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The Reviled American Media, Part 1

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Donald Trump versus the media: bad cop, bad cop

A throwaway line in a Washington Post article goes some way to revealing exactly why the American media is so widely despised and mistrusted.

Musing about why many Trump supporters stubbornly insist on viewing his presidency as a success thus far (rather than the cataclysmic failure portrayed by mainstream narratives), the Post reports:

Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

“If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work,” Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. “I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were.”

The regulation actually would have cost relatively few mining jobs and would have created nearly as many new jobs on the regulatory side, according to a government report — an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.

My emphasis in bold.

Now, this is not about the merits and disadvantages of expanding coal mining. This is about the blasé arrogance of the Washington Post, suggesting to its readers that the creation of government regulatory jobs in any way makes up for the loss of manual jobs in coal mining.

How many ex-coal miners with high school-level educations will be eligible for these new regulatory jobs? Probably very few. But these jobs will enormously benefit the college-educated, Washington D.C.-dwelling professional class who are eligible for attractive jobs in the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is difficult to know whether the Post’s dismissal of concerns about coal mining job losses because they will be “offset” by new regulatory jobs is merely ignorant or deliberately callous towards the working classes. But either way, it reveals a huge gulf between the perspective of the Washington Post and its readership on the one hand, and Trump-supporting people from coal country on the other.

Maybe those coal mining jobs should be killed anyway. Ultimately, of course, they certainly should be phased out as part of a move away from fossil fuel dependence. But for the Post to speak haughtily about Trump supporters’ aversion to “verifiable facts” while misleading its own readership by pretending that the Obama-era environmental regulations (whatever their core merits) were anything other than a transfer of wealth and opportunity away from coal country manual workers towards the DC professional class is morally dubious and a dereliction of their professional duty as a supposedly objective national news outlet.

Essentially, the Post is suggesting that Trump supporters are somehow being irrational to cheer the overturning of anti-coal regulations that will restore some coal mining jobs, because they should instead be rejoicing at the creation of other, office-based jobs for which they are almost certainly ineligible. How terribly unenlightened of them to not cheer as their small-town jobs are sacrificed to create other jobs for city-dwelling public sector bureaucrats.

Assuming the best of intentions rather than the worst, this represents a vast gulf of understanding between the Washington media class and a large segment of the country on which they report. The frequent complaint of Trump supporters is that their interests have long been ignored by a political and economic elite who have time and compassion for everyone and everything save the rural and suburban squeezed white lower middle and working classes, with politicians and the media colluding to keep their struggles, concerns and aspirations off the political agenda. And now the media, which seems to be relishing its oppositional role to President Trump, seems determined to live up to that stereotype.

Accusations that the mainstream media is “fake news” go too far – the Washington Post or New York Times will never publish a breathless story about Michelle Obama being arrested for treason or Hillary Clinton participating in witchcraft rituals, the kind of ludicrous and obviously false clickbait which pollutes the internet and is sadly shared by too many a credulous conservative. The mainstream media’s form of bias is subtler and much more insidious. There are few outright falsehoods in the prestige media, but one can often achieve just as much through deliberately one-sided story selection and a deliberately skewed angle of coverage, made all the more effective because unlike fake news sites, respected outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times actually influence the worldviews and opinions of key decision makers in Washington D.C. and beyond.

In other words, too many respectable, prestige mainstream media outlets have squandered any trust and goodwill they one held with the public by subtly but repeatedly pushing a political agenda (the largely bipartisan agenda of the DC political elite). This climate of distrust is a problem of the media’s own making. And it all begins with having newsrooms full of reporters and editors with so few (if any) roots in the kind of community which came out strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election that they are utterly incapable of reporting on them with any real understanding, subtlety or empathy.

If the goal is to avoid events like the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, surely our first step must be one of introspection – not furiously shouting insults at people who often voted for Trump through despair or resignation, not misrepresenting their political views to the point of slander, but rather understanding how the political mainstream managed to consistently fail these people so badly that they felt they were left with little alternative. The Washington Post, for all the good reporting they often do, is light years away from recognising this fact, let alone showing such introspection in their coverage.

Indeed, if anything, the American media is moving in the opposite direction. Spurred by President Trump’s reprehensible attacks on the media as a whole, the Washington press corps is doing what they love to do best – talking about themselves and wallowing in a sense of victimhood and persecution, laughably painting themselves as noble and selfless heroes and seekers of truth in this new authoritarian age.

I’m sorry, but that is nonsense. Many of these reporters are the same ones who in the 2000s used to leap smartly to their feet, offering obsequious respect and nary a searching question whenever president George W Bush strolled into the White House press briefing room to announce the erosion of core civil liberties, exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq and then downplay his administration’s calamitous handling of the war. This is the same press corps that often treated every utterance from President Obama as sacred, unquestionable unicorn song, hyping his candidacy and forgiving his administration’s missteps.

This is the same press corps which gathers every year for the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which journalists and politicians slap each other on the back and toady up to power in one of the most sickening modern day political rituals known to man. Oh yes, and they are the ratings whores who gave blanket, uncritical rolling news coverage of Donald Trump’s every garbled word back when he was still just a laughable Republican Party presidential primary candidate, acting as oxygen to the the flames of the Trump campaign in the first place.

A healthy democracy needs a free press. But it sure as hell doesn’t need the craven, self-satisfied press we are stuck with at the moment. You can probably count the number of Washington or New York-based political journalists with a record of consistently principled, inquisitive and objective work on two hands. None of them work in television news. The rest are every bit as much a part of the fetid, corrupt political class as the politicians on whom they report. And now they take the angry anti-media rantings of President Trump and use them as an excuse to prance around playing the noble, heroic victim. We should not fall for their tawdry act.

Increasingly, the presidency of Donald Trump will require us to hold two competing thoughts in our head simultaneously: that yes, the Trump administration is troubling in a whole host of ways, but also that many of the people opposing Trump (from the sanctimonious, rootless, unreformed Democrats to the lazy and morally compromised Washington media) are also grievously at fault. And the sins of Donald Trump do not excuse the failings of those forces ranged against him, just as the spineless, uncurious, self-aggrandising behaviour of the Washington media does not excuse the authoritarian, impulsive excesses of the new president.

It is sheer lunacy to believe that the forces which gave us President Trump will be placated and put back in their box by a coordinated campaign of opposition from a Democratic Party and Washington political media class who have spent precisely zero hours pondering their own role in this period of “American carnage”, and who have shown zero willingness to change their own behaviour and policy preferences. Indeed, as newspaper subscriptions and cable news show ratings rise in step with the turmoil emanating from the White House, many in the Washington media are probably deluding themselves into thinking that they are actually doing a good job.

This could not be further from the truth.

As things stand, both sides will continue to antagonise one another; an out-of-touch Washington media class will continue to report on the residents of Trumpland as though they are some kind of fascinating but dangerous medical specimen best kept behind the safety glass in a lab, and Trump supporters, feeling patronised and wilfully misunderstood, will continue to distrust everything that the mainstream media says (including the 90% which is reasonably accurate, if sometimes politically skewed).

One side will have to blink first. You would hope that it might be the DC chattering class – through some instinctive self-preservation reflex, if nothing else.

 

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New Year Update

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A few changes for 2017

Greetings from Texas. Getting the blog up and running again after a longer-than-anticipated Christmas and New Year break is somewhat harder than in previous years – or rather, I should say that it is proving difficult to spurn the joy of unstructured leisure time for the largely thankless task of ranting into WordPress.

Having taken a full fortnight away from the daily grind has been refreshing, and also revelatory. 2016 was the fifth year of Semi-Partisan Politics and by far the most successful, with a threefold increase in readership compared to 2015, helped along in large part by the EU referendum campaign and the American presidential election. But this positive trajectory has come at the cost of nearly every free moment in my all-too-undisciplined free time.

Writing a political blog (and trying to make it successful) is hard. In order to build and maintain an audience you have to publish nearly every day, often multiple times. Unless you have the benefit of establishment connections to furnish you with gossip or pimp out your work, you have to be demonically active on social media, tweeting effectively and trawling for pageviews on Facebook. And for a one-man outfit like this, time spent promoting the blog on social media is time taken away from writing and the all-important reading and research which adds value to the content, while too much time spent reading and writing at the expense of self-promotion means that one’s best work often goes largely unread.

Whatever value Facebook has as a medium for discussion and promoting this blog, it is also a black hole from which I now intend to escape. I could easily double or triple this blog’s readership in a short time by actively promoting articles on the various political Facebook groups – and indeed I did so for a time in the buildup to the EU referendum. But my time is limited, and I will no longer waste it affirming people’s current biases to a lazy applause of “likes” or posting in hostile groups only to receive endless comments telling me that I am Hitler. A well-placed Facebook intervention may draw in countless likes and re-shares resulting in a thousand additional pageviews, but too often this is low quality traffic with no loyalty or engagement. The readers I value most are the ones who stick around without Facebook nagging, and who both educate and argue with me through the Comments.

SEO is a cruel mistress. This blog’s most-read piece for 2016 was a short, throwaway piece about Tony Benn’s euroscepticism and likely stance on Brexit. Because of an inadvertently well-chosen headline and a dearth of similar articles it placed well on Google, and attracted many thousands more views than the polemics, fisking pieces or other articles of which I am far more proud and which contain much greater originality.

Meanwhile, the British media establishment continue their demented hostility toward the political blogosphere and dogged refusal to acknowledge some of the best and most original analysis out there (though fully aware that it exists) simply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.

This blog has been linked several times in both the National Review and the New Republic, the premier conservative and liberal journals in America, despite the limited attention that I have given to US politics this year. Meanwhile, links from the incestuous British media are almost non-existent – though I am grateful to the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow for occasionally citing this blog in his own excellent and comprehensive political liveblogs. But the idea of sullying myself trying to attract the attention of SW1’s finest on Twitter in exchange for a mere “like” or (rarer still) a retweet no longer holds any appeal.

Then there is the constant feeling that one is only as good as one’s most recent blog post – which, if you are me, means long periods of self-doubt and wondering why I am bothering in the first place. As the email bulletins and Google alerts ping into the inbox every hour of every day there is the constant feeling of needing to go “on the record” about whatever new person or event is driving the 24-hour news cycle, of committing a hot take to public record while it is still relevant, to assimilate the latest information and latest developments, and then inevitable feelings of inadequacy when this high bar – impossible to achieve while working a full time job – is not met.

I have also been dwelling on the fact that the words published on any political blog do not hold their value for long. Sure, some articles will be blessed by the SEO gods and provide a constant stream of traffic, but generally speaking a reaction piece I write in response to a Guardian headline today will be lining the digital waste paper bin by tomorrow. I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).

The upshot of all this introspection is that the thought of returning to the fray – spending the bulk of my free time hunched over the laptop, only to be studiously ignored by those who drive the national conversation – has been less than appealing, especially while I am still enjoying the company of my American family and have easy access to some of the best tacos and Tex-Mex food that money can buy.

Fear not, though. Or don’t start celebrating, if you are a fire-breathing SJW who hates my guts. I’m not going away. This blog will continue. But I have taken a long, hard look at my priorities and there will be some changes afoot.

I am not yet at liberty to discuss the most significant change that I will be making from a personal perspective. Suffice it to say that I have decided that being taken seriously without some serious form of credential is almost impossible, and that it is time to bow to this inevitable fact. At present, I am neither a politician nor a lawyer, nor an accredited expert on the constitution, the European Union, healthcare reform or any of the other subjects on which this blog touches. Over time, this will now change. The focus of this blog may therefore shift and be refined slightly over time, though there will be no immediate change.

The fruits of this work may not be visible for some time, but I hope to be able to provide more detail in due course. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Slightly less frequent updates (I religiously posted nearly every day in 2016; this tempo is now likely to decrease)
  2. More short reaction pieces or flags (bringing other worthy articles or videos to your attention with only limited commentary from myself)
  3. Fewer “fisking” pieces (taking apart and critiquing articles and speeches line-by-line)
  4. Hopefully a few more longer-form, ruminative pieces on certain subjects close to this blog’s heart (Brexit, free speech, identity politics, healthcare reform and the NHS)

And one thing will not change. This blog will continue to be stridently independent, and I will at no time “sell out” to raise my profile through artificial means. If I happen to be published, linked or quoted elsewhere in the coming year, it will not be the result of modifying my positions or moderating my tone. Likewise if by some chance I end up back on the BBC as the token “anti-social justice” guy.

I will still be in Texas for the next couple of weeks, but activity on the blog will now slowly start to ramp up again. Please accept my apologies if I am slow to approve or respond to comments, emails or tweets – the backlog is long, and I am still very much in holiday mode.

I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous 2017.

Sam Hooper.

 

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Will 2017 Be The Year That Independent Political Blogs Make A Comeback?

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Now more than ever, we need good political journalism and incisive commentary to make sense of the world and the challenges (and opportunities) facing us in the new Age of Brexit and Donald Trump. And increasingly, the only way one can find good analysis is by turning to independent bloggers

Veteran American television journalist / late-in-life social media champion Dan Rather has shared with his Facebook audience some thoughts on how they can best encourage and reward good journalism in the Age of Trump, following a presidential election campaign in which much of the mainstream media was deemed to have failed in its core duty to provide rigorous, civic-minded coverage and analysis.

Rather, who has provided an articulate and dignified left-wing running commentary on the 2016 presidential election via his Facebook page, writes:

There is no shortage of long, thoughtful articles that are worth a read. The problem is that our current journalism business model doesn’t seem to support the better instincts of the press as much as it should.

So if you want to know what you can do, please choose to support the press. If you find a news source you like and you think it is doing a good job, pay for the subscription. This doesn’t just help the bottom line but it is a vote of confidence in the system. Share smart, thoughtful pieces on social media and in emails to your friends. Let’s run up the clicks and views of the best of journalism. Also, I think we can not be passive with our news any longer. If you like what you see, let the publicans and journalists know through all the digital tools at your disposal. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, let them know as well. Or turn it off, refuse to follow the click bait.

The press is a vital partner in out democratic process. It is under incredible strains from a drastically changing media landscape and a potentially hostile in-coming administration. As citizens we should care deeply about this and vow to do something to help.

Many of us, for various reasons, have cause to be greatly disappointed with the mainstream media – whether we are left-wing or right-wing, British or American, supported Brexit or staying in the EU, preferred Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

With very few exceptions, television news has become a wasteland of quacking, know-nothing talking heads who specialise in providing visually pleasing, information-lite political gossip and who force their way onto our screens either by virtue of having had some dismal prior political career, fortunate social connections or simply the willingness to wear a bow-tie un-ironically while under the age of sixty.

And the print media is little better. While there are honourable exceptions at many publications, too many venerable titles have either dumbed down to the point where they have become utterly unreadable clickbait, or else sold their inquisitorial souls to the establishment in order to churn out tedious defences of the status quo and scurrilous hit-pieces on those who seek to disrupt it.

In many cases, a combination of scrambling to capture new revenue streams and remain financially viable combined with a fawning desire to be “liked” by the right people in Westminster and Washington D.C. has all but hollowed out the ranks of decent political journalists and de-fanged once-formidable publications.

In this, my good friend and fellow Brexiteer-in-arms Pete North has it exactly right:

In the final analysis the legacy media is dying. Our media was once a luxury liner. It is now a corred garbage scow with corrosion holes in the hull. It is dying a much deserved death and every bit of bad news for the newspapers is good news for us bloggers. I can think of plenty blogs who produce better and more informed content in an afternoon than the usual suspects manage in a week of trying. And there is good reason for that.

Outside of the bubble you have a certain distance from the fray and not in hock to the peer pressure inside it. Outside the bubble is the only place where free thinking can occur. To join them is to become them. And who would want to stunt their intellectual and personal growth in such a way?

This does of course mean that writing is now done largely as a labour of love. There is no money to be made nor recognition to be had. All that matters to me is that for every moment readers spend on advert free blogs is a moment they are not reading the Spectator or any of the other garbage. Every blog post I write is an act of vandalism on an established media whose final gasp cannot come too soon.

[..] This is the year where the word “blogspot” and “wordpress” carries prestige. The low grade tat of the legacy media shouldn’t even be acknowledged. If it didn’t exist at all we would be no worse off in our understanding of events and politics would be all the better for it. The dinosaurs have had their day and we should not mourn their passing. We should do what we can to hasten their demise.

Trust Pete to find the almost John Galt-like nobility in what we bloggers do – it certainly beats “fighting on the internet”, which is how I had previously been describing my nocturnal pastime of ranting into WordPress.

But joking aside, as Dan Rather says, “If you find a news source you like and you think it is doing a good job, pay for the subscription. This doesn’t just help the bottom line but it is a vote of confidence in the system. Share smart, thoughtful pieces on social media and in emails to your friends. Let’s run up the clicks and views of the best of journalism.”

Some of the best political commentary right now comes from independent bloggers who write entirely in their spare time as labour of love, with no hope or expectation of recognition by the failing mainstream media. Therefore, if you have a favourite blogger or bloggers and are in a position to do so, consider making a donation or regular subscription to aid their work and acknowledge their effort. Share their articles with other people who may be interested in reading. It all helps.

I am personally very grateful to all those who have kindly donated to Semi-Partisan Politics over the past year. The vote of confidence you make in me with your PayPal donations and standing orders helps to keep me writing.

But this is much bigger than me and my little old blog. One thing that struck me as I live-blogged the US presidential election results last Tuesday night was she sheer number of outlets providing live coverage. Beyond the usual television stations there were live YouTube channels, Periscope broadcasts, websites, other live-blogs, Twitter and Facebook personalities and more. Newspapers were offering video broadcasts and television broadcasters were offering written analysis. And all of this from every political perspective under the sun, from triumphant Trumpists to crying Clintonites to Bernie Sanders supporters shouting “I told you so!”. From having to rely on a handful of networks and newspapers a generation ago, one is now paralysed by having too much choice.

(Now of course this raises important questions about the bubble effect, and one certainly doesn’t want to saturate oneself with endless sources bias confirmation – but that is a separate discussion).

But of all the cacophonous voices offering independent perspectives on politics today, very few will likely still be around in the same guise to cover the 2020 presidential election in America or general election in Britain. And more than likely, some of the best will have had to hang up their keyboards because of the pesky need to pay rent and buy food, while other, inferior writers and journalists go from strength to strength.

So I’m with Dan Rather. If there are writers or publications which provide you with indispensable or enjoyable analysis or commentary, make sure you vote with your wallet (and the social media sharing buttons) to let them know. And the sum total of these efforts may be a newly flourishing independent political blogosphere which continues to put much of the mainstream media to shame.

 

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Should Journalists Have To Declare Their Political Biases And Donations?

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Belief that the media is biased is one thing that unites conservatives and leftists in America and Britain. So why not demand that journalists reveal any political affiliations upfront, to give us better context for their reporting and commentary?

Should online, print and television journalists declare their political leanings (and donations) upfront, in the name of transparency? Jonah Goldberg thinks so, and makes a persuasive case.

Goldberg writes in the National Review:

One of the reasons I like good opinion journalism, particularly in long-form magazine articles, is that it doesn’t hide from the fact it is making an argument. You know where the author is coming from, and you can take that into account as he or she marshals facts and evidence for his or her case. We know opposing lawyers in a courtroom are biased, but if they don’t make strong arguments, they lose.

I understand bans on reporters giving to campaigns, but we should understand what those bans are: a means of hiding the political leanings of reporters from readers and viewers.

This has become a particularly hot topic after a report issued by the Center for Public Integrity confirmed the unsurprising fact that American journalists and media personalities give vastly more in campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party than to Donald Trump and the Republicans.

And given this vast discrepancy – with $382,000 given by hundreds of media personalities to Clinton and just $14,000 by a handful of people to Trump – Goldberg points out that hiding behind the fig leaf of impartiality or being a political “independent” is no longer fooling anyone:

Anyone who has spent a moment around elite reporters or studied their output knows that they tend to be left of center. In 1981, S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman surveyed 240 leading journalists and found that 94 percent of them voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, 81 percent voted for George McGovern in 1972, and 81 percent voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Only 19 percent placed themselves on the right side of the political spectrum. Does anyone think the media have become less liberal since then?

None of this means liberals — or conservatives — can’t be good reporters, but the idea that media bias is nonexistent is ludicrous. Judges have far greater incentives to be neutral and objective, yet we know that Democrat-appointed judges tend to issue liberal decisions, and Republican-appointed judges tend to issue conservative decisions.

The Obama administration and campaigns have hired dozens of prominent, supposedly nonpartisan journalists, including former White House press secretary and Time magazine reporter Jay Carney, former Time managing editor Rick Stengel, the Washington Post’s Shailagh Murray, and ABC’s Linda Douglass.

Was it just a coincidence that they were all ideologically simpatico with the Obama agenda? How did the Obama team even figure out they were liberals in the first place?

Of course, exactly the same revolving door between the media and political worlds can be found in Britain, with well-known television journalists from BBC and ITV news suddenly shedding the white robes of virtuous objectivity to mysteriously shack up in Downing Street in a political communications role. This transcends party politics, and the Conservatives are by no means the only ones at fault – in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s ideological henchman Seumas Milne, we have seen a Guardian polemicist not even leaving his job but merely take a leave of absence to become head of communications for the opposition Labour Party.

You can’t stop this from happening, and nor should anyone necessarily try. But the public do have a moral right to know the political leanings and affiliations of those who report and interpret the news. We expect MPs and Lords to declare their financial interests so that we can monitor their behaviour and ensure that they are not unduly influenced by their commercial connections. But a well-functioning press is every bit as vital to our democracy, so why should we not understand the motivations of reporters, commentators and editors.

Consider the case of Jasmine Lawrence, editor of the BBC’s 24-hour news channel. Lawrence was caught posting virulently hostile (and ignorant) thoughts about UKIP on social media prior to the 2014 European Parliament elections, and received only the mildest of cautions from her bosses.

As this blog noted at the time:

What the BBC fail to address in their response is the fact that the remainder of the BBC’s election coverage is not the problem. The problem is the fact that Jasmine Lawrence will remain the editor of the BBC News Channel, presumably resuming full duties as soon as the election coverage is completed on Sunday.

Yes, it is certainly likely that she caused editorial harm and biased coverage in the weeks leading up to the election before her ill-advised tweet saw her stripped of her duties, but how much more damage can she now do in the coming year leading up to the general election?

We all have political preferences, and that’s fine. But the Jasmine Lawrence tweet doesn’t just reveal a tendency to lean one way or the other along the political spectrum. The editor of the BBC News Channel clearly has a deeply ingrained, long held antipathy toward UKIP and the people who support that party or agree with its policies.

Are we really supposed to believe that when she walks into the BBC offices in the morning, Jasmine Lawrence takes off her scornful, UKIP-denigrating hat and puts on her cap of unblemished impartiality, and that the decisions she makes regarding story selection, focusing of time and resources, determining which guests to interview, lines of questioning and other matters will not be influenced by the same sentiments that prompted her to call UKIP supporters white, middle aged sexists and racists?

At present, we are deluding ourselves that the people who report the news – and worse still, the people who get to decide what even counts as news in the first place – are uniformly honest and committed to impartiality, and that the possibility of subconscious bias simply doesn’t exist. And this is holding human beings to a standard of behaviour which cannot possibly be met.

Far better that we more fully embrace the free market in our journalism, and equip news consumers (i.e. ordinary voters) with more perfect information – not just about our politicians, but also about the people who report on them. That way, television and print journalists can continue to strive for objectivity where appropriate, but we will have the backup of knowing about any political memberships, donations or affiliations that may influence their reporting, either consciously or subconsciously.

This doesn’t need to be an official thing. Indeed, nothing would be worse or more totalitarian than keeping a centralised state register of journalists’ political affiliations – that would be Orwellian in the extreme. Rather, the culture should be changed so that declaring one’s political allegiances upfront comes to be seen as a matter of honour and journalistic best practice.

Only earlier this week, a BBC television journalist named Danny Carpenter was suspended from his job for describing Theresa May’s new Conservative government as “the new Nazis” on his personal Facebook page.

The Daily Mail reports:

A BBC news presenter has been suspended for allegedly calling the Tory government ‘the new Nazis’ in an online social media rant.

BBC Look North’s Danny Carpenter reportedly accused the government of being ‘cynical, vicious, racist and xenophobic’ in a Facebook rant and has now been suspended by the corporation as they carry out an investigation.

Mr Carpenter is also said to have called for the Brexit to be ‘voted out’ by Parliament because of a ‘combination of dishonest fear-mongering and lies about the economy’.

This is clearly a partisan zealot of the highest order, someone with political beliefs even more pungent than those of this blog – and clearly very ideologically different. But just as I would never expect to be allowed to stand in front of a television camera reporting the news with a straight face, so Danny Carpenter should never have been allowed within 5 miles of a BBC studio except as a paid opinion contributor (like my star turn on the BBC Daily Politics earlier this year).

Jonah Goldberg is quite right to point out that the pretence of journalistic impartiality is a fraud which we all perpetrate on ourselves. Pretending that we are being served a conscientiously-curated stream of objective, unbiased reporting at all times lulls those of us credulous enough to believe it into a false sense of security, meaning that people do not apply their own scepticism or challenge what they are told.

And the rest of us, fully aware that what is being sold to us as objective coverage is in fact ideologically skewed, are increasingly spurning the mainstream media. More and more of us are taking refuge in new independent media sources, curated for us by algorithms and presented through social media, some of which are diligent and honourable but many of which can trap us in an ideological bubble of bias confirmation.

Goldberg concludes:

This lack of transparency benefits news organizations, but it really doesn’t fool anybody — except maybe the reporters themselves.

I agree. And playing along with the deception by furiously pretending that we have an impartial media only fuels the atmosphere of distrust and resentment in our politics. Having prominent journalists declare any strong political allegiances upfront would not solve all of our problems by magic. But it certainly wouldn’t do any harm.

 

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Sincere Congratulations To The Spectator For Their All-Women Cover Issue

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A brief rant before normal service resumes…

The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson today felt the need to publish a self-congratulatory humblebrag remarking on the fact that their latest print edition’s cover page apparently features only the work of female writers, despite no conscious decision having been made to indulge in affirmative action.

Nelson gushes:

Just before The Spectator went to press yesterday, my colleague Emily Hill pointed out that I’d just taken away the only male name away from the cover: all seven of our coverlines were stories written by women. Did I really want that? I hadn’t thought about it until then, and for a while I did consider engaging in tokenism and slapping a man on for the sake of it. But why bother? Spectator readers don’t really care about gender, just good writing.

In fact it hadn’t occurred to any of us, until that point, that we were about to run what Ariane Sherine, who writes our cover story, today hails as the first all-woman cover in The Spectator’s 188-year history. But this wasn’t a patronising attempt at a ‘wimmin’s issue’ or some other awful tokenistic wheeze. Our all-women cover wasn’t deliberate, it was just the way the cards fell. Each week we want to get the best writers on the most original topics: this week, they all happened to be women.

That’s not to say there’s no difference when it comes to getting hold of good writers. As Emily will tell you, women don’t put themselves forward as much as men. To get the full range of talent from all available writers can mean people like Emily going to great lengths to find and encourage new writers – like Ariane Sherine. As so often, Fleet Street follows up. As I write, two national newspapers are vying for the right to republish her cover story.

Full disclosure: I have a bit of a beef with lead article author Ariane Sherine (a one-sided affair; she, I’m sure, has no idea who I am) following her previous effort for The Spectator, an appallingly condescending report about how she performed a comedy gig in the heart of UKIP-supporting coastal Essex and somehow, miraculously, was not ripped to shreds by the rabidly racist, evil Brexiteers who dwell there.

It is interesting, too that Sherine (and apparently other women writers published in The Spectator) had to be sought out, coaxed and persuaded to write for the venerable magazine because “women don’t put themselves forward as much as men”. Funny, that. I, a despicably privileged man, have pitched to The Spectator before – it was actually a terrible piece from a few years back when my writing was very green, not at all worth publishing – but then I never had the pleasure of being sought out and implored to honour The Spectator’s readers with the fruits of my keyboard. That must be quite a nice feeling.

I don’t normally do this, but let’s just muse on the topic of gender equality for a moment, particularly as it relates to journalism. Regular readers will know that I spent pretty much every spare moment of the past year campaigning for Brexit in the EU referendum, initially rather haphazardly but (I hope) increasingly coherently as I read Richard North’s peerless eureferendum.com blog, learned about Flexcit and fell in with The Leave Alliance. I claim zero credit for any of the specific ideas this blog has supported around Brexit and the future of international trade – my tiny bit part in this effort consisted merely of standing on the shoulders of giants, particularly Richard North and Pete North, whose technical mastery and polemical writing I admire enormously.

The point, I suppose, is this. For some time now, a group of independent, citizen bloggers have churned out consistently better analysis and commentary on the EU referendum and Brexit on any given day than the mainstream media has given the British people in an entire year. Even now, dim-witted publications like the Guardian and FT are scrambling to catch up and think through some of the ramifications and issues which the people in my circle have been writing about for months. And what mention or recognition has this work prompted from the Westminster media? How many links to our widely-read and shared articles have appeared in mainstream outlets like The Spectator?

I think you know that the answer is zero.

Now, you don’t have to rate Semi-Partisan Politics at all – though I am personally quite frustrated, this issue is much bigger than little old me. But doesn’t it seem slightly odd that the entire Westminster media managed to somehow overlook the hard work of a small army of pro-Brexit bloggers on the biggest political issue to face Britain, just when fresh analysis was sorely needed, and yet The Spectator has time to scour Britain at great length for underappreciated female talent to promote to the front page?

Fraser Nelson claims that The Spectator’s all-women front page was entirely accidental, and I take him at his word. But isn’t it telling that this feat was achieved at the height of silly season, the summer recess, when the political news which is the Spectator’s bread and butter is almost entirely absent? When MPs come back from recess and things get serious again, let’s see how many months or years it takes for the next unintentional all-women issue to go to print. My guess is that it will be some while; that when PMQs is back and party conference season gets underway we will be seeing a lot more of James Forsyth, James Delingpole and Rod Liddle on the cover. Just a hunch.

So what was the amazing piece which made the cover of The Spectator anyway, you ask? Well, it was a thrilling exposé of a growing trend among millennials whereby single women stop looking for a suitable man and choose to marry themselves instead.

A snippet:

As far as the bride was concerned, the wedding was perfect. Her dress was beautiful, the vows were traditional and she changed her name after the ceremony. The clifftop scenery was breathtaking, the seven bridesmaids were encouraging and supportive: move over Princess Di. There was only one thing missing: the groom. Like a growing number of single women, Sara Starkström had decided to marry herself.

‘I thought about people marrying other people without loving themselves first,’ says Starkström, a writer, explaining what many would call a bizarre overreaction to finding herself single at the age of 29. ‘How could they pledge to do all this stuff for another person when they couldn’t promise themselves the same thing? I decided to marry myself to celebrate my independence and strength. I did it to promise to be my own best friend.’

[..] While many commentators make scathing judgments about sologamy (the feminist blog Jezebel ran a dismissive piece called ‘Single women, please stop marrying yourselves’, chiding, ‘You should be aware that you’re no trailblazer and you’re sure as hell not thumbing your nose at the system. You’re buying into it’), this hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of women from taking the plunge. For Starkström, self-marriage was a liberating act for which she is quite happy to take all the jokes ‘about me carry-ing myself over the threshold and making love to myself’.

And the thrilling conclusion:

Perhaps this is the crux of the sologamy issue: self-marriage is harmless, cheap compared to the £20,500 average cost of a classic wedding, and the union seems to make the bride very happy. If only the same could be said for the majority of traditional marriages which feature a groom. Princess Diana’s fairy tale fell apart when she found that there were three people in her marriage. Now, for an ever-increasing number of determined modern women, one is more than enough.

This isn’t even original. Even I know – don’t ask me how – that Sex and the City featured a similar storyline nearly fifteen years ago, in which protagonist Carrie Bradshaw decides to marry herself as a way of recouping the money spent on friends’ engagements and replacing an expensive pair of shoes which were stolen at a previous party. This kind of story is “and finally…” fodder on the TV news, not lead article material for The Spectator.

This may be silly season, but British politics is hardly dull at present – we have the ramifications of the EU referendum result to pick through, and the slow-motion car crash that is the Labour Party’s self-destruction, while America continues to wrestle with the Donald Trump phenomenon. In these circumstances, I’m sorry to say that Sherine’s story about sologamy has more than a whiff of affirmative action about it.

Before the inevitable feminist lynching begins, another disclaimer: I have long believed that The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman is the outstanding political journalist of her generation and, based on my couple of conversations with her, a genuinely nice person in the SW1 bubble. If The Spectator had ten Isabel Hardmans on staff, I wouldn’t expect a male-written cover story any more than once a year. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I want to put any idea that this rumination is some alt-right, anti-woman rant quickly to bed.

Note too that even when quoting the established feminist blog Jezebel, The Spectator fails to provide a link to the article Sherine cites by name. This is how unwilling the establishment British media are to share readers, clicks and opportunities. It is selfishness beyond measure, and is ultimately counterproductive – the American political blogosphere grew and thrives today not only because bloggers link to one another, but because there is a dialogue between what were traditionally the “legacy” print media outlets and alternative voices.

Readers aren’t forever lost to a publication which dares to link. In fact, readers often respect the original source all the more as a curator of other worthwhile information across the internet, thus increasing their loyalty. Maybe this doesn’t easily show up in the monthly SEO and web traffic reports which now seem to drive all media behaviour – and which have turned the Telegraph from a respectable broadsheet to a sensationalist purveyor of clickbait – but it is a real factor nonetheless. My own personal blogging hero, Andrew Sullivan, built the most influential political blog in history based entirely on this philosophy of curating the web for his readers and also providing fresh commentary which was picked up by the legacy media.

To this day, if there is a worthwhile piece of commentary or analysis on an American political blog, it is not unusual to see it linked to in a piece by an “establishment” journalist on the staff of, say, the New Republic or the National Review. Semi-Partisan Politics has been cited in the National Review a couple of times, a courtesy not once extended by any major British publication, and this despite the fact that 80 per cent of this blog’s output concerns UK rather than American politics.

So how should the British media interact with the blogosphere and promote new talent? Well, call me old fashioned but I believe that a simple commitment to meritocracy can’t go far wrong. Sure, The Spectator will always hire the likes of Pippa Middleton to write vacuous society guff about hunting for truffles in their Christmas issue, and that’s fine. But when it comes to political coverage, one wishes that established British publications would at least pretend to aspire to genuine meritocracy, seeking out the best analysis and commentary regardless of race or gender rather than indulging as they do in flagrant nepotism on the one hand and leftist affirmative action on the other.

I’ll speak plainly, because it’s better than dancing around the issue, from my perspective as someone no longer in the first flush of youth trying to build an audience and reputation as a writer. It is frustrating to pour every spare minute into this blog, providing (I dare to hope) sometimes original and refreshing commentary – particularly I think on the 2015 general election, the ongoing Labour leadership saga, free speech or academic freedom issues and the EU referendum – and see what is  objectively weaker commentary from nepotism beneficiaries or the obvious fruits of affirmative action benefit from a prestigious platform, greater recognition, and – oh yes, from monetary reward too. It’s just a little bit hard to take day after day.

I could play the minority card too, if I wanted to talk up my BAME working class background, but I would never compromise my principles by demanding that I be given a platform based on who I am rather than what I have to say. I won’t go there – it would be a violation of everything that this blog stands for. Others sadly seem happy to do so.

I write because I love to write, and because I think I have slowly created something quite small but precious here at Semi-Partisan Politics; because I have a small readership whom I love to serve, write for and debate with; because it is better than ranting into Facebook 24/7 as I used to before I opened a WordPress account. But sometimes it is a bit galling to see an inferior product exalted and given prominence when I and several of my good writer friends toil in obscurity.

Building a reputation and audience as a writer should be hard – it rightly takes time, effort, humility and perseverance. It has taken me over four years to even begin to get a sense of who my audience is / should be, and how best to serve them – and I claim no special skill at what I do, only a great deal of enthusiasm for it. But whether it is Twitter interactions, links to my site or other interactions, the amount of support I have received from American journalists and publications on the other side of the Atlantic vastly exceeds what little help or hand up I have ever received from the British media class – despite the fact that at least 80 per cent of my written output, networking and outreach efforts are focused on British politics and the Westminster media.

And I think British journalists and editors should be made to feel a little bit ashamed of that fact. Not for my sake – I’ll be just fine, and 95 per cent of the time I am happy to keep plugging away without a murmur of complaint. They should feel shame because my situation is far from unique, and because there are writers in my acquaintance whose insight, bravery and raw talent would enrich our country’s entire political discourse if only it had the bully pulpit it deserves.

The Westminster media establishment should be ashamed because the way they seek out and promote writing talent fails the British people, serving them an often substandard and derivative stream of written output and unoriginal thinking from the pens of the well-connected (either by parentage or ability to fill the checkboxes of a Diversity Officer’s form) while effectively pretending that the struggling political blogosphere – the primary outlet for so many talented, aspiring writers – doesn’t even exist, and certainly not as a source worthy of links or interaction.

Okay, rant over. I don’t have the energy to bring this piece to a neat end.

Normal business will now resume. Read it here first, or three months later from someone who gets paid to do this kind of thing.

 

Political Blogging 2

Top Image: The Spectator / Sky News

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