Modern journalism is reliant on the idea of objectivity. Even when truth is elusive, if journalists write a balanced story, they can be said to have done a good job.

But what if a story doesn’t have two sides? Sometimes journalists continue to write as if they do, as they did in regards to human caused climate change for a decade. Other times they do so wholly disingenuously, counterposing authoritative voices against ones they know carry no weight with their audience, as they did and still do with coverage of female genital cutting. At still other times, they abandon objectivity altogether, counting on a national consensus so strong that no one could possibly accuse them of being biased, as many did after 9/11.

I think this is the source of some of the discomfort with the media coverage of this election.

What does a journalist do when the editorial board of the Washington Post calls one candidate a “unique threat to American democracy”; the New York Timescalls him a “poisonous messenger” appealing to “people’s worst instincts”; the Houston Chronicle’s calls him “dangerous to the nation and the world,” a man that should “make every American shudder”; and the far-right National Review’s calls him a “menace”? What does a journalist do when conservative newspapers like the Dallas Morning News call him “horrify[ing]” and endorse a Democrat for president for the first time in almost 100 years? Is this still the right time to be objective? Is this a 9/11 moment?

I suspect that journalists themselves do not know what to do, and so we are seeing all of the strategies playing out. Some are trying hard to hew to the traditional version of balance, but covering asymmetrical candidates symmetrically makes for some odd outcomes, hence accusations of false equivalence and misinforming the public. Some are counting on a consensus, at least on some issues, assuming that things like constitutional rights and anti-bigotry are widespread enough values that they can criticize Trump on these issues without seeming partisan, but it doesn’t always work. Still others are aiming down the middle, offering an imbalanced balance, as when journalists reference the support of David Duke and other white supremacists as their own kind of dog-whistle politics.

Meanwhile, readers each have our own ideas about whether this election deserves “balanced” coverage and what that might look like. And so do, of course, the thousands of pundits, none of whom are accountable to journalistic norms, and the millions of us on social media, sharing our own points of view.

It’s no wonder the election is giving us vertigo. It is itself out of balance, making it impossible for the country to agree on what objectivity looks like. Even the journalists, who are better at it than anyone, are failing. The election has revealed what is always true: that objectivity is a precarious performance, more an art than a science, and one that gains validity only in relation to the socially constructed realities in which we live.

It’s just that our socially constructed reality is suddenly in shambles. Post-truth politics doesn’t give us a leg to stand on, none of us can get a foothold anymore. Internet-era economic realities have replaced the news anchor with free-floating infotainment. Political polarization has ripped the country apart and the edifices we’ve clung to for stability—like the Republican Party—are suddenly themselves on shaky ground. The rise of Trump has made all of this dizzyingly clear.

We’re hanging on for dear life. I fear that journalists can do little to help us now.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

How are media sources from opposing sides of the political spectrum covering the election? Most of us have no idea. We live in a media “bubble,” one in which we usually only consume “friendly” material: news and opinion from outlets and commentators who share our lean.

At Facebook, employees followed a sample of 10.1 million users who publicly identified their political leanings. They then looked at the forces that created the bubble: (1) “ideological homophily,” the degree to which friends shared the same leanings; (2) Facebook’s algorithm, feeding you things it thinks you want to see; (3) and click-through behavior, which links were ignored and which attracted interaction.

They concluded that “individuals’ choices played a stronger role in limiting exposure” to politically diverse content than did their algorithm. (You can get the data yourself here.)

At the Wall Street Journal, you can take a look at these different media bubbles side-by-side. They frame the data as what you might see in your Facebook feed if most of your friends identify as “very liberal” or “very conservative.” More broadly, what the data represents is the use of Facebook data as an insight into the bigger media bubbles we all live in both on- and off-line.

Here’s the first four results for posts about “Barack Obama”:

1

On the left you have a critical article about Obama’s light treatment of private prison corporations, but also a headline calling Donald Trump a “douchebag.” On the right you have a link to a video “banned by Obama himself” which purports to out him as an Islamist and a communist and a headline that says that Obama “gave into Sharia law.”

Liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning headlines and updates related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton read like this:

Liberal: “Clinton surges past 270 electoral votes…”

Conservative: “After Leading by 18 Points — Hillary’s Lead Over Trump Shrinks to Margin-of-Error”

Liberal: “Reagan’s Son Says His Dad Would be ‘Humiliated’ by Trump”

Conservative: “FBI Caves: Will Hand Over Notes from Clinton Interview”

Liberal: “Fox News is the Origin Story of Trump’s Bigotry”

Conservative:”Hillary Mobilizes Illegal Army”

Liberal: “Brian Stelter Blasts Sean Hannity for Spreading Conspiracy Theories Regarding Clinton’s Health”

Conservative: “Trump Releases Bombshell Report Linking Obama and Hillary to Rise of ISIS”

You get the picture.

It’s interesting that the narrative of America being a united country is so widely promulgated by both liberal and conservative sides alike. If the politicians really want us to come together (and I doubt they do), the media isn’t helping. Granted, these are the extremes, but the sources on the side I oppose look like delusional conspiracy hubs to me, whereas I recognize many of the outlets on the side to which I lean. To me, those are “good” news sources, ones I count on. Presumably someone on the other side would feel the same about theirs and be equally horrified about mine.

The stories these different sources tell are not compatible. The “very liberal” and “very conservative” side are two wholly different worlds. It’s no wonder each side has such a difficult time understanding the other. I fear what it means about the future of our democracy.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Signaling white supremacy.

On the heels of the Republican national convention, the notorious KKK leader David Duke announced his campaign for the Louisiana Senate. On his social media pages, he released a campaign poster featuring a young white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a gray tank top decorated with American flag imagery. She is beautiful and young, exuding innocence. Atop the image the text reads “fight for Western civilization” and included David Duke’s website and logo. It does not appear that she consented to being on the poster.

When I came upon the image, I was immediately reminded of pro-Nazi propaganda that I had seen in a museum in Germany, especially those depicting “Hitler youth.” Many of those posters featured fresh white faces, looking healthy and clean, in stark contrast to the distorted, darkened, bloated, and snarling faces of the targets of the Nazi regime.

7

8

It’s different era, but the implied message of Duke’s poster is the same — the nationalist message alongside the idealized figure — so it wasn’t difficult to find a Nazi propaganda poster that drew the comparison. I tweeted it out like this:

Given that David Duke is an avowed racist running on a platform to save “Western” civilization, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch.

Provoking racist backlash.

I hashtagged it with #davidduke and #americafirst, so I can’t say I didn’t invite it, but the backlash was greater than any I have ever received. The day after the tweet, I easily got one tweet per minute, on average.

What I found fascinating was the range of responses. I was told I looked just like her — beautiful, blue-eyed, and white — was asked if I hated myself, accused of being a race traitor, and invited to join the movement against “white genocide.” I was also told that I was just jealous: comparatively hideous thanks to my age and weight. Trolls took shots at sociology, intellectuals, and my own intelligence. I was asked if I was Jewish, accused of being so, and told to put my head in an oven. I was sent false statistics about black crime. I was also, oddly, accused of being a Nazi myself. Others, like Kate Harding, Philip Cohen, and even Leslie Jones, were roped in.

Here is a sampling (super trigger warning for all kinds of hatefulness):

1011 12 13 14

It’s not news that twitter is full of trolls. It’s not news that there are proud white supremacists and neo-nazis in America. It’s not news that women online get told they’re ugly or fat on the reg. It’s not news that I’m a (proud) cat lady either, for what it’s worth. But I think transparency is our best bet to get people to acknowledge the ongoing racism, antisemitism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism in our society. So, there you have it.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In his speech last week accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):

…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable.  Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?

But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:

  • Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  • Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
  • Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:

  • A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:

To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.

  • Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.

When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.

.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

One word in the headlines last week seemed like a throwback to an earlier era:

As Trump moves to soften his image, Democrats seek to harden it

The Washington Post

Donald Trump to reshape image, new campaign chief tells G.O.P.

The New York Times

Trump surrogates say GOP front-runner “projecting an image” during primaries

— Fox News

It was in the 1960s that politicians, their handlers, and the people who write about them discovered image. The word carries the cynical implication that voters, like shoppers, respond to the surface image rather than the substance – the picture on the box rather than what’s inside.  A presidential campaign was based on the same thing as an advertising campaign – image.  You sold a candidate the same way you sold cigarettes, at least according to the title and book jacket of Joe McGinnis’s book.

Then, sometime around 1980, image began to fade. In its place we now have brand. I went to Google N-grams and looked at the ratio of image to brand in both the corporate and the political realm. The pattern is nearly identical.


The ratio rises steeply from 1960 to 1980 – lots more talk about image, no increase in brand. Then the trend reverses. Sightings of image were still rising, but nowhere nearly as rapidly as brand, which doubled from 1980 to 2000 in politics and quadrupled in the corporate world.

Image sounds too deceptive and manipulative; you can change it quickly according to the needs of the moment. Brand implies permanence and substance (not to mention Marlboro-man-like rugged independence and integrity.) No wonder people in the biz prefer brand.

Decades ago, when my son was in grade school, I met another parent who worked in the general area of public relations. On seeing him at the next school function a few weeks later, I said, “Oh right, you work in corporate image-mongering.” I thought I said it jokingly, but he seemed offended. He was, I quickly learned, a brand consultant. Image bad; brand good.

In later communications, he also said that a company’s attempt to brand itself as something it’s not will inevitably fail.  The same thing supposedly goes for politics:

“One thing you learn very quickly in political consulting is the fruitlessness of trying to get a candidate to change who he or she fundamentally is at their core,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who did polling for Rubio’s presidential campaign before he dropped out of the race. “So, is the snide, insulting, misogynistic guy we’ve seen really who Donald Trump is? Or is it the disciplined, respectful, unifying Trump we saw for seven minutes after the New York primary?

These consultants are saying what another Republican said a century and a half ago: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

This seems to argue that political image-mongers have to be honest about who their candidate really is. But there’s another way of reading Lincoln’s famous line: You only need to fool half the people every four years.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

———————

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

Chicago Tribune: A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.”

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

MPR News: At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual.

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:2 (1)The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog; re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

In this Farm Bureau Insurance ad, a father and son paint a room pink and commiserate about how their lives will be ruined by the arrival of a baby girl.

1. Essentialize gender. A girl is coming? That means playing with dolls and having tea parties. Girls are girls. Us, we’re boys, so automatically we…

2. …belittle femininity. The stuff girls do is boring and trivial. Only girls would want to do those things. Girls are such a drag!

In short, all girls are girly and girly stuff is dumb.

I didn’t find it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made the opposite commercial, too. One in which a mom and her daughter cringe over the idea of having to put up with booger-flinging and farting at the table.

But that would be equally bad. We don’t know a child’s personality just by anticipating the stuff between their legs. And it’s not true that male and female humans are so different as to enjoy entirely non-overlapping sets of things.

In daily life, we recognize each other for the complex and varied people that we are. Think about it. Practically the only place we see stereotypes this retrograde are on TV and in the movies. We’re not “opposite sexes,” but we’re surrounded by the idea that we are.

Thanks to @DustinStoltz anyway!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Yes, but it was a weird thing you see.

The Nazis were waging war and exterminating Jews.  Meanwhile, Christmas was about celebrating peace and the birth of Jesus, a Jew.

Said the Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937:

We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem.  It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.

But Germans were largely Christian, so getting rid of Christmas was going to be tricky.  So Hitler turned it into a celebration of the Third Reich.  According to John Brownlee, they re-wrote Christmas carols to extol the virtues of National Socialism.  Mentions of Jesus were replaced with “Savior Führer.”  Since they well understood that Santa wasn’t white, they re-cast the character; he was played by the pagan god Odin.   And they changed the ornaments and placed swastikas atop Christmas trees.

Hitler ornament and Nazi tree topper:

2

Swastika ornaments:

6

Swastika cookie cutter:

5

The last Nazi Christmas was in 1944.  Post-war Germany quickly “did with Hitler’s Christmas what they did with every other idea the Nazis had come up with: denounced it…”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.