“Things Will Not Improve”

This section is devoted to studying the local impacts of specific issues the Trump Administration or Republican Congress will propose.

by Lyle Harris Sr.

Why does politics escape careful examination? Why do some people in their professional field quickly distinguish falsehood from fact and rarely fall for unreliable information, but in their political holdings sometimes ignore any test of reason?

Artwork by Hilary Cole

I have found a variety of responses: not interested in discussing politics, blaming both parties equally and sold on just one source. Fox News supporters find Sean Hannity credible for “fact” when his comments are opinion. Fox News today is a “Trump safe space,” that now leads in the 25-54 age group of viewers, ahead of MSNBC, which had been well ahead of Fox in the past two years.

Benedict Carey, a New York Times reporter, gathered a number of responses from experts on disinformation. He cited Dr. Brendan Nyham, a Dartmouth College professor who studies misperceptions about politics and health care. Nyham said Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a platform that can circulate false information and help find receptive audiences. Dr. Colleen Seifert, psychology professor at the University of Michigan, explained further: “People have a benevolent view of Facebook, for instance, as a curator, but in fact it does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site … that will keep you watching.”

Carey commented that Internet information gives the reader a sense of reality because it is on a Website, plus we all have subconscious presumptions that “color belief.” That’s quite understandable, because who wants to constantly challenge “information” from the Net or from people we talk with? And urban myths have been around since the first cave dwellers drew pictures on walls.

(My own family has an urban myth about my grandfather in late 1800s. He was driving home in a snowstorm in his horse and buggy and suddenly saw a huge white ghost heading for him. He graded his gun and fired at it. The next day he found that he shot his own white mare! And that type of tale is widespread in many family histories.)

Dr. Nyham said most lies and false rumors go nowhere, but some with appealing urban-myth “mutations” find psychological traction and then go viral.

He said most of us do not live in “information cocoons,” as some people say. Research, he said, shows that most people search a number of sites on the Internet, not just those that they agree with. Dr. Seifert commented that information we get from people we know adds believability, because we give credit to the people we know. The more often we read the headline, hear the story or someone’s account, the more credit we give. And, she said, it takes a lot of work to check sources on the Internet.

The columnist Charles Blow, writing in the Times, stated: “Donald Trump, I thought that your presidency would be a disaster. It’s worse than a disaster. I wasn’t sure that resistance to your weakening of the republic, your coarsening of the culture, your assault on truth and honesty, your erosion of our protocols, would feel as urgent today as it felt last year. But if anything, that resistance now feels more urgent. … The legitimacy of your presidency is in question. The corruption of your administration is not. You are a national stain and an international embarrassment. You are anti-intellectual and pro-impulse. The same fingers with which you compulsively tweet are dangerously close to the nuclear codes.” Blow speaks for many of us.

Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona who has denounced Trump, commented recently after receiving thousands of calls and letters about his previous criticisms of Trump: “The damage to our democracy seems to come daily now, most recently with the president’s venting late last week that if he had his way, he would hijack the American justice system to conduct political prosecutions — a practice that happens only in the very worst places on earth. And as this behavior continues, it is not just our politics being disfigured, but the American sense of well-being and time-honored notions of the common good.” He added, “… we all know that things will not improve.”

How serious is that statement? Thomas B. Edsall of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a former reporter for The Washington Post and New York Times, answered that question in a commentary in the Times. “On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine. So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America to swallow what he feeds them.” He added, “Trump has flourished at a time when trust in basic institutions — organized religion, banks, medical services, Congress, the media, government, you name it — has eroded. His presidency is a product of this erosion, but it is also proving to be an accelerant of the process.”

Yet, when the ideas of many voters are examined, Eric Levitz, writing “America Is Not a ‘Center-Right Nation’,” said when polled, “the vast majority of that electorate has no ideology, whatsoever.” In fact, what most Americans really want is federal financing for health care, no lowering taxes on the wealthy, tuition-free public college and paid family and medical leave.

In short, skip the political names and get to the point: what do you want for the best of the people?

For Further Reading
• In a Democracy, There Can Be No Bystanders. Jeff Flake: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/06/opinion/jeff-flake-speech-letters-democracy.html

• A Rightward Tilt and Big Ratings at Fox News. Michael M. Grynbaum: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/12/business/media/fox-news-roy-moore.html

• How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media. Benedict Carey: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/health/social-media-fake-news.html

• Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own. Thomas Edsall: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/19/opinion/democracy-populism-trump.html?emc=eta1

• America Is Not a ‘Center-Right Nation.’ Eric Levitz: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/opinion/democrats-economic-policy.html

Lyle Harris, a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.