Monday, December 22, 2014

Run, Liz, Run!

Now that the 2014 midterms are behind us (albeit just barely), the professional prognosticator class has set their sights squarely on the field of 2016 contenders. The press—as is usually the case with this sort of thing—are way ahead of themselves. They already treat it as a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will announce a run for the White House sometime in the coming months. They are just shy of treating her eventual victory in the Democratic primary as equally assured. And then, of course, they are only slightly less bullish on her chances of obliterating the GOP nominee come November 2016. Now, I find these assumptions to be rather premature—not just the latter two, but the first one as well.

There are more than a few good reasons why Hillary could (and, in my opinion, should) decide not to run in 2016. Health and age would likely be foremost among those concerns. Clinton will be 69 years old on Election Day 2016, and she’s already had a few medical scares in the past few years. But surely she must also realize how much she stands to lose from a public image standpoint. Hillary ended her tenure as Secretary of State as the most admired woman in America, but has seen her approval numbers drop steadily since stepping down from that post and inserting herself into the world of partisan politics. After 20 consecutive years in the national spotlight, Hillary Clinton might want to ask herself if she’d rather retire as America’s undisputed queen bee or have her name (and her past) drug through the mud on the way to a presidential election that she just might not win.

So let’s say Hillary does decide to pull the biggest political shocker of the 21st Century and sit out 2016. Who then should take up the Democratic Party’s banner? The activist Left, as far as I can tell, has already answered that question for us. The populist fringe of the Democratic Party has begun to rally around Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the anti-big-business crowd and probably the most articulate voice in Washington when it comes to defending redistributionist policies. I particularly enjoy listening to less ideological Democrats clumsily attempt to imitate her rhetoric during speeches that are supposed to fire up their party’s liberal base. President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comments come to mind, as does Hillary’s horribly bungled speech from two months ago in which she told her audience, “Don’t let anybody, don’t let anybody tell you that, ah, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Compare the video of that speech to Warren’s and tell me which one would last longer in a Democratic primary.

If it sounds like I’m advocating for an Elizabeth Warren presidential run in 2016, it’s actually because I am. I know this may sound shocking at first—after all, I’m certainly no friend to progressive economics and any populist tendencies I have are of the free-market variety, not the planned-economy utopian dreams of leftists like Warren. No, I want to see Elizabeth Warren run because I want the United States to have a presidential election in which we actually engage in a real debate about how to move forward from the economic calamities of the last seven years. Too long have we lollygagged while our economy refuses to grow in any substantive way. As wages remain stagnant, as the middle class continues to be squeezed out of existence, as more and more people drop out of the workforce, as GDP growth remains under 3% annually, and as high-paying jobs remain absent from the so-called “recovery,” we continue to fall back on meaningless platitudes and divisive, distracting social issues. Our president, rather than do anything at all to help the recovery gain some steam, merely trumpets the falling unemployment rate and the soaring stock market—two data points that are largely meaningless to average Americans and conceal the underlying stagnation in the labor market. I want to see someone run for president who is actually brave enough to acknowledge these very serious issues, even if the proposed solutions are the exact opposite of what I would do.

David Harsanyi at The Federalist hails Elizabeth Warren as the face of the modern Democratic Party, saying that “Her hard-left economics—what the press quixotically refers to as ‘economic populism’—propels today’s liberal argument. It’s the default position of nearly every grassroots constituency on the Left. The center of the Democrats’ agenda.” Conversely, he compares Hillary Clinton to Mitt Romney, likening her to a plutocrat lounging in her New York penthouse and kowtowing to her big-business supporters while her party’s grassroots focuses its energies elsewhere. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but what I think Harsanyi gets right is his assertion that a Clinton candidacy would do nothing to forward an economic platform that actually benefits the middle class. On the subject of a potential Warren candidacy, he hits the nail on the head: “Warren, hopelessly wrong as she is, is liable to offer the country a better class of political debate than the one we’ve lived through the past eight years. There’s no doubt hackneyed wars on women, minorities, and common sense will remain. But it’s fair to say that Warren’s histrionics are often built atop genuine policy beefs rather than straw men.” I include that quote because I couldn’t say it better myself.

Peter Beinart, writing over at The Atlantic, bestows upon Warren the title of “The Rand Paul of the Democratic Party.” He makes this comparison largely because both Warren and Paul (supposedly) have the potential for crossover appeal between the parties. Warren, Beinart argues, could attract the attention of some grassroots conservatives who share her loathing for bank bailouts and the too-cozy relationship between the federal government and Wall Street. Paul, on the other hand, has attempted to make inroads among African American voters with his support for criminal sentencing reform and has excited some young liberals with his vehement opposition to America’s growing surveillance state. Although I have very serious doubts about either of these politicians being able to peel away the other party’s votes in today’s hyper-polarized climate, I think Beinart is right to compare these two non-establishment figures. Mostly because of the spiritual similarities between those two very different people, I would love to see Rand Paul as the Republican nominee opposite Elizabeth Warren in 2016. I will admit to having fantasies about a presidential debate between one candidate who has a philosophical objection to a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and another who wants the Post Office to be able to give out loans. Talk about a choice.

As Harsanyi very astutely says, “[Warren’s] presence in the race might impel Republican candidates to engage in a worthwhile conversation about corporatism and free markets.” And this, essentially, is the crux of my argument. If the American people were actually presented with an election in which they could decide how to move our country past the two disastrous presidencies we have been asked to endure, we would be so much better for it. With energetic, policy-driven candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul atop the major party tickets, we could actually engage in a constructive, fact-based debate about the state of our country’s economy and the direction of its future. Diversionary issues like contraception and the Koch Brothers could take a backseat to much more vital discussions about how to let future American generations prosper. The last thing we need in 2016 are out-of-touch establishment types like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Come on, Liz. Come on, Rand. Let’s give them something to talk about. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Media madly in search of a narrative

Anyone who has ever had a serious political discussion with me knows that I lay most of the blame for America’s horrid political discourse not at the feet of the Democratic Party, the GOP, big business, K Street lobbyists, or even our politically uninformed electorate, but rather at the Fourth Estate in Washington—the news media. This is because the media wields an immense power and with it—forgive me for sounding trite—comes an immense responsibility. Our nation’s newspapers, television networks, magazines, radio shows, and blogs are the ultimate purveyors of information. The journalists (both amateur and professional) who write for these institutions are the guides who provide us with a window to the wider world, putting our lives in context as they inform us about the goings on in legislatures, city streets, and warzones around our country and the world. We rely on them to tell us everything from what the weather is like outside to what countries our military is currently bombing. This is indeed a great power—one that demands above all else that they report this information accurately and with integrity. Just imagine the damage that could be caused if they didn’t.

Actually, as it so happens, you don’t have to imagine. Just look around you. Over the past few weeks, we have had some stunning examples of the media failing their mandate to report news truthfully, objectively, and with integrity. Foremost in my mind is the shameful coverage of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri and Rolling Stone’s recent 9,000-word feature detailing horrific rape allegations at the University of Virginia. Both of these failures have whipped the American people into a frenzy have and confused the conversation on two very important issues: racial equality and sexual assault awareness. Why, you might ask, would the media poison the well on these two very sensitive topics? I posit that this is due to one of the media’s biggest faults: their burning desire to make their news stories fit a predetermined narrative.

Make no mistake about it—the events surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri are painful, tragic, and have served to expose racial divisions that still very much exist in the United States. I’m not writing today to add to the considerable debate regarding the role of race in Mr. Brown’s death, but I am here to tell you that the media got it all terribly wrong. Rather than focusing on the facts of the case, newspapers and television programs all over the country decided that this tragic turn of events needed to fit a narrative. Michael Brown, the media wanted (you) to believe, was a victim along the lines of Trayvon Martin—a harmless black youth who was gunned down for no reason by a man armed with only a gun and racial animus. Now, I’m not saying that there is no way that this was the case; I’m just saying that there is no proof that it was. We can only go on what we know, and that is all the media is obliged to report. What we know is that Officer Darren Wilson claims that he shot Brown because he was acting belligerently and that Wilson feared for his safety. We know that over a half-dozen eyewitness accounts (from African American witnesses) conform to this interpretation of events. And we know that physical evidence—ballistics analysis and autopsy findings—also support Wilson’s story. And we know that the grand jury that decided not to indict Officer Wilson was exposed to all of this information and more.

You would never guess that the case was that ambiguous from the media’s coverage of it, though. News outlets worked tirelessly to stick to their narrative, instilling in the minds of Americans the image of a young black man getting gunned down while holding his hands up in surrender—something that we have no reason to believe actually occurred. Rather than focusing on facts, much more emphasis was given to perception, with excessive attention paid to the different ways whites and blacks perceived this case. In essence, it didn’t really matter what the facts bore out as long as you had sufficient emotional ammunition to back up your opinion. If something about Darren Wilson felt wrong to you, then he was wrong. If you felt like the grand jury should have indicted him, then an indictment constituted the right decision. If you felt like rioting, looting, and burning after the decision was announced, then you could.

Now, let me take a minute to say a few things before I start getting hate for viewing this case from the ivory tower of my white privilege. I find the media’s mishandling of the Ferguson coverage so disappointing primarily because, when talking about a justice system like ours that has given us so many reasons to believe it is racially biased, the last thing we need is to add a false positive to the pile of evidence. Having looked at the facts, I think that the grand jury in Ferguson could have easily indicted Wilson. I also think, however, that had this case gone to trial, Officer Wilson would almost certainly have been acquitted. And prosecutors, ethically speaking, are not supposed to seek indictments in cases where they can’t secure a conviction. This makes me think that this particular case may not have all that much to do with race, at least in terms of why the grand jury decided not to indict. I think it points more toward the significant flaws of the grand jury itself—specifically, a prosecutor’s nearly unlimited control over whether or not an indictment is given and the inherent conflict of interests that arises when a district attorney has to prosecute a police officer. I actually think the media jumped the gun in applying a racial narrative to the Michael Brown case because the more recent (and even more baffling) non-indictment in the death of Eric Garner seems to fit the bill disturbingly well.

But the coverage of the Michael Brown case wasn’t even the media’s most egregious lapse of judgment in the past few weeks. That dubious distinction goes to Rolling Stone, which on November 19 published a sprawling, graphic exposé of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. The feature tells the story of Jackie, a UVA student who claims she was gang-raped at a fraternity party as a freshman. It paints a picture of a campus wracked by rape and sexual assault, a fraternity culture that celebrates it, a student body that is afraid to talk about it, and an administration that willfully ignores it. Now, these horrific things may very well be true, but if you are going to write something that so thoroughly and disgustingly tarnishes the record of one fraternity in particular and one storied institution of higher learning in general, you had damn well better make sure your allegations are well-founded. If you are going to ruin someone’s reputation by accusing them of something as loathsome as rape, you had better be sure they did it. But most importantly, if you are going to publish a victim’s account of such a heinous act, it is paramount that you protect her by telling it right. As Amanda Taub at Vox states, “failing to ensure that the story was accurate before exposing it to public scrutiny didn't protect Jackie. It left her vulnerable.”

So yes, as I’m sure you can gather, evidence has come to light that the story told in Rolling Stone may not be very factual. It turns out that Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article (who, by the way, should resign along with her editors and never be heard from in the world of journalism ever again), didn’t properly fact check Jackie’s story and didn’t contact any of the alleged perpetrators for comment. She claims that she engaged in this titanic lapse of journalistic ethics in order to protect the victim but, as I’ve already stated, she did the exact opposite of that. We now know that the fraternity in question did not hold a social event on the alleged night of the assault and that none of the then-members of the chapter match the victim’s description of her attackers. Now, does this mean that Jackie didn’t suffer some terribly traumatic event that night? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s quite possible that she did and that the post-traumatic stress associated with that night makes it difficult for her to accurately recall what happened. I cannot stress this enough: the discrepancies in the article are in no way the victim’s fault. This is entirely on the author and her superiors.

That last fact is what makes Rolling Stone’s apology for the mishap all the more disgusting. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” reads the statement from Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor (who should also resign). If that wasn’t so wrong, I might laugh at the sick irony of publishing a story about rape without fact checking it and then literally blaming the victim for any discrepancies that popped up. Not only has Rolling Stone made a mockery of themselves and their credibility, but they have refused to even take responsibility for their own egregious failings. This is a gross injustice to the alleged attackers, to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, to the University of Virginia, and most of all to Jackie, a victim now twice exploited.

This all happened because of the media’s obsession with filling a narrative. Erdely wanted to write a story about heinous sexual abuse at an elite college, so she shopped around until she found Jackie’s story. She wanted it to work, so she didn’t fact check. Her editors wanted to make a splash, so they published it anyway. And now they won’t even do us the small justice of admitting that they were wrong to do so.

The mishandling of this story as well as the events in Ferguson are so disappointing because these conversations—about race and sexual assault—are truly uncomfortable ones, and must be conducted in the spirit of sensitivity and understanding. But how can we honestly discuss these painful problems if we can’t even trust the media to report them fairly, objectively, and accurately? How can we trust ourselves to have a constructive debate if the facts are incorrectly reported and the terms are set by arbiters of information who have their own agenda? I think that we, as responsible citizens, need to be more careful in how we receive the “news” that is fed to us on TV and in print. Because if journalists decide to throw their integrity to the wind, it falls to us to make sure we don’t believe everything that is spoon-fed to us. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to Darren Wilson. We owe it to Mike Brown. We owe it to Eric Garner. We owe it to Jackie. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?