Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: The Library of Babble?

We begin today with George Packer of The Atlantic wondering if journalism is ready for a second-term Trump Administration.

As soon as Trump left office, readers and viewers disappeared—within a month, The Washington Post lost a quarter of its unique visitors, and CNN lost 45 percent of its prime-time audience. From exile, Trump summoned one reporter after another to Mar-a-Lago and gave interviews for books that both sides knew would attack his presidency and become best sellers. When he returned as a presidential candidate and criminal defendant, cable-news-network ratings climbed again.

It’s impossible not to feel that Trump has gotten the better of this codependent clench. His endless stream of grievance and invective eroded his supporters’ trust in the news media to the point where 58 percent of Republicans now say they have none. If half the country believes most of what the mainstream media report and the other half thinks it’s mostly lies, this isn’t a partial win for journalists, whose purpose isn’t to strengthen the opposition but to give the public information it needs to exercise democratic power. Trump’s purpose is to destroy the very notion of objective truth. The match was rigged in his favor, and being compelled to fight it has not been good for journalism.

Though reporters did excellent work covering Trump’s presidency, his effect was to make the American media a little more like him: solipsistic (foreign reporting nearly disappeared), divisive, and self-righteous. Trump corrupts everyone who gets near him—spouses, children, followers, accomplices, flunkies. He corrupts the press by obsessing it; by flooding it with so much shit that news becomes almost indistinguishable from fluff and lies; by baiting it into abandoning independence for activism; by demoralizing it with the recognition that much of the public doesn’t care.

Packer’s essay is one of 24 essays in the January/February 2024 issue of The Atlantic speculating on what would happen in a second Trump presidential term.

Philip Bump of The Washington Post takes a look at how Number 45 uses dishonesty to achieve his ends.

Trump spent years trying to get people to buy gold-plated condominiums, apartments gilded with veneers of luxury and class. He spent years trying to get lots of people to buy lots of things, really, with allegations of fraud lingering around him and his company for much of that time. But he was never more successful in parlaying dishonesty into investment than since he embraced a career in national politics in 2015.

His approach that year was groundbreaking for a deceptively simple reason. Republican voters, frustrated by Barack Obama’s election and reelection, had increasingly embraced misinformation about national political issues. The Republican establishment, including elected officials, didn’t know how to deal with this. At first, they tried to co-opt the energy, reframing their desired policy preferences in the vernacular common with the tea party or fringe-right media outlets. But there was still a gap between what those outlets and right-wing commentators were endorsing and what established politicians would say.

Trump closed the gap. He said the things about immigrants that were common on the fringe-right, despite being exaggerated or false. He said the things about the left that those commentators, uncoupled from the party, were claiming on Fox News and in blogs. There was a backlash, including from the GOP establishment, that helped increase the audience for his claims. Republicans — especially the hard-right Republicans who were more likely to vote in primaries — heard him and viewed him not as a dishonest, opportunistic demagogue but as a solitary truth-telling pariah. That everyone in a position to know pointed out that Trump was wrong or lying reinforced his political branding: He was the guy challenging the elite hegemony. “Birds aren’t real,” but for an older generation.

Jon Allsop of Columbia Journalism Review speculates on the next grift for former Republican congressman George Santos.

Already, there is rampant speculation about Santos’s next act, which may be a media story in the most literal sense. “I realized I’m highly employable,” he said last week. “They’re offering me jobs left and right, from media to entertainment to public advocacy.” He mused about writing a book, and said he would consider a spin on Dancing with the Stars. Over the weekend, he apparently agreed to a pay-per-view interview with Ziwe, a popular comedian and talk show host. And we learned that a Santos movie is already in the works, optioned by HBO Films and helmed by Frank Rich, the journalist who also executive-produced Veep and Succession. Per Deadline, the movie will focus on Santos’s campaign, and will be “forensic and darkly comic.”

“Forensic and darkly comic” could also describe the media coverage of Santos and its trajectory over time. Since his story belatedly blew up a year ago, we’ve seen some stellar investigative reporting on him. Also, and increasingly, he has become a meme, in the online and broader cultural senses of the word. Coverage of his ouster variously referred to him as a “figure of national ridicule” and “the nation’s punchline.”“Who doesn’t love to talk about George Santos?” the Washington Post asked last week. “This is the paradox of Santos’s downfall. His falsehoods and alleged crimes have been bold enough to be galling, yet frivolous enough to be funny.” […]

Santos’s next act, of course, may very well be prison. And it’s possible that our fickle attention economy, having picked Santos up, will just as quickly put him down. But he has already exploited multiple pathologies of that attention economy, rising to Congress thanks in no small part to a deficit of timely attention, then riding the surfeit of it to celebrity; if you think he can’t leverage this into long-term relevance—who knows, maybe even a political comeback—I have some precedents to show you. If he does, it will be a feat inextricable from his current status as a media object. Selling himself as one might just be his greatest grift, perpetuated in plain sight.

Todd Feathers and Dhruv Mehrotra of WIRED take an in depth look at how web filters block kids and even teachers from needed information.

Thanks in large part to a two-decade-old federal anti-porn law, school districts across the US restrict what students see online using a patchwork of commercial web filters that block vast and often random swathes of the internet. Companies like GoGuardian and Blocksi—the two filters used in Albuquerque—govern students’ internet use in thousands of US school districts. As the national debate over school censorship focuses on controversial book-banning laws, a WIRED investigation reveals how these automated web filters can perpetuate dangerous censorship on an even greater scale.

WIRED requested internet censorship records from 17 public school districts around the US, painting a picture of the widespread digital censorship taking place across the country. Our investigation focuses on Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), one of the largest school districts in the US, which provided the most complete look at its web-filtering systems. APS shared 36 gigabytes of district network logs covering January 2022 to August 21, 2023, offering an unprecedented look at the kinds of content blocked by US schools on a daily basis. Our analysis of more than 117 million censorship records confirms what students and civil rights advocates have long warned: Web filters are preventing kids from finding critical information about their health, identity, and the subjects they’re studying in class. […]

It’s a problem that’s not going away. This summer, APS installed Blocksi web filters on all student and staff devices. According to our analysis and interviews with APS staff, the results seemed to be disastrous. During the nearly three months APS used the Blocksi filter, it blocked more than a million network requests a day, on average, including searches for mental and physical health services; words related to LGBTQ+, Black, and Hispanic communities; websites for local youth groups; thousands of student searches for harmless information; and tens of thousands of news articles.

“It will basically shut down your internet,” Shellmarie Harris, director of educational technology at APS, says of Blocksi’s keyword filtering technology. “Kids, teachers will not be able to get into anything.”

Somewhat related to the “filtering” of online content, censorship, book-banning, and book-burning I was reading a book review by Rana Foroohar of The Financial Times this weekend (of David Leonhardt’s Ours Was the Shining Future) that contained a very interesting paragraph.

In The Epic of America, published in 1931, Adams acknowledged that the ongoing economic crisis threatened a dream that, for most people through the country’s history, seemed attainable. But he also ended on a note of optimism — quoting a Russian immigrant called Mary Antin, who credited the country’s public library system with elevating her from being a child who knew no English to a writer who published her first book as a teenager. As Antin herself put it, “mine is the shining future”.

The Mary Antin story is on the final page of James Truslow Adams’ The Epic of America. In these last pages, Mr. Adams also describes the Library of Congress as “the heart of democracy” that can be used “as a symbol of what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf.”

a snippet of James Truslow Adams’ 1931 book “The Epic of America.”

I can’t attest to what the general reading room of the Library of Congress looked like in 1931 but I do know that this is certainly what the general reading room looked like as recently as 2019. 

It’s also a reality that the so-called “Moms of Liberty” and other regressive groups seek to take away in school boards, libraries, and other venues.

For freedumb. 

Chris Geidner of LawDork looks at two abortion cases making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This excerpt takes a look at the lesser known case involving the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

Two post-Roe cases are being considered at the Supreme Court currently that raise key questions about federal law and the Biden administration’s powers to protect abortion access after Roe. The justices are being asked to hear appeals related to the mifepristone case — a challenge to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of and access to the medication abortion drug — and to consider a request relating to the Biden administration’s application of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) to abortion-related care. […]

Although it poses as a request for procedural relief — a stay pending appeal — its goals are far more ambitious, pushing two key arguments that could, if accepted, upend the Biden administration’s efforts to provide the modest abortion-related protections it has sought to provide.

First, Idaho argues that EMTALA’s mentions of “unborn child” should be interpreted as statements that the law “treats an unborn child as a patient.” […]

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The implications of such a ruling are many — and related to “personhood” argumentsthat would hold that a fetus is to be given full protection of the law, including and up to potentially banning all abortion, as constitutional requirement under the Fourteenth Amendment. This is not that. It is a statutory argument about EMTALA — a misleadingly incorrect argument, we shall see, but nonetheless, the thread to constitutional personhood arguments is pretty easy to see.

Michael D. Shear of The New York Times takes a look at Vice President Kamala Harris’s high-stakes Middle East diplomacy.

Over the course of just three hours at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai, Ms. Harris juggled four high-stakes meetings or calls with kings and presidents. Her message on the war, privately and publicly, was one of the most pointed pronouncements from any American official — including Mr. Biden — establishing guidelines for how Israel should fight its war and what the country should do once the fighting is over.

“Under no circumstances,” her office wrote in describing her remarks in a face-to-face meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, “will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, the besiegement of Gaza, or the redrawing of the borders of Gaza.” […]

For the vice president, the trip was a chance to seize the international spotlight in a way that has not happened despite several overseas trips in the past year. Mr. Biden prides himself on a half-century of global engagements, but Ms. Harris has begun building her own history of relationships with leaders in the region, as well.

She has spoken with President Isaac Herzog of Israel three times since Oct. 7. She has had three meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan, including one at her residence in Washington. And she first met Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates in May 2022, when she led the delegation to the funeral of his predecessor.

Well, Mr. Shear is correct if we are only considering the “spotlight” of the American press.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo tips us off to this interesting read by Haaretz’s Ido Baum that speculates about the short selling of the Israeli economy in the days leading up to the October 7 massacre by Hamas. 

Short-selling Israeli shares – betting that they will fall – spiked in the days before October 7, far exceeding the short selling during “numerous other periods of crisis,” Robert J. Jackson, Jr., Joshua Mitts and colleagues wrote in a paper titled “Trading on Terror?”published Sunday on SSRN.

While the source of the putative information leading to the short selling isn’t known, it plausibly originated in Hamas circles: “Our findings suggest that traders informed about the coming attacks profited from these tragic events,” they wrote. […]

To examine how unusual the gamble against Israel was, the researchers checked the volume of short transactions in EIS units from 2009 to 2023, during which Israel experienced plenty of crises. There were 3,570 trading days throughout that period. The volume of shorts on EIS on October 2 was in the top 99 percent percentile. The “short ratio” for EIS was also extraordinary on October 2: “It is extremely unlikely that the volume of short selling on October 2 occurred by random chance,” they wrote.

“Moreover, it indicates that the short selling that day far exceeded the short selling that occurred during numerous other periods of crisis, including the recession following the [2008] financial crisis, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” they added.

I know even less about this short-selling stuff than Josh Marshall although I am skimming through the 67-page paper. I find the “short-selling” argument to be highly speculative but I don’t think that it’s a coincidence, either. If anyone has more insight than I do on such matters, your comments will be welcomed.

I do have this question, though: If the trading in Israeli securities markets was short-sold on Wall Street and in Tel Aviv in the days leading up to October 7, wouldn’t intelligence agencies have noticed that volatile activity, given how extreme the short selling was in comparison to other crises?

Finally today, Karoun Demirjian and Lara Jakes of The New York Times report that the White House is warning Congress that time is running out for getting aid to Ukraine.

On Capitol Hill, Republican backing for Ukraine’s war effort has dwindled substantially in recent months. The party’s leaders have said they will consider additional aid only in exchange for one of their top policy priorities: major changes to border policy to severely limit the number of migrants entering the United States.

And on Monday, the White House plea fell on deaf ears in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, said Democrats have not done enough to earn the support of his members to send more money to Ukraine.

“The Biden administration has failed to substantively address any of my conference’s legitimate concerns about the lack of a clear strategy in Ukraine, a path to resolving the conflict, or a plan for adequately ensuring accountability for aid provided by American taxpayers,” Mr. Johnson said on X on Monday, responding to the White House letter. “House Republicans have resolved that any national security supplemental package must begin with our own border.”

In recent weeks, the G.O.P.’s ultimatum — and Ukraine’s vanishing funds — prompted a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans to try to hash out a deal on border policies. But the talks have faltered as lawmakers proved unable to resolve a series of impasses over some of the G.O.P.’s most draconian border demands.

Try to have the best possible day everyone!

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