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Welfare-Related Advocacy Presented as News

If you hear that the federal government is changing some policy that will affect welfare benefits for millions of people, what is the first bit of information you’d want to know?  For me, the answer is what the change actually would be.  For mainstream journalists, that’s often a secondary or tertiary consideration, probably because they fundamentally see their job as advocacy, not the provision of information.

A prime example is the Columbus Dispatch and Gatehouse Media article by Catherine Candisky and Jayme Fraser about the Trump administration’s proposed rule change for food stamp eligibility appearing in the Providence Journal.  Readers have to get more than halfway through the article before finding a direct statement of what the policy does:

The proposed change would end benefits for people who receive assistance because of broad-based categorical eligibility.

The policy change would only add a requirement that state governments must actually check the eligibility of people applying for food stamps even when they are already receiving other forms of welfare.  The only people who would lose food stamps under the new rule are those who are not eligible for them now, but who receive them because states don’t check.

Of course, as a society we can have the conversation about what level of income ought to entitle a family to assistance, but sneaking beneficiaries onto the rolls seems mainly to be a way to expand the business available for government and the dependency of the people on it.

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The Target of an Ethics Investigation

It isn’t mere pedantry to see something conspicuously off about the Providence Journal headline, “Ethics Commission to probe GOP ethics complaint vs. Raimondo, IGT.”  The Boston Globe might be slightly better inasmuch as it leaves the GOP out of the headline, with “State Ethics Commission to investigate complaint against Governor Raimondo.”

The problem, of course, is that the commission is investigating the governor, not the GOP or its complaint.  As WPRI correctly puts it, “Ethics Commission to investigate Raimondo over IGT deal“:

The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to open a formal investigation into Gov. Gina Raimondo’s dealings with gaming giant IGT in response to a complaint filed by the state Republican Party.

The GOP alleged that Raimondo violated the state ethics code by negotiating a proposed 20-year extension of IGT’s state contact to run lottery and casino games. The Republicans cited Raimondo’s relationship with Don Sweitzer, IGT’s former chairman and current lobbyist, who was tapped by the governor to be treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association. Raimondo is the current chair of the national group.

Tuesday’s vote was an initial step based on the facts put forward by the GOP. “The decision to investigate does not address the validity of the complaint; rather, it merely indicates that the allegations properly fall under the provisions of the Code of Ethics,” the commission’s website says. “Neither the complainant nor the respondent participates in the initial determination.”

This is the sort of detail that used to give conservatives the impression of media bias back in the days before it was open and explicit.  Whether it’s deliberate or an indication of the mental tics of the editors, errors or ambiguous language unfailingly makes it more likely to think the conservative or Republican side of dispute has done something unseemly, rather than the other way around.

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The National Story for the Governor

Michael Graham, who can be credited with ramping up questions about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s dealings with IGT and Donald Sweitzer, is out with another column asking whether the air of scandal that now lingers around her will be good for Democrats elsewhere, especially in swing states:

“[The Democratic Governor’s Association’s fundraising windfall is] great, until GOP oppo researchers in Kentucky and Louisiana start putting together DGA donations to Democrats in those states and the ethics scrap back in Rhode Island,” one national Democratic strategist told InsideSources. The strategist requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Democratic campaigns. …

Veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley doesn’t agree that it’s a problem. “Sure, the GOP will try to make an issue out of it, but in the grand scheme of things, the 2020 election is going to come down to Donald Trump,” he told InsideSources.

And having one of the nation’s most unpopular governors as the public face of the DGA?

“Now that’s a good question,” Manley concedes.

For Rhode Islanders who believe our governor is best predicted, at this point, by her national ambitions, this is a conspicuous trend.  So far, Raimondo’s PR army has managed to get her good press nationally no matter what was going on in Rhode Island.  We’ll see how well that holds as she gets an increasingly real sense of the national stage, where not everybody who has substantial influence is more inclined to be on her side than not.

By the same token, Rhode Islanders who are frustrated with our state’s inability to address its systemic corruption can take a lesson:  Where there are competing groups, there is accountability.

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A Comfy Softness for Radicalism

Not to go back to the well of content that is Naomi Chomsky, but this passage from an interview appearing on Liberation (“Newspaper of the Party for Socialism and Liberation”) is of note far beyond the topic of drag queen story hours:

What about media coverage of the events?

It’s been quite positive. I’ve done a lot of back and forth with the Massachusetts Family Institute. They made comments comparing drag to blackface, and called it misogynistic. But they’re fighting to restrict women’s bodies. They also are proponents of conversion therapy. I said this to everybody, and mentioned how these groups are attacking abortion rights— but none of the media printed that. They sort of softened my message a little bit, as they do.

Softened the message as they do for whom?  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a conservative, for example, complain that the media is softening his or her message — quite the opposite.

If you don’t read very broadly, across alternative media from all ideological angles, your understanding of controversies of the day is going to be very limited.  And it’ll be limited in the particular way of softening the edges for the progressive pill that the mainstream news media wants our society to swallow.

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What If Nobody Noticed the Governor’s Absence?

John DePetro points something out that one would think would be more widely mentioned:

Governor Raimondo made a loud statement by becoming the first Rhode Island Governor to blow off the Bristol July 4, Parade. Sources say the state congressional delegation were shocked Raimondo chose to skip the country’s longest running parade …

Parade organizers usually have to police the number of politicians that want to be part of the parade, and were upset Raimondo skipped it. Raimondo marched last year along with her son while gearing up for her November reelection. One parade source mentioned that even Gov. Linc Chafee always marched in Bristol despite his low poll numbers.

I’m not sure how John verified that no governor has ever missed the parade, but nonetheless, it seems notable that this one did.  It also seems notable how little remarked the absence was.  Even the state’s leading weekend political wrap-ups don’t take note.

Ordinarily, Ted Nesi’s “Nesi’s Notes” and Ian Donnis’s “TGIF” columns pick up small details of political relevance that might not have fit or been justified for full columns, and neither mentions this.  I’ve searched the local sites and, while I may have missed something, I don’t see the missing governor story anywhere.  Perhaps the Providence Journal’s “Political Scene” will cover it on Monday.

During the election, last year, the governor released a slick campaign video promoting her presence.

It’s fascinating what gets covered and what doesn’t.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to assert bias — Who knows what goes into any particular writer’s coverage decisions on a holiday weekend? — the topic is a good reminder of the leverage of the news media to shape people’s understanding of what’s going on and what’s important.

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Seeing RI Policy Through a National Lens

Being so enmeshed in Rhode Island policy and politics, while also following national news and commentary, I always find it to be like a crossing of the streams when the state becomes part of the national narrative.  Here’s Rhode Island’s entry into the national conversation about “free” college, via a Grace Gottschling report on CampusReform, under the headline, “RI Gov. pushes for ‘free’ college… with $200 million deficit”:

All graduating high school students, regardless of family income, are eligible for RI Promise and non-citizen residents are also eligible. It is unclear if this proposed expansion to include Rhode Island College, the four-year state school, would also allow non-citizen residents to be eligible. According to the RI Promise website, individuals are eligible if they are Rhode Island residents and qualify for in-state tuition. Rhode Island is one of two states in the nation that allows individual college Boards of Regents to decide whether to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Campus Reform reached out to the governor’s office to confirm whether illegal immigrants would be eligible for free, four-year college under the proposed expansion, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Sometimes it renews one’s sense of the insanity of Rhode Island governance to presumptively see it through the eyes of those who live elsewhere.  Perhaps increased coverage by the Boston Globe will mean more RI-story pickups at lower-tier publications like CampusReform.

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The Violence Inherent in the Mainstream Narrative

Here’s a little story, from Brian Amaral in the Providence Journal, that oughtn’t be lost in the shuffle of day-to-day news:

A group of juveniles [apparently 15 years old and younger] holding “Trump flags” outside the Brown University bookstore on Thayer Street Friday told police a man accosted them and choked two of them.

According to a police report provided by Commander Thomas Verdi, the five juveniles flagged down police at about 8 p.m. to report the incident in front of the bookstore at 244 Thayer St. They told police they were holding the two flags when they were approached by the man, believed to be in his 20s. The man began to stare at them, then asked what they were doing, they told police.

This is a consequence of the prevalent attitude in much of the mainstream of the political and media classes that Americans with certain points of view are evil and therefore have no rights.  When the narrative flows from “punch a Nazi” to “Trump is a Nazi,” a dangerous atmosphere develops.  In this narrative, somebody “Trump flags” (whatever those might be) is trying to usher in a new fascism.

Sure, the 20-something guy walking down the street who decides to take it upon himself to do something violent about this incipient fascism probably has something wrong with him, but this isn’t an isolated incident.  Let’s not forget the mass hysteria over the viral video of the Covington Catholic students in Washington, D.C., after the latest March for Life.

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Quotation Marks Tell a Tale of Bias

Although it’s from Monday’s “Political Scene” in the Providence Journal the following paragraph is worth memorializing because it truly captures — media watchers will agree — a dominant perspective in the mainstream news media:

Last Thursday night at the Rhode Island State House, deeply-held religious beliefs collided with the anger and fervor of women’s rights activists in the Trump era; the dominant church in Rhode Island waged — and lost — a holy war against “the sin″ of abortion; and a House Speaker who promised to be “the firewall” against “ultra-left wing groups” felt compelled to let colleagues vote, for the first time in a quarter-century, on an abortion-rights bill.

Specifically, note that the reporters and/or editors put quotation marks around “the sin,” but not around “holy war.”  In that small detail of copy editing, one sees precisely the angle from which the newspaper is reporting.  Killing children in the womb up to the point of birth is only a sin in some people’s eyes, thus requiring quotation marks to prove that the journalists don’t necessarily subscribe to that view, but opposing the legality of such an act is literally a holy war.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Fees, Fraud, Fetuses, and Finding a Field of Candidates

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, this week, was about the many new fees and taxes in the governor’s budget, a progressive’s alleged embezzlement, the significance of an abortion poll, and the multiple candidates for RIGOP chair.

Open post for full audio.

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Looking for the Political Line on PR Staff

It appears that GoLocalProv asked Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s office for all communications related to Frank Bruni’s glowing profile of her.  The site reports:

The emails that cover three-months — this past November through January — cover 55 pages and include a number of efforts by Raimondo staffers. In most cases, Raimondo’s office responded to emails in minutes and proactively sent materials and powerpoint presentations that were not requested by the New York Times.

So, Rhode Islanders paid the governor’s staff for three months of assistance on an explicitly political and partisan profile in the New York Times?  GoLocal reports that “it was the New York Times photo desk that dictated Raimondo’s photo” (shown, in part, in the featured image of this post).  That would be the image taken in her official office and positioned so as to make reflected lights look like a halo for Saint Gina.

Maybe it’s time we begin to ask where the boundary is beyond which these activities should be campaign expenses.

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A Political Theory of Blogs and Social Media

I’m not sure I agree with Cal Newport’s description of the difference between blogs and social media (emphasis in original):

Blogs implement a capitalist attention market. If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience. …

Social media, by contrast, implements a collectivist attention market, where the benefits of receiving attention are redistributed more uniformly to all users.

Not knowing Newport’s politics, I can’t say for sure, but I’d wager he’s pretty libertarian.  I say that because it would explain why he doesn’t see (in my opinion) that social media isn’t collectivist (in terms of distributing the currency of attention); it’s hyper-capitalist.  The owners have found a way to break down barriers so that more people can participate in the market, but one of those barriers, as Newport notes, is the requirement for quality.  A collectivist attention market would give the social media platforms’ managers the ability to distribute likes, follows, and replies as they thought justified, according to their own criteria.

This analogy actually raises important questions that conservatives strive to answer in contrast to more-thoroughgoing libertarians.  The higher quality and other benefits of blogs over social media represent a cultural good that was possible partly because they had barriers (to entry, to production, to audience building) that social media swept away.  The conservative question is: By what mechanisms we can balance those cultural goods against the also-good principle that everybody ought to have opportunities?

The (admittedly not very satisfying) answer seems to be the same for online content as for the economy and other broader social goods.  Basically, we have to remind each other of the value derived from an older way of doing things and make a deliberate effort to put aside seeming conveniences.  We should also develop tools that bridge some of the gap, like using RSS feeds for information rather than social media streams.  And of course, we have to make what we offer off the beaten path even more attractive.

Mostly, though, we just have to pray, and hope that less-healthy developments are fads that our society will self-correct.

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Meeting the Challenge of Education Reform

The Providence Journal editorial board is (let’s just say) very forceful on the subject of Rhode Island students’ test results:

The weak and timid reforms he and Gov. Gina Raimondo have advanced, while soothing to special interests, have been plainly insufficient. It is time for a shakeup at the Rhode Island Department of Education and the state Board of Education. Will anyone have the decency to resign for having failed our young people?

Robert Walsh of the National Education Association and Francis Flynn of the American Federation of Teachers have, similarly, served Rhode Island students abysmally. Union leaders in civic-minded Massachusetts understand that an education system is about more than providing salaries and benefits for adults. We know there are many teachers who yearn for a sound, long-term plan to improve standards.

It is a shame Rhode Island cannot simply shutter its Department of Education and hire Massachusetts to run the Ocean State’s public schools as a subset of its own. It at least knows how to do the job.

I saw editorial page editor Ed Achorn pushing back on Facebook against those who respond to these sentiments by pointing out that the Providence Journal endorsed Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo. Part of the editor’s response was that the paper has also implored her to improve her record on education, which I’m not sure quite meets the challenge.

Some of the entities that should be a check on government, like the state’s major newspaper, have this problem: They formulate their solutions as if we had a properly functioning state. Under such circumstances, a governor who had received the endorsement might change out of concern that she would lose it. In Rhode Island, she knows that she has nothing to fear.

Nobody who has secured a role of significance wants to throw down a gauntlet to make any bold changes to the way decisions are made in the state.

It isn’t sufficient to suggest, in passing, that somebody should resign over abysmal test scores. That outcome has to be important enough that advocates will ensure that insiders cannot achieve their other goals unless they address education.

That, incidentally, is win-win, because the insiders’ other goals are, on the whole, corrupt and oughtn’t be achieved, anyway. They need to be made to understand, however, that their only hope of keeping any of their ill-gotten gains is by making improvements in this area.

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Parsing “Advancing Political Interests” Versus “Crusading to Change the World”

Conservative writer Rod Dreher has an interesting post on the superficiality of news organizations’ obsession with “diversity,” but the most intriguing part might be something that he seems to miss entirely in these two paragraphs (emphasis in original):

To be fair, if news organizations made a concerted effort to recruit conservatives, they would have a hard time finding qualified candidates. That’s because journalism, for whatever reason, tends to disproportionately attract liberals. I wish that weren’t the case, but there it is. From what I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of working in professional journalism, conservatives who have an interest in the field are usually focused on opinion journalism. I’m generalizing here, and I haven’t been working in a newsroom in eight years, but I haven’t seen a lot of conservatives who are interested in journalism as journalism, journalism as a craft — this, as distinct from journalism as a vehicle for advancing their political interests.

Conservatives love to bitch about media bias, but they are much more reluctant to become journalists. You might say that that’s because they anticipate that the deck will be stacked against them in newsrooms, and there’s something to that. Mostly, though, I think that it’s because the craft of journalism, for whatever reason, tends not to attract conservatives, but it does tend to attract crusading liberals who want to change the world, and are willing to work in a profession where they won’t make much money in order to do it.

 

So conservatives aren’t interested in the craft of journalism, but in “advancing their political interests,” while liberals want to “crusade” and “change the world.”  What difference, I wonder, does Dreher see between advancing political interests and crusading to change the world?  Maybe what he meant to write is that liberals tend to be attracted to the craft of journalism, and some of them happen to be crusaders.  Even then, though, one might suggest that the distinction is only that liberals are more comfortable disguising their biases as they attempt to shape the world under the false pretense of objectivity.

Honestly, I’m not sure how one might estimate conservatives’ interest in journalism in a counterfactual reality in which they were able to present their own biases as objective truth through “the craft of journalism.”  But in our actual reality one might observe this tendency to assume their beliefs as fact among liberals in every industry.

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What If the Press Is Deserving of Mistrust?

A line in an op-ed by former Providence Journal columnist Edward Fitzpatrick has stuck in my head for the past few days:

There are near-daily additions to a dangerous “enemy-of-the-people” line of attack [against the mainstream media], which is chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.

“Chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.”  I wonder what Fitzpatrick thinks of the press’s role in demonizing President George W. Bush (including Dan Rather’s infamous Memogate), fawning over President Barack Obama, belittling the Tea Party, demonizing Republican Presidential Candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney (but only when they were running against Obama), and playing their part in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the current (legitimately elected) president.

Another line ought to have stuck in Fitzpatrick’s head, but he seems not even to have picked up on its true import (emphasis added):

Here in the home of the First Amendment, the last thing we should ever see is a U.S. president praising a politician who was convicted of assaulting a reporter. But that’s exactly what happened on Oct. 18, when Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, for body-slamming a reporter in 2017. Trump said anyone who did such a thing was “my kind of guy.” Worse yet, the crowd cheered.

Now, Gianforte’s actions were wrong, and Trump’s lauding of them was callous, but:  “the crowd cheered.”  I’d suggest that the crowd was primed to cheer long before President Trump began using their attitude toward the media for his own advantage.  Those folks have long experience with the plain reality that, when it comes to any issue of importance to elite sensibilities or keeping liberal Democrats in power, the press is not above trying to use its cornerstone to shift democracy.

President Trump is too blunt and vehement in pushing back against the press, but a big contributor to his success has been the frustration of “the crowd” that nobody else would or could.  Perhaps rather than presenting that crowd as mindless drones manipulated by the president, Fitzpatrick and his peers should ask why the mainstream media lost their trust and what journalists and their employers could do to earn it back.

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What the Newspapers Emphasize

Just for fun, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Sakonnet Times’ coverage of the local election results.  Readers may recall that the paper decided that the first town budget fight that my friends and I lost after four straight victories was the only one worth reporting on the front page.  Moreover, the headline seemed to present me (like my most-aggressive opponents do) as some interloping enemy of the community:  “Voters favor Town vs. Katz.”

How will the paper cover our local electoral victory, which saw the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) gain control over the town council and the budget committee and led a rejection of ballot questions that would have limited voter control over the budget?  In Portsmouth, the Sakonnet Times‘ sister publication, the Portsmouth Times, proclaimed at the top:  “A big night for Democrats.”  Another East Bay RI paper, the Bristol Phoenix, went with, “Bristol voters choose new faces… and reward old favorites,” the majority of whom are Democrats.  In East Providence, Democrat Mayor-Elect Bob DaSilva got a triumphant photo under the headline, “Victory!”

The Sakonnet Times?  Well, nothing political.  To be fair, even though the Tiverton paper has the same publication date as the others, it apparently goes to press on Tuesday, before election results would be available.  Still, I haven’t heard from the paper, and neither has anybody else from TTA, to my knowledge.  An online article is mainly a short recitation of the numbers as they were earlier reported, although it does state that TTA “appears to have captured a majority.”

We’ll see what we see with next week’s edition.  Will the bold letters across the top of the paper read, “Tiverton Favors TTA”?  Maybe, “A big night for TTA.”  Or, “Taxpayers’ strong campaign pays off.”

I’d settle for “Victory!,” but I expect something much different.  Maybe the editors will go with the old standby of crediting “angry voters” for the results.  Or maybe the paper will decide that the election is already old news and bury the brief article somewhere beyond the front page, as it has done with the taxpayer budget victories.

Watchers of local news and politics can place their bets.

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A Journalism Panel at RIC Goes from Left to Lefter

A small note on a brief Providence Journal article about a panel discussion on journalism in the Trump Era, hosted by Rhode Island College.  Reporter Mark Reynolds conveys some of the comments from the panelists, but the key detail, for my money, is the list of panelists:

Jill Agostino is Deputy Editor, Special Sections of the New York Times.

Jennifer Bendery is a Senior Politics Reporter for HuffPost.

Josh Israel has been the Senior Investigative Reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012.

Ron Nixon is The New York Times’s Homeland Security Correspondent.

Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for the Washington Post and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for her coverage of Russian Interference.

Paul Singer became Investigations Editor at WGBH in Boston and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in March 2018.

In other words, the panel ran the gamut from… err… Left to Far Left.  Shouldn’t a college — especially a publicly funded college — make some effort to appear balanced?  I mean, apart from wanting to offer students a thorough education and a lesson in weighing different perspectives, that is.  A conservative journalist would have brought something completely different to the gathering, perhaps something surprising.

Some local color might have been helpful, too.  Local reporters across the spectrum might have had something to say about the increased difficulty of getting information from government agencies during the Raimondo Era.  When she came into office, the door closed quite a bit on our ability to get information directly from government employees without going through one of the many public relations specialists.

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