiraled into a kind of counterprogramming of the news.

Long ago in September, the 47% video appeared, and FOX covered the story in its usual way. Some pundits criticized Romney, some spun it as a call for a broader tax base and some criticized FOX for covering the video. And FOX gave airtime to Romney’s attempt at a counterpunch – the short-lived “redistribution tape.” This was the norm.

But in late September, FOX began a turn inward. While covering the horse race, FOX began claiming the daily tracking polls, stubbornly pro-Obama despite a bad first debate, were skewed. But FOX claimed more: the polls were deliberately distorted by “the left based, mainstream media,” as Steve Doocy put it. According to Andrea Tantaros, who immediately took this as fact, it was a positive sign for Romney: “What does it tell you when the media actually has to skew the polls to help the President out? That they’re very, very scared.”

FOX’s “skewed polls” theory, like all paranoid politics (Hofstadter would agree), had a basis in reality. For example, Public Policy Polling was founded by a Democratic pollster and weighs (FOX would say, manipulates) its results. But the FOX of yesteryear might have spun a bad week in the polls by simply demonizing Public Policy Polling or by making the quantitative claim that all polls have a margin of error and that the candidates often were within those margins.

Something about the “skewed polls” claim was entirely new. FOX made a qualitative claim about the vast majority of pollsters, amounting to – in so many words – they’re all out to get us (and triumphantly concluded that therefore, Romney must be winning). Throughout October, FOX mainly followed conservative-friendly Rasmussen polling and ignored the others.

Parallel Worlds: Was the October Surprise Sandy or Benghazi?

The close of the election season presented an October surprise – Hurricane Sandy. But while both campaigns took a break and the media focused on that historic and ongoing event, much of FOX News presented their own counter-October surprise: continuing coverage, criticism, and rumors about Obama’s handling of September’s Benghazi incident.

On the night Sandy hit New Jersey, while FOX News’s studios were on generator power and their news crawl announced breaking stories like, “MTA: Water is Flooding into Lower Manhattan,” Sean Hannity interviewed a Navy Seal’s father about how the White House supposedly halted a rescue mission and “watched [his] son die,” from a live feed in the situation room. Coverage of a rumored government email scandal coverup continued that week, as developing stories in Sandy’s aftermath dominated the news elsewhere.

Again, these paranoid stories are based on a fact: the administration’s bungled miscommunications after the incident. But FOX’s rampant speculation hasn’t revealed anything real, substantial, or surprising, other than the extent to which Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams are frustrated by their conspiracy-mongering colleagues.

FOX would present this counter-reality where Benghazi was the headline until right before the election, when their pundits turned again to the horse race and predicted Mitt Romney’s victory (in some cases, a landslide).

And then election night intervened.

Chris Wallace and Karl Rove’s feeble attempt at putting their thumbs in FOX’s epistemic dam to hold back the floodwaters of reality has become a totem of liberal schadenfreude. https://i1.wp.com/static01.mediaite.com/med/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Capture39-300x215.jpgBut it’s a significant moment for understanding the consequences of a paranoid style of political reportage. This wasn’t cynical rhetorical tactics; Rove’s disbelief was genuine. He was certain his math still ensured a Romney victory in Ohio. (Anchor Megyn Kelly’s embarrassed reaction to Rove was like that of an accomplice realizing her leader drank his own kool-aid.)

Romney, too, said he felt sucker-punched by the news of his defeat. For conservative media consumers, why wouldn’t you? For weeks FOX presented a President hobbled by a foreign policy disaster and embattled in an unraveling coverup of Watergate-like proportions. Obama was losing in swing states, despite the skewed polls fabricated by liberals.https://i0.wp.com/cdn0.dailydot.com/cache/09/e8/09e8257e7e1c172e5a8341e0e0fb64de.jpg

In the parallel world presented by FOX News – which was unprecedented in its deviation from the conventional news cycle and its closed, self-coherent narrative – Romney’s win was inevitable.

The important lesson for partisan media on both sides is this: Of course you’ll comment, emphasize some facts over others, and spin the news for your team. But beware when your national headlines stop corresponding, at all, to stories being reported throughout the nation – especially if you feel that everyone else is not only misguided, but conspiring together against you. MSNBC, with its increasingly partisan coverage, should be especially wary of following FOX to their logical, paranoid conclusion. Pew’s research found that MSNBC’s coverage of Romney was even more negative than FOX’s Obama reportage. And from seeing hidden racist “dog whistles” everywhere in Republican rhetoric to ignoring polls and forecasts (like Nate Silver’s spot-on prediction) and instead anxiously insisting that the election could go either way, MSNBC is not without its own proto-paranoia.

But the only true exemplar is FOX News. Instead of just employing tactical spin, FOX went further down the rabbit hole, fabricating its own self-satisfied political universe. Their programing was antithetical to the goal of news, which is to present viewers information that is important and useful. FOX’s coverage was, as always, a disservice to bipartisan understanding but moreover it was a disservice to their own strategic goals. Conservatives went from possessing a powerful avenue for publicity and persuasion to being bamboozled by their own paranoid propaganda.

You can’t win a battle by fighting a hallucination.https://i1.wp.com/www.newsrealblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/shooting-self-in-foot.jpg

FOX’s ultimate failure is organizational self-immolation by recklessly playing with fire. In his postmortem, George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum perhaps put it best, saying, “Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.”

Or maybe Richard Hofstadter again:

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.


Amazing Speech

A preacher gives a speech concerning gay rights. Watch the whole thing until the end. It’s worth it.

Did I mention that you should watch it until the end?

If you still haven’t, do.



Wonderful little piece of performance art. Great way to remind us of the parallels from history.

Todd Akin: the Republican War on Women Meets the Republican War on Science

Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin has been under a lot of fire since he “misspoke” yesterday, saying that in the case of a “legitimate rape,” “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” His apology afterwards – “it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped” – focused on the (unbelievable) lack of empathy that his comments showed, rather than the facts of the matter. Why?

Because he probably believes the “facts” he’s been told by “doctors.” Akin is a glaring example of where the Republican War on Women meets the Republican War on Science.

What doctors gave Akin his background on rape and pregnancy? The Atlantic has traced Akin’s comments back to a likely source – a pro-life article called “Assault Rape Pregnancies Are Rare,” a short document which runs through shoddy statistical and hypothetical mitigating factors to the conclusion that forcible rape pregnancies are so uncommon as to be “extremely rare.”

Along the way, the article states, by fiat, that miscarriages resulting from the emotional and physical trauma of a rape cuts that rare figure down further. Read the very scientific reasoning displayed:

So what further percentage reduction in pregnancy will this cause? No one knows, but this factor certainly cuts this last figure by at least 50 percent and probably more.

“No on knows, but here’s a statistic I made up because it sounds about right,” seems to be the reasoning. The author, J.C. Willke, is a long-time pro-life doctor who also supported Republican, scientifically unsound arguments like the Ohio Heartbeat legislation and the myth that abortion causes cancer, which has been rejected by the American Cancer Society.

Willke is, of course, an unexceptional case of partisan “science,” the kind of ready-made scientific-sounding arguments that institutes, individuals, and think tanks on the Right incessantly churn out on topics from women’s health to our warming world. Chris Mooney, skeptic and host of The Center for Inquiry’s podcast, Point of Inquiry, wrote a book on this industry and its effect on science and national policy debates called The Republican War on Science. Here’s Mooney in 2006, talking about his book and bad science to (appropriately) Planned Parenthood.

“So what we’re seeing is that the Christian Right is actually minting its own scientific experts” says Mooney in the talk. And even though they’re outliers in the scientific community, these “experts” provide a political commodity. First, simply creating the illusion of debate on a scientific topic is a goal in itself: the Right can say the science isn’t “settled.” The other end is to provide politicians with convenient studies and “facts” that affirm their political viewpoint, like, for example, that abortion is unnecessary. Akin might even believe the pseudoscience. Mooney:

Politicians don’t just wake up in the morning and say, “You know, I think I’ll twist some science today.” What happens is they want to reach a particular goal, and they need information, data, in order to get there. Well, now it’s being provided to them. And they can cherry-pick it at their leisure.

Happens all the time, and only occasionally, as in Akin’s case, does it come back to bite them in the ass. Akin’s statement reflects how terrible the far Christian right is on women’s rights, but his apology hints that he might still believe that his argument is scientifically sound. That, too, is a huge problem, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

The Death of Osama, or: Birthers turn into Deathers

You’d think that the news was all around good, and self-evident.  The President of the United States, using good CIA intelligence, ordered one of America’s most elite strike teams, the Navy Seals, to raid the suspected compound of Osama Bin Laden (a.k.a. public enemy no. 1).  No Americans were injured, and the only instance of “collateral damage”, one of Osama’s wives, was killed because the bastard hid behind her.  On top of that, the military performed an Islamic burial on Osama at sea, fulfilling the Islamic requirement to bury the body as soon as possible.

Conservatives and liberals all have something to be happy about, besides the obvious fact that one of the most dangerous and elusive America-hating maniacs was taken out.  The conservatives got a decisive move from their President to finally “git’m” (and not just “smoke’m out”) using the full brawn, skill, and technological prowess of American military might.  Liberals got a low-damage, surgical-style operation that did not involve bombs (and the resulting ubiquitous bloody innocents on the news), plus the multicultural, religious sensitivity to give even our worst enemy a ceremony befitting his religious customs.

A slam dunk, right?

Of course not.  Not here, where everyone has their own spin on the story.  Some are saying it was an illegal assassination – a kind of instant death penalty imposed at the moment of capture; some say it was immoral – that he should have been captured and put on trial at all costs; some are even saying the burial was not up to (Islamic) snuff.

But for every somewhat reasonable, informed critical voice in our society, there are hundreds of uninformed, unreasonable ones.  So how will the ignorant, unabashed fringes react?

Forget Obama Birthers, here come the Osama Deathers.  As has become vividly clear in the last ten years, Americans in the political margins love a good conspiracy theory.

Since President Obama squashed the embarrassing Birther movement with one flash of the long-form, many of the obdurate anti-Obama crowd might be looking for some new, equally outlandish, paranoid story to tell themselves.  Deathers will weave themselves an elaborate tale of deception, government propaganda, and might possibly fit the marriage of William and Kate into the mix as well.

Because the body was buried so quickly and photos (as of yet) have not been released, Deathers will have a “reason” to tell themselves that Obama faked it.  Of course this will require ignoring all evidence to the contrary: the DNA match between Osama and his sister, one of Osama’s wives IDing the body, the fact that one of Osama’s daughters witnessed her father’s death, the intelligence goldmine discovered at the house, and all the holiday family update letters that the rest of the Bin Ladens will be missing every year from now on.

“Show us the birth cer… er, I mean the body!…er, at least the gruesome death photo!” will be the new cry of the ridiculous right.

Or maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe they won’t care so much about this one – perhaps I’m overestimating the level of general anti-government paranoia within the Birthers.

Maybe they were simply being racists after all.

Enough Already with the Politically Biased Media

It's funny because it's true...which makes me cry.

Americans love a good bias.

I say that because there’s been all this ranting about a liberally biased media.  Naturally, I heard that on Fox News, because when I want to be afraid of the boogeyman again (which is apparently Barack HUSSEIN Obama), that’s where I head.

But after hearing so much about the liberal bias in media, I couldn’t help to investigate the matter for myself.  It sounded like a lot of fun…which is dreadful proof that I need to get out more.

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Dear Glenn,

First, as an American, and secondly as an amateur historian, I beg you to stop.  Stop badgering us on radio, stop preaching on Fox News, stop writing books filled with your skewed commentary on our society, stop public speaking with Mama Grizzly at rallies, stop everything.

Just take a look at what you’re doing to us.  I’m certain that you sincerely believe you’re doing some sort of civic duty by misinforming the masses, but I’m not sure how you can keep believing such malarkey.  Of those who subscribe to you, I see two commonplace emotions.  I see anger prominently on the forefront in your Americans’ minds, evoked from a sense of frustration because things aren’t going their way; but then, hidden from plain sight, I’ve found fear—the kind that only children know when they’re alone in the dark.  Sure, it’s nothing out of the norm to be scared or tense once in a while, but not like this, not all the time.  That’s what breeds panic and causes nervous breakdowns. How can’t you see that you’re destroying the ones who invite you into their homes and love you?

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GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Even before Obama’s inauguration, there was already quite a lot of speculation as to whom the GOP will run in 2012.

Up to now, it’s still up in the air. While certainly no front-runner has really stuck out, last month, Gallup published a poll which asked Republicans who they’d like to see as the Republican nominee. Here are the results:

  1. Sarah Palin— 76% favorable, 20% unfavorable, 4% don’t know
  2. Mike Huckabee—65% , 10%, 25%
  3. Newt Gingrich—64% , 17%, 20%
  4. Mitt Romney—54%, 19%, 27%
  5. Bobby Jindal—45%, 9%, 46%

So, being the good, flag-waving American that I am (and you are), let’s look at the pros and cons of each presidential hopeful.

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