How bad-news bias hurt COVID-19 perceptions

If you’re a fan of sharing the latest grim news on COVID-19, please give this Atlantic article a read.

“What’s the harm in sharing such stories?” you may ask. “You can’t be too careful.”

Sure, but …

“I guess you don’t care about all the people who died,” you may say, right before I unfriend you on Facebook.

Going back to the question — the actual harm is as follows:

  1. Anti-vaxxers are pouncing on every over-amplified misstep in vaccine development.
  2. We’re so busy shaming people who aren’t wearing masks outside that we end up sending them inside, where the probability of spreading goes from “tiny” to “substantial.”
  3. Socializing is good for you.
  4. We need clear, accurate information. It’s worth noting that academics aren’t good at presenting such things to the public, and WHO botched the early messaging.

Speaking of academia, a paper from Dartmouth and Brown researchers ponders the significance of all the negativity in our media — most prominently in the USA.

And that’s not surprising. It bleeds, it leads. And that slogan existed before we had a 24/7 news cycle in which TV news (upcoming rant — who the hell watches this stuff and why?) is trying to scare you away from changing the channel.

These links are from the NYT’s “The Morning” newsletter, which I wish I could find and share. I can share this excerpt:

In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it. Sometimes, though, our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story.

This isn’t a new concept in journalism. One of my grad school textbooks was called Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good, and it distinguished between healthy skepticism (“I’m going to check this out”) and unhealthy cynicism (“You’re wrong. You suck. Shut up.”)

Put another way — I’m fond of saying that people often confuse cynicism with intelligence. Cynicism and pessimism go hand in hand.

I may sometimes put too much of a rosy gloss on things. But hope is important. Solutions are important. And so is accurate information, even when it’s cheerful.


The worst of 2020

A quick check of my Trump-related bookmarks as we prepared to kick 2020 to the curb.

Trump pardoned former congressmen convicted of federal crimes – The Washington Post

Drain the swamp!

All the people Trump has pardoned since the election – The Washington Post

They’re not all terrible. Some are actually pretty good. Some are ridiculous.

Is Trump Trying to Stage a Coup? – The Atlantic

Our system is broken, and someone might be better at taking advantage of it.

Trump Is Losing His Mind – The Atlantic

“This is where Trump’s crippling psychological condition—his complete inability to face unpleasant facts, his toxic narcissism, and his utter lack of empathy—became lethal.”

Opinion | The moral hypocrisy of conservative leaders is stunning – The Washington Post

“Explanation No. 2: Maybe these conservative leaders were always committed to the triumph of their views, but not to the values of democracy. Perhaps their main concern was the achievement of certain outcomes — the appointment of conservative judges, restrictions on abortion — and not the application of democratic procedures. If a democratic leader achieves their moral goals, that is fine with them. If it takes a soft authoritarian, that is fine as well.”

Opinion | When it comes to prosecuting Trump, let’s be selective – The Washington Post

Several good points — in some cases, just review and change the law so future presidents can’t get away with this.

Advisers urge Trump to prepare for defeat ? but maybe without a concession speech – The Washington Post

Part George III, part toddler

How ‘America First’ Became America Alone – The Atlantic

A nuanced take, showing Trump with a few laudable interests like nuclear disarmament but the lack of attention to the details that would be needed to make it happen. And he blundered by withdrawing from important agreements that gave us soft power vs. China. (No mention of Kurds here.)

Coronavirus has slammed the door shut on highly skilled work visas – Axios

Which may force companies to go overseas.

Presidents are expected to set the national tone. What we got with Trump has been catastrophic. – The Washington Post

“There was a time, during the election year of 2016, when it was still possible — barely — to suppose that actual possession of the presidency, and its awesome responsibility, might temper Mr. Trump. That is obviously false now. “

Another Prominent Christian Musician Walks Away from the Faith | by Dan Foster | Backyard Church | Medium

“My observation is that Steingard was never given permission to entertain the idea that his faith need not be dependent on holding to a literal view of Scripture. “

Former top Trump officials are betting he’ll lose – POLITICO

“Anybody who has an IQ of over 100 and has worked for Donald Trump, with the exception of Steve Bannon, is not voting for him.””

Republican convention delivers whirlwind of lies great and small | Republican national convention 2020 | The Guardian

“Even having to point that out somehow plays into the liars’ hands, like agreeing to a debate with a creationist or a flat-earther. Such is the current landscape of partisan cable news and wild west social media.”

‘He’s Destroyed Conservatism’: The Republican Case Against Trump’s GOP – POLITICO

“You know, it really struck me when I read the memoir by [the late German Chancellor] Franz von Papen, it’s exactly the same message you hear today. In 1953, he was still trying to justify Hitler: “You have to understand, the Bolsheviks were a threat, we had to counter them.” Of all the books I read to write my book, the Franz von Papen thing haunts me the most. It’s not to say that what happened in Germany is going to happen here. But the idea that you can’t talk about that—well, I think you have to talk about that. The parallel is so striking.”

Michelle Obama makes a moral case against Donald Trump – CNNPolitics

“America’s children, she said, “see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op. Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation — a nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.””

Coronavirus: How Trump killed tens of thousands of Americans.

“It’s hard to believe a president could be this callous and corrupt. It’s hard to believe one person could get so many things wrong or do so much damage. But that’s what happened. Trump knew we weren’t ready for a pandemic, but he didn’t prepare. He knew China was hiding the extent of the crisis, but he joined in the cover-up. He knew the virus was spreading in the United States, but he said it was vanishing. He knew we wouldn’t find it without more tests, but he said we didn’t need them. He delayed mitigation. He derided masks. He tried to silence anyone who told the truth. And in the face of multiple warnings, he pushed the country back open, reigniting the spread of the disease.”

This is one of the most unpatriotic moments in Trump’s presidency

CNN on disastrous Axios interview: He simply refuses to listen to intelligence — on Russian bounties, on COVID-19, on anything.

Poverty Grew in One-Third of Counties Despite Strong National Economy | The Pew Charitable Trusts

“Most of the biggest increases were in areas both rural and Southern. Those areas generally had residents who lacked job training and skills and industries that suffered downturns.”

Judge finalizes $25 million settlement in Trump’s fraud case | MSNBC

“The circumstances are nothing short of bizarre: a sitting president of the United States has written a check for $25 million to a group of Americans who credibly claimed that he ripped them off by perpetrating a fraud.”

Opinion | The Cult of Selfishness Is Killing America – The New York Times

“You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximization by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.

Support for this proposition is, if anything, more emotional than intellectual. I’ve long been struck by the intensity of right-wing anger against relatively trivial regulations, like bans on phosphates in detergent and efficiency standards for light bulbs. It’s the principle of the thing: Many on the right are enraged at any suggestion that their actions should take other people’s welfare into account.”

Mark Milley’s apology is a major escalation in civil-military tensions under Trump.

“Rather than delivering it remotely, as various leaders have done for other military academies, Trump—against the wishes of West Point’s leaders—demanded that the Army cadets return to campus, isolate themselves for two weeks, and then, during the ceremony itself, sit in tight formation, ignoring CDC guidelines on social distancing.”

Opinion | Donald Trump Is Our National Catastrophe – The New York Times

“Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.”

The Coronavirus Revealed America’s Failures – The Atlantic

Strongest part here is the look at our three major 21st century crises. The first two had at least some semblance of bipartisan response. This one does not.

“Under our current leadership, nothing will change. If 9/11 and 2008 wore out trust in the old political establishment, 2020 should kill off the idea that anti-politics is our salvation.”

He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus – The New York Times

“Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives”

Trump’s narcissism has taken a new twist. And now he has American blood on his hands | Jonathan Freedland | Opinion | The Guardian

“An imbecile at the head of the US government would always be a problem. But an imbecile so narcissistic that he elevates his own stunted knowledge above the judgment of medicine and science is a calamity.”

Opinion | Trump to New York: Drop Dead – The New York Times

“The rest of the country may regard New York as a black hole of need. But in fact the opposite has always been true; we’re forever sweeping more into the federal till than we receive in services. In 2018, according to the state comptroller’s office, we gave $26.6 billion more to Washington than we got back, ranking us dead last for federal benefits.”

Elections have consequences. The coronavirus reaction shows we’re now living with them. – The Washington Post

“What is happening now is the inevitable result of a party that embraced fear, weaponized xenophobia and regarded facts as dangerous, left-wing landmines that must be avoided.”

Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person – Equality Includes You – Medium

“The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others.”

‘Christian left’ is reviving in America, appalled by treatment of migrants

Yes, Bush and Obama deported people. They didn’t veer into abject cruelty and scapegoating.

For the first time in history, U.S. billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class – The Washington Post

Sure, we have a great economy. We’ve had it for a while, actually. So what are we getting from it? When you have a big windfall, what do you do? If you have credit-card debt, do you pay it off, or do you incur more? Do you buy a new car while ignoring the hole in your roof?

Full text: Mitt Romney’s remarks on impeachment vote – POLITICO

“The President asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival.

The President withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so.

The President delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders.

The President’s purpose was personal and political.

Accordingly, the President is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.”

Trump Tied Ukraine Aid to Inquiries He Sought, Bolton Book Says – The New York Times

“In recent days, some White House officials have described Mr. Bolton as a disgruntled former employee, and have said he took notes that he should have left behind when he departed the administration.”

Impeachment trial: John Barrasso downplays new evidence of Trump’s misconduct – Vox

“You can’t present new evidence.”

Followed by “See, there’s no new evidence!” or “New evidence doesn’t matter.”

Trump Impeachment: Senate Acquittal Will Mean No Appetite for Truth | National Review

“Desperate Republicans have offered strained arguments. They say, with straight faces, that this shakedown was part of Trump’s overall anti-corruption campaign. Really? Like his efforts with Turkey, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Russia? And if Trump were truly concerned about corruption in Ukraine, why did he show no interest in the matter before 2019? Why did his own ambassador to the European Union say, “Trump doesn’t give a s*** about Ukraine. He cares only about the big stuff like the Biden investigation.”?”

Trump administration could roll climate change assessment guidelines back for infrastructure projects

“The proposal to eliminate parts of the NEPA should not simply be viewed as anti-environment or anti-climate change — it should be viewed as anti-conservative. By rolling back essential parts of the law that provide voice to otherwise underserved and underheard communities, the Trump administration would reveal who it truly works for: not the forgotten man and woman, who would once again be silenced without the NEPA available to provide voice against potentially invasive and harmful projects, but rather the fossil fuel industry that is more concerned with making a profit than protecting communities and ecosystems.”

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like 2003 – The Atlantic

Phony terrorism claim, check.

“Greeted as liberators,” check. (Note Iraqi parliament vote)

Republicans know that Americans don’t support their anti-abortion extremism | Danielle Campoamor | Opinion | The Guardian

“In 2019, public support for abortion rights is the highest it has been in 20 years of polling, according to the Pew Research Center. A reported 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and only 12% of the public want to see abortion made illegal. A third of Republicans support abortion rights, according to a 2017 Pew Research poll, and in states where lawmakers have attempted to ban abortion entirely, most voters do not support it.”


Rules for Scooby-Doo

Written in 2008 and never published for some reason …

Scooby-Doo producers stay busy.

But they’re often forgetting two important rules:

1. No romance. The Scooby-Doo Mystery Inc. series is horrendous. It lacks the whimsy of the terrific What’s New, Scooby-Doo? series from the mid-2000s and the films of the same era. The animation is full of shadows, aiming for a “darker” feel but really making the show a chore to watch. 

But the worst aspect of Mystery Inc.: It’s a soap opera. Velma loves Shaggy, who isn’t all that interested. Scooby gets jealous and doesn’t like Velma any more. Velma backs off. Shaggy starts to miss the attention. Something is up with Fred and Daphne. Sue Ellen isn’t welcome at Southfork Ranch because J.R. is trying to protect Ewing Oil from Cliff Barnes. 

Did anyone need to see all that?

2. No actual supernatural stuff. The traditional Scooby-Doo reveal: The “monster” is unmasked as Prof. Sniffington or some other ancillary character. Velma finally shares all the information she’s been hoarding for the whole episode to explain how the whole thing was done with elaborate costumes, electronics and so forth. Sometimes, it’s ridiculous — Scooby-Doo in Where’s My Mummy? includes Velma’s implausible explanation that she created a swarm of locusts to do her bidding because she learned to breed them in science class. But that’s part of the charm. Actual zombies? Not so much.

3. Jokes and music? Good. Where’s My Mummy? and some of the other direct-to-video films in heavy rotation on Cartoon Network have preposterous plots. But they’re funny, and they usually have good pop/rock tunes. Some of the newer films keep the jokes but borrow their music from scarier films.

Scooby-Doo is supposed to be escapist fun. Not &*^*&#$ing Twilight.


Sportswriting is dead. Long live … ?

The Internet is changing sports journalism.

No kidding.

Television changed sports journalism. A good bit more than the Internet, actually.

In 1955, the newspaper was the way most people found out what happened with their favorite teams. TV sports were not yet ubiquitous. If you weren’t listening on the radio, the newspaper’s game story (and the box score, in much simpler form than you see today) was the only way to know what happened.

“Gamers” are still being written, and enterprising writer Arik Parnass did a semi-sociological piece on the reporters who are still doing them at a Washington Capitals game. (We’ll miss you, Braden Holtby.) Though deadlines can be a constraint, there’s a certain beauty to the art form of writing a game story as the game happens, tearing up your lead as the situation warrants, then racing to plug in quotes.

But anyone who needs a straight “gamer” can get it from the league’s sites, which have turned into some of the more reliable employers of sportswriters who don’t mind straddling the fence between covering and working for, even indirectly, the same league. The Washington Post still runs game stories, but they’re not as important as everything else a beat writer produces.

Today, if you’re good at play-by-play game stories, your two best options are:

  1. Something off the beaten track, maybe in Olympic sports. Even then, it’s tough to grab attention to something that isn’t already on TV.
  2. High school sports.

Aspiring sportswriters really should get out and cover high schools at some point. When you don’t have a squadron of PR personnel handing over stats and notes, you’re forced to pay attention on a deeper level. You also get the added sense of responsibility of writing within a community. Not people who might drag you on Twitter. People who might bump into you at the gym.

Good luck asking the aspiring sportswriters of today to go out and cover high schools. But it’s not all their fault. Local newspapers are operating with skeleton crews. The pipeline from local papers to mid-sized papers to big news organizations is all but dead, with national organizations scouring … the ranks of the kids who can afford to work in free internships over the summers.

So remind me to start an Olympic sports site and hire people from local papers who can write game stories, even if they’re making a hard turn from high school football to Olympic biathlon. (World Cup season has started!)

But in reality, the ship has sailed, and to the dismay of Flat Earthers, it’s gone over the horizon.

This piece at Axios traces the changes pretty well — sportswriters have needed to adapt by giving less play-by-play and more analysis. That transition has happened gradually as each new disruption in media takes its toll. And it’s accelerating with COVID keeping us all at home.

Parnass’ piece opens with Michael Wilbon complaining about people in their parents’ basements who aren’t there in the locker room. That’s a bit rich — it’s not as if Wilbon and the other daytime pundits are out getting personal observations on every event on which they pontificate.

And access to the inner sanctum of a locker room is a hot issue. As far as I know, that’s unique to the United States. If you cover the Olympics, you chat with athletes as they stroll through the mixed zone — after they’ve already answered questions from all the broadcasters.

In MMA, the people who can’t / don’t get credentials tend to view themselves as purer than those of us who were “in.” Part of it is that the UFC’s Dana White has a longstanding tendency of booting reporters he doesn’t like. Part of it is a misunderstanding of what “access” is like, as if we’re all buddies or something.

It’s not either/or, anyway. Readers benefit from both perspectives. If you’re covering the UFC, you have a better view at home anyway — camera crews block the view from press row.

But it’s a moot point now. Thanks to COVID, we’re all in our basements. And the view isn’t bad.


Olive branches for many, but justice for all

At my new Gen X blog, X-temporaneous, I’ve issued a sincere invitation for Trump voters to explain their decision.

I want to know in particular why people of color voted for someone who has stoked racial tension and ramped up cruelty at the border, but I also want to know why a lot of people are so skeptical of Joe Biden that they overlooked Donald Trump’s many faults, especially the willful ignorance and lack of empathy that led us to botch our COVID-19 response, to cast their ballots for him.

But let’s be absolutely clear:

  • I have no interest in hearing from people who are OK with racism.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who think Q-Anon and Tucker Carlson have some access to facts that the mainstream media do not.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who make excuses for separating families — possibly forever — at the border while snorting about how they should simply apply for “legal immigration” in a system that’s broken.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who thinking wearing a mask is an act of cowardice rather than an act of responsibility for our fellow human beings.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who deny science in other forms as well, especially but not limited to climate change.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who think it’s OK for parents to have to explain to their kids why sexual assault, lying and bullying are bad for them but somehow acceptable for a president.
  • I have no interest in hearing from Cuban-Americans in Florida who think a slight increase in taxes on the ultrarich, still nowhere near where that tax rate was under Democrats and old-school Republicans, is more of a slippery slope toward Castro’s realm than the emerge of an outright authoritarianism. A safety net would turn us into Western Europe. Not modern-day Cuba.
  • I have no interest in hearing from people who think God wants a president who pays lip service to stopping abortion and behaves as far from Christian teaching as anyone possibly can.

I want to see some people in prison. I want to see some people live the rest of their lives in disgrace unless they make dramatic acts of repentance and atonement.

I think a lot of people have been hoodwinked by false information in today’s dizzying media whirlwind. I think some people heard “Defund the Police” and took it literally. I think some people have legitimate complaints that their concerns haven’t been heard by a lot of liberals and progressives who have stereotypes of Middle America, not realizing that their hard work fuels our farms and factories.

But the converse is true. I think a lot of people have stereotypes of Coastal America, not realizing that their diverse work subsidizes much of the rest of the country and that their political beliefs are grounded in a sense of empathy and responsibility for the rest of humanity. When the world celebrates like all the planets in the galaxy in Return of the Jedi, it’s worth trying to figure out why.

And I think some people are consumed by their prejudices, using them as a crutch to avoid worrying about other people and acting for the general welfare.

So if you’re concerned about your future or have some concern that hasn’t occurred to me, I want to hear from you.

If you have no desire to join us in building a more rational and compassionate country, then piss off.


If you’re not yet convinced to vote for Biden …

It’s difficult to describe what’s good about Joe Biden without describing what’s awful about Donald Trump.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Biden will respect expertise and surround himself with competent people. That means respecting science on the new challenge of COVID-19 and the old challenge of climate change.

Biden will listen to other points of view, starting with his vice president. He has already worked with Bernie Sanders on a “unity” platform. The more Democrats that are elected to Congress, the more of a chance these things have of becoming reality.

Biden is also less prone to spouting utter bullshit than Donald Trump, who has created a whole industry of people working feverishly to document his lies (20,000 through July, The Washington Post reports), some of them so outrageous that you wonder how anyone could possibly take him seriously.

These things should be obvious, of course. But frankly, they weren’t necessarily true of other Democratic candidates.

And they’re certainly not true of the most malignant man to live in the White House, at least since before the Civil War.

If you’re unconvinced of this, consider the following arguments and the links I’ve compiled to support each one …

Cruelty: In the Trump cult, empathy is a bad thing.

Immigration: Always a net positive for the USA but a scapegoat and a racist dog whistle for Trump.

Environment: Even aside from climate change, what Trump has done has been horrific.

Guns: Not something really addressed in the past four years, for better in some respects but mostly for worse.

Foreign policy: There’s hardly an ally Trump hasn’t alienated. Well, maybe Saudi Arabia.

Economics: Trump has taken credit for growth he did nothing to engender, and his tax cuts just racked up national debt while adding to the nation’s inequality.

Corruption: If Congress had any sense of duty or morality, we’d be voting out President Pence right now. Maybe even President Pelosi.

Authoritarianism: The scariest aspect of Trump and his cult is that they will change the very fabric of the U.S. government for their cruel intentions.

We have many issues to address and many viewpoints to consider. With any luck, the next four years will be a productive discussion between progressives and centrists, with the incompetent and heartless people who’ve been in power for four years pushed off to the sideline. I look forward to finding common ground and solutions.

But Job #1 needs to be done by Nov. 3.

If you don’t do it, frankly, you’ve failed your fellow human being and will have to live with it the rest of your life.

This is our Normandy. This is our Gettysburg. And we don’t have to charge toward machine-gun nests on a beach or across a bloody battlefield to rise to the challenge.

You just have to vote.

If you’re not inclined to wait in a socially distanced line on Nov. 3, look up your state’s voting policies.

Then make sure your vote has been counted. Most election boards have websites on which you can check the status of your ballot.

Then we can breath a sign of relief Nov. 4 or 5 or whenever the count is finished.

Then we can get to work to make sure this country never again turns upon its own people.