'The Fairway' is now 'Hate Inc.'

Dear Readers,

As of today, I am renaming the project you’ve been reading that’s been titled, “The Fairway.” From now on, it’s going to have this title, and subtitle:


How, and why, the press makes us hate one another

If there’s room at the bottom of the cover – and it is looking more likely now that this will be a physical book at some point – I may add the following:

Your Campaign 2020 Guide to Media Deception!

I started this serialized book as a re-think of Manufacturing Consent. I was so locked in to that idea that I felt I needed Noam Chomsky’s blessing to start it. Over the course of writing it, however, the thesis started to drift.

I realized what I was really writing was an insider’s guide to how reporters lie to the public. It was part tirade, part confessional. The text poured out in big chunks, probably reflecting, I realized, years of secret frustrations.

Manufacturing Consent was a dissection of propaganda at the structural level. It’s a macro-analysis.

Hate Inc. – what I started off calling The Fairway – increasingly focused on deceptions that were more at the sentence level. It returned frequently to one theme: What most people think of as “the news” is really a particularly twisted wing of the entertainment business.

In the Internet age, we in the press have mastered the art of monetizing anger, paranoia, and distrust. We’ve learned how to wind you up for profit.

Because I spent so much of my career covering elections, and this happens to be the subject matter where this kind of manipulative media activity is most egregious, the book turned into a taxonomic survey of the tricks of modern American political journalism.

I’m renaming this book Hate Inc. a) because I can, i.e. because b) the Substack formula allows it, and c) because I want to focus more on the theme of how shattering your peace of mind is our business model.

Heading into a 2020 election season that promises to be a Great Giza Pyramid Complex of invective and digital ugliness, I want people to understand this book as a guide to all the unseen manipulations you will see and hear by the truckload in the 2019–2020 election season, and beyond.

During my second campaign assignment, in 2007–2008, I started a secret hobby. As I followed candidates around the country, I’d grab a red pen and whatever paper I could find in the hotel lobby – a USA Today, frequently – and see how quickly I could mark up the deceptions on the front page. By the end of a campaign, I’d have most papers covered in red in under a minute.

I want readers to be able to spot the same things. Does a 1200-word piece that is the last New York Times article before the Iowa caucus cite poll numbers eight times, and make only passing references to policy? Is the well-funded candidate with a history of flip-flopping “nuanced,” while the poorly-funded candidate with detailed and earnest proposals called “kooky”? Does a paper use a term like “highly delegative” about a politician when what they really mean is, “Too slow-witted to independently make decisions”?

The modern media business is all about identifying demographics and serving them a steady diet of affirming opinion. If you feel negatively about any group or subject, we will serve you information that enhances that feeling. When you’re angry, we’ll make you angrier.

When we think you’re thinking on your own too much, we’ll nudge you back toward the sensational and the non-reflective. The goal is to keep you spinning in an endless cycle of disgust and impotent anger. It’s the ultimate Orwellian trick: a consumer business in which the product is your own frustration. You are our power source. The unhappier you are, the more money we make.

Going forward, Hate Inc. will focus more and more on what you’re about to see on the 2020 campaign trail. Think of it as a glossary of lies, and please don’t hesitate to write in with your own complaints about news coverage. Until then, thanks for reading, and for your patience.

Read the introduction to Hate Inc. (formerly The Fairway)

The Church of Averageness: 'Polls Say' (Hate Inc.)

This is a free chapter from “Hate Inc.” (formerly “The Fairway”). If you’re already a subscriber (thank you!), please consider sharing it. If not, you can subscribe to get all chapters in your inbox as they’re published.

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Donald Trump was the least “electable” presidential candidate in modern history. He probably beat out even Lyndon Larouche on this score. 

Trump grievously offended nearly every voting demographic. He’d teed off on women, Latinos, Muslims, the disabled, “the blacks,” veterans, and Asians (“We want deal!” he cracked, about the Chinese).

He retweeted, about Iowans, before the Iowa Caucus, the line, “Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain?” This was after being confronted by a poll showing him trailing Ben Carson in upcoming caucuses. Repeat: he ripped Iowa, Monsanto, and corn before the Iowa caucuses.

Additionally, Trump violated every idea we had about what a presidential candidate looked, acted, and sounded like. He threw water, bragged about his dong size, ranted about women’s periods, and while doing so, didn’t check other key “electability” boxes.

He had no “ground game,” a characteristic normally cited as a crucial factor. He was also an adulterer and ignorant of the Bible, running in a primary whose constituents supposedly treasured religion.

By every conceivable standard of conventional wisdom, Trump had no shot. As noted before, even data journalists laughed at the notion that he could win.*

Nate Silver, the former baseball stats guru turned National Oracle™ (as Gizmodo called him), said Trump had a better shot of “cameoing in another Home Alone movie with Macaulay Culkin (or playing in the NBA Finals) than winning the Republican nomination.”

But he won anyway. This should have proved “electability” was a crock, and killed it forever as a form of campaign analysis. 

It did not. It lives on, as journalism’s version of junk forensics. It’s like the infamous “comparative bullet-lead analysis” – a made-up trick, about as scientific as chicken-bone divination, that nonetheless routinely impacts devastating real-world decisions. 

“Electability” often amounts to pundits saying that because a thing just happened, it will never stop happening.

Take a close race, like the 2000 presidential election. In it, independents broke late for George W. Bush, snapping a near-statistical tie.

An interesting statistical observation would have been more in line with what Chomsky said about that race. His take was that in a sample size that enormous, a tie would only be expected in one situation: if people were voting for something random, like the presidency of Mars.

The amazing closeness of American elections has never made sense. In a country in which 10% of the population owns 90% of the wealth, you’d expect the very rich to be a permanent electoral minority. That it doesn’t work out that way is odd. But this is not the kind of observation pundits tend to make. Instead, we peck around the surface.

The take from 2000 was about how independents behave when things get close. Pundits cited a statistical law: in tight races, undecideds tend to break for the challenger.

This for a time was called the “incumbent rule.”

Four years later, the “incumbent rule” was broken out to raise concern about George W. Bush’s seemingly stagnant support levels heading into Election Day 2004, against challenger John Kerry.

When Bush won, suddenly everyone was wondering what happened to that incumbent rule.

So some cited a Democratic pollster, Mark Mellman, who wrote: “We simply do not defeat an incumbent President in wartime.”

So that maxim was added to the other. Both became conventional wisdom:

Tight races tend to break away from the incumbent, unless it’s in wartime, in which case they don’t.

Reporters built up a stack of these “laws of campaigning.” We became alchemists in big conical hats, sorting through giant tomes at the start of each race, to see if paths to victory for each candidate could be found in our mazes of rules.

The trick was using polls to convince voters to interpret political news through someone else’s eyes, instead of their own brains. You may like the policies of candidate X better, but “polls say” (this use of the passive voice is key) you should vote candidate Y, if you want to win the election.

But “Polls say” is often just “we say,” disguised – in the same way a man-on-the-street quote is often just the first person found who agreed with a point the reporter wanted to make.

In elections past, “Polls said” an “electable” candidate was someone capable of “crossing the aisle,” a “fiscal conservative” (whatever that meant), not “soft on defense” and possessing of certain personal characteristics: married, with kids, heterosexual, tall (seriously), presentable, religious, and preferably with military experience.

Both parties and their main donors consistently threw, and throw, their money behind candidates who check all of these boxes. This person becomes the presumptive frontrunner. Campaign reporters would then trail along – I’ve watched this many times – and prod would-be voters at events to comment on the candidate’s superior “electability.”

This was particularly an issue with John Kerry. If you were a reporter following Kerry, you felt like you’d died and woken up in a vat of boiling grease. The man was pure distilled boredom. He had no clue why he was running for president.

The only thing Kerry seemed to enjoy on the campaign was “orange baseball,” a game in which he’d roll an orange from the front section of his campaign plane down the aisle into the press section.

The vets on the plane explained this was an old tradition (apparently Nancy Reagan was really into it as well). But Kerry bowled more oranges than any candidate they had ever seen.

If we were taking off, Kerry would lean his huge head into the aisle, flash a dazed smile, and drop an orange on the carpet. As the plane accelerated upward, the fruit would fly down the aisle, gaining speed throughout, and smack the piles of camera equipment at the back of the plane, if it didn’t first bounce into the face of a sleeping reporter or bash an unsuspecting stewardess in the kitchen. Kerry would smile equally at each of these outcomes.

The “fun” soon became weird. The female reporters in particular found the whole thing obnoxious. Up front, you could plainly see that Kerry’s team was trying to talk to him about stuff, but he was focused on that orange. On one flight we had two going at once.

What was up with this dude? All we knew about Kerry was that he was supposedly more “electable” than Edwards (who was too “angry” on class issues) and Dean (who was “too liberal”). And this was, after all, the “electability” election. In 2004, the buzz was, nothing was more important than electability.

How did we know that? Because everyone in the plane said so. There were literally thousands of articles about Kerry and “electability” that year.

Matt Bai of the New York Times later summed up 2004 as follows: “In this year's campaign, electability became the issue itself.”

After playing the orange game on Kerry’s flights, reporters would jump out in search of fodder for “electability” stories. At events, which after all were filled with Kerry supporters, they’d ask questions like, “Do you think Kerry can beat Bush?”

“Uh, yes,” the person would say. “I think he can beat Bush.”

Next morning, you’d see the story:

John Q. Dinglehat of Hologram, New Hampshire wants to see a Democrat in the White House – and thinks John Kerry is just the man to make it happen. ‘I think he can beat Bush,’ Dinglehat says.

Pollsters and pundits alike framed Kerry as the “beat Bush” candidate. “Seen as the Best Candidate to Beat Bush, Kerry primed for a N.H. Victory,” the Gallup service wrote, just before the primary.

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