Comey’s dismissal doesn’t ring true

President Donald Trump removed Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey from his post Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Comey had come under fire in recent months for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the subsequent probe into potential foreign influence in the election of Mr. Trump. Calls for his firing had come from all sides of the political spectrum and though Comey likely had good intentions, his choices helped shape the political landscape at critical moments.

Removing Mr. Comey wasn’t necessarily the wrong thing to do. It’s just the wrong person removed him.

Though the FBI was investigating Trump and his administration, he was still within his power to fire the agency’s director. But why do that? And why now? It’s possible Comey was close to proving Trump knowingly aided in the manipulation of last year’s election. It’s also possible that the ties to Russia aren’t there, or they’re exaggerated, and a sociopath saw an opportunity to evoke controversy and so took it. Maybe Mr. Trump just saw it as an opportunity to promote someone within his circle to a plum position. Maybe the entire administration is tone deaf and made an insanely incompetent move. The first two possibilities could potentially result in his removal from office. Not one of the four is a good look.

Barack Obama never seriously considered removing Comey from the position to which he had appointed him several years prior. Mr. Obama realized the potential impact and made known his displeasure, but didn’t fire him. Perhaps he should have, knowing what we know now, and shouldered the political heat. But it still seems like the right call in spite of Comey’s removal Tuesday.

President Trump did what his predecessor did not, calling to mind the only other time a commander in chief terminated the head of the FBI (fun fact: noted choir boy Bill Clinton holds that honor, and Richard Nixon earns an honorable mention for ordering the firing of the special prosecutor charged with investigating Watergate). He should have let Comey and his team finish out the investigation uninterrupted. Instead, his crass and callous decision has become the most recent in a less-than-stellar few months full of them.

Anything less than a level-headed, respected man or woman with at least a little bipartisan support being named director of the FBI is unacceptable, but likely. Whether this is another smokescreen to repress something more sinister or a head of state delighting in the confusion of his political enemies remains to be seen.

-JG

What we can learn from Diane Rehm

Our goal here at Irrational Politics is simple, really. We want to pass along content that provokes thoughtful, intelligent, fact-based discourse. It is a noble pursuit that no one, ourselves included, will ever fully achieve, which is why I think it’s appropriate to remember that Diane Rehm came closer than most.

Rehm switched off her microphone for the final time Friday, concluding her namesake show’s run of nearly four decades on public radio. As the title of the linked NPR article suggests, she was “a mainstay of civil discourse” whose pursuit of the truth earned the respect of notable figures from all corners of the political spectrum.

Cubicles and cars were transformed each morning into spaces of listening and learning, where world issues were discussed, the arts were explored, and diverse perspectives were respected. Rehm wasn’t perfect, but then, she didn’t try to be. Every time that recording light came on at 10 a.m. she set aside personal politics as best she could to facilitate honest, open discussion. And that’s all any of us can do, really.

[26 years of the Diane Rehm show have been archived here]

-JG

The Assault on Intelligence

It seems everywhere one turns these days, he or she is bombarded with everything from half-truths to outright lies. And while the dissemination of misinformation isn’t exclusive to any one political platform, the past few months (and arguably, years) have seen the gleeful abandonment of facts in favor of emotional appeal by both extreme political poles. A recent example of one such plea was delivered last Wednesday by Scottie Nell Hughes on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. Fellow Trump surrogate Corey Lewandowski followed up with his own appeal to replace fact-checking with bar-talk two days later.

The two previous instances might have been conservative efforts, but don’t think that liberals aren’t capable of playing the same game (especially when it comes to selectively picking minorities to skew study results).

So how exactly did facts get roped into the corner? That’s a complex question and one that we at Irrational Politics will continue to explore in follow-up posts. But for now, focusing on the impact of social media is a reasonable place to start.

Before Facebook and Twitter – and even cable news such as FOX and MSNBC – became our mediums of choice, media was distributed through organizations that acted as gatekeepers. These more traditional broadcast models – including the early internet internet modes of distribution – created a media consumption choke point of sorts. Individuals like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite acted as guardians of the truth. These impartial titans of the industry possessed a monopoly on news dissemination, and a majority of Americans accepted these journalists’ words as fact even if it contradicted their initial beliefs.

Those days are long gone.

As Facebook and Twitter replaced handwritten notes and telephone calls as our primary means of communication, these platforms granted us the ability to share and consume information with one another at a rate never before imagined. It also allowed us to bypass the aforementioned traditional gatekeepers of information. No longer was news restricted to the evening broadcast, morning paper, or the car ride to work.

The shift to social media as our preferred medium is simply the most recent sea change in the way we consume information. And in some regards it’s not a bad one; individuals that never had a voice or, at least, couldn’t reach a wider audience can now reach millions. The dark side of this shift, though, is that there is no longer a structure to our consumption. With the Rathers and Cronkites declared obsolete, anybody with a little bit of technical know-how and marketing savvy can now masquerade as an authoritative voice. With the restraints that kept us in line as media consumers undone, a significant number of us have become increasingly content with reinforcing our own views instead of actively seeking out the truth of the matter. Podcast philosopher Sam Harris describes this as “disappear[ing] … into an echo chamber” in Episode 48 of his series Waking Up (skip to the 1:00:31 mark). And that metaphorical chamber is getting bigger and more easily accessible by the day.

Instead of working to uncover the truth, many media consumers have decided to reinforce their increasingly unrealistic views of the world with data that grow more toxic and inaccurate with each passing day. Once revered institutions such as the press and the scientific community have become punching bags, decried as crooked and biased any time either opposes the agenda of an uncompromising political camp. And while both have had their fair share of professional shortcomings (especially the media), each has been made the scapegoat of a growing, anti-intellectual movement that values feelings over fact.

This issue is complex and decades old, and so we could discuss this for a lot longer than you care to read and I care to type. But the gist of it is that the evidence increasingly points to this shift in mediums as the primary enabling factor in the rise of outlets like Breitbart and Infowars. It’s why those who keep moving further to the left insulate themselves with sites like Daily Kos and ThinkProgress. And it’s why people can believe that vaccines are responsible for Autism and global warming is a hoax perpetrated by anti-American interests despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And it’s certainly plays a role in why we elected a man who just appointed a climate change-denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

This isn’t to say that fake news has irreversibly damaged our sensibilities; not all who cling to a point of view that flies in the face of logic have declared a “war on science,” or “reason,” or whatever noun you so wish to choose. I opted to use the word “assault” in the title of this post because there is no serious, unified effort to bring us into a post-factual age. No matter how dire the situation may seem, a majority of Americans still value cold, hard, factual evidence, and I don’t believe that will change any time soon.

But even if that’s the case, facts have still been put on notice. A number of individuals coming to power have made their displeasure of data that contradicts their talking points readily known. It’s our job as media consumers to be wary of these men and women. The traditional gatekeepers are no more – we the media consumers are all that remains in a vast sea of knowledge. And so we must continue their work by verifying assertions with multiple sources. We must gather information from a wide array of outlets. We have to remember to trust institutions which are comprised of thousands of individuals whose job it is to be better educated than you or I on an infinite amount of contentious subjects. But above all, it means using our heads. Common sense is the most valuable weapon we possess to combat the assault on intelligence – let’s use it. So long as we dedicate our focus and intellectual efforts towards ascertaining the truth, those who have taken issue with facts will never be victorious.

-JG

 

 

Staying Informed

We’re so sure that we’re right – every single one of us.

And it’s a shame, really. Most of us have no desire to exist in a state of willful ignorance. We generally want to understand the “how” of things.

The problem is, we also want to be the ones who have everything figured out. Some of us wish so desperately for our views to be truth that we’ve forgotten that we could be wrong. More and more, we’ve given in to that selfish instinct at the perilous cost of being truly informed.

news-sources-fdu

If we would be completely honest with ourselves, we don’t know jack. The above chart from the linked Poynter piece shows the average number of questions that single-source consumers of news answered correctly on five-question foreign and domestic affairs quizzes. Individuals who consistently adhere to a strict diet of cable news channels such as FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN are usually about as informed as – or in some cases, less informed than – those who choose not to keep up with the news in general. But even those that avoid more slanted traditional outlets still answer less than two of the five questions correctly when they consume media from a single source.

And these data are four years old – you know as well as I do that the rise of unchecked, alternative media and a further politicizing of content by the so-called mainstream media hasn’t helped these numbers. And it’s not just single-source consumption that hurts; a broader, pernicious tendency to stick to the general neighborhood of news that confirms your preexisting notions has become the norm at an alarming rate. We’re increasingly content with spending more time trying to prove our narrow-minded and limited perspectives as unquestionable fact and fewer hours of the day attempting to seek out the objective truth – a truth that could potentially undo the carefully-constructed worlds so many of us choose to inhabit.

The irony here is those who stand to benefit the most from a diversification of media keep returning to the same modes of distribution. The most vocal cheerleaders for a particular news source will tend to champion one of the previously mentioned cable outlets whose prioritized consumption consistently leads to a less-informed individual. When we take a look at media outlet trustworthiness filtered through a five-way gradient on the horizontal axis of political ideology, it reveals just how quickly we tend to gather on each pole.

pj_14-10-21_mediapolarization-01

Distrust of journalistic institutions is at an all-time high and some of that doubt is absolutely warranted. The old adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” has too often become the mantra of both national and local television. There’s no shortage of media conglomerates and their holdings that are trying to remain viable, profitable companies by playing to our worst fears in the hopes that we won’t be able to take our eyes off of the screen or turn off the radio.

But to blame the fourth estate alone as the proprietor of our current division as a country is wishful thinking at its worst. A fair share of responsibility must be placed at the feet of the consumer, especially those who proudly boast of audacious ignorance and an unwillingness to consider perspectives other than one’s own.

I firmly believe that if we all challenged ourselves to seek alternative windows into the world, we’d be a lot closer to solving a number of problems that plague institutions such as journalism and government. Which is why we as media consumers need to reevaluate the avenues through which we inform ourselves, and a surprising amount of progress can be made by just following a few basic steps.

  1. Approach every new piece of information as a learning experience with the understanding that your preconceived notions on that topic may be partially or entirely incorrect.
  2. Understand that your view of the world is but one in a vast sea of valuable perspectives. Mark Twain once said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” and that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” That inspired thinking applies to more than just physical travel.
  3. Seek out multiple (two at the absolute minimum) sources when researching any given topic, and purposely seek out views that exist in stark contrast to yours (RSS readers such as Feedly are great tools to help you organize and quickly consume a wider range of news). Don’t forget to diversify your news by varying mediums and countries of origin.
  4. Be a voracious reader – you can never be too informed.
  5. Check your emotions and ego at the door; a certain amount of stoicism is required to ascertain the truth of contentious matters.

It’s almost comically simple when you look at it in a listicle, but combating biases is easier said than done. It takes a concerted, constant effort to seek objective truth, and that includes coming to terms with the possibility that you could be wrong. I struggle with it every day. And I’m sure you do, too.

So, yeah, there is an alarming amount of awful journalism that has infiltrated the public consciousness as social media has helped us circumvent the traditional media gatekeepers. But all over the world, right now, the best journalism in the history of the field is being produced and it’s worth seeking out, because the more we expand our understanding of the world around us and those who inhabit it, the more likely we are to see our similarities instead of our differences.

-JG