When the New York Times warps our view of the world

Oct 19 2019
Newsworthy

Essence of Trump

Thursday was an amazing day even by the elevated standards of the Trump era. In the span of a few hours, these four things happened:

1) The Trump administration said it had orchestrated a five-day ceasefire—whose wording, it turns out, validated Turkey’s invasion of Syria the week before and its goal of creating a 5,400-square-mile “buffer zone” in the Kurdish part of Syria.  

2) In proudly discussing the ceasefire, Trump seemed to validate, as well, one product of that invasion: the ethnic cleansing of some 150,000 Kurds over the past two weeks. Trump said that, from Turkey’s point of view, northern Syria had to be “cleaned out,” and that sometimes you need to exercise “a little rough love,” an “unconventional, tough love approach.” Which in this case apparently entailed invading a country in plain violation of international law, shelling and bombing it, and, for good measure, deploying Syrian jihadists who set about committing atrocities that terrified Syrian Kurds into fleeing—all of which left Kurdish troops little alternative to accepting the ceasefire. Or, as Trump cheerfully characterized the dynamic he’d set in motion by abruptly withdrawing US troops from northern Syria: “When those guns start shooting, they tend to do things.”

Progressive Realism

How The New York Times distorts our view of Syria

The New York Times wants to make sure you know that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has strengthened US adversaries. 

On Tuesday, after Kurds imperiled by the withdrawal cut a deal with the Syrian government to step in and protect them—thus expanding the influence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia—the Times featured two front page stories about Syria. Over one of them was a headline that said “Battle Lines Shifting to the Benefit of Iran, Russia and ISIS.” The other one said, in its very first paragraph, that Trump had “given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State.”

OK, we get the message. But there’s a problem with the message. These two stories are at best misleading and at worst flat-out wrong. And, sadly, they’re typical of much mainstream media coverage of Syria—and reflective, I think, of cognitive distortions that afflict many American journalists, warping our view of the world.

Psychology Of Tribalism

Virality and virulence

This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature. 

On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.” 

That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.

Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)

Readings
In the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Willingham dissects curiosity, explains why it so often hijacked by the internet to ignoble ends, and offers some tips for fighting the hijackers.

In Fast Company, Harry McCracken asks whether Verizon, the current owner of Yahoo, is acting responsibly in deleting the archives of Yahoo Groups, a once-thriving ecosystem of online communities. “Verizon is eradicating a meaningful chunk of the internet’s collective memory,” McCracken writes. “The Yahoo Groups archive is an irreplaceable record of what people cared about in its heyday.” This won’t be the first Yahoo-related digicide. As Jordan Pearson notes in Vice, “In 2009, Yahoo shut down GeoCities, taking roughly 7 million personal websites with it.” 

Two years ago in Politico Magazine, social scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster explained what “negative partisanship” (see “Virality and virulence,” above) is and why its growth is bad for American politics. 

In Politico, Aaron David Miller, Eugene Rumer, and Richard Sokolsky lay outwhat Trump gets right about Syria.” Among their points: “the foreign policy establishment—the ‘blob’—has spilled a lot more ink complaining that his move benefits Russia than thinking about its actual effect on U.S. interests.” Two points about this point: (1) It meshes with my complaint about New York Times coverage of Syria, above; (2) It uses the semi-derisive term ‘blob’ for the foreign policy establishment—even though these authors, especially Miller, would traditionally have been thought of as members of that establishment. This is a welcome sign that the spirit of anti-blobism may be spreading from fringe renegades (me, for example, or Stephen Wertheim and Trita Parsi of the new and edgy Quincy Institute, who have a very worthwhile piece about Trump’s Syria policy in Foreign Policy this week) into parts of the mainstream. Hey Richard Haass, the phone call is coming from inside the house!

In a week when a New York Times op-ed advocated banning facial recognition technology “in both public and private sectors,” Wired reports on the growing if still quite limited use of the technology in schools. 

This week a retired admiral—and former commander of US Special Operations—won much applause by saying in a New York Times op-ed that Trump is a threat to the Republic and suggesting that this view is shared by many of the admiral’s peers. I’m ambivalent about this. I feel a bit uncomfortable when a former flag officer who implies that he speaks for many in the military writes that “it is time for a new person in the Oval Office” and “the sooner the better.” I realize he’s thinking about impeachment, not a coup, but I guess I’m old school; my father was a career army officer, and back in his day he and many other officers felt so strongly about the importance of separating the military from politics that they didn’t even vote. I have no doubt that that the admiral, William McRaven, is genuinely worried about the Republic. Me too. But but one thing about the Republic that worries me is that we’ve gotten to a point where we’re desperately looking to the military for political guidance.

Anti-trust tweet of the week: On Thursday Mark Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown, declared that it isn’t Facebook’s role to play speech police. As he put it in an interview, “I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true.” In response to which Gabriel Snyder, former editor of The New Republic, tweeted that what people don’t want is “to live in a world where just *ONE* tech company decides what people can say.” 

Incoming: Thanks to all the readers who emailed us (nonzero@substack.com) in response to last week’s newsletter. Several, responding to my lamentation about the dearth of anti-war activism among Buddhists and for that matter among progressives, directed me to welcome exceptions. Two readers—Jeff A. and Dat D.—mentioned the venerable Quaker group Friends Committee on National Legislation. Alan R. of Santa Cruz, an ordained Zen priest, hailed his local chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And Elizabeth F. provided a master list of pro-peace groups. (You have to scroll down to get to the Peace/Anti-War section, and if you’re not disciplined you may be diverted to some other kind of activism before you get there. Be strong!)