MATTHEW SHEFFIELD I had no idea of the corruption, greed and bigotry that I was enabling. I thought that I could change it, but I was wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A former builder of conservative media reflects on the world he left. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The president isn't just trying to steal the election. He's trying to distort our picture of reality by choking off collection of public data.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN It's not as if data collection has been cut down wholesale across the government, its particular kinds of data that are being weeded out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, as the trolls are exiled from the platforms that made them famous, they're fleeing to lesser known apps, but that brings a new set of problems.
CASEY NEWTON I used to think that if we could just move the worst actors on social networks to smaller spaces, we would be OK. But then QAnon happened.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield.
MAYOR MUNCHKIN Hail to Dorothy. The Wicked Witch is dead.
MUNCKINS Hail to Dorothy! The wicked witch is dead [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, that didn't happen. The melting of Donald Trump's presidency did not suddenly break the spell on his bewitched guardsmen, rather the opposite, actually. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to defend Trump's refusal to concede.
MITCH MCCONNELL Let's not have any lectures, no lectures about how the president should immediately cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Perhaps you remember that last election, in which Democrat Clinton, despite a three million popular vote lead, called Trump to concede electoral defeat on election night versus, say, mobilizing the Justice Department to launch investigations amid zero evidence of electoral fraud. Which is what Attorney General Bill Barr did this week against all precedent to keep doubt alive.
NEWS REPORT Barr's action will allow attorneys to work around Justice Department policy that would normally prohibit investigations before the election has been certified. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD For what it's worth, The New York Times contacted every state elections office, Republican, led and Democrat, and came up with no material concerns of voting integrity in any state. Not one. But never mind, that's merely reality. So, the president elect was denied customary daily intelligence briefings and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thought it was hilarious.
REPORTER Is the State Department currently preparing to engage with the Biden transition team? And if not, at what point does a delay hamper a smooth transition or pose a risk to national security?
MIKE POMPEO There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Meanwhile, the Georgia Republican congressional delegation, the entire delegation of elected officials sworn to uphold the Constitution, demanded that Georgia's Republican secretary of state clamp down on fraud. And Georgia's two Republican U.S. senators.
NEWS REPORT Just today, David Perdue and KLFY sent out a joint statement demanding that the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, resign in light of what's happening in the Georgia elections. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It was as shocking as it was utterly unsurprising. Virtually the entire GOP variously acquiescing to or actively propounding the latest Trumpian a big lie. Not about Obama's birthplace this time, not climate denial, not the deep state, but the very foundation of democracy. The vote displeased them, and so it must have been rigged, or so say rabid foxes. Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.
LOU DOBBS The radical Dems are also working with the corporate owned left wing national media, doing their very best to nullify the votes of 71 million Trump voters. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What exactly is happening here? Is it as asserted by David Rohde in The New Yorker and Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, a coup to oust a duly elected president, perhaps as Trump surrogates have suggested, with a favorable decision by his new six to three Supreme Court majority. There was, after all, also Trump's immediate post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had fought any invocation of the Insurrection Act to deploy the military against civil protests, prompting hair raising conjecture on Twitter this week about preparations for martial law. Of course, it all could be just a cash grab. A disclaimer attached to the Trump campaign's solicitation for a legal defense fund disclosed that 60 cents on the dollar of however many millions can be redirected. CNN's Don Lemon.
DON LEMON Some of the money collected through Trump's election defense fund. [LAUGHS] Here it is can be used to pay down campaign debt. Google the word grift. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD On Thursday, speculation ran high that Trump is merely preparing for the next phase of his TV career, not with Fox, which he now despises as the disloyal Trotzky of his MAGA revolution, but perhaps the ascendant online news network, or Newsmax, whose founder and Trump pal Chris Ruddy covets such an eyeball bonanza
CHRIS RUDDY Ratings. I mean, this guy, 15 years TV star, on Apprentice. Nobody has a hit show for 15 years. Look at the crowds he draws. He is a very great TV personality. I think he's great to have part of Newsmax and we're certainly looking forward to having him on. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Whatever the strategy, and whatever the result, the post-election denialism and paranoia and rage aren't some natural byproduct of extreme populism. No, they are the product itself, long planned with intent to provoke the crowd. As we've discussed recently on this program, modern conservatism is all but barren of policy. It exists entirely on what it can extrude from its play-doh definitely-no-fun factory of trumped up grievance. To raise ire, to raise doubt, to raise money, to raise turnout, and most of all, to raise fears. Voter fraud, equals COVID hoax, equals birth certificate, equals Mexican rapists. That, as ever is the strategy. What will come of it? Well, as the president likes to say, we'll just have to see what happens. Will the election fraud lie lead to de-Foxification? Will it be the make America irate again rallying cry for the next four years of the permanent campaign? Or will this big lie be used to get the proud boys and others off of presidential standby, out of barracks and into the streets? We don't know. All we do know is that democracy has had its say, which should itself be cause for celebration. But the spellbound protectors of the vanquished.
["Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" plays]
BOB GARFIELD Are not joining in the song.
["Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead continues playing]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the confessions of a right wing media exile.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. Last weekend, three far right media apps - Parler, MeWe, and Newsmax snagged the top three spots for free apps on the iPhone App Store. With a bit of marketing blitz and launched a buzz, just about any new tech company could see a momentary burst of traffic. This was different. These apps aren't new, just newly in vogue. Their sudden surge is part of a larger phenomenon, a growing rejection of traditional conservative watering holes like Facebook and Fox News in favor of even more extreme echo chambers. Casey Newton is a tech journalist and the creator of the Platformer newsletter. Casey, welcome to the show.
CASEY NEWTON Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Some people say par-ler, some say par-lay, because it's French derivation for speaking. Do you know for sure what this platform is called?
CASEY NEWTON As best as I can tell, the creators call it par-ler. And I do find it very difficult that a network for American conservatives would brand itself with a French language pronunciation, so I'm sticking with Parler.
BOB GARFIELD Like freedom fries.
CASEY NEWTON Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me about its history and where it's at right this moment.
CASEY NEWTON So Parler was founded about two years ago by a couple of guys in Nevada after increasing concern that mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter were taking too heavy a hand in moderating content. So if you remember, after the 2016 election, Facebook and Twitter got a lot of grief about all of the misinformation and election interference that they had enabled on their platform. And they started to take really strong measures to get it off. But as a result of that, many conservatives felt like they could no longer express their views. And so Parler stepped into that void and said: we promise if you join us, we will moderate as little content as humanly possible.
BOB GARFIELD Facebook has two or three billion users worldwide. What about Parler?
CASEY NEWTON Parler, If I had to guess, has a monthly active usership somewhere around a million or so. A really small fraction of a Twitter like user base, but it has been growing very quickly since the election.
BOB GARFIELD And the growth seems to come, if not entirely - predominantly from the political right, no?
CASEY NEWTON That's right. If you are to join Parler, you're presented with a screen of suggested people to follow, and it's all conservative pundits and elected officials. You know, it's Ted Cruz and it's Sean Hannity.
BOB GARFIELD Among the most prominent investors in Parler is Dan Bongino, a conservative pundit and Fox News contributor who consistently produced Facebook's daily top 10 most popular posts over the waning days of the campaign this summer. Which is to say, big tech is treating him just fine. Why would someone like him want to invest in such a relatively tiny platform?
CASEY NEWTON You know, I would say it's two things. One is the winners on Facebook refused to acknowledge that they have won. All of the big top 10 on Facebook that you mention are among the loudest proponents of the idea that they are being censored on Facebook. And that's because no matter how many people they may be reaching, there are cases where their posts may be removed or they'll face some other sort of discipline. But I think the bigger issue is that if you're an influencer on any platform, eventually you become nervous about the amount of control that that platform has over your life, right. The rules can change at any time. Facebook could just decide one day that they don't want him around and could snap their fingers and he would have no recourse.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Number two in the App Store was Newsmax. Certainly a part of the great right wing media sphere. And number three was another little known social media app called MeWe. What's the story of MeWe?
CASEY NEWTON MeWe was created by this entrepreneur named Mark Weinstein, and he's basically been in the social networking space for a really long time. He created a very early social network prototype called Supergroups in nineteen ninety eight. And MeWe is maybe a little bit more Facebook-like if Parler's is a little bit more Twitter-like. But like Parler. It's also promising to do very little content moderation. Weinstein wrote a post promising no ads, no targeting, no political bias, no news feed manipulation and no B.S..
BOB GARFIELD Hmm. Well, it's unclear if that's the rubric, how the hell he intends to make any money. But putting that aside for a moment - he didn't found it explicitly as a safe haven for right wing extremism, but it has turned out that way.
CASEY NEWTON Yeah, what these folks have seen is just a market opportunity. If 10 years ago I pitched you on a social network that wasn't doing that much content moderation, that would have just been Facebook and Twitter, right. There wouldn't have been much way to differentiate. But now that there is this, you know, healthy group of millions of folks that feel really aggrieved by what is becoming of Facebook and Twitter, they're looking for alternatives. And if you're MeWe, which has been floating around with no real juice for a while now, that can be really attractive.
BOB GARFIELD And they have major support from very prominent right wing demagogue like Sean Hannity. Here he is introducing parler to his audience.
SEAN HANNITY Can we now move everybody from Twitter to Parler? Can we make the shift together? Like, just say goodbye, Twitter. See you at Jack. Nice try. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Overall, how do you think Twitter and Facebook did perform this time around compared to 2016 when they were obviously asleep at the switch?
CASEY NEWTON They did really well. They spent 2020 fighting the last war. And the war in 2016 was prevent foreign actors from getting onto the platform using fake accounts, sowing division, spreading misinformation, because President Trump had given away his entire plan from the start, he sort of acknowledged he was not going to accept a losing result in the election. It enabled them to make policy preparations and say if any candidate happens to say that they won the election when it's been decided the other way, we are going to label that. And I think all that's been good. The change, though, is that you now have the most dangerous misinformation coming from the top elected officials in the country, not just Trump, but also the Republican Senate, you know, declining to to congratulate the president elect or even acknowledge that he's projected to be the winner. The platforms are just in this really tough place because they are built as homes for conversation, much of which is political. And when the entire political infrastructure of the right is now devoting itself to this idea that the election may have been stolen, it just becomes incredibly difficult for them to root all of that out. Now, where I would hold them accountable is the post that whip up the most fear and outrage, get the most engagement on Facebook and Twitter. That's just a function of how the platforms work. So on that front, it does sort of feel like between 2016 and 2020, we didn't make all that much progress.
BOB GARFIELD So should we be happy that the craziest and dumbest and most extreme voices are self-segregating and decreasingly polluting mainstream social media?
CASEY NEWTON I used to think that if we could just move the worst actors on social networks to smaller spaces, we would be OK, but then QAnon happened. And QAnon is a conspiracy theory that bubbled up on a tiny message board that no one took seriously or thought mattered. And now it's essentially a mainstream conspiracy movement. And so while I don't think Parler or MeWe, we are going to overtake Facebook and Twitter, I do think that they bear watching. And if there are new conspiracy movements that arise there and gain some traction, then we all need to be paying attention because they're going to find a way to move to Facebook and Twitter eventually. And from Facebook and Twitter, they can pretty easily move into the real world and real world violence.
BOB GARFIELD You believe that this notion of voter fraud, which has so enraged and fooled Trump's supporters, is going to be the basis of an ongoing movement that is simply erected against the legitimately established government? You point to an essay by Ezra Klein, which used the term autocracy-in-exile. Will Parler and MeWe be the official house organs of the autocracy-in-exile?
CASEY NEWTON I do think that they could become part of that ecosystem. I sort of just envision this world where Trump leaves office but sets up shop at some mass media perch. Maybe it's OANN, maybe it's Fox News and spends four years talking about how the election was stolen from him and he's the rightful president of the United States. 70 million Americans voted for this man. I think that's going to be an extremely powerful narrative, however false it may be. And it could be a vehicle for him to stage a comeback in 2024. And where it gets really tricky for the tech platforms that I write about is that if this becomes a mainstream political movement and your Facebook or Twitter, how do you tell, you know, 50 percent of the country that they're not allowed to discuss their belief that the election was stolen? I believe that democracy is both precious and fragile, and that if there was ever a time to be overly alarmed about what is happening in this country, it's now.
BOB GARFIELD Casey, thank you.
CASEY NEWTON Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Casey Newton is a tech journalist and creator of the newsletter platformer, or maybe it's platform-ay.
BOB GARFIELD The mood is we're all doomed and then a stupid little callback joke, but -.
CASEY NEWTON No, it's good! You know, you can terrify people continuously, you know, for the whole show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, the front page of The New York Times was taken up primarily by one story, headlined: Election Officials Nationwide Find No Fraud. Extensive reality based reporting, but if you live primarily in the conservative media sphere, you've been seeing and hearing something quite literally unreal. Fox's Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY This is the United States of America and now it is. I can factually tell you tonight it will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results. That's a fact. Americans have every right to be suspicious. They have every right to distrust the legitimacy of the results. We have the greatest, best tactical minds in the world. We can't develop a voting system that we can have confidence and trust in. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sheffield sees this is just the latest symptom of right-wing media rot. He's a journalist who got his start as a conservative blogger, and co-founded the right-wing site News Busters, now a notable force in the conservative media sphere before launching the online version of the conservative Washington Examiner. Today, no longer a conservative, he examines politics in his podcast Theory of Change. But recently he authored a long Twitter thread that discussed how he came to renounce the outlets he helped create and the conservative movement, both of which had consumed his early years as a journalist. His Twitter ID reads, I built conservative media and am now working to help free people from it.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD I could go on and give you particular instances where I saw people playing fast and loose with the truth. But honestly, I don't think we have time for that. The overall thing that I noticed was that the people that I was working with, that I was reading - a lot of them, or even most of them, they didn't have an understanding of journalism. Their job was to attack the left. That's all it was. And so they didn't care if they said something that was untrue, they would just erase it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of course, they had much the same to say about what they considered mainstream media or lefty media or a lame stream media or whatever they wanted to call it. That their concerns were only to advance political positions, too.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Yes, but the people who I knew who are in the mainstream press, they were just trying to report what they found and that was it. They may have brought their personal biases to it, but they weren't trying to propagandize the public the way that a lot of my colleagues were. Essentially, conservatives believe that everything is relative, that facts are relative, that everything is an opinion. They view balance or accuracy as simply recitation. Well, the Democrats said if you cut the taxes, there will be more deficit. The Republicans said if you cut the taxes, it will reduce the deficit. There you go. We report, you decide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your experience with writing that book seemed to be in some ways the final straw.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD In 2012, I began writing a book to provide some deep and detailed data about public opinion on policy issues. In the course of doing that study, I noticed the undisputed polling data that shows that Americans are becoming much more secular than they used to be. And that was especially true among young people. And so one of the points in my book was that the American right needed to make peace with people who were secular and stop trying to promote Christianity in their political program. I obtained a major publisher and they thought the book was really good. They were going to publish it. They were excited about it. But I thought, well, you know, I need to make sure that this book is accessible and compassionate to people who are extremely religious and conservative. And so I began showing the manuscript to some of them - people who I thought were my friends. And unbeknownst to me, they began trying to get me fired from jobs because they couldn't stand the idea that American conservatism would be about something other than Christian nationalism. It sort of clicked in my head, finally, that I could have written the best prose in human history and the most persuasive data, and it wouldn't matter because the people I was trying to persuade were doing the things they did because they believed that God wanted them to do it. By trying to get them to become more mainstream, they viewed it as a challenge to their very identity and identity was what motivated them not ideology. I realized then that I couldn't publish this book because I didn't want to be a part of a movement that was intolerant of secular people or Muslims or LGBT people. I couldn't do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another point that you made in your Twitter thread was that the conservative mainstream is far less extreme than the people who speak for them in the media.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD The people who are sort of in charge of the Republican Party, they're much more radical than most of their voters. If you look at public opinion surveys, Republican voters, they're not interested in slashing the government and cutting Social Security. They don't want to cut Medicare, but this is what their extremist elite does want to do. And so the only way that they've been able to maintain their control has been to use Christian nationalism and fears of Muslims, fears of black Americans to scare people into voting for them. Mitch McConnell figured it out a long time ago that the public doesn't support the conservative agenda. His goal is to win no matter what.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know you have some critiques of the mainstream press as well, but you no longer think that conservative media present the answer.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD A lot of the success of conservative media and Republican politics comes from some legitimate complaints from people who are shut out by elite media. You know, if you look at the biggest news organizations in the country, they're just overloaded with people with Ivy League degrees. If you don't have those connections, people don't care what you have to say. They care what will get them onto Morning Joe to schmooze with Mika and Joe. In the process of creating this cozy little kaffeeklatsch, the American press is just ignoring vast swaths of this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Except during election time.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, but even then, only a few of those states matter. So if you live in, let's say, Nebraska, nobody cares about anything that affects you in the national press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't think that changed in the era of Trump?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Instead of going in covering the news stories in these areas, we saw a glut of conservatives in the mist. Tell us, Trump voters, why do you love Trump? These are insulting and insipid pieces. Many of them are people who have liberal economic views and conservative social views. And that actually is the plurality of African-Americans in this country. And it's the viewpoint of many Hispanics in this country as well. There is no political party that is trying to advocate for those beliefs. And so what's happened is that because the center left utterly ignores blue collar whites and more religiously inclined African-Americans and Hispanics, it's just left an opening. Trump doesn't care about these people either, but he pretends to care about them. He at least talks to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you write How American conservatism dies is the most important story by far of this moment. Are you overlooking those Americans who voted for the conservative Donald Trump?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD No, I'm not overlooking them at all because Donald Trump is not a conservative. He is a Donald Trump person. That's all he cares about. What's happened is that we have a political apparatus that has become immensely wealthy and influential, but it has nothing worth saying. It has no policy ideas. And you can see that when you look at the policy output of the first two years of the Trump administration, they passed one major bill and it was a giant tax cut for rich people and corporations, and that was it. What is so dangerous in this moment right now is that you have a party that has become intellectually dead, but the body is still moving. It's a zombie and it is starting to infect the rest of society and becoming worse and worse. Those 70 million people, they have legitimate desires. They have ideas, they have communities. But the people who purport to represent them don't care about them at all. They want to cut their health care. They want to make them subject to more pollution. Those people have no representation in our American system. They would like to have Social Security be protected. They would like to have more spending on education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess the question is, is if they want those things. Why don't they become Democrats?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, and that is a very complex question, a lot of people who vote for Republicans don't feel like Democrats like Christians. They may not really like the Republicans. And in fact, you know, going back decades, the Republican voters always gave Republican politicians lower approval ratings than Democratic voters did. And even now, Donald Trump is the only Republican that Republican voters actually like. They don't like anyone else. There was a study that was done after the 2016 election on people who were the so-called Obama Trump voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 and switched. A lot of them did so because they thought Trump was a different kind of Republican, that he was more economically liberal. They felt disenchanted from the Democratic Party because it was too socially liberal or too snobby against people who had religious beliefs. And it's made the electorate of Republicans just increasingly uncomfortable with America, uncomfortable with fellow Americans. And in order to win elections, the Republican Party has had to become ever more extreme in its rhetoric. And Donald Trump certainly is the best manifestation of that in his rhetoric keeps getting worse and worse and worse because there is no other way that they can keep the voters in line, unless they keep them continually pissed off about evil godless communists coming to take away their money and their cross.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to conclude with one last quote from your thread. You said, The tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled. And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only make things worse.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Well, because it was Twitter, I couldn't say in the tweet that, yes, of course, there are people who are racist, who vote for Republicans or sexist. I personally have written tens of thousands of words about white nationalism and the Republican Party and the threat to America that that presents and how it's increasing in power within the GOP. But with that said, the reality is that the vast majority of people who vote Republican are not racist and people who think that probably live in their comfortable urban enclave. And so the only Republicans they see on TV, well, they're Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. And those guys are deplorable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or people at the rallies.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD Yeah, or people at the rallies. But those are not normal Republicans. Normal Republicans are not going to these rallies. They're not watching FOX News. Most Republican voters, they're not signed up for this radical program of the conservative establishment, or the emerging white nationalist power base. But they don't know anything else. And it's so tragic. That's one of the reasons why I've dedicated my life to try to free some of these good and decent people from the people who have kept them in the media matrix or a political matrix of lies and deceptions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE These are people who you work hard, they go to church and they feel they have no future in a secular America.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD That's right. The biggest demographic trend in America over the past decades has not been the growth of Hispanics in the country. It actually has been the growth of secularization among Americans. Depending on the survey, about 30 percent of Americans say they have no religious beliefs at all. And that rapid transformation of people that conservative Christians personally know. They've seen their children, they have seen their brothers, they've seen their sisters, their wives, their husbands leave the church and no longer believe it. And it is a frightening prospect because Christians have enjoyed hegemony in the United States for so long. Losing utter, complete power feels like oppression. Just in the same way that a lot of you know European Americans feel like if they see African-Americans in movies or see Hispanic Americans on stage more, that that's somehow offensive to them. Because when you've had hedgemony equality feels like oppression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are we supposed to sympathize with people who don't want to share?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD You have to think about the resentful or scared Republican electorate as people who are in a cult, and that's what it is. It's a cult of conservatism. It means that there may be a chance for at least some of them to see the light in the same way that I did. I had no idea of the corruption, the greed and the bigotry that I was enabling. I thought that I could change it, but I was wrong. There is no saving of conservatism. It has to be destroyed.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD I grew up in a very cult like environment in my own family. Plenty of Mormons are interested in the idea that they can personally know the mind of God about any given subject. That was certainly the attitude of my parents. I could heal the sick if I just had faith. Well, I tried to heal the sick and I saw other people try and it never worked, you know. And then the other thing is that Mormons have a very strong idea that the leaders are not to be criticized. That if you criticize them, you are serving Satan, and that you can't believe anything that non-Mormons say about the church. But as I came into contact with non-Mormons writing about Mormonism, you know, I saw that the things that they were saying they were true and that all the stuff I had been told about them being malicious liars, that itself was the lie. That was the lie. A lot of these cultic practices are common within the conservative movement. You can't criticize Donald Trump. Donald Trump can do no wrong because Donald Trump is serving the cause of owning the lives. He's serving the cause of fighting the godless left. And so he can lie as much as he wants. He can say things that he doesn't even know what he's talking about. It doesn't matter because ultimately, he's part of the overall larger truth. You know, over time, I saw so many parallels with the way that conservatives behaved toward heretics and the way they behaved toward deserved and true criticism of leaders. I had seen it all before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sheffield is an author and a podcast. His podcast is called Theory of Change. And he's going to be launching a new magazine and community called Flux.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up. So how do you create an alternate reality? First, destroy the data.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. During his presidency, Trump has shown disdain for data collection.
TRUMP When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people. You're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You see, data spoils the world Trump wants us to live in. The one in which the virus isn't a big deal. Early on in the pandemic, Trump said he preferred for sick passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship to stay aboard so they wouldn't hike up the U.S. COVID statistics.
TRUMP I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Later, he stripped the CDC of its control of coronavirus data. Those numbers were from a different reality. He wants his truth that COVID, COVID, COVID just ain't that bad to be our truth. And he freely admits it and so does his doctor.
WHITE HOUSE DOCTOR I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team the president had, of course, of illness has had. Didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, came off that we were trying to hide something that wasn't necessarily true. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But according to Samanth Subramanian, the Trump administration's offensive on data collection goes far beyond the pandemic. Subramanian wrote the introductory essay for Data Disappeared, a project by the Huffington Post that tracked the current president's assault on public data. Welcome to the show.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN Thank you so much. I'm so glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're so glad to have you now. First, for context, return us to an earlier era in the 70s when white semitrailers with National Health and Nutrition Examination survey stenciled on their sides roamed the American countryside to examine its citizens health.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN So this is a survey that's been going on for almost half a century. There's four trucks that pull into a county and their trailers are sort of hooked up to make this large mobile hospital. And over the course of a few weeks, clinicians and physicians will ask regular Americans about their diet, their sleep. They do blood tests. They check your eyes and your teeth. In 1976, they first began to test blood for levels of lead, and the results were stunning. The government had known that there was lead in paint, and that children could perhaps be exposed to that by licking metal objects on which there was metal paint. But they didn't know that blood levels were high, even in areas where the paint wouldn't have been a problem. And that was the first concrete indication that leaded gasoline was responsible for introducing lead into so many people's blood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How much did we know at that point about the damage lead could do not just to children, but also to adults?
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN For a long time, it was argued largely by these industries that every single human being in the post-industrial age had a best measure of lead in their blood. It wasn't so much a case of not knowing what led to your kidneys or your brain. The argument was being made that the lead in the air wasn't excessive to the point that it was leeching into people's blood.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the reason why I ask you to start with these semitrailers doing what amounts to a census of America's health was that it had an impact. They were able to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to demand that gas companies cut their lead content by 90 percent. Without good data it just couldn't have happened.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN Without good data. You wouldn't have known that these regulations were necessary. You wouldn't have been able to argue for these regulations. You wouldn't have been able to calibrate these regulations to know what amount of lead could be considered safe and what amount couldn't. And you wouldn't finally be able to pass these regulations. The ban on lead based paint and then the stripping away of lead from gasoline, all of that happened because this one federal agency went out and collected data on lead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, the Trump administration has undermined data collection across most departments. You wrote that the damage has perhaps been most prolific on environmental matters, though. Tell me about chlorpyrifos.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN Chlorpyrifos is a chemical that's been found in pesticides and it has been shown that it can distort brain development in the womb. And if children are exposed to it, they can go into seizures, they can lapse into coma. For a couple of decades, The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health has been tracking hundreds of children in New York to make sure that they know what the effects of chlorpyrifos are. That one center is part of a network of 13 research centers that examine how adverse health and adults might result from childhood exposure to chemicals. All of these 13 centers now stand defunded, and what's happening with chlorpyrifos is exactly the opposite of what happened with lead in gasoline. Back in the day, you had this survey that found out that lead could stunt children's development and as a result, there were regulations put in place. Here we have another chemical that might stunt children's development. And instead of having regulations passed against the chemical itself, the Trump administration has defunded the very agencies that produce that data, which makes it really difficult to argue for regulations to be passed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, the collection and sharing of public data isn't just hindered deliberately, it's hindered by inefficiency. Contact tracing is almost impossible in health departments that rely on fax machines and a lot do. A lot of public data systems aren't digitized.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inefficiencies in every nation's collection of data and management of data. What has been particularly singular is it's not as if data and data management and data collection has been cut down wholesale across the government, its particular kinds of data that are being weeded out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you give me some examples?
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN The economic research service that comes under the US Department of Agriculture, it collects a whole bunch of data on crops and agriculture every year. The agency finds, for example, that trade deals benefit US farmers, which is not something the Trump administration believes at all. The ERS finds that federal spending on food stamps has been going down steadily since 2013. Again, the administration says that welfare spending on food stamps has been going up. Both of these are uncomfortable truths. And so what happened last year in June was that Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, told the ERS that its officers would be leaving Washington, D.C. and they would be relocated to Kansas City, Missouri. This seems to be an act executed in the knowledge that most people who work for the ERS wouldn't be willing to uproot their lives and move halfway across the country. You know, budgets was scheduled to be cut this year. In any case and, you know, by October last year, two out of every three ERS positions had become vacant. That's one of the things that just befuddle me so much about this entire project. That a strong, robust body of knowledge about the state of the country and the state of its economy and its agriculture and its health and its citizens, you know, that is sort of a bedrock of government of any kind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggest that when the Trump administration attacks data, it's essentially attacking democracy. You liken the collection of data to the assembly of people. Without public data, you argue, the government can't know the people it is meant to serve, and that's deliberate. As in the government's attack on the census.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN The census is sort of once in a decade exercise that helps us reimagine afresh what America is like. It's an act of invention, just as the nation itself is an act of invention on a daily basis. And so to tamper with the census or to tamper with the kind of data that helps us imagine and invent our nation on a regular basis is to tamper with the basis of the nationhood itself. It also fundamentally weakens the government's ability to help the people who need it the most.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that every set of public data is valued twice over first by virtue of the information it holds, and second, by virtue of being accessible to everyone. If the government won't do it, then private companies will. But if it's privately owned, Americans won't necessarily benefit from its insights.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN The one example that sort of stuck in my mind the most comes out of Michael Lewis's book, The Fifth Risk. Michael Lewis describes in the spring of 2015 how there was a tornado that was making its way through Oklahoma, and in its path was a town called Moore. And the National Weather Service missed spotting the tornadoes pass through that. And so never issued an alert. Accu-weather, a private company that also relies on government data, mind you. It doesn't collect its own data, it relies on government data and then refines its own forecasts. Accu-weather knew that Moore was in danger. The only people who received that warning were the people who paid for it, and the people who didn't pay for it, well, they were just abandoned to the tornado's fate. That's an indication of the kind of thing that will happen if data is monopolized by private companies. Because the questions of what kind of data gets collected, who can access it and who can't. I mean, all of these questions suddenly become fraught with private interests that will eventually have really detrimental effects on how we live as a society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How much can these systematic damage to public data over the past four years be repaired?
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN These data collection processes can slowly be repaired. What will not be as easy to reconstruct is for the public consensus on what data means. Over the last four or five years, we've already witnessed a divergence of consensus on, for example, how much the news can be trusted on how much government officials and their statements can be trusted, on what the nature of truth is. And so when a data set is presented to the public as justification for a policy, that may not necessarily be any assurance that every single party has been trust what the numbers say, 100 years after this, federal data collection processes began. Suddenly we witnessed this huge rupture in what these data collection processes even mean. What are the fundamental truths that you can agree on before you even start discussing the kind of policies that should be made? If you can't agree on that, policy making is essentially dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that a nation is an act of invention. An abstract, uncanny idea made real every day by a million concrete things that citizens decide they want for themselves. Edible food, safe streets, clean air. The measure of these things determines how a nation shapes itself. So what happens when the act of invention falters?
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN Well, the lead stays in the gasoline. Society sort of starts to corrode and rot from the inside because there's really nothing holding it together. And as we've seen over the last four years, the quality of governance just deteriorates. It's quite fatal to the entire national project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Samanth, thank you so much.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Journalist Samanth Subramanian most recent book is A Dominant Character, The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane. He also authored the introductory essay for Dated Disappeared, a project by the Huffington Post and ProPublica that tracks the current president's assault on public data. We'll link to it at OntheMedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Cassanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and to Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Our engineers this week were Josh Hahn and Adrienne Lily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.