ALEX SHEPHARD Journalists walk into a post office and they see not the connective tissue of this country. They see another failing organ of the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The post office has been under siege for decades now, thanks to the media. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The announcement of Kamala Harris for Veep unleashed the inevitable racist slurs. But this time, journalists were ready for it.
MARK JOSEPH STERN The birther claim is a lie. Full stop. It is as easy to debunk as somebody uses two plus two equals 10.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also scuttling the post office, pardoning Susan B. Anthony, smiling upon QAnon. Heading toward Election Day, Trump fills the ether with many shiny objects.
CHARLIE WARZEL It's cliche to say this is a distraction. This is a distraction, but the end result is the same. We get distracted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why it matters that we stay focused in a news deluge - after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. The narrative at this year's Democratic National Convention was unambiguous. The upcoming election isn't a referendum on a partisan America because look - John Kasich and Colin Powell and even anonymous Republicans are on the bandwagon. The messaging, in fact, was barely even about Joe Biden. No, we were warned, something far more urgent is at stake. Democracy itself.
NANCY PELOSI The science based Action Heroes Act. We enacted three months ago is essential to safeguard lives, livelihood and the life of our democracy. And who is standing in the way? Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. [END CLIP]
PRESIDENT OBAMA Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that's what it takes for them to win. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Funny they should mention, because the backdrop for these "save democracy" pleas was the administration's brazen attempts to gut the U.S. Postal Service months before the biggest mail in voting exercise in history.
NEWS REPORT At the beginning of the weekend, Donald Trump basically said, I'm going to sabotage the post office. [END CLIP]
BERNIE SANDERS At its most basic, this election is about preserving our democracy. During this president's term, the unthinkable has become normal. He has tried to prevent people from voting, undermine the U.S. Postal Service. [END CLIP]
AMY KLOBUCHAR You know, the president may hate the post office, but he's still going to have to send them a change of address card, come January. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The simmering crisis boiled over last Thursday when Trump admitted that his gutting of the institution was intended to hobble voting by mail. Believed, at least by him, to favor Democrats.
DONALD TRUMP They want twenty five billion dollars. Billion for the post office. Now they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, in the meantime, they aren't getting there. By the way, those are just two items. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail in voting because they're not equipped to have it. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD During a Senate hearing on Friday, recently appointed Postmaster General Lewis DeJoy was grilled by the Homeland Security Committee about his sweeping cutbacks that intentionally or not fulfilled Trump's vision. But as Republicans on the committee were quick to observe, he didn't start the fire.
JAMES LANKFORD What I've heard so far today, apparently the post office never had any issues. There was never any delays. There was never any mail. That was late. There were never any financial problems. There was never any challenge. The mail in voting until 65 days ago when you arrived. And then apparently all chaos has broken out in the post office. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Fair point, senator James Lankford. But what he and his GOP colleagues failed to point out was that it was their party's own policies that, intentionally or not, crippled the Postal Service to begin with. And according to New Republic staff writer Alex Shephard, when journalists start talking about the public sector, they tend to be sucked into a similar partisan ideological narrative.
ALEX SHEPHARD Yeah, the Postal Service exists as a kind of symbol of good government. And it's one that has been surprisingly resilient to Republican attacks. Particularly ones aimed at privatizing various public sector services. But that hasn't dimmed their enthusiasm for making widespread demands for greater efficiency. That, in fact, lower efficiency. These have certainly increased over the last 15 years, but it feels like we've only started paying attention to them over the last week or so.
BOB GARFIELD Now, you just said lead to greater efficiency first by creating lower efficiency, and we'll get to that in a moment. But first, we should observe that this process goes back decades. Along with the privatization dreams for schools, colleges, Social Security, prisons, even parts of the military. But you write that the particular image we have of the post office today really has its origins in 2006. How so?
ALEX SHEPHARD Yeah, in 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, known as PAEA, and that required USPS to make a number of changes. The most substantial was that it required them to fully fund all of their pensions 75 years in advance, which created a 72 billion dollar hole in the operating budget immediately. Now, no other institution is required to do this, and it immediately turned a profitable arm of the federal government into an unprofitable one. Now, the timing of that was interesting because that was a year in which the USPS was, as it had been for several years in the black. It was also the year that Facebook opened up to everyone. And you start to see large standing changes in the way that people communicate. That also has provided a hit to the Postal Service's budget, but not as substantial as this one about pensions.
BOB GARFIELD Now, over the past couple of months, we've observed Trump's overt meddling into the post office, in the person of his new postmaster general, Lewis Dejoy. He is an underqualified Trump mega donor with financial ties to postal service competitors. And next thing you know, he was cutting overtime for workers in the middle of a pandemic in advance of an election and had removed mail sorting machines from post offices nationwide, which raised media eyebrows, but not exactly at first, at least alarm until about a week ago when Trump blurted out his sabotage scheme on Fox Business. These "aha" journalistic moments about public sector institutions follow a pattern.
ALEX SHEPHARD Yeah, in the case of USPS, there are a few things happening where, you know, at the same time, Lewis Dejoy is fulfilling this longstanding conservative project of hobbling USPS, of creating space in which its competitors can thrive. He is also doing so at a time where it will almost certainly, if not aid the president's reelection campaign, then certainly bolster claims that he may make challenging the legitimacy of the election. The press is largely focused on the second one of those still, and the first part is, I think, still gone unnoticed.
BOB GARFIELD You said that the Republican strategy over the decades has been to defund the post office. For example, by forcing them to fund their pension plan going out 75 years in order to actually force their service to deteriorate in order ultimately to privatize the organization.
ALEX SHEPHARD What Lewis Dejoy has been doing since this spring is familiar to anyone who's covered the private equity industry in America in recent years. It's you look at an organization that's losing money and then you strip resources from it in the name of efficiency. And then, of course, it becomes less efficient and you're in this endless cycle of taking things away. But the larger project, I think, is ideological, as much as it is practical. That conservatives don't like the fact that this is a government institution that works, that the USPS should be treated like a business. That's put a giant target on its back. The Postal Service itself is a kind of American value, saying that, you know, we're all Americans and we all should be connected together no matter what that costs. The drive to privatize that not only would have dramatic consequences for people who rely on USPS to get medication or to keep in touch with loved ones, particularly incarcerated people. But it also would be a betrayal of what I think is an ideal, which is that we should have a system that brings us all together.
BOB GARFIELD You believe that we've allowed a distorted picture of the public sector to form in the public's minds over decades and that we've even internalized the Reagan doctrine that big government is not the solution, but the problem. Drunk the Kool-Aid, have we?
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, I think that the image of a postal worker sort of remains Newman from Seinfeld.
NEWMAN You don't even have to lick the stamps. It's not to be. So I'm hanging it up.
SEINFELD You quit the post office?
NEWMAN Kind of. I'm still collecting checks, I'm just not delivering mail. [END CLIP]
ALEX SHEPHARD Somebody who's, you know, lazy, they take a three hour break. The post office itself is a drab and dreary place where you wait in line for hours and then are told to go somewhere else. It's sort of the DMV next door. Part of the issue, I think, is political and that Democrats have also internalized a lot of these ideas. But I think that there's also a sense that journalists walk into a post office and they see not the connective tissue of this country. They see another failing organ of big government. One of the strange things about all this hand-wringing about if the USPS can handle the election is that they just finished, you know, a substantial project which is handling the United States census. The USPS does this kind of work all the time, and they've done it despite the fact that they've been hobbled by staffing cuts and demands to to run like a business when it's not a business.
BOB GARFIELD And how do we get the narrative that you just provided back in to the mind of the media. If, in fact, we have drank the Kool-Aid?
ALEX SHEPHARD I think there's a real shyness about communicating values in media. That's not true when it comes to sort of First Amendment issues. Members of the press will always, you know, beat their chests when they're kicked out of a White House briefing room or something. But you don't get that with other values. Instead, there is a real reliance on others. You need advocacy groups. You need a postal workers union or members of the Democratic Party. But there are a lot of cases where those voices aren't going to be forthcoming and that you need to look at institutions for what they provide beyond profit and efficiency. It's a public service and the American people, for the most part, recognize it as that. It's Congress that hasn't. And if it does do that, then I think things will get a lot better.
BOB GARFIELD Alex, thank you.
ALEX SHEPHARD Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Alex Shepard is a staff writer at The New Republic. Journalists will be keeping their eyes on the Postal Service in the coming months, and so will the hustlers inhabiting our warped media ecosystem. The result will be a flood of information, misinformation and even some disinformation. New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel wonders whether we as news consumers. Given the stakes and the circumstances, can even maintain focus on the heart of the story.
CHARLIE WARZEL I am worried that we won't, if I'm being very honest, that we won't be able to focus on it. On Monday of this week, Trump floated the idea that he could have not just a second, but even a third term.
DONALD TRUMP You know what? They spied on my campaign. We should get a redo in four years. [END CLIP]
CHARLIE WARZEL We've seen him, this week, pardon Susan B. Anthony.
DONALD TRUMP She was never pardoned. Did you know that? She was never pardoned. What took so long?
CHARLIE WARZEL We've seen him float the idea of perhaps pardoning Ed Snowden, who he once called a traitor.
DONALD TRUMP And I'm not that aware of the Snowden situation, but I want to start looking at it. There are many, many people it seems to be a split decision, that many people think that he should be somehow treated differently and other people think he did very bad things. [END CLIP
CHARLIE WARZEL it's cliche to say t"his is a distraction, this is a distraction", and it might not even always be intentional, But the end result is the same. We get distracted. So I'm not very confident that we won't go chasing the shiny objects. But the one thing that we can do is when we are focusing on the story, when we are focusing on the post office story, that we don't get distracted by the shiny objects in that. You know, that we don't go chasing the refurbished blue mailboxes instead of what's happening truly behind the scenes. Administratively, in some of these institutions.
BOB GARFIELD Let's talk about those disappearing blue mailboxes.
NEWS REPORT So here it is. You might have already seen it. That's a truck, as you can tell, being loaded up with blue post-office boxes. Mark Delaney snapped this photo in North Portland and it went viral. In no time. [END CLIP]
CHARLIE WARZEL Journalist Gary He, he actually called up the Wisconsin Depository for the mailbox. It's called Hartford Finishing Co. And they refurbish old mailboxes. They take them off the street, Tthey fix them, they put them back out. And so this is a piece of really incendiary content that's gone incredibly viral. That, as it turns out, is really actually just standard operating procedure. The best way for some of this news to get buried, the important news, the news about the undermining of norms is for there to be such a flood of muddled information that it just becomes a story that's so saturated that we don't want to hear about it anymore and people get bored and move on. And for the media, we have to keep up the focus on that in terms of, you know, what we amplify and what we report.
BOB GARFIELD Knowing that they're actually baiting the press to create a lot of commotion. How does a news consumer find the signal, and drown out the distraction?
CHARLIE WARZEL I think there's two important things to keep hold of. One is that this is the home stretch for this particular election cycle. This is a moment where it is incredibly important to pay attention, as exhausting as it may be. The second part is you need to be mindful of that flooding the zone strategy, that your focus is going to be pulled in many different ways. And I think being mindful of that helps inoculate against it. You have to set your priorities and what is important to you. And I think the media has signaled that this postal service crippling is the big story right now. So keeping a focus on that, keeping a focus on the pandemic response, picking the things that are important to you, and not letting Trump's pardon of Susan B. Anthony distract from the bigger stories.
BOB GARFIELD One last thing. On the Media's listeners are, you know, careful consumers of the news, but it's pretty well-documented that most Americans do not delve too deeply in news stories and where they come from and the issues behind them. It's all a kind of background noise. They tune in or tune out depending on what's going on with the kids and all the other mundane aspects of American life that are themselves overwhelming. So how should we let that figure into how we cover this story.
CHARLIE WARZEL It's about clarity. It's about focusing on that main story. You know, it's very clear what the intentions are. He said it. And I think drilling down on that, not trying to be overly clever about it, not trying to, you know, come up with a day two story on day one. It's the meat and potatoes of what we're supposed to do. Often we get lost in it because this has been such a complicating presidency with regard to the truth. But I think in this case, it's actually very clear. The president is trying to erode a bunch of norms and he said it out loud and we need to keep the spotlight on that.
BOB GARFIELD Charlie, thank you so much.
CHARLIE WARZEL Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie Warzel is an opinion writer at large for The New York Times. Coming up, why black politicians seeking higher office will always be prey to bogus questions about citizenship.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Since the announcement of Kamala Harris is Joe Biden's running mate, we have been watching Donald Trump test driving attack plans in real time. Will he settle on Nasty Woman?
DONALD TRUMP Was probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or fraud...
ADVERTISEMENT Slow Joe and phony Kamala. Perfect together, wrong for America. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or plain old incompetent.
DONALD TRUMP I think she's going to be a big failure. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems, all of the above, and more, including roughing up an old fave for the current president. That she isn't sufficiently American to run.
DONALD TRUMP I heard today that she doesn't meet the requirements. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE Malarkey, as they say. Kamala Harris is a citizen fully eligible to serve as V.P., but that didn't stop the lie from getting an airing on Newsweek and a mention by the president at a press conference. Of course he did. It's a tactic tried and true for distracting the media and dog whistling his base, the quintessential shiny object. Notoriously employed when Obama was running for office.
DONALD REPORT I want him to show his birth certificate. [END CLIP]
MARK JOSEPH STERN This is a really old canard and unfortunately, it's still with us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mark Joseph Stern covers courts and the law for Slate. He has tracked the birtherism lie all the way back to an 1857 Supreme Court decision.
MARK JOSEPH STERN We have to go to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which was the notorious Supreme Court ruling that said that black people could not be citizens of the United States. That they had no rights, that the white man was bound to respect. They are an inferior order, the Supreme Court said. And so they simply cannot obtain citizenship in this nation. Overt racism of the most rank and abhorrent kind. And the Dred Scott decision was one of the sparks of the civil war, right? and after that civil war, the nation passed a constitutional amendment, the 14th Amendment, whose very first sentence is a direct rebuke to Dred Scott.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's it say?
MARK JOSEPH STERN It says all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States. It doesn't just say they will become citizens. These people have always been citizens and we are now ensuring that their citizenship cannot be questioned. Nice idea. Here we are in 2020, it's still getting questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what is new about the Kamala birther lie?
MARK JOSEPH STERN Basically nothing, because even though we've seemed to settle the question of birthright citizenship once and for all, when the first black senator was sent to Congress in 1870, Hiram Revels, some racist senators, tried to deny him his seat. To be a senator, you have to have had American citizenship for at least nine years, so these racist congressmen said we only passed the 14th Amendment two years ago. That was when this guy got citizenship. That was obviously rejected almost out of hand by these senators who had just passed the 14th Amendment, who were still there in the Senate. And they were able to say pretty definitively, no, we meant to say that these folks have always been citizens. What we did was confirm a truth that had been widely recognized up until Dred Scott reversed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you give me a quick summary of the differences between the Obama birther lie and the Harris birther lie?
MARK JOSEPH STERN The Obama birther lie asked not if he was an American citizen, but just whether he was natural born. The Kamala lie asked if she is a citizen at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what is the argument being presented by such people as John Eastman of the Claremont Institute in Newsweek? The title of his op ed was almost polite: "Some Questions for Kamala Harris About Eligibility".
MARK JOSEPH STERN Eastman's op ed presents an argument that he has been making for many years. That those four words: "subject to the jurisdiction" means something totally different from what everybody understood them to mean in 1868. So, back up a little. Kamala Harris' parents were immigrants to the United States. They were both here on visas. No laws broken. Of course, individuals coming to United States on visas can have children here. And it has long been understood that those children become American citizens because they are born on American soil. They don't fall into the exceptions laid out by Congress when it passed the 14th Amendment. But John Eastman has a different theory. He thinks that the words subject to the jurisdiction have this secret meaning, and that is that you have to owe your allegiance exclusively to the United States in order to pass on citizenship to your child. Even if your child is born in the United States. He says that because Kamala Harris' parents were foreign nationals when she was born, they owed their allegiance to other countries. And so they were unable to pass along citizenship to Kamala because they were not fully subject to American jurisdiction. Instead, they were subject to the jurisdiction of India and Jamaica.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Mark, this was in Newsweek. It was an op ed, the Claremont Institute, which you talk about, where Eastman is a senior fellow. What is the Claremont Institute?
MARK JOSEPH STERN So the Claremont Institute is a conservative think tank, although I think think tank is a bit of a misnomer here. It's located in California. It was founded by four students of a guy named Harry Jaffa, who was a kind of Goldwater conservative in the 60s and 70s. This was founded in 1979. And the idea was to spread these Goldwater-esque ideas to revive the celebration of American nationalism and American exceptionalism at a time when conservatives perceived it to be on the decline. This was at the later part of Jimmy Carter's presidency, the malaise speech, yada, yada. And so the Claremont Institute burst onto the scene and tried to kind of intellectualize theories about American nationalism and American identity that had been a little bit further on the fringe of the right. But we're at that stage making their way to the center of the GOP.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But then it started to evolve, let's say, in the 90s and in the early 2000s.
MARK JOSEPH STERN I would say devolve is maybe the better word. Look, you know, I don't think the Claremont Institute was ever totally free of nativism, right. The very ideas that it was promoting had a bit of an undercurrent of white national identity, in my view. But after Jaffa died, and after the conservative movements fully embraced some of these nationalistic ideas. The Claremont Institute moved further and further to the right - onto the fringe. And instead of just talking about American nationalism, it talk about almost an American ethnic identity. Who is truly American and who is an interloper. And its main course of attack here was against immigrants, mostly from Mexico, Central America, what it deemed to be inferior countries with inferior orders, in the words of the Dred Scott decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're being a little nice here.
MARK JOSEPH STERN [LAUGHS].
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your article, you called it a racist fever swamp with deep connections to the conspiratorial alt-right that it granted a fellowship to a guy named Jack Pasovic who helped promote the pizza gate conspiracy theory. This is the idea that the Democratic Party is involved in some sort of child sex ring.
MARK JOSEPH STERN So in the last 10 years, it has just collapsed into insane, paranoid. All right. Terror of nonwhite people. And almost all of its scholarship is directed toward presenting these outrageous theories about why nonwhite people are not really Americans, and especially during the Trump presidency, has fully embraced the wackiest and most dangerous conspiratorial elements of the sort of Trumpian movement, including pizza gate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you say that few, if any, of the supporters of the birtherism lie lack connections to the Claremont Institute. That includes Eastman, who wrote the op ed questioning Kamala Harris' eligibility in Newsweek, and also Josh Hammer, who was the Newsweek editor who commissioned the piece as a former fellow at the institute. It seems like when it comes to birtherism, all roads lead to Claremont.
MARK JOSEPH STERN Michael Anton, who wrote a piece arguing against birthright citizenship in The Washington Post in 2018. Is guess what? A senior fellow there as well. And by the way, the first scholar to really pitch this idea that the children of immigrants do not get birthright citizenship to the United States. He was a Claremont's scholar. His name was Edward Erler. He wrote this book, that was just outwardly racist against Mexican immigrants and proposed violently expelling the children of Mexican immigrants, who are American citizens, back into Mexico because he claimed that they were stateless foreigners.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So I assume that you were braced for this Kamala Harris birther thing?
MARK JOSEPH STERN Well, you know, when I first saw the piece, I have to say I felt nauseated because I knew that there was a chance I would have to respond. And I've written about this issue a great deal. And I fear that even responding to these theories is like giving more oxygen to the fire because it creates this illusion that there's a debate here and the debate has to have two sides and there just isn't another side to this issue, right. The birther claim is a lie. Full stop. It is as easy to debunk as somebody who's says two plus two equals 10. And still Newsweek publishes this piece, which means we're going to be talking about it. It's going to spread like wildfire across all of the conspiratorial Facebook pages that Mark Zuckerberg refuses to shut down. And it's going to become an issue that dogs Kamala Harris, just like the Obama birther lies, dogged Barack Obama. I mean, at one point twenty five percent of respondents to a poll said that they questioned Barack Obama's citizenship. These things may sound ridiculous, but they do gain a purchase.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, we are so much more divided now as a nation than we were even during the last campaign or the one before that. I'm just wondering whether this is just meat to a base that has committed itself long ago to the presidency of Donald Trump and whether it will just sort of bounce off people who don't support him or independents.
MARK JOSEPH STERN This lie about birthright citizenship. It has implications way beyond this presidential election. There are at least 18 million children born of immigrants in the United States right now. If Eastman were correct, which he is not, then all of those people are stateless, who could be stripped of citizenship, stripped of all of their rights and privileges and violently expelled from the country. That is extremely frightening. I mean, that is a white nationalist fantasy. And the fact that a law professor and someone affiliated with a think tank can promote it in the pages of Newsweek suggests to me that we need to educate people and explain that American citizenship does not rest on your parents' allegiance to another country or this one. So I kind of hope that there are some people who haven't really thought about this, who are reasonable people who can learn from the conversation we're having now. And some of the articles that have been written in response to Eastman that this has been settled since at least 1868 and that the next black person who runs for president or vice president is going to have their citizenship challenged and maybe we can shrink the group of people who buy into it next time around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mark, thank you very much.
MARK JOSEPH STERN Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mark Joseph Stern covers courts and the law for Slate. As Stern just observed, a lot is riding on how the media covers this particular falsehood against Kamala Harris. So how are we doing? Eugene Scott, who writes about identity politics for The Fix at The Washington Post, says some media outlets definitely are better now at calling out racism and lies. Welcome to the show, Eugene.
EUGENE SCOTT Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've observed that during the Obama birther escapade, outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times were slow to call anything racist.
EUGENE SCOTT It was something that did not have to go as unaddressed as it did and really could have been stopped earlier on and called out for what it is. If newsrooms were more diverse. If individuals who make decisions better, reflected the population as a whole and could provide some perspective about how those types of rumors affect people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But your general feeling is that there has been some progress from 2008 to today and the persistence of this birther lie that at least some of the media aren't going to be as tied up in false balance.
EUGENE SCOTT Without a doubt. I mean, we saw that within the first week cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC, The Washington Post and some other legacy media organizations. In their opening grafs they called birtherism a lie. It was clear that Kamala Harris was eligible for the vice presidency. They referenced the role that birtherism played in President Trump's ascendance to the White House. We've seen a big shift in newsrooms blatantly call ideas and actions racist. And I think that, quite frankly, it's one of the big changes in media that we saw come with the Trump administration. I think our current president has put forward ideas and policies that's so blatantly discriminated against the people because of their identities that newsrooms could not accurately cover what was happening without calling it racism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about Newsweek's participation in elevating the birtherism lie about Kamala Harris? Doesn't that indicate a persistent problem in how legacy media covers birtherism.
EUGENE SCOTT It does. And by no means was my piece attempting to indicate that the media had handled things perfectly. But the reality is the way that Newsweek's editors responded almost immediately to that column that was so controversial I think demonstrates a change even within legacy media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think the impact is of the conservative media?
EUGENE SCOTT Well, I think we've seen some conservative media outlets attempt to distinguish themselves from the Fox News' and the Federalist's of the world. We see the National Review and Bulwarks online and even the American conservatives being more bold and separating themselves from ideas that they deem racist, in part because I think views of the GOP as a whole in the last few years have led many people to conclude that it is a safe place for racist ideas like birtherism. But yes, we obviously also see some media outlets that are lock and step with the Trump administration and those organizations. We have no expectation that they will call things up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the argument that bringing up this birtherism lie at all basically feeds oxygen to the flames?
EUGENE SCOTT I can't imagine that there's any validity to any argument that suggests that racism should not be called out. If any institutions in America have been complicit in turning a blind eye to white supremacy, historically, the mainstream media has been one of them. And treating ideas and arguments as if they should be ignored, literally leaves blood on hands. There have been people who have died and who have endured significant harm because of editorial decisions to refuse to call racism what it is. And I think what we're seeing in this current moment with some media outlets being more vocal and calling things racist is a recognition that there are people on the other end of these ideas and theories. They're just not thoughts. They have impact on people's lives. And if we want those lives to be protected and valued and if they truly matter, racism has to be called out for what it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I totally get that. But I was just thinking of this example - stay with me for a second. In 2005, the CDC put out a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. And it was like false. The side effects of the vaccine are worse. Than the flu. True. The flu vaccine saves lives. And one study found that within 30 minutes, older Americans misremembered. 28 percent of the false statements is true. And it took younger people about three days to misremember it. In other words, in trying to combat a lie, stating the lie might actually entrench it. And somebody said that maybe you should make like a truth sandwich, say Kamala Harris is entirely legally entitled to run toward the vice presidency of the United States, then say B.S. about the birtherism is false, and then go back and say again, there is no question that she is entitled to run for the vice presidency of the United States. What I'm saying is, should there be a specific protocol for how the media cover lies?
EUGENE SCOTT Well, there could be, but I think the reality is that so many media outlets are different at their core in terms of what they aim to do and desire to do, that we shouldn't really expect consistency across the board. The reality also is that whether or not someone receives the truth when you're doing some fact checking isn't completely the responsibility or thought should I say of the media outlet. You're dealing with so many different factors here. But what won't lead them to embrace the truth or even know it is ignoring it and not addressing it at all. And so that has to be done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Something is always better than nothing.
EUGENE SCOTT I think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Eugene. Take care. Eugene Scott writes about identity politics for the folks at The Washington Post.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, QAnon crawls out from under the rocks of the lunatic fringe and slithers towards the nation's capital.
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. In the past two weeks, denizens of the furthest fringe of the political right have dug new trenches in the heart of the GOP. First, a self-described proud Islamophobe.
NEWS REPORT President Trump has fired off a series of tweets touting the win of Laura Loomer, a far right activist who just won the Republican nomination in Florida's 21st district. Loomer is known for calling Islam, quote, a cancer on humanity. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then there's Q.
NEWS REPORT Marjorie Taylor Greene is now likely to win a U.S. House seat in Georgia, this November. Serve in Congress, embrace the conspiracy Group. QAnonm and other racist and offensive attacks. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings us to a total of eleven QAnon supporting Republican nominees to run for Congress on the fall ballot. For those who understandably resist encoding this kind of information. Q is the anonymous conspiracy theorist who claims that the deep state is out to foil Donald Trump's efforts to save America from Democrats, Hollywood actors, sexual predators, Satanists and cannibals. There have been violent crimes associated with QAnon, and the FBI has labeled the group a domestic terrorism threat. The president had this to say about the QAnon crowd.
DONALD TRUMP I've heard these are people that love our country and they just don't like seeing it. So, I don't know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE To New Republic staff writer Alex Pareene, this new foothold is disquieting, but it masks the real threat making its home in the Republican Party. For that, he turns to the nominee for North Carolina's 11th district in North Carolina.
NEWS REPORT Republicans choosing 24 year old investor Madison Cawthorn in the runoff for the seat vacated by Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A June CNN article described him as, quote, the young political newcomer who beat Trump's pick. Likewise, an NPR piece suggested that his biggest challenge would be his youth, and thus he was squeezed into a well-known trope.
ALEX PAREENE If you just are looking at the campaign interviews on his Web site or things like that, he didn't give you a lot there to really dig into issues wise. But there were biographical things they missed, too, that came out later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, I read the article in Jezebel by Esther Wang. She paints a very different portrait of the guy.
ALEX PAREENE Yes, he has misled people about being accepted to the Naval Academy. He had not been, but that's been part of his patriotic selling point. He claims to be a real estate investor, but he is a real estate investor only in the sense that he started an LLC last year that has purchased one property. He is often photographed with very expensive guns and so on and took a notable European vacation to that has also become subject to more scrutiny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. That's to Hitler's vacation spot, which he'd apparently put on his bucket list. You are concerned about elements of his self presentation, one of which being the insignia on one of his guns, a flag that tends to fly in places where he is. Yes. And even the name of his investment company.
ALEX PAREENE Yes. He named his investment company SPQR Holdings. SPQR is an abbreviation for the Latin term Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, which is "The Roman, Senate and People", which is the name of a Mary Beard book about ancient Rome. Also an extremely popular phrase among certain right wing extremist groups. The flag is the Betsy Ross flag, which is the so-called original 13 states flag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a Stars in a circle.
ALEX SHEPHARD Again, that could be normal patriotism from someone who's from one of the original 13 colonies. It's also happens to be a flag that is very popular among the so-called Patriot movement, another far right group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mentioned this insignia that was on his gun holster. It was a Spartan soldier's helmet.
ALEX PAREENE This Spartan soldier's helmet is often associated with the Oath Keepers. One of the most right wing sort of anti-government three percenter groups out there. But, you know, it's also just maybe a cool symbol to put on your gun holster. There's also the fact that up until this got publicity, Cawthorn only followed 88 people on Twitter. 88 is incredibly common white supremacist code, meaning Heil Hitler. But it could just be a coincidence, again. I don't really know what Cawthorn's actual beliefs are. What I do know is that it's very unusual for someone as young as him to be an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. And many young, enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump enjoy flirting with or toying with symbols of far right extremism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You argue that Cawthorn's rise fits into a pattern that you've seen coming for a while. A Republican Party filling up with extremists. That there's a vacuum at the heart of the party.
ALEX PAREENE Well, one source of that vacuum, I think we can look at Cawthorn's age. There's a massive age gap in American politics right now that has actually historically unusual. Whereas the Democrats are frequently having a sort of generational battle between different factions of young people who wish to be the future leaders of the party. In the Trump era, republicans really only have one kind of person entering Republican politics from a young age. The way that they come to conservative politics is not going to be through reading the National Review. It's much more likely that they're going to come to it through Trump or through a far right group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what happens to the moderate wing of the party?
ALEX PAREENE Since George W. Bush's term when the Republican Party was at a very, very low ebb, after Obama's reelection as well, they had to sort of determine what they were going to do to regain popularity. And a lot of smart people in the party were like, well, we have to get more comfortable with multiculturalism. We have to get more comfortable with the fact that America is changing. And I think what happened is that doubling down on racial grievance remained the best way to win a Republican primary. They couldn't change their most dedicated voter base.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you say that we're locked into a two party system, and that is also something that enabled the far right to take over the Republican Party.
ALEX PAREENE Yes, but at this point, it's written into state constitutions. In New York, for example, a board of elections is controlled by two parties. That gives you like a lot of power if you're able to take control of one of the parties. I think that our politics are not so different from that of many European countries, but where they would have a center right party and a far right party. We just have one right wing party that the far right is in charge of. So Americans might wish to vote for a sort of coalition of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. That might be what Americans want. But because they are given the option of the Conservative Party and the other party, they are more often than not choosing to elevate people who are much more extreme than voters might even believe. So I don't think that the intellectual firepower is there anymore. And what we're seeing is like a vacuum of ideas into which this all this kooky, far right stuff is flooding. QAnon is actually a great example of the base sort of coming for a party. What I'm worried about is that you could see the organized alt right taking over the Republican Party in the service of white nationalism, basically. That's what is scary to me about the candidate, about whom I cannot be sure whether or not he traffics in any of this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're talking about the young Mr. Cawthorn.
ALEX PAREENE About Madison Cawthorn, exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He went to a college for one semester that you described as kind of a feeder school.
ALEX PAREENE Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For political conservatives. And you've also observed that there's a pretty pricey machine engineered to produce people like Cawthorn.
ALEX PAREENE There is a lot of money in conservative politics for identifying talent. Groups like Charlie Kirks, Turning Point USA and all these others that go around to identify young people who will be future conservative politicians or fill out the conservative think tanks, become future conservative pundits. My fear now is that when they go to seek out these future leaders, the only people that they will find willing to be part of organized Republican politics in the era of Donald Trump, who is incredibly unpopular among all young people. The only people they find are people who are already attracted to far right belief. And the alt-right, the three percenters, and the Oath Keepers and the Patriot movement and all those things have been around for a long time. But they have gotten very good, I think, at using the Internet to identify like minded people. And I worry that they are going to begin entering the conservative institutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is the GOP a zombie party or is it changing its identity in step with a new divisive era? What you know what the scholar Walter Dean Burnham famously called political realignment. Something that happens every generation or couple of generations. Is this just the Republican Party changing its identity?
ALEX PAREENE That's kind of the big question. If this is the opening stages of a realignment, it's interesting to consider because on the one hand, you have a lot of moderate Republicans who are now identifying with the Democratic Party who just because of Donald Trump. At the same time, you have to think that. If Trump loses, there will be some of the same talk there was in 2012 after Mitt Romney lost about how the Republican Party needs to change. Ideally, for the sake of our democracy, I would like it to become a more representative and more center right institution. But they've had a lot of opportunities and it's been very hard for them to get off the path they're on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alex, thank you very much.
ALEX PAREENE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alex Pareene is a staff writer at The New Republic. His recent article is called "Madison Cawthorn Is the Future of the Republican Party."
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media, it's produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. We say goodbye to Eleanor Nash, who we never actually met, but has been wonderful on Zoom. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yes, even though we never got to meet you in the flesh, it was delightful having you on the show. 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.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.