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Encouraged by near-saturation media coverage, the right-wing protests against commonsense social-distancing measures are getting out of hand. While the absolute numbers involved in the protests are tiny, their effect—when amplified by the credulous, cheerleading tone of the coverage—is massive and dangerous. On April 30 in Michigan, rifle-touting, Confederate-flag-waving, Trump-supporting militia types attempted to intimidate the legislature (to predictably sympathetic tweets from the president). These anti-lockdown rallies are popping up everywhere, often with nearly as many reporters covering them as there are protesters in attendance.
The right to not only infect oneself with a potentially life-threatening disease but also to infect others and worsen the crisis that threatens the world’s public health and economy has become a symbol of the extremist libertarian right wing, whose members make up a significant segment of Trump’s political base. Governors—such as those in Georgia and Florida—who identify with Trump’s brand of faux libertarianism are embracing the right to infect, no matter the cost to their constituents, their country, and the world at large.
Unfortunately, many in the mainstream media are mindlessly helping the protesters. Take a look, for instance, at Politico’s coverage of the symbol of the mask: “Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans,” a headline shouts, equating following the advice of medical experts with conservatives’ ignoring global public standards.
The Politico story goes on to note that “conservatives attacked the left’s mask obsession as another example of the creeping nanny state.” Only down below do we learn that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people should wear masks in public because doing so “reduces the ability of an asymptomatic infected person to spread the virus,” as if observing commonsense safety regulations in the midst of a deadly pandemic is just another example of liberal snobbery.
Look, as well, to New York Times editorial page resident right-winger Bret Stephens, who wrote on April 24 in support of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who wished to quarantine New York City residents who showed up in her state. “No wonder,” he concluded, “so much of America has dwindling sympathy with the idea of prolonging lockdown conditions much further.” Luckily for Stephens, his editors do not employ fact-checkers, or he would have to find another line of work. Support for lockdowns is hardly dwindling. A study by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States (a joint project of the Network Science Institute of Northeastern University, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University) states:
More than 80% of Americans support closing non-essential businesses. Support for limiting restaurants, closing schools, canceling sporting and entertainment events, and group gatherings exceeds 90%. A total of 94% strongly or somewhat approve asking people to stay home and avoid gathering in groups; 92% support canceling major sports and entertainment events; 91% approve closing K-12 schools; 91% approve limiting restaurants to carry-out only; 83% approve closing businesses other than grocery stores and pharmacies.
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We’ve been to this movie before. It was called the Tea Party. Many, if not most, members of the media gave two thumbs up to these so-called conservative activists and helped them reshape the Republican Party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Pundits cast the Tea Party as a patriotic movement focused on limiting government spending and adhering to the Constitution. We now know, however, that the “movement” was a plaything of the billionaire Koch brothers and their network of funders. Scholarly scrutiny eventually demonstrated that its protesters were far more motivated by fear and anger over the belief that “real Americans”—meaning white conservative Christians like themselves—were losing the country to the kind of people who made up Obama’s victorious coalition. Pat Buchanan, the conservative pundit and early avatar of what would become Trumpism, enunciated their real concern: the transformation of the United States into a “multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual ‘universal nation’ whose avatar is Barack Obama” and how to stop it.
Tea Party activists were never anywhere near as popular as the media pretended. A column I wrote for the Center for American Progress in December 2011 noted that the percentage of Americans who said they agreed with the Tea Party had fallen from a not terribly robust 24 percent to just 20 percent by that time. And yet the coverage treated the movement as if it were taking over the country. (And with Trump in office, in many ways it has.)
But there was another incident during the Obama era that I find even more illustrative of how so many members of the media nourished this know-nothing Republican libertarian ideology that endangers us all today. The 2012 Republican National Convention dedicated a full evening to purposely misrepresenting a single sentence spoken by Obama. In a speech delivered on July 13 of that year at a campaign stop in Virginia, he made the mundane point that though it was important to root out wasteful government spending, it was also easy to take the principle too far. It was the government, after all, whose investments helped to lay the foundation that enabled the success of the private economy.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together.
Obama went on to cite the GI Bill, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the moon landing as examples of the foundations of economic growth that for generations had supported America’s great fortunes. These ideas were hardly controversial or even new.
Republicans immediately seized on Obama’s statement to make it appear that the president was claiming something he never said and obviously did not believe. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney—who today has been cast as a man of principle for being the only senator to defy the president on the question of impeachment—complained back then that “to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motors, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza…to say something like that, it’s not just foolishness. It’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America.” But Romney’s statement was just as foolish as Obama’s was truthful. Nothing could be more obvious than the fact that the individuals Romney named did not build those companies alone. Not only did thousands of other people contribute in each case to make those companies into what they would become, but their success also rested on a system of laws, regulations, roads, bridges, post offices, schools, and taxes—just as Obama said. Here Romney, not Obama, was the one lying. Obama challenged neither the visionary nature of these entrepreneurs nor the importance of their contributions. He merely made the mundane, factual, and almost tautological point that they did not do it alone.
On July 24, just days after the speech in question and well before the Republican convention began, the Obama campaign issued a statement clarifying that the word “that” referred to “roads and bridges” a sentence earlier. The president recorded an advertisement in which, looking into the camera, he explained, “Those ads taking my words about small business out of context? They’re flat-out wrong.… Of course Americans build their own businesses.” But Romney was far from the only one who didn’t care about whether he was purposely misleading voters as to what Obama had said; many in the mainstream media were perfectly happy to play along. Despite a Washington Post Fact Checker column giving Romney’s statement three (out of a possible four) “Pinocchios” and CNN’s calling it “a theme out of context,” many others ate it up. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which also energetically defended the lies of the Swift boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004, led the attack. One of its columnists, James Taranto, went so far as to pretend that Obama’s remark “was a direct attack on the principle of individual responsibility, the foundation of American freedom.” A Washington Post blogger professed to see “a level of resentment toward the private sector that was startling, even to [Obama’s] critics.”
In tribute to the effectiveness of their campaign, Republicans chose “We built it” as the theme of the second night of their 2012 convention. Press coverage, for the most part, focused not on whether the theme was honest but on whether it worked. And most journalists decided not only that the attack was valid but also that Obama had only himself to blame and should stop bothering them with corrections. As Aaron Blake wrote in a straight news story in The Washington Post, “The problem with Obama’s latest exhortation that ‘you didn’t build that’ is not that it’s not true. The context of the remark makes it pretty clear that he’s referring to government-funded things like teachers and roads that make entrepreneurship possible.” Rather, the problem, Blake concluded, was his “emphasis.” This was what invited Republicans to “label Obama as a big-government tax-raiser.” Slate’s then–senior editor Rachael Larimore dismissed questions of truth and falsehood as beside the point and even appeared to find them somehow morally objectionable. In an article with the subhead “It doesn’t matter what Obama meant. Here’s why,” she admitted that Romney’s statement was false and endorsed the fact-checkers’ condemnation of it. Nevertheless, she went on to say, she was unsympathetic to the Obama campaign: “Obama supporters can complain all they want. They can argue that when he said ‘that,’ he was talking about the roads and bridges, not the business itself. It doesn’t matter. And it’s pointless to blame Mitt Romney or the RNC or anyone else for taking it out of context.” She found comical the idea that Obama’s supporters would “try telling [voters] what their president ‘meant.’” The idea that it might be her professional responsibility to speak up for the truth and debunk falsehood was entirely alien to her—a quaint relic of a bygone era. Chris Cillizza, a reporter at The Washington Post (later recruited by CNN), explained it thus: “My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.”
One could hardly ask for a better an example of what New York University professor Jay Rosen diagnosed in 2011 as the “cult of the savvy,” which he defined as the quality “of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political.” Rosen wrote, “Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like ‘in politics, perception is reality.’” Of course, as Rosen notes, perception is not reality: “Reality is reality!”
So it’s no surprise that the miscreants demanding the right to infect themselves and others have no trouble receiving the loving attention of the uncritical mainstream media. It’s as if we’ve been in training for this death march for decades.