The Morning Jolt

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Why — and How — News Outlets Capitalize on Anger

Nathan Phillips (right) confronts a student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Kaya Taitano/Social Media/via Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: how the media’s treatment of Native American activist Nathan Phillips demonstrates their virtual enslavement to the system of incentives around them; whether the White House strategy on the shutdown is working; and why many of today’s political voices represent “an investment in hysteria.”

Nathan Phillips and the Media’s System of Incentives

The Native American activist at the center of the Covington Catholic story, Nathan Phillips, attempted to enter and beat his drum at Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a mass Saturday night. The church’s security kept him out.

That anecdote reveals that Phillips seeks out public confrontation, appears to have a beef with pro-life institutions, and is willing to disrupt other people’s religious ceremonies. It’s much tougher to see him as a well-meaning victim of others’ malevolence with this information in mind. (There’s also video out this morning of Phillips discussing being “in theater” during Vietnam, which is not accurate; according to the Marine Corps, he never served overseas.)

According to Memeorandum, you heard about Phillips at the Basilica if you read NR, the Daily Wire, RedState, Legal Insurrection, the Resurgent, Mediaite, or a slew of other right-of-center web sites. You wouldn’t hear about it if you only read the New York Times, the Washington Post, or only watched CNN or MSNBC. Phillips has been at the center of a four-day media firestorm, but all of the media organizations that have covered the Covington Catholic story extensively just didn’t find Phillips’ actions at the Basilica even worth mentioning.

Becket Adams: “The culture wars have descended firmly on our leading newsrooms, and the desire to push self-serving narratives, with no concern whatsoever for the consequences or the facts, has replaced any sort of impartial pursuit of the truth.”

If you ever want to understand a particular human behavior, look at people’s incentives.

Select any tool you’d like to measure the readership or viewership of a particular media organization: the “most read” listings on the front pages of web sites, the most-linked pieces on Memeorandum, the most Tweeted and shared on Facebook. The hotter and angrier the piece, the more likely it is to get a lot of attention. Even-handed, measured assessments that are fair to both sides might do okay on the right day. Furious denunciations and scathing attacks and heated accusations do well just about every day.

My buddy Cam observed that in talk radio, the easiest emotion to stir in the audience is anger. (His program might be the least angry in the country.) That observation probably applies across all forms of media. The political world rarely lacks for politicians’ gaffes, scandals, wasteful spending, dumb arguments, and exposures of ignorance. The world never lacks anything from convenient villains to greedy CEOs to sports team owners to airheaded celebrities to perpetually-protesting college students. It’s quite easy to get the phone lines to light up by simply asking listeners, “can you believe these guys?” and letting them vent their fury on air. Of course, there are plenty of times when public anger at misbehavior and awful judgment is not only justified but needed. What’s more, anger often feels good. It creates a dopamine rush. We’re often much more comfortable feeling angry over something than sad or vulnerable.

Various news organizations — some openly ideological, some not-so-openly ideological — have cultivated two audiences, each one eager to get the latest version of “here’s why we’re right and good and they’re wrong and bad.” Readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post want to know how bad Trump is and how terribly he’s failing; viewers of Fox News and readers of the New York Post want to know how good Trump is and how wonderfully he’s succeeding. Those “tell me what I want to hear” crowds aren’t the only news audiences out there, but they’re among the biggest and easy to reach. If you offer the right kind of story to those audiences, they will read it and share it on social media and tell other people what a great story it is. And everyone likes praise and wants to get more of it.

Why do some journalists put out inaccurate, narrative-advancing versions of events? Because often there’s a bigger, or at least more-easily reached, audience for the inaccurate, narrative-advancing versions of events than the accurate, non-narrative-advancing one.

Very few liberal readers want to hear that “a bunch of kids from a Catholic high school at the March for Life encountered some obnoxious black nationalists, and then had an awkward interaction with a Native American activist who walked up to them and beat his drum in a young man’s face, and oh by the way, this guy tried to disrupt Catholic church services the same weekend. . . .” Too nuanced. They want simple stories of heroes and villains. Very few people on the right want to hear “the president’s team is incompetent” or “he’s getting blamed for the shutdown.”

You know why they call it “clickbait”? Because people click on it.

I suspect many reporters, writers, and columnists share my sense that this environment is loathsome. But we operate in it whether we like it or not. You can ignore the appetite of the biggest chunks of the news-reading audience and watch your audience wither. You can serve up what the audience wants and thrive, at the risk of becoming an outrage-monger who never creates anything more than the journalistic equivalent of junk food. Or you can do what I’ve tried to do: serve up the passion-stirring red meat when you think it’s justified and offer the wonkier, more complicated, more nuanced works alongside and hope that the balance keeps the audience happy.

But if people really want the news media to change its behavior and judgment, the incentives have to change.

You Can’t Maximize and Minimize the Pain of the Shutdown at the Same Time

We grumble when Democrats accuse Republicans of “hostage taking,” but shutting down the government as a negotiating tactic is meant to create leverage by building pressure on the other side to make concessions and reach a deal. The pain is more or less the point, to make the opposition’s position — in this case for Democrats, opposing all wall funding; in 2013, continuing to fund Obamacare — seem like it’s not worth the trouble of enduring the shutdown. The argument is basically, “X is such a priority to me that I’m willing to shut down the government over it, so dispel any notion that I’ll give up on this priority. Your only option is to make a concession to me that you can live with.”

The Obama administration understood this, which is why they tried to maximize the pain and did the silly things like putting up barriers around the WWII Memorial. They calculated, correctly, that the worse the effects of the shutdown got, the sooner Congressional Republicans would feel pressure to give in. Eventually Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell worked out a deal that threw a small bone to the GOP in the form of stricter income verification rules for citizens accessing the health insurance exchanges, and the government reopened, with Obamacare still on the path to implementation. (Then Healthcare.gov launched and everyone quickly forgot about the shutdown.)

The Trump administration is trying to use the pain of the shutdown to pressure Congressional Democrats while simultaneously trying to minimize the pain — doing things like keeping the national parks largely open, bringing in the furloughed IRS employees to process tax refunds, having the U.S. Department of Agriculture issue February’s food stamps early. But if you attempt to minimize the pain on the public, you’re also reducing the public pressure on lawmakers to reach a compromise and reach a deal.

Is the Trump administration’s approach working? There are glimmers here and there – Democrats are offering $5 billion for border security but not for a wall or fencing and the Blue Dog Democrats are grumbling about the “brinksmanship” on display.

On the other hand, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado — up for reelection in 2020 in a purple-at-best state – says he’ll vote to reopen the government without border wall/fencing funding, the current polling on the shutdown looks awful for the GOP, and even immigration restriction organizations are starting to grumble that other aspects of the issue like E-Verify are getting short shrift with all of the focus on the wall.

‘An Investment in Hysteria’

Above, I referred to those who rely on outrage over the news and political events to generate their daily dopamine. Kevin Williamson observes there’s a similar effect for those who seem to get a thrill from fear:

As some of you may recall, I wrote a little book called The Case against Trump. I didn’t think much of him in 2016. I don’t think much of him now. But we aren’t three tweets away from the Holocaust. Nobody seriously believes that we are, unless they are insane. Sane people who insist that the United States in 2019 is something like Germany in the 1930s are liars. They don’t really believe it. They have an investment in hysteria.

Those of you who play along with that — who enjoy being lied to and manipulated — are pathetic in the literal sense of that word. What the hell is wrong with you?

We justified the bombing of Dresden because of the threat and obvious evil of the Nazis; we would not have done the same for a less-threatening, less-evil geopolitical enemy. (For example, many Americans felt qualms of regret about “the highway of death” in the Persian Gulf War, as U.S. and allied forces bombed the daylights out of Iraqi forces that were retreating.)

But if your political opponents are the moral equivalent of Nazis, then every measure is morally justified – and you can bomb them like Dresden — metaphorically, at least for now.

ADDENDUM: The Koch Seminar Network — known as “the shadowy Koch brothers” in inaccurate Democratic speeches — will have their winter meeting this weekend, and I’ll be posting coverage in the Corner and elsewhere on NRO in the coming days. Stay tuned!

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