When Worlds Collide

Bad things happen when worlds collide, like in that cheesy 1951 movie about “the coming destruction of the Earth by a Neptune-sized extrasolar planet called Bellus and the desperate efforts to build a space ark that will save and transport a small portion of humanity to Bellus’ single Earth-like moon, Zyra.”

What? That was odd, but folks were scared in those days. Those nasty Russians now also had the bomb. Joe McCarthy had everyone worried about communists among us. We built more bombs. They built more bombs. The backyard bomb shelters followed – and a decade of quick and dirty grainy black-and-white end-of-the-world Hollywood movies. Sometimes it was giant spiders. There were the pod people, flying saucers from Mars, and the “it” that came from outer space – but it was always “our” world versus some other world. There was money to be made.

There’s always money to be made when people are scared, and in politics, power to be gained when it’s “us” versus “them” – even if they’re not from outer space. Use the trope from the old end-of-the-world Hollywood movies. Don’t you see what’s really going on here? Wake up before our world is gone!

There’s a lot of that going around. It may be that Donald Trump will destroy our world, not that he’s an orange-skinned monster from another planet – although he might be. It may be that Hilary Clinton will destroy the world as we know it. What do we really know about her? Set up the two-worlds-thing. That works every time.

That also makes reporting the news a little crazy. What’s really going on here? That depends on who you ask, because Fox News has created its own world:

Regular viewers of Sean Hannity’s show would understandably think that Hillary Clinton is in the midst of a serious health crisis.

The Fox News host spent has spent the entire week conducting an “investigation” into the Democratic nominee’s health, questioning whether her laugh appeared “seizure-esque” and drawing attention to a photograph of her slipping on a flight of stairs as proof of her instability.

According to Hannity, the mainstream media is intentionally avoiding the questions about Clinton’s health that have circulated on conservative sites since she was treated for a blood clot in her head in January 2013 after concussing her head in a fall.

Perhaps she’s one of the pod people, and no one realizes it:

He set to rectify that on Thursday by assembling a panel on medical experts including former 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson…

“She’s falling,” Hannity said. “You’ve got this sort of twitching thing that she does in front of reporters that was really bad. There have been a number of incidents and reports that she fell.”

To emphasize his point, Hannity repeatedly played a clip of Clinton bobbing her head back and forth at a June press gaggle.

“I mean it’s a violent, violent, repetitive jerking of the head here,” he said. “You can see it’s uncontrollable.”

Fox medical correspondent Marc Siegel posited that the motion could be the result of “brain damage” sustained from the concussion.

“That can have long term effects, that can have effects on gait, on balance,” he said, arguing that Clinton should release her full medical records.

His fellow medical correspondent David Samadi told Hannity that the motion “certainly could be” a seizure.

The panel also charged that pauses Clinton made during her public speeches were potentially suspect “brain freezes.”

That does sound like one of those old end-of-the-world movies, and as cheesy:

The renewed focus on Clinton’s health began last weekend after far-right news sites began circulating a February photo of the Democratic nominee slipping on a flight of stairs en route to a campaign stop. The image, which shows Secret Service agents helping Clinton recover her footing, was written up and retweeted with questions about her ability to walk unaided without any mention of when it was taken or why the agents were assisting her.

Clinton’s doctor released a letter last July summarizing her medical history and saying she was in “excellent” health.

This hasn’t stopped Hannity from proposing a host of theories about what could be wrong with the Democratic nominee.

As proof of Clinton’s supposed mental health issues, Hannity on Monday highlighted a photo of her Secret Service agent holding what some conservative sites claimed was a diazepam pen to treat seizures. The object was later revealed by fact-checking site Snopes to be a small flashlight.

No, no, no – that’s what they WANT you to think:

Hannity has also drawn attention to clips of Clinton coughing and photos of her making “off” facial expressions as evidence that she may have long-term brain damage.

Hannity is a persistent fellow, and then worlds collided:

Probably nobody on the cable news airwaves has been as big a Donald Trump fan as Sean Hannity. But CNN media reporter Brian Stelter says he’s taking it too far with his tactics.

And now Hannity is fighting back.

Tuesday morning on “Fox and Friends,” the conservative Fox News and radio host lashed out at Stelter, after Stelter devoted a portion of his show Sunday to denouncing a Hannity segment last week speculating about Hillary Clinton’s health. Stelter has also criticized Hannity for uncritically trumpeting Trump’s claim that the 2016 election would be “rigged.”

Hannity called Stelter a “little pipsqueak” and pointed to another segment in which a Stelter guest mused about whether Trump was a “demagogue.”

“That’s the type of coverage that CNN offers in this presidential race, as they literally kiss Hillary Clinton’s ass and Obama’s ass every day,” Hannity said.

Stelter on his Sunday show, “Reliable Sources,” spent a fair amount of time going after Hannity for the Clinton health segment.

Bad things happen when worlds collide, and Slate’s Michelle Goldberg explains why:

If you spend much time on right-wing media, you might have heard that Hillary Clinton suffers from seizures, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and possibly even tongue cancer… Donald Trump nodded to the rumors at a rally last weekend, saying, “Honestly I don’t think she’s all there.” Photos of “leaked” medical records describing Clinton’s “subcortical vascular dementia” and “complex partial seizures” are circulating online; as Snopes points out, they are printed on plain paper rather than letterhead, and they misstate the professional title of Clinton’s physician, Lisa Bardack. (An actual letter from Bardack says Clinton is in “excellent physical condition and fit to serve as President of the United States.”)

That doesn’t matter. Trump has now taken to saying that Clinton clearly does not have “the physical or mental stamina” to do the job, although he hasn’t yet said whether that’s because she’s a woman or because he’s all-in with Hannity and Doctor Carson and those other guys in white lab coats on the Fox News set.

We’ll find out which it is, or both, soon enough, but Goldberg sees a larger message:

As Clinton conspiracies go, this stuff is picayune. After all, some of the same right-wing characters painting Clinton as a frail invalid are also accusing her of masterminding the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who is said, without evidence, to be involved in last month’s leak of DNC documents. (This is only the latest of the dozens of murders some attribute to the Clintons.) Echoing the right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars, Trump has accused Clinton of co-founding ISIS…

Clinton has been accused of maintaining a secret police force to harass her critics. Countless Republicans have said she deliberately covered up the motives for the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Indeed, though right-wingers now cite her 2012 concussion as evidence of her failing health, Fox News previously accused her of faking the concussion to get out of testifying about Benghazi. It’s hard to blame conspiracy theorists for this contradiction; with so many rumors swirling around, internal consistency is impossible.

And in turn, that may not matter:

What is striking about the rumors of Clinton’s imminent collapse aren’t the stories themselves, but the purpose they serve. Most Clinton conspiracy theories are meant to delegitimize her, to explain away her baffling, irksome persistence in public life as a product of a scarcely comprehensible homicidal ruthlessness. The idea that she’s secretly much weaker than she appears, by contrast, is pure wishful thinking. It’s the demented cousin of the right-wing conviction, in the run up to the 2012 election, that polls showing Mitt Romney losing were skewed. “Hillary Clinton’s Health in Rapid Decline – Will She Even Make It to Election Day at This Rate?” asks a headline on InfoWars.

This is the speculation of desperate men hoping for a deus ex machina to save them from a Clinton presidency. That means that on some level, these men are starting to understand that this future is bearing down on them.

Putting that another way, a Neptune-sized extrasolar planet is bearing down on their world, and they don’t have a space ark.

Still, it does seem they make things up, and Vanity Fair’s Tina Nguyen enjoys a bit of snark on how that can go bad real fast:

Katrina Pierson, Donald Trump’s bullet necklace-wearing spokeswoman and longtime viceroy of his army of cable-news surrogates, sometimes has a bit of trouble sticking to her talking points. Like the man for whom she serves as professional booster, Pierson can occasionally spout conspiracy theories and veer into factually incorrect territory. But also like Trump, she is incredibly good at sticking to her guns – even when she’s blasting her own team with friendly fire.

CNN has her on all the time, trying to show that they’re being fair to Donald Trump, but it’s clear that she’s from a different world:

The past several days have been particularly vexing for the raven-haired face of the Trump campaign. On Monday, during an appearance on Fox Business News, Pierson raised eyebrows when she argued that the American people are “tired of seeing left-wing reporters literally beat Trump supporters into submission,” straining the accepted definition of the word “literally” beyond recognition. “It just shuts them down and that’s not what they’re seeing in this campaign.” (While Trump and his supporters have frequently lashed out at the media as if words could bludgeon, there have not, to date, been any examples of a reporter literally beating or assaulting a Trump supporter. The opposite, however has occasionally been true.)

Okay, she didn’t know what “literally” meant – it happens – but there’s this:

Over the weekend, she turned headed by insisting that President Barack Obama had invaded Afghanistan, expanding on Trump’s so-called “sarcastic” comments the week before about Obama founding ISIS. “If you want to go way back, we can look at the troop surge, and after 2007 al-Qaeda was essentially in ashes,” Pierson said, insisting that Obama and Hillary Clinton had screwed up by pulling troops out of Iraq early, allowing ISIS to occupy the power vacuum. “Remember, we weren’t even in Afghanistan by this time,” she continued. “Barack Obama went into Afghanistan, creating another problem.” (Pierson later admitted that Obama had not, in fact, invaded Afghanistan. She explained that she confused Syria with Afghanistan due to a faulty earpiece, the same excuse she gave when she mistakenly blamed Obama and Clinton for the death of Muslim-American soldier Humayun Khan, who died in 2004, long before Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, much less the White House.)

By the way, we didn’t invade Syria either, and of course President Obama didn’t change the rules of engagement in Iraq in 2004 and get our guys killed – he was a state senator in Illinois at the time. Katrina Pierson seems to live in a parallel universe, on another world. She just visits this one occasionally.

How does this keep happening? Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy, in an interview for an upcoming piece, talks to conservative radio host Charlie Sykes about how this happens, and Sykes explains it all:

“We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood,” he explained. “The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that… ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.'”

According to Sykes, any attempts to continue fighting back against misinformation is dismissed with complaints that he has “sold out,” adding, “Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”

Sykes warned “There’s got to be a reckoning on all this.”

That day may be here:

“We’ve created this monster,” he warned. “Look, I’m a conservative talk show host. All conservative talk show hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted with the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot has been justifiable. There is real bias. But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.”

He and his cohorts have, then, made it so no one can believe anyone or anyone anymore. There are now no “facts” at all. They changed the world, and Sykes now regrets what he’s done.

That’s nice to know, but Heather Parton argues that he’s not to blame:

Back in the early 2000s right wing talk radio was a juggernaut that influenced American politics so thoroughly that all mainstream GOP leaders genuflected to their power. Rush Limbaugh was, of course, the king, a man so powerful that he was given substantial credit for the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 with the freshman Republican class going so far as to award him an honorary membership in their caucus. There was a time not long ago when the entire Bush family got on the horn to wish Rush a happy birthday on the air.

When Limbaugh got into trouble for saying something crude or outrageous, such as saying the Abu Ghraib torturers were just “blowing off steam,” the whole conservative establishment would jump to his defense.

She cites Kate O’Beirne of the National Review on that:

Rush is one of those rare acquaintances who can be defended against an assault challenging his character without ever knowing the “facts.” We trust his good judgment, his unerring decency, and his fierce loyalty to the country he loves and to the courageous young Americans who defend her.

No one cares about facts when the guy’s heart is in the right place, but Parton notes how that idea failed:

This phenomenon had a number of bedrock assumptions but the first, and most important, was the notion that the mainstream media suffered from a liberal bias so extreme that it was completely untrustworthy. Now this idea had not originated with the modern right wing media. It had been an article of faith among conservatives since the 1960s when the right began to rebel against the civil rights movement and the Vietnam and Watergate coverage. It later became a more cynical “playing the refs” exercise in which their constant accusations of liberal bias kept reporters and editors constantly on the defensive and ended up tilting much of the coverage their way. It was a very savvy move. The scandal-mongering of the 1990s and the reporting of the election in 2000 were perfect results of that successful campaign.

One of the more interesting intellectual arguments undergirding this liberal media obsession was the conservative fixation with moral and cultural relativism perhaps best illustrated by Lynn Cheney and her book “Telling the Truth” in which she excoriated the left for abandoning objective reality…

After 9/11, however, this thesis was finally exposed as being laughably absurd when President Bush and Cheney’s husband masterfully manipulated the so-called liberal media into cheerleading for an illegal war based upon phony intelligence. There was even a famous quote from a Bush official to reporter Ron Suskind which perfectly characterized the prevailing right-wing ethos of the period. He said that reporters like Suskind lived in the “reality based community” which was made up of people who believe “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” He and his cohorts on the right, however, were not constrained by such restrictions: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Lynn Cheney never said a word. But many on the left did, proudly taking up the mantle of the “reality based community” and making the case that the right’s years-long crusade against the so-called liberal media was creating a form of epistemological relativism of its own, some of which was manifesting itself in very dangerous ways…

The right’s great noise machine just kept chugging along, however. And the rise of social media turned it into an even louder megaphone that simultaneously blocked out any competing information.

And here we are:

It was this environment that has made it possible for Donald Trump to emerge. We know he is a twitter and Instagram addict and uses all social media more casually and more intimately than any presidential candidate in history. But less known is the fact that in preparation for his run, Trump hired people to listen to talk radio and give him detailed reports on the zeitgeist. That’s where he got his immigration policy and many others which often sound like non-sequiturs like “get rid of common core.” And it’s no mystery where Trump got his increasingly unhinged rap about the press either, is it?

Maybe he should be unhinged. Ezra Klein argues that the press has had just about enough of his alternative world:

There is a case to be made that the media created Donald Trump. It was, reportedly, his anger at being dismissed by political pundits that led him to run for president in the first place. And it was, arguably, the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of his every utterance that powered his victory in the Republican primary.

But slowly, surely, the media has turned on Trump. He still gets wall-to-wall coverage, but that coverage is overwhelmingly negative. Increasingly, the press doesn’t even pretend to treat Trump like a normal candidate: CNN’s chyrons fact-check him in real time; the Washington Post reacted to being banned from Trump with a shrug; BuzzFeed News published a memo telling reporters it was fine to call Trump “a mendacious racist” on social media; the New York Times published a viral video in which it simply quoted the most vile statements it heard from Trump’s supporters.

This is not normal. There are rules within traditional political reporting operations about how you cover presidential candidates. If Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination, he might have lied in some speeches, but CNN’s chyrons would have stayed dull. If Ted Cruz had been the GOP’s standard-bearer, he, like Trump, would have kooks at his rallies, but it would be seen as a cheap shot for the New York Times to record the worst of their vitriol and send it ricocheting across Facebook. If Jeb Bush had banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign over charges of bias, the paper would treat it as an existential threat.

But there will be none of that for Trump:

It’s a common criticism of political reporting that it’s hampered by a faux-evenhandedness – if one side says the sky is blue and the other side says it’s orange, then the headline will be “Opinions on Color of Sky Differ.” But that hasn’t happened this year. The media has felt increasingly free to cover Trump as an alien, dangerous, and dishonest phenomenon. “Trump has freed journalists from the handcuffs of false equivalence,” says Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Maybe he really is an orange-skinned monster from outer space, or at least a special case:

While it’s ridiculous to suggest the media likes Hillary Clinton – her relationship with the press is famously, legendarily toxic – the media is increasingly biased against Trump. He really is getting different, harsher treatment than any candidate in memory. That he deserves it is important context to the discussion, but not, I think, the whole explanation.

Trump’s deteriorating relationship with the press is revealing about Trump himself – about the ways in which an attention-at-all-costs strategy that carried him through the primary has proven maladaptive in the general election. But it’s also interesting as a window into how the political press works, and why it does or doesn’t follow rules of evenhandedness in different circumstances.

And this is a different circumstance:

There is an idealistic and a cynical reason for automatic equivalence in political reporting. The idealistic reason is that the press isn’t supposed to take a side because the audience needs the news delivered by institutions that will always, no matter what, deliver both sides – and who is the press to choose which side is right, anyway?

The cynical reason is that members of the political press need to report among elites from both political parties, and equivalence-based reporting ensures that you don’t lose too much access on either side, and that’s the real game – making sure both parties are willing to talk to you and members of both parties will subscribe to you. Both are true.

But Trump short-circuits all that. You can criticize him sharply and be applauded, both publicly and privately, by senior Republican figures. The most despairing, hysterical commentary I’ve heard about Trump this cycle has been from Republicans speaking off the record – including Republicans who have endorsed Trump! In this way, the “evenhanded” view of Trump that emerges from traditional reporting is that he’s a dangerous maniac – Democrats say it, and so too do many top Republicans.

That is permission:

Back during the primaries, I published a piece – and recorded a video – calling Donald Trump’s rise a terrifying moment in American politics. The analysis was unsparing.

“Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory,” I wrote. “He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying.”

After the piece published, I got a call from a very conservative Republican member of Congress. He wanted to talk about the article, his office said. I figured he’d be angry. Instead, he congratulated me for speaking out.

I think this is why the Washington Post, for instance, isn’t panicking over being banned from Trump’s events. If the Post believed the Republican Party had turned on it so sharply that it was now permanently blacklisted from doing even basic reporting on GOP campaigns, it would be an institutional crisis.

But the Post doesn’t believe that’s what Trump’s reaction represents, because Trump doesn’t speak for the Republican Party. Plenty of Republicans are happy to see the excellent, critical coverage the paper has offered of Trump and are appalled by Trump’s petulant reaction. The Post’s long-term relationships on the right aren’t imperiled by its feud with the Trump campaign – they may even be being strengthened by it.

That’s bad news for Trump, generating more bad news about Trump, and can ruin whatever conspiracy theory he decides to run with:

Politicians are not fully truthful. Everyone knows that. But they make a basic effort at being, as Stephen Colbert put it, truthy. The statistics they cite are usually in the neighborhood of correct. The falsehoods they offer are crafted through the careful omission of fact rather than the inclusion of falsehood. They may say things journalists know are wrong – climate change denial is a constant among Republican officeholders – but they protect themselves by wrapping their arguments in well-constructed controversy or appealing to hand-selected experts.

This is part of how political reporting operates. Politicians are allowed to be wrong, but they can’t lie. Trump just lies.

“Whether Hillary Clinton was truthful about her emails is such a complicated and almost insidery story that it requires a multi-thousand-word PolitiFact explanation,” says Stelter. “Donald Trump calling Obama the founder of ISIS can be fact-checked in a chyron.” And indeed it was.

Reasonable people can and do disagree as to whether Trump’s comment should’ve been taken so literally. But that’s precisely the point: Trump’s tendency to spout wild, outlandish, easily disproven falsehoods and conspiracy theories has shredded any benefit of the doubt he ever got from the press.

Trump brought this on himself, but there is an end-of-the-world element to all this:

Quietly, privately, political reporters wonder if Trump is a threat to them personally. If he were president, would he use the powers of the office to retaliate against them personally if he didn’t like their coverage of his administration? How certain are they that their taxes are really in order? How sure are they that a surveillance state controlled by Trump would tap their phones and watch their emails for leverage?

I am not saying this drives coverage of Trump, but it recasts negative coverage of him. Trump has made criticism of his campaign a reflection of an ideal journalists are particularly committed to: that the United States should have a free and open press able to scrutinize leading politicians without fear of reprisal. Thus, when Trump bars different publications from his press conference, it becomes proof that they are doing the work that journalists should do, and that a President Trump might make that work impossible to do.

That’s where these two worlds really collide. Sure, claim that there’s something going on that no one else realizes, and loudly proclaim that the press is being unfair in not covering it as the big story of the day, but don’t gripe when the press looks into it, finds nothing there, and stops listening to you. And there’s no Neptune-sized extrasolar planet hurtling toward our own helpless little planet.

There’s a reason Hollywood stopped making those cheesy end-of-the-world movies. The sixties happened. We decided to talk about race and the Vietnam War – and about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll too. This world was trouble enough. We didn’t need an imaginary other. There would be no more collisions for a while. Oh, and the movies got better too.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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