Monday, August 1, 2022


Opinion Shocker: Almost no one trusts TV news

It’s one of the 21st Century’s evergreen stories: Public confidence in the U.S. media has reached a new low! Such was the announcement from Gallup on [July 18}, as the company published results of a June poll on Americans’ views of institutions. A mere 11 percent of U.S. adults have either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news, Gallup found, with the share for newspapers slightly higher, at 16 percent. The Gallup confidence trend line reflects inexorable momentum toward zero.

Only Congress, at 7 percent, secured less confidence than TV news.

The polling indicates that the partisan gap spanning viewers’ confidence in TV news is closing: In 2020, 33 percent of Democrats had “a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in TV news, compared to just 7 percent for Republicans (a 26-point gap); in 2021, it was 26 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of Republicans (a 20-point gap). This year, that gap closed to 12 points, suggesting that dim views of TV news are becoming an across-the-aisle phenomenon, something we can all agree on.

Because the polling doesn’t delve into the reasons behind these trends, the Erik Wemple Blog feels duty-bound to speculate. Here goes: The Gallup confidence numbers reflect, at least in part, the role of major TV news providers in discrediting their competitors. Turn on Fox News in the prime-time hours, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear the latest blasts against MSNBC and CNN. “Fake news CNN” is the term that host Sean Hannity frequently uses to introduce the network so despised by his mentee, Donald Trump. A staple of Fox News programming is a mash-up of voices from CNN, MSNBC and other networks--assembled and packaged for maximum sneering potential. Most of the criticism is baseless tripe hatched to advance Trump or some other Fox News hobbyhorse, though there have been plenty of legitimate reasons to bash MSNBC and CNN over the years.

For their part, CNN and MSNBC do good work in attacking and debunking the lies, distortions and hatred on Fox News. There’s a lot to work with, from the segments that promoted the “big lie” after the 2020 presidential election--which triggered two ongoing lawsuits from two voting-technology companies that were attacked on Fox News without basis, they argue--to the credulous coverage of Trump to the racist rantings of host Tucker Carlson. 

Just to be clear, we’re not alleging equivalence between CNN/MSNBC and Fox News. There is none. Yet the professionalization of the cable wars surely plays a role in the plummeting numbers that Gallup finds. Our line of analysis downplays the role of the legacy broadcast networks and other competitors such as PBS and C-SPAN, but let’s face it: Fox News, CNN and MSNBC play an outsize role in popular conceptions of what TV news has become.

So, do these confidence numbers spell doom for the cable networks?

Nah. Pew Research Center tracks the size of the cable-news audience, and here’s a look at how it trended in the Trump years: Daytime audiences followed a similar trajectory. So while the cable-news audience increased from 2016 to 2020, according to Pew, confidence among American adults in TV news dropped, according to Gallup. Those two phenomena may appear incompatible,but think about it: Viewers of MSNBC/CNN may well have been tuning in to hear more reasons they should lose confidence in Fox News; and viewers of Fox News may well have been tuning into hear more reasons they should lose confidence in MSNBC/CNN.

Now there’s a sustainable business model.

--Erik Wemple, Washington Post media critic 

Has Florida man met his match?  Meet Florida Sheriff

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP)--When a naked man in southwestern Florida recently raised a ruckus outside his house and threatened a deputy with a kitchen knife, the SWAT team swooped in and apprehended him.

Soon afterward, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno stood on the man’s driveway in combat gear for a news conference while the suspect went to the jailhouse that the sheriff likes to call the “Marceno Motel.”

“He’s an oxygen-stealer and a scumbag, and I’m glad he’s outta here,” Marceno told reporters. “I’m proud to say that in this county, if you present deadly physical force . . . we meet you with deadly force every time, and we win. It’s pretty clean, pretty quick.”

The Sunshine State has become internationally notorious for the oddball miscreants who populate its police blotters and local news reports--known collectively as Florida Man. There are murders and mayhem, like anyplace else, and then there are the only-in-Florida incidents like the man charged with assault with a deadly weapon for throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window in Palm Beach County in 2015.

But an equally eccentric cast of hard-boiled sheriffs make a career of going after these guys. Florida Man, meet Florida Sheriff.

All but one of Florida’s 67 counties have an elected sheriff, and they wield enormous influence in part because they’re often the only countywide elected official. They head agencies that typically patrol unincorporated portions of their county but also provide backup to city police departments and sometimes patrol small cities that lack their own force. Many, like Marceno, hold made-for-YouTube news conferences and use TikTok and other social media--frequently going just as viral as the perpetrators.

Take Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson, in Florida’s Panhandle.

During a recent news conference about a burglary, Johnson, elected in 2016, said a homeowner had fired shots but didn’t hit the suspect. Johnson encouraged that homeowner to take a gun safety course offered every other Saturday at the sheriff’s office so he could better take matters into his own hands.

“Learn to shoot a lot better,” Johnson said. “Save the taxpayers’ money.”

On the Atlantic Coast, near Cape Canaveral, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey makes a game of crime--literally. His weekly “Wheel of Fugitive” videos feature the sheriff spinning a wheel with photos of 10 of the county’s most wanted.

“Everybody watches it. Even the fugitives watch it” to see who becomes “fugitive of the week,” Ivey said.

The lucky winner of one recent episode was a 32-year-old white male accused of petty theft and failure to appear. The sheriff, first elected in 2012, looked into the camera as if speaking directly to the man and urged him to surrender: “Stop messing up and stop breaking the law. Get all of it behind you.”

The Twitter account of Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco--who has starred in A&E Network’s “Live PD” show--made a splash with local “Sad Criminal of the Day” posts. His agency also copyrighted the now-viral hashtag, #9pmroutine, a reminder to lock car doors and homes every night.

In January, the department cut off social media comments because the accounts fell victim to their success. With over 300,000 Facebook followers--more than double that of much larger Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in nearby Tampa--Nocco said people were too often reporting crimes online rather than calling 911.

Over in central Florida is, perhaps, the highest-profile enemy of Florida Man (and Florida Woman).

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who constantly targets gangs, drug dealers and prostitution rings in his folksy Southern drawl, has been a frequent hit on TV since he was first elected with no party affiliation in 2005. Judd says of school shooters: “We’re going to shoot you graveyard dead.”

He also has praised homeowners for firing on intruders, including one last December: “He gave him an early Christmas present. Only Santa Claus gets to come in your house,” Judd told a news conference.

Judd often refers to the Polk County Jail as the “Polk Pokey,” and last holiday season, his office sold their version of the popular Elf on the Shelf doll, dubbed Sheriff on a Shelf, and he personally autographed Sheriff Judd bobbleheads.

One of Judd’s latest targets was not exactly the crime of the century. But Judd had plenty to say about a woman accused of assaulting workers at a McDonald’s because her order was wrong.

“She’s a pretty lady. But she was McMad,” Judd said on May 20. “I don’t know if she was two fries short of a Happy Meal, but she created a McMess and acted like a McNut. ... This is Polk County. We don’t put up with that McJunk.”

--Freida Fisaro and Curt Anderson

Blaming social media for academia's ruin misses a larger, darker truth

It is tempting to postulate technological determinism as the answer to this question: Why are extremism, irrationality, fear and censoriousness especially rampant where they should be next to nonexistent? However, to blame social media for the anti-social behaviors that today characterize academia misses a larger, darker truth. 

What is still referred to, reflexively and anachronistically, as higher education is supposedly run by and for persons who are products of, and devoted to, learning. Today, this supposition is false. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the reading of which is in equal measures fascinating and depressing, recently published Joseph M. Keegin’s bracing essay “The Hysterical Style in the American Humanities: On the ideological posturing and moral nitpicking of the very online.” 

Keegin, a philosophy student at Tulane University, argues that, confronted with “the slow slide of academe into oblivion,” scholars — especially in humanities departments, which are losing undergraduates, prestige, jobs and funding — “desperately grasp for relevance.” They seek it by becoming “professors of ‘academic Twitter.’” They have, Keegin says, “by and large subordinated their work as professional intellectuals and historians to the news cycle, yoking their reputations to the delirious churn of outrage media.” Succumbing to “Twitter-induced presentism,” academics are “captured by” and “shackled to” — Keegin’s terms — social media, and they treat the past as “not of interest either for its own sake or as a means of illuminating the complexity of the present. 

It is, rather, little more than a wellspring of justifications for liking and disliking things in the world today.” Follow George F. Will's opinionsFollow Keegin cites the cultural critic Katherine Dee’s hypothesis: “What motivates someone to spend 10 hours a day on Twitter” resembles “what motivated people to camp out in front of theatres to see the next installment of Star Wars, or dress up in costume for the release of the latest Harry Potter book.” Dee considers this a species of “fandom.” Keegin says, “Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t the fruit of serious reflection and study.” 

It is purely performative, done for the performer’s satisfaction of doing it. Although it is, superficially, all politics all the time, it actually lacks what gives real politics gravity: concern with patiently, incrementally achieved consequences. Extremely online academics embrace a debased intellectual Darwinism: survival of the briefest. So, they lean on status and credentials for authority. They resort, Keegin says, to “prefacing an opinion with ‘as a scholar of’ or ‘as an expert in,’ perhaps putting ‘Dr.’ or ‘PhD’ in one’s Twitter display name.” 

Keegin directs his readers’ attention to something worth watching, Mark Sinnett’s 2022 commencement address at St. John’s College in Annapolis, whose splendidly eccentric curriculum emphasizes the great books, not excluding those by dead Europeans. A retired tutor at the school, a mathematician specializing in quantum mechanics and a Presbyterian minister with a theology doctorate from Cambridge University, Sinnett spoke without a text, as someone with a well-stocked mind can do. On YouTube, you can see him unpack St. Paul’s statement that we are perplexed but not despairing. 

For many Americans today, Sinnett said, perplexity means despair. So, various public personalities’ pronouncements consist of supposedly “determinant, unrevisable knowledge.” Sinnett told the diploma recipients that after you’ve forgotten the details of your studies here, “I hope you’ll always remember how terribly difficult knowledge is, and how rare.” Knowledge “is a very small part of what any of us have at our disposal.” People inundating us with spurious claims of knowledge feel free to condemn to perdition those who doubt their authority. Dogmatism even infects discourse about what is now suddenly termed “the science,” placed beyond debate by the definite article. 

But everyone, scientists included, is perplexed. “Perplexity,” Sinnett said, “is what human existence is.” And every person’s perplexity is unique. Society needs “joyous perplexity” because “we are joined in a great community of perplexity.” 

Sinnett’s deeply civilized call to rejoice in life’s rich diversity of perplexities is discordant with the tenor of dogmatism in academe. There, diversity is praised in the abstract but suppressed in fact.

 In flight from perplexities of their own, and intolerant of those of others, many academics are not “captured by” Twitter; it is their “safe space.” Their febrile shallowness is not “Twitter-induced”; Twitter is a response to it. They are not “shackled to” social media; they cling those platforms as shipwrecked sailors cling to flotsam. Academe is increasingly populated by people who, having neither an inclination nor an aptitude for scholarship, have no business being there.

--George F. Will, Washington Post

10 more David Foster Wallace quotes

1. “It is often more fun to want something than to have it.” 

2. “I’d tell you all you want and more if the sounds I made could be what you hear.” 

3. “That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.” 

4. “Every love story is a ghost story.”  

5. “To be, in a word, unborable… It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” 

6. “If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means, stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” 

7. “It takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.” 

8. “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” 

9. “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” 

10. “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”  

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