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Cable news decides not to feed the trolls - BCB #25
Also: polarized COVID death rates, judge halts Florida STOP W.O.K.E. Act
The three major cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News — limited the airtime of former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announcement to different extents last Tuesday evening. This is a big change from 2016, when they sometimes broadcast an empty podium while waiting for Trump’s appearance.
Back then, every one of Trump’s outrageous statements was covered incessantly. Self-confessed media manipulator Ryan Holiday explained beautifully in 2017 that this predictable outrage is in fact a reliable promotional strategy, greatly broadening a message’s reach and making it appear more subversive and against the mainstream.
Journalists eventually realized this, and the concept of strategic silence has emerged as a response. Strategic silence could also be called censorship, and there is definitely some line between not feeding the trolls and suppressing an important story. The trouble is, there is no objective measure of the “right” amount of attention for any particular event, and Red and Blue do not not agree on what is newsworthy. It is worth noting that censorship occurs across the aisle; what differs is what Red and Blue each deem unacceptable to say. This is why it’s particularly remarkable to see both Red and Blue networks cutting away from Trump’s presidential announcement.
This study by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds COVID death rate for Republicans was 76% higher than the death rate for Democrats, which translates into tens of thousands of additional deaths. This analysis compares the “excess death rate,” meaning how many more people died than would be expected based on 2019 statistics, as a way to avoid the tricky issue of the reliability of COVID-19 death statistics. Most of this difference happened after the availability of vaccines, when the excess death rate gap between Republicans and Democrats widened from approximately 22% to a whopping 153%. The gap was concentrated in counties with low vaccination rates.
Could tens of thousands of Red lives have been saved if not for polarization effects which increased anti-vaccination sentiment on one side? After all, there is no necessary reason that support for vaccination should be correlated with politics, but once COVID response became entangled with the culture war it pushed community responses to extremes. The chart above is a gruesome demonstration of the potential costs of dysfunctional conflict.
The STOP W.O.K.E. Act, passed in March 2022, bars professors at Florida public universities from saying anything that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” belief in eight concepts related to “race, color, national origin, or sex” in college classrooms, including “critique[s] of colorblindness.” It required university administrators to impose severe penalties including potential termination. This week, a Federal judge prevented this part of the law from being enforced.
This is a moderating move in the culture war, as the law was an attempt to use state power to limit what opinions could be expressed in the classroom. Traditionally, Red has accused Blue of using institutional power to suppress speech – there is certainly a proliferation of speech policies promoting Blue values on social media platforms and at university level. However, the STOP W.O.K.E. Act carried the force of law. We see it as a win for freedom of expression that this law has been challenged. However, it won’t necessarily be a de-escalation in the fight to control what each of us can say unless Blue also retreats – or is prevented – from enforcing its preferred political speech codes.
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Quote of the Week
The powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of “freedom.” … Under this Act, professors enjoy “academic freedom” so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.