Discover more from THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
Rules count in sports. So what about politics and journalism?
Nothing is more important for democracy, or more carelessly disregarded on the right, than telling the truth
If only rules in politics and journalism mattered to us as much as they do in sports. (Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash)
Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is almost here, and it will bring the biggest changes in the sport’s rules since the designated hitter was created a half-century ago. But let’s not get carried away about the new pitch clock and bigger bases and such, because baseball is still about throwing a ball, hitting a ball and catching a ball. There are no tackles and blocks, no headers, and nobody aims a jab at a jaw. That happens in other sports. There are rules against that in baseball.
The world of sports, you see, is so much more civilized and orderly than the rest of life. Yes, there are rules in politics, but they don’t cover the most important stuff — namely, what people say and do. And what about journalism, which has been my career? It’s nearly a free-for-all, thanks to the First Amendment.
As long as journalists don’t libel someone, they’re free to rhetorically head-butt any institution or individual to their hearts’ content. And a politician can go all Mike Tyson on an opponent — you know, figuratively chewing off an ear in a clinch. Who’s to stop them?
This is actually as it should be: In a free society, the rules of politics and journalism are set and enforced by the choices of citizens. Yet that presents a dilemma when it comes to what ought to be the fundamental rule in both fields: You must tell the truth.
If voters look the other way when a politician lies, no rulebook can throw out their decision. And if media consumers don’t care or don’t notice when they’re fed a diet of misinformation by a media outlet, there’s no referee to call the material foul.
As dedicated as any patriotic American must be to defending that sort of freedom, it is infuriating to note the contempt for truth that is now on display among most Republican politicians and their media enablers, notably Fox News. Since most of us live in siloed media ecosystems — that is, we get information from sources that reinforce our own biases — the right-wing fan base is largely oblivious to the web of lies being spun by both the political players they cheer and the commentators they follow. For the crowd in both the cheap seats and the luxury boxes, though, somebody in a striped shirt needs to blow a whistle.
Here's what anybody who follows democracy’s contests needs to know: Fox News and the politicians it supports aren’t playing the same game as the rest of us. You might think that they’re cheating, but it’s more accurate to say that they’re competing in a different ballpark. They’ve walked off the field of democracy.
Democracy is about giving citizens agency over the system that supports their lives. Journalism is an attempt to give people a true view of lies beyond their own experience. What links the two is that they both rely upon a foundation of truth-telling. Citizens can’t make the informed choices essential to democratic government if they are consistently misled by either the people they elect or the on-the-scene witnesses who report about them.
If we had any doubt about Fox’s goals, it has been made clear in revelations from the $1.6 billion lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which was targeted after the 2020 election by lies that Fox News eagerly spread. We know now that Fox executives and the network’s top prime-time commentators fully recognized that Donald Trump’s claims that he was cheated out of re-election were balderdash, and knew that Dominion’s voting machines weren’t, in fact, programmed to give extra votes to Joe Biden as part of a vast nationwide conspiracy. But Fox pushed that line, anyway. We know that Fox star Tucker Carlson, who played the role of Trump champion in front of the camera, eagerly insulted him off the set: “I hate him passionately,” he texted. And under oath, Rupert Murdoch agreed with the characterization of his priorities: “It is not red or blue, it is green.”
But that’s belatedly coming to light, more than two years after the fact. Just as illuminating is what Tucker Carlson is doing now, in trying to rewrite recent history by showing a few selected video clips of the Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, insisting that it was actually a peaceful demonstration by “sightseers.”Backing that up on behalf of the House Republican Conference, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, the conference chair, claimed that the House committee that investigated the attack was a “scam,” and that thanks to Carlson, “The Democrats’ dishonest narrative is being demolished.” (Note: Stefanik represents me in Congress.)
Here's the truth, which Fox News does not report and Stefanik does not respect: About 140 police officers were assaulted that day, leading to charges against almost 1,000 people. The attacks included 106 with deadly or dangerous weapons. Rioters roamed the Capitol, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” and whistling for Nancy Pelosi. Lawmakers and the vice president fled and hid in fear for their lives. Two undetonated pipe bombs were found nearby.
Further truth: Every investigation of the 2020 election and every case brought to overturn the legitimate results have led to the inescapable fact that Joe Biden was fairly elected. That’s not what you hear even today from the Fox primetime hosts or from most Republican officials: 170 of the 223 Republican members of the House publicly claim that Trump actually won the 2020 vote, and that Biden somehow defrauded the system as he piled up 7 million more votes than Trump and a 74-vote margin (out of 538) in the electoral college.
All that is true, but that’s not what you hear from Fox News or from most high-ranking Republican officials. Here’s why: They’re not engaging in a contest over truth. They’re contending for power, and they’re in it to win it, truth be damned.
It’s not just the 2020 election and what happened during the Capitol insurrection that draws lies from the right these days. Republicans claim Democrats want to send 87,000 IRS agents into the field to harass small businesses.They deny proposing to abolish entitlements including Social Security, though on-the-record media coverage shows several senators and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis backing the idea. They claim Democrats want an open southern border so millions of immigrants can replace people who are born citizens.
The purveyors of these notions are about as trustworthy as the 1919 Chicago White Sox. If you press ordinary citizens on the question of politicians’ honesty, though, they’re likely to suggest that what the Fox commentators and Republican officeholders are saying, whether true or not, is just part of the political game. You’ve surely heard the typical retort: “They all do it.”
No, they don’t. Commentators on MSNBC and CNN may generally espouse a progressive viewpoint, but they do it within the context of reality, and with respect for facts. The news pages of what are often labeled “liberal” publications, including The New York Times and the Washington Post, fairly portray all sides of political issues, and cover topics that cross the range of public opinion. The opinion pages of major outlets quite consciously offer points of view that roam across ideologies. Even publications known for what’s called “advocacy journalism” — like Mother Jones on the left and National Review on the right — deal in analysis of facts, not in fabrication.
That’s why some of us who have devoted our working lives to journalism are so distressed by the perversion of the craft that’s represented by Fox News, and why capable people who might otherwise turn to public service want nothing to do with today’s politics. Distortion and fabrication have become the tactics of the right, as surely as performance-enhancing drugs were the tactics of cheaters ranging from Roger Clemens to Lance Armstrong.
In fact, to suggest that today’s right-wing politicians are simply playing the political game aggressively is an insult to athletics. Children are taught that the first rule of sports isn’t to win — it’s to respect your opponent. And the second rule is to honor the sport’s rules and the referee or umpire. A game won by cheating disrespects opponents, umpires and the game itself.
That’s where we come in. In matters of politics and journalism, we are not only the referees, but also the league executives. The governing bodies of sports change rules from time to time to make the games more fair or interesting: The NBA added the three-point line to make basketball more competitive in 1979, and the NFL authorized the two-point conversion to enliven pro football games in 1994. We need to be at least as bold about our nation’s political system as the overseers of sports are about protecting the profits their games generate.
The solution isn’t to abolish the First Amendment and restrict the free speech of lying politicians and TV commentators. It is, rather, to enforce what ought to be the fundamental rule of truth, by loudly and continually protesting those who disregard it. Journalists ought to incessantly insist upon accountability from politicians who are purveyors of untruth. Voters must confront officials who convey their disrespect by imagining we’re not smart enough to recognize a lie when we hear it.
This doesn’t call for partisanship; it demands standards. In fact, we diminish our power if we target people who honestly disagree with us. Conversely, we strengthen our authority if, in calling out the lies and the liars wherever they lurk, we differentiate what’s merely objectionable from what’s unethical.
What’s being contested on this field is the survival of democracy itself. Since it’s citizens and news consumers who essentially get to decide which players get to stay in the game, we have only ourselves to blame if we fail to stand up for the rules. And if we want democracy to win this contest, we need to insist that Rule No. 1 is this: Tell the truth.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Oklahoma City, Okla. (The Oklahoman, oklahoman.com)
Ithaca, N.Y. (Ithaca Journal, ithacajournal.com)
Madison, Wise. (Green Bay Press-Gazette, greenbaypressgazette.com)
Salem, Ore. (Salem Statesman Journal, statesmanjournal.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Bill to ban hitting disabled children fails in legislature
Legislation to ban schools from physically striking disabled children failed to advance in the Oklahoma state legislature after a legislator noted a verse in the Book of Proverbs that he said condoned corporal punishment. According to reporting by The Oklahoman’s Dale Denwalt, the bill’s sponsor said that legislators who opposed the bill “thought they were voting against the Bible.” Oklahoma law doesn’t bar the use of corporal punishment on every child in public schools, but allows it on children with disabilities only if parents give advance consent. The effort to ban spanking, paddling or slapping disabled children didn’t get enough support, however, despite research by the American Academy of Pediatrics showing that children who experience physical punishment are at increased risk for negative behavior and poor cognitive psychosocial and emotional outcomes. “I have a greater authority,” one opponent said. "God is a greater expert than all of the self-professed experts." He cited Proverbs 13:24, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.” A Bible authority told The Oklahoman that Scripture shouldn’t be viewed that way, especially since Proverbs is more a collection of sayings than a list of commandments.
Animal tranquilizer, resistant to Narcan, found in street drugs
An increasing share of overdoses in Central New York counties are a result of mixing a powerful animal tranquilizer with street drugs, the Ithaca Journal’s Kate Collins reports — and, tragically, the drug doesn’t respond to naloxone (Narcan), which is saving the lives of so many overdose victims. Xylazine is not authorized for human use and requires veterinary prescription for animals, but it is readily available by direct order from China, the Journal notes. On the street, it is known most often as “tranq,” and it is often cut into heroin or fentanyl.
Tribal leader calls for environmental protection, ban on mascots
Each year, a representative of indigenous communities in Wisconsin addresses the state legislature. This year, reports Frank Vaisvilas in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the honor went to Sokaogon Chippewa Community Chairman Robert Van Zile, who called for giving nurse practitioners more authority, enhancing environmental protection and banning race-based mascots in school names, among other points. “We continue to be presented with a false choice,” Van Zile said. “We do not need to choose between economic prosperity and breathing clean air.”
Imperiled starfish needs federal protection
The Sunflower Sea Star can grow to three feet across and have up to 20 arms. It was once prolific on the Pacific coast and is essential to the balance of the nearshore ecosystem, reports Zach Urness in the Salem Statesman Journal, but warming waters caused by climate change have decimated the population. Now federal officials are proposing to provide some protection by listing it as a threatened species. Without sea stars, sea urchin numbers have exploded and wrought significant damage on kelp forests, which are critical habitat for a wide variety of species including invertebrates, fish, whales and birds, the newspaper noted.
THE UPSTATE AMERICAN is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
DOWNLOAD OR LISTEN NOW: MORE THOUGHTS FROM REX
IF YOU’RE A READER who wants to hear more of Rex Smith’s views, check www.wamc.org for his weekly on-air commentary aired by Northeast Public Radio. Here’s a link to the latest essay. And if your interest is specific to American media, you can download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute nationally-syndicated discussion that Rex leads each week on current issues in journalism.
Targeting people by clothing and facepaint
Let’s be ticked off today at Tennessee, because it has become the latest state to join the Republican war against LGBTQ people. Tennessee has just enacted restrictions on drag performances, supposedly aiming to protect minors from “male or female impersonators.”
It’s unclear to me how children are imperiled by watching somebody dance in a showy costume. Never mind that of the 38 surviving plays attributed to Shakespeare, about one-fifth involve cross-dressing — meaning that children in Tennessee can’t legally attend Twelfth Night or Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Taming of the Shrew. What’s more troubling than barring children from such classics is that legislators backed a law that is clearly a violation of the First Amendment.
To explain: The Supreme Court has held that it’s unconstitutional to regulate “expressive conduct” since that is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. A dance by someone in a flimsy costume is a perfect example of the sort of expression that is protected. And it can’t be considered constitutional to bar someone from watching that dance if it’s done by a male but allow the viewing if it’s done by a female. That’s what the Tennessee statute actually tries to do. The law will surely be challenged in court, and it will fall.
Of course Tennessee legislators were advised of this constitutional impediment before they passed the bill. Anybody who has attended law school — which surely includes lots of Tennessee legislators, not to mention their counsels — understands the concept of “expressive conduct,” since it is settled law. That means legislators went ahead with passing the law because they were more intent on making a statement than actually making useful law.
There’s a lot of such hypocrisy going around, and I’d say that children are likely more damaged by witnessing cynical political posturing than gender fluid performances. Teaching kids to hate someone based on rigid gender stereotypes can’t possibly represent the values that honorable citizens want to embrace.
American politicians ought to be discussing how to make the economy serve us all more fairly, what role America should be playing in the world and how we can begin to turn the tide on the awful climate disaster that is bearing down upon us. Too many of them, however, are engaged in nasty efforts to belittle and ostracize our fellow citizens — including many innocent children. Quite a few of those people do it in the name of God. It’s denigrating to religion and to politics alike, and it’s terribly damaging to children. It’s behavior that warrants shame and ignominy.
Thank you for reading, and for joining me in looking at *our common ground, this America. If you’re a paid subscriber, special thanks to you — and in the middle of next week, you’ll get The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, exploring the creation of the essay above. If you’d like to join the ranks of the paid subscribers and get our second weekly newsletter — along with access to our archives and the chance to be part of the commenting community — click this button:
And if you’d like to learn how to write op-eds and opinion essays, please join our class offered monthly through The Memoir Project, by clicking the link on this button: