Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Ineffective Interference

Let's alienate almost everybody on both sides of the Democratic Party divide.

So, this interesting meme reappeared on my radar and got me thinking. Tangents ensued, as they usually do. And after mulling over the past three years' electoral shenanigans, i
t occurred to me that the Russian government’s interference with the general election is a lot like the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) interference with the party's primary. In both cases, evidence of outside intrigue had mounted from possible to probable to proven. But in both cases, I also question these efforts’ effectiveness. It’s highly unlikely they swung the results in either the primaries or the general election. Other factors probably had more impact.

Yet, at the same time, such interference should be prosecuted lest it set a bad precedent. The incompetent burglar you find tangled in your garden hose below your kitchen window should still get arrested even though the other burglar got away with your stuff. Both should be arrested.

The Cliff Notes version is this:

While the DNC definitely had its thumb on the scale for Clinton, I think the corporate media's ignoring Sanders for the first half of the primary was far more decisive. Sanders' biggest problem was exposure and the only thing the DNC could do about that was limit the number of debates.

And while the Russians definitely spread disinformation, their influence was likely slight in comparison with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc. Fake News is nothing new, and exaggerating the impact of Russian and other foreign trolls diminishes the impact of American trolls, not to mention that you can find more English-fluent shit-heads in Virginia than in Macedonia.

We have serious systemic
 problems in this country - especially in the media. We must face them.

So, that's the short version. The detailed, linked, and footnoted one follows under the cut.

Let’s tackle this chronologically and start with the Democratic primaries.

Recently, Donna Brazile released an except from her upcoming book which admits that the DNC was directly run by the Clinton campaign during the party primary. (Of course, bogus excuses have already gone viral.) Brazile's take is basically that the arrangement was sleazy but legal. 

She wrote that she was livid when she discovered this "cancer" after taking over the position of Party Chair from Debbie Wasserman Schultz.(1) Brazile's language was blunt: "If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead." In the book excerpt, Donna Brazile basically comes off as the party's Colin Powell: A principled person who was infuriated with the turd she had to polish.

Not that Donna Brazile was entirely free of wrong-doing. After previous denials, she eventually admitted that she had in fact fed the Clinton campaign debate questions in advance and apologized for doing so.(2) To be clear, what Brazile did was straight-up cheating: If you pull that shit before a test in college, you get expelled. Apparently, college is the Real World in comparison with politics.

But did it make any difference? Did Hillary Clinton perform any better with this inside information? Or did Sanders perform comparatively poorly? I don’t think so. On the contrary, Sanders continued to gain momentum as voters got to know him. The more the media was forced to show him on camera, the better he did. Brazile certainly cheated, but it didn’t do Clinton much good.

Broadly, the process was obviously unfair. But, as far as results go, I fault the corporate media far more than the DNC - not because the DNC had more integrity but because they were less effective. 

I think the press blackout of Bernie Sanders for the first half of the primary did far more damage to his campaign. The same media study which shows that Donald Trump got two billion dollars in free publicity also shows that Hillary Clinton got over double the coverage of Bernie Sanders.(3) This ratio was reached after day-to-day coverage of Sanders had finally pulled even. Clinton got a comfortable lead with delegates while the press held Sanders’ head underwater. From January to November of 2015, ABC gave him only about 20 seconds of average nightly coverage.(4) Imagine if Clinton had received such contemptuous neglect. Her supporters would rightly howl. 

Despite this, Bernie Sanders rapidly shrank that gap and took his campaign all they way to California after other Democratic challengers like Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chaffee, and Jim Webb dropped out after a few states. Sanders, then a total unknown to most, took on one of the most famous political figures in existence and almost won.

Overall, I see more complacency than conspiracy. 

The press’ treatment of Sanders was a mix of conservative “conventional wisdom” and institutional hostility. The mainstream media is composed of enormous corporations that get their revenue almost entirely by selling ad time and space to other enormous corporations, so they are not going to go for his solutions. They will not be thrilled about a socialist candidate or take him seriously - paranoid Clintonista fantasies notwithstanding.(5). Indeed, they probably greeted Sanders' candidacy with less enthusiasm than the Democratic Party establishment.  

And this is all on top of the infotainment news media environment that Trump thrives in. It is hardly hyperbole to say today's news media is primarily profit-driven with the public interest being secondary. As CBS head Les Moonves crowed of the constant Trump spectacle, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” 

No, that quote is not taken out of context. He then reiterated, "The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going." Moonves isn't ignorant of the public interest - he admits that it suffers as a result. He just has other priorities. 

But unlike Trump, the media didn't consider Sanders very telegenic or his issues very interesting. 

Yes, it is easy to see why the media might initially imagine an old guy with wild hair is just a flash in the pan and a human interest sidebar rather than a serious presidential contender.(6) Except that Sanders was selling-out huge venues, drawing far larger crowds that any other candidate in either party. Any reporter worth his or her salt should have smelled a story. Instead, networks preferred showing Trump's empty podiums to Sanders' packed stadiums.

Once again, Bernie's biggest obstacle was always his lack of exposure. Every TV appearance alerted voters that they had a choice. Every opportunity for people to get to know him helped him. Accordingly, the most damaging thing the DNC did to him was limit the number of debates. If they held more debates but gave Clinton the questions every time, Bernie would have still benefited. 

But, at the end of the day, the media controlled exposure far more than the DNC.(7) In one of her tweets meant to downplay DNC rigging, Joy Reid admitted that if limiting the debates was done to "bury Sanders' appeal," it clearly "didn't work."

Today, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America. Harvard-Harris polls have repeatedly proven it - both in April and again in August. Clearly, the press underestimated his appeal or the now palpable anger over skyrocketing economic inequality. To Clinton's surrogates, Sanders' issues were pie-in-the-sky: To the media, they were BOR-ing. But these long-sidelined issues were not boring to voters and Sanders' championing them is what electrified his campaign. 

The establishment's tremendous success keeping these issues off the table illustrates how poorly the media serves the public interest. For example, for decades, single payer healthcare has enjoyed majority support in every poll that asks about it. The media routinely treats it as a fringe issue, but it isn't. The expense of medical care is a life-and-death issue to millions and the number one cause of bankruptcy in this country. But insurance companies buy air time and sick people do not. Ditto with hiring lobbyists. You do not need a conspiracy theory to explain this: It's just naked business interests operating out in the open. But it's ridiculously difficult to find a public platform to discuss it on.

Now let’s move on to Russia’s interference in the general election. 

After the election, President Barack Obama told America that the nation’s intelligence services had confirmed Russia’s efforts to influence the results - but he emphasized that no voting machines had been hacked. So, what did they do? They leaked DNC emails and circulated fake news stories.

The leaks were indeed damaging, but leaks happen in every campaign. They are par for the course. Only the volume of them is eyebrow-raising. Otherwise, leaked audio of Hillary Clinton's fundraisers are no different from leaked audio of Mitt Romney's. Remember Mitt's infamous 47% comments? Hillary's public / private position comments were comparably compromising. And you can't praise one leak and damn the other - at least, not on principle.

Fake news is not new either. Misinformation has always existed and twisted our politics. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams hired newspaper editors to slander each other. Technology can greatly augment the effect and make it more pervasive, but the essential strategy remains unchanged.

We have watched distortion and rumor-mongering metastasize, always capitalizing on the latest technology. In the 1970s, the religious right pioneered direct mail campaigns. In the 1980s, televangelists launched their own cable TV channels. In the 1990s, the militia movement promoted their paranoid antisemitic conspiracy theories on AM radio and the Internet. James O’Keefe-style stunts have become common along with trolling in general. Every Young Republican frat prat wants to be the next Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. And, of course, we have Fox News which actually leaves it viewers even less informed than those who ignore the news altogether. Donald J. Trump is the cumulative result of Dunning-Kruger effect factories that manufacture militant ignorance. Let’s face it: We’ve been living in the “post-truth” era for decades already.

The bullshit is boundless. And so the ship of state bobs along on rolling seas of pungent bovine diarrhea and no relief can be seen on the horizon. Does our nausea come from the aroma or is it motion sickness? Now ask yourself an additional question: “How much more damage can some pimply kids in Macedonia do?” Donald Trump’s followers already get their misinformation from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. Why even go to Macedonia when domestic manure is so cheap and plentiful? Surely Trump knows these are jobs we can do at home. After all, we have Reddit.

Sure, Putin tried to influence the election, but he was preaching to the choir and trying to excite the already excited. Conservatives make up a minority of Americans, but they max-out their turnout in every election. When people insist Vladimir Putin's insidious efforts swung the election, I have to ask, as so many characters did in the Cohen Bros movie Burn after Reading, “The Russians?”

Certainly there is villainy involved. But personalizing it often obscures institutional or systemic causes. For example, Les Moonves is an asshole - but he is an example, not an exception. He is the product of his industry's incentives: The other networks operate on the same logic and if we removed Moonves, another asshole would take his place because "asshole" is the job description. Moral scolds either paint such attitudes and behaviors as personal failings or lament them as the result of our coarsening culture. It's neither. It's where the money points us. It's how the rules are written.

Our problems are home-grown and our fault. It's time we faced it. To tweak Walt Kelly's Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and it's the system."

First EDIT 01/03/18: And as The New York Times reports, a new study confirms what common sense had already suggested - that "fake news" had negligible impact. The few who consumed much were already intensely partisan and sought to confirm their worldview.

Second EDIT 03/04/18: I made this post last November. Later that month, another article in the New York Times explained that Russian critics of Vladimir Putin think our obsession with his meddling is helping him at home by enhancing his stature. They want us to cool it. The members of Pussy Riot - surely not fans of Putin in any way - shared this assessment in an interview even earlier last July.  Now, The New Yorker's Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen (who wrote the first definitive story on Russian trolls) - claim it has become overblown in a recent NPR interview.


1) It's difficult for a sitting office holder to run the party because their attention is split. That is why the job of Party Chair is traditionally given to a retired politician. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was not only in office but cosponsoring controversially conservative bills with Republicans. One aimed to water-down proposed regulation of predatory payday lenders. This put her in opposition to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) a fierce consumer advocate who favored tougher regulation. Of course, Clintonistas accused anyone who favored Warren over Wasserman of misogyny. As reported in Politico, this was not a novel tactic for her: "According to people who spoke with her, when she sensed Obama was considering replacing her as chair in 2013, she began to line up supporters to suggest the move was both anti-woman and anti-Semitic." After the leaks in 2016, Obama could safely sack her. Of course, Hillary Clinton promptly gave Debbie Wasserman Schultz a post in her campaign - one of many senseless petty insults that ham-stringed party unity.

Incidentally, for the benefit of the semantically-challenged, when you apologize for something you are acknowledging that it had happened. Many Clintonistas consider allegations of DNC interference to be some paranoid Bernie Bro conspiracy theory. Before apologizing for passing the questions along, Donna Brazile had also apologized for DNC officials plotting to use Bernie Sanders' religion - or lack thereof - against him.

3) Hillary Clinton partisans typically reply that this coverage was negative, but Trump’s coverage was just as negative as it was abundant and it only helped him, thereby proving there is no such thing as bad publicity. Or as Oscar Wilde famously put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Trump understood that. Indeed, his fame is entirely built on that understanding. He has profited from it his whole life despite being a mediocre - if not subpar - businessman. Ostentatious obnoxiousness is the short route to notoriety. Good or bad, buzz is buzz. For fuck’s sake, he is known for not paying people. If he can still get people to work for him with that fact out there, getting votes should be no problem by comparison.

4) The figure comes from a Tyndall Report study and is the source for the info-graphic in the meme. It was covered (sometimes defensively) by CBSCNN, the NY Times, WaPo, and the bulk of the mainstream media. The 10 minutes figure is the total combined coverage across all three TV networks on an average night. The 20 second figure applies specifically to ABC, the most negligent network. Both figures are actually rounded up. The totals actually are 9.6 minutes for all three networks and .3 minutes for ABC - which is actually 18 seconds, not 20.

5) Anyone who thinks the media was soft on Sanders or in his corner is doing the centrist equivalent of conservatives crying “liberal bias.” Are we to believe for-profit media has a socialist bias? If the conservative version is absurd, then the centrist incarnation is positively moronic. Capital’s capture of the Democratic Party has been quite profitable. Why reverse this by helping to restore its New Deal / Great Society legacy?

5) This was why I was initially skeptical of Sanders. I certainly preferred him to Clinton. But, as I wrote in a previous post, I kept hoping Elizabeth Warren would throw her hat in the ring because she seemed more presentable.

6) I think Sanders' reactions mirror the importance of these factors. In her book, Donna Brazile describes her phone call with Bernie Sanders after she found the documents that allowed the Clinton campaign to control the DNC. She describes Sanders taking the revelation stoically. Whenever Sander's is asked about DNC interference, he bluntly replies "We knew about it" before promptly moving the topic back to the issue he is currently fighting for. But ask him about the lack of media coverage he got during the primary and he is still visibly shocked by it.

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