Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sunday Reading

Like Drinking From A Fire Hose — Margaret Sullivan on fact-checking Trump.

Daniel Dale met President Trump’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Trump’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Dale is a national treasure, imported last year from the Toronto Star, where he won accolades for bravely tackling the Sisyphean task of fact-checking Trump. My skilled colleagues of The Washington Post Fact-Checker team, who recently published a whole book on the president’s lies, have similarly done their best to hold back the tide of Trumpian falsehoods.

Dozens of organizations, from to and many others, are kept busy chasing political lies, so many of which come from the current White House. But here’s the rub. More than a decade after the innovative Florida-based fact-checking organization won a Pulitzer Prize, fact-checking may make less of a difference than ever.

More and more, fact-checkers seem to be trying to bail out an ancient, rusty and sinking freighter with the energetic use of measuring cups and thimbles.

“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times put it last week.

I happened to be sitting in the WAMU studio in late 2016 when Scottie Nell Hughes — then a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the 2016 campaign — said something startling, live on the Diane Rehm radio show: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, (as) facts.”

Rehm had pressed her about Trump’s false assertion that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally. That was a claim he seemingly had heard on Infowars — the conspiracy-theory-crazed site run by Alex Jones, who at one time claimed that the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six staff members at an Connecticut elementary school was a government-sponsored hoax.

Hughes gave not an inch of ground: Trump’s false claims, she insisted, “amongst a certain crowd . . . a large part of the population, are truth.”

Belief, therefore, takes the place of fact.

The situation has only become worse since then. And as scholars have observed, calling out falsehoods forcefully may actually cause people to hold tighter to their beliefs.

That’s the “backfire effect” that academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler wrote about in their study “When Corrections Fail” about the persistence of political misperceptions: “Direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs.”

Not knowing what media sources to believe — and the growing mistrust in the press among many segments of the public — has added to the problem of politicians who lie.

Last week, I was asked to settle a family dispute about the believability of a news report that had been circulating on a group text-message chain.

One family member (I’m being vague since I hope to continue to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner) was outraged by the supposed revelations in a Newsweek article whose headline read “Brand New Mail Sorting Machine Thrown Out at USPS Center, Leaving Workers Sorting by Hand.”

Another family member had serious doubts about whether this was true. He dismissed it as “hearsay.”

And a third asked me to take a look: Would I have published the article?

It didn’t take me long to decide it wasn’t credible or publication-worthy. Newsweek, despite its legacy name, is suspect from the start these days. The article’s sourcing was thin. And a hyperlink, its main piece of evidence, led me to a local news site that already corrected the main element of its story. (Days later, Newsweek still hadn’t updated its story.)

These family members care about the facts, and were engaged enough to be curious about whether a report is accurate. And while it may have suited their politics better if it were true, they were open to hearing that it wasn’t.

But most people don’t have the time or energy to do research projects on the news they are reading, or the claims they are hearing from the White House, or the conspiracy theories that flood their Facebook feeds.

Most people no longer share with their fellow citizens the trust in news organizations — or in political actors — that would give them confidence in a shared basis of reality. And worst of all, the flow of disinformation on social media is both vile and unstoppable.

In this world, challenging official lies and seeking truth remains necessary, even essential. The yeoman’s work of Daniel Dale, and others like him, remains appreciated.

But I’m with Warzel on this: As Americans, we’re in trouble when it comes to a common ground of reality on which to stand.

And no amount of fact-checking is going to solve that overwhelming problem.

An Appreciation of Chadwick Boseman — Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

In an era that prizes and praises actors’ conspicuous exertion (like Joaquin Phoenix, in “Joker,” and Leonardo DiCaprio, in “The Revenant”), Chadwick Boseman never wrestled the bear, never turned acting into stunt work for the sheer self-congratulatory pride in effort. He also, at a time when technical skill is venerated, never flaunted his own formidable acting technique. Boseman, who died on Friday, at the age of forty-three, never won an Oscar—was never even nominated. True, he had only a handful of leading roles, but he won overwhelming and justified acclaim for each of them. Yet he didn’t sufficiently impress his award-granting peers in the industry, perhaps because his style of acting set him apart from—and in crucial ways, above—the customs, habits, and conventions of the profession.

Boseman’s talent had never been in doubt; what had largely gone unrecognized was his originality. His breakthrough came in that most accursed of genres, the bio-pic, in “42,” which was released in 2013, when he was thirty-six years old. There, alongside the enormous historical responsibility that the role of Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in major-league baseball) imposed, Boseman had a hard script to contend with. It’s a movie written and directed with 20/20 hindsight regarding progress in American race relations. Boseman’s solution to the dramatic and technical problem of conveying Robinson’s supremely controlled bearing and the passion that roiled beneath it was to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of bio-pic performances: he neither reinvents the role to fit his own art (as do some other notables who’ve won Oscars for performances in the genre) nor does he impersonate the character of Robinson with sheer virtuosity. Rather, Boseman incarnates Robinson, catches an element of physical bearing that comes not from imitation but identification, from a profound empathy that goes beneath the skin and seemingly takes on not merely the character’s actions and experiences but also the subconscious, the automatic aspect.

That sense of lived-in spontaneity born of imagination is both the source of Boseman’s profound art and the reason that he had not been hailed as other actors have been. His method puts his own bearing severely to the test, and that bearing is supremely graceful: he makes the extreme difficulty of embodying Robinson (and, then, James Brown, in “Get On Up”) look effortless, and makes his distinctive and unusual craft look like second nature rather than like the actorly modernism that it is. In “Marshall,” Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall (in a story of Marshall’s work as a civil-rights attorney, set decades before he became a Supreme Court Justice) with a similarly inhabited air—an expansive power that’s the opposite of haunted or theatrical. Boseman’s performance is grandly dialectical, but his way with the word conveys, above all, the intellectual power and the historical undercurrent that gives rise to the word; here, too, his virtuosity is subordinated into a physical presence that virtually bursts through the screen with a startling immediacy that nonetheless seems to be entirely that of Marshall.

Boseman was an extraordinarily graceful actor—perhaps the most graceful one of his generation. His ability to generate enormous power with the appearance of minimal strain is both an art and a mark of personality, of a devotion and a humility that Hollywood values even less for its authenticity, its sincerity. In the role of T’Challa, in “Black Panther,” Boseman dons the royal mantle with a serenity that reflects a clear and principled sense of purpose—and that again wears lightly the burden of responsibility that comes with it. The movie, for all its Marvelous artifice, both asserts the Black identity of superheroic characters and of American pop culture at large, while also joining American Blackness to the heritage of African culture. The movie, through the creative efforts of its director, Ryan Coogler (who wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole), takes on a responsibility far greater than that of any other film in the Marvel cycle, greater perhaps than any work of mass entertainment in recent years—and Boseman, at its center, carries that responsibility with an understated grandeur that, once more, conveys a sense of humility.

What’s more, Boseman, for all that he achieved, did so quickly but belatedly. He had only a handful of starring and major roles; though he died at forty-three, he was really only just getting started. He had only begun to work with the leading directors of the time; his art and his style, though fully formed, had only begun to reveal their immense, historic possibilities. Boseman’s role in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” as Stormin’ Norman, the troop commander who, while fighting in Vietnam, was also a virtual mentor in Black history and politics to the men serving under his command, is similarly imbued with the responsibility and the weight of history. The role, despite its brevity, is the fulcrum of the movie, the source of emotional energy and of ideas that propel the drama.

The casting in Lee’s film is apt: here, Boseman, while inhabiting the role fully, is also, in a way, emblematic of his own artistic passion for history, for properly redefining the cultural record to reflect the centrality of Black lives and achievements. This, too, is part of Boseman’s gracefulness and devotion—his performances suggest that the only thing that’s remarkable about such an effort is the distressing fact that it is, today, still necessary. It is, perhaps, this very sense of history, of responsibility, of implicit but intensely personal political commitment, that also inhibited the acclaim, while Boseman lived and worked, from his timid and stumbling Hollywood milieu.

Doonesbury — Turnabout.