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The Media’s Warped Incentive Program

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On the menu today: a comprehensive denunciation of a media environment that rewards bad behavior and punishes good behavior in our body politic; Kamala Harris’s office and staff are just about as dysfunctional as you would imagine; and Budweiser turns to the country’s favorite former president.

When Government Is Boring, It Is Easier to Avoid Scrutiny

James Kirchick offers a dynamite essay over in Tablet magazine, entitled, “The Grift That Keeps on Grifting.” The whole thing is terrific, but two sections jump out as being particularly on-target in diagnosing the widespread maladies of our era. The first:

Another baleful consequence of the Russiagate narrative has been the rapidly expanding definition of the term “disinformation,” and the censorious purposes to which it has been put. Once used within the highly specific context of authoritarian governments and their attempts to divide and distract Western publics with misleading or false information, “disinformation” now enjoys a status on the left comparable to that of “fake news” among the MAGA right: a cheap catchall to dismiss anything that puts a dent in its preferred narrative.

And the second:

. . . In an era of declining attention spans and social media-driven news coverage, Trump was the perfect springboard for every pundit on the make. They could wrap him in whatever heuristic they felt most comfortable with—democracy experts explained him as a democracy story, Russia experts as a Russia story, and race experts as a racial story. If Trump’s influence on the country and its politics has been disastrous, and it has, his effect on our elites was that of a chemical bath on a photo negative: He exposed their parochialism, laziness, and stubborn refusal to admit fault . . .

. . . During the Trump years, the incentive structure for journalists, authors, editors, activists, analysts, and socially engaged academics—basically anyone who makes a living in the wide realm of public affairs—rewarded moral outrage, hyperbole, and dogmatism. In this land of punditry without consequences, moderation, humility, nonconformity, and an appreciation for life’s manifold complexities are no longer just undervalued; they are actively ridiculed, if not condemned outright as traits intrinsic to the retrograde and the just plain nutty. For all the good it will do, Trump’s defeat is likely to embolden those grifters who prospered most in this corrupt intellectual environment—and not only the deluded Trumpists who cling to his political carcass like barnacles on a shipwreck, but also his most zealous foes who stand to profit.

The Trump era was “exciting,” in the sense that many people couldn’t tear their eyeballs away from the screen — television, phone, or computer — and the excitement was a key part of what made it so terrible. CBS chairman Les Moonves gave away the game early on in 2016 when he declared that Trump’s presidential campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Those who detested Trump so could not resist putting him center stage. He was good for ratings and web traffic. People who hated Trump eagerly devoured news about him as intensely, or perhaps even more intensely, than people who loved him.

Every week was a new series of outrageous statements, surprises, scandals, insults, provocations, firings, initiatives with little or no follow-through, or tirades against what somebody said on cable news.

Turning everything going on around the president into a never-ending circus or soap opera is a good way to ensure that people spend little or no time paying attention to what’s actually going on in the rest of the government. And as National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., famously said, “The best defense against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.”

The work of government is often boring. This is not an accident, and the boredom thrives for two reasons. The first reason is that sometimes what government needs to regulate or manage is not exciting. If we’re going to have a Federal Aviation Administration, it probably ought to establish corridors for commercial-jet travel, which means on any given day, you can open up the Federal Register and learn about an FAA action that “establishes Class E domestic en route airspace extending upward from 1,200 feet above the surface at Great Falls, Montana.” This may not matter much to you, but it probably matters a great deal to pilots and people who live in Great Falls and complain about aircraft noise.

But the Federal Register churns out pages of new regulations in incomprehensible bureaucratese every day, in part because most Americans have never read a single page of the Federal Register. They have no idea what their government is doing and largely choose not to care. They’re free to make that choice — but that absence of an assertive citizenry has the consequence of a usurpatory government.

The second reason is that people can get away with a lot when what they’re doing seems really boring. Boring does not attract attention or scrutiny. Appropriations bills are long and stuffed with all kinds of dubious expenditures because very few people read them. The vast majority of presidential executive orders are ignored by the public, as are almost all of the reports from the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Research service, the Defense Department, U.S. State Department, and the various federal inspectors general. Our government generates nearly endless documentation and yet so little accountability.

The more boring something seems to be, the more likely it is that someone is trying to sneak something past you without you noticing.

(I’m old enough to remember all the times Democrats and Clinton fans waved away Whitewater as “some obscure land deal.” What this ignores is that obscure land deals are the bread-and-butter of corruption at the local and state level. Somebody buys land, the government makes a decision that makes that land much more valuable, and the person who has that land suddenly is much wealthier without doing anything and cashes in. A reporter who finds an elected official’s land purchases and investments boring is a reporter that isn’t interested in uncovering any favor-trading or corruption.)

Really knowing what’s going on in government requires you to pay attention, keep up with events, and sometimes learn something you didn’t already know, and all of that takes effort. It’s much easier to rant and rave about whatever you saw on television last night. Donald Trump came to Washington knowing little about how the federal government worked and with no appetite to learn more, and this applied to most, but not all, of his staffers. And four years later, the MAGA crowd fumed that the “deep state” had picked their pockets and stymied them every step of the way.

The Trump era accelerated and intensified American politics’ transition into a daily television- and web-focused battle among dueling cults of personality and political figures who were primarily celebrities with little or no interest in actual policy, usually angling for their own prime-time weeknight cable-news show. Sometimes, these figures don’t even hide their belief that their time in elected office is a stepping stone to a television career.

Many of the people who mocked the adoring fans of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump went through their own bouts of frenzied adoration of Barack Obama or the Clintons and perhaps later on Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris. And a lot of the MAGA crowd used to love it when we made fun of the messianic discussion around Barack Obama. Apparently, it’s impossible to recognize a cult of personality from the inside.

The endless prime-time-cable clown show — Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad; and the undercard fights of Chris Cuomo and Jim Acosta and Don Lemon and Jeffrey Toobin and Joy Reid against Tomi “I’m not a reader” Lahren and the gangs at Fox News and OAN and Newsmax — all offering furious denunciations from some other figure for uttering the most outrageous statement they’ve heard since last night.

Kirchick mentioned the twisted “incentive structure” of our modern political-media landscape.

The other day, Washington State representative Jim Walsh, a Republican, chose to wear a yellow Star of David to protest COVID-vaccine mandates. The state of Washington has not enacted a vaccine mandate, but the state government is requiring that employers to verify employee vaccination status before lifting masking requirements in their workplaces. You can love that policy or you can hate that policy, but I would like to think a broad spectrum of Americans would agree that it is not akin to the Holocaust, because it doesn’t involve the genocide of six million people.

We can scoff at Walsh, and we should. But keep in mind, if Walsh had just done his job and stood up for his beliefs in an impassioned and articulate manner and didn’t make ludicrously insane Holocaust comparisons, you and I would never have heard of him. Doing his job the way he’s supposed to do it doesn’t get him any attention. Competence and common sense are rewarded with obscurity and yawns. The social-media and mass-media worlds have created all of the incentives to act like a maniac. This doesn’t make Walsh right. But it does help explain why it seems like you’re always hearing about insane obscure lawmakers.

So that’s where we are right now. The political landscape creates the incentive to act like a maniac, which leads to great scrutiny of those maniacs and less scrutiny of what the rest of the government is actually doing. Our current media environment effectively punishes people for doing the right thing.

Team Harris: ‘Low Morale, Porous Lines of Communication and Diminished Trust’

Politico has a genuinely juicy scoop, revealing that behind closed doors, working for Kamala Harris is . . . pretty much exactly what you would envision working for Kamala Harris to be like:

The handling of the border visit was the latest chaotic moment for a staff that’s quickly become mired in them. Harris’ team is experiencing low morale, porous lines of communication and diminished trust among aides and senior officials. Much of the frustration internally is directed at Tina Flournoy, Harris’ chief of staff, a veteran of Democratic politics who began working for her earlier this year.

In interviews, 22 current and former vice-presidential aides, administration officials and associates of Harris and Biden described a tense and at times dour office atmosphere. Aides and allies said Flournoy, in an apparent effort to protect Harris, has instead created an insular environment where ideas are ignored or met with harsh dismissals and decisions are dragged out. Often, they said, she refuses to take responsibility for delicate issues and blames staffers for the negative results that ensue.

. . . The morale level for current Harris staffers is “rough” and in many ways similar to the failed presidential campaign and her Senate office, according to the former Senate aide, who is in touch with current Harris staffers.

When the same problem keeps coming back under the same leader, maybe it isn’t just because of a few bad apples in the staff. Maybe it’s the leader!

Now here’s a fascinating question: Which figures in Biden’s team talked to Politico? Did any of them pitch the story to that publication?

ADDENDUM: It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a commercial as much as this one from Budweiser, featuring Bill Pullman. It starts out with what initially seems like a cheesy parody of his big speech from Independence Day, from “America’s favorite former president”. . . and then you realize Pullman means what he’s saying. Americans have pulled through a long and painful ordeal, and despite our differences, we all love our country and want to help those less fortunate.

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