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By Kyle Sammin
September 6, 2019
Bolsonaro and the Amazon fires. Johnson and Brexit. Trump and trade, immigration, and nearly everything else. All are examples of completely normal things being treated as awful and unprecedented because they occur while the man in charge is someone the press doesn’t like.
What began as a quirk of American mainstream media has now leapt international borders to Europe and South America. Journalists, once the self-proclaimed neutral gatekeepers of analysis in discrete areas, are relying on their readers’ ignorance of these topics to impose their views at the expense of the truth.
It works because the press downplays bad news when its friends are in charge, for even though reporters are often dealing with the same actions on both sides, many think the effect is not as bad because their favored politicians mean well, while the Republicans don’t. Many in the press brush aside bad things and cover normal things matter-of-factly, if at all. So it is no surprise that people remain ignorant and rightfully get mad when the press tells them this thing, whatever it is, is awful and norm-breaking, and we’re all going to die from it.
Environmental causes always produce the greatest hysteria, and each new development, big or small, is accompanied by the proclamation that the result will be the death of millions. So it has been with this year’s fires in the Amazon. The “lungs of the world” were blazing away at unprecedented rates, the press told us. Twenty percent of the world’s oxygen comes from the Amazon rainforest, they said, and it was being destroyed as never before because of the wickedness of man.
Only none of that was true. As The New York Times noted in an even-handed article on the subject, the land being burned had mostly already been cleared years earlier. To the extent there were a bunch of fires — and there were — it was roughly in line with the fires of the last decade. Deforestation was way down from decades past, and that remained true in 2019. Even those well-worn claims about the Amazon being particularly important to the world’s oxygen supply were found to be vastly exaggerated.
Why now? Why was this annual event of land-clearance trumpeted as an unparalleled catastrophe? It might have something to do with the political leadership in Brazil. While that nation’s chief executives from 2003 to 2016 were members of the socialist Workers’ Party, Brazil’s current president is Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist.
Socialist presidents made the right noises about protecting the environment, while Bolsonaro hasn’t, yet this year’s fires are within the parameters of the last decade’s burns. When the media and celebrities are forced to choose between the facts and their feelings about right-wing populists, feelings win the day.
The Trump effect also affects news coverage across the Atlantic since Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has taken office. In many ways, Trump and Johnson are opposites, but both rode into their countries’ top political jobs on a wave of populist excitement, so they get lumped into the same group. It does not help that the biggest issue in Britain at the moment is Brexit — something Johnson is for and the establishment press is against.
The way the press has treated Johnson’s recent prorogation of Parliament fits this Trump-style pattern precisely. Prorogation has no exact equivalent in the U.S. Congress, but is something between a recess and the end of a session. While no new election is called, parliamentary business stops, members may go home for a time, and any pending legislation that has not passed must be reintroduced in the next session. The queen has the sole power to prorogue Parliament, but under Britain’s modern unwritten constitution, she only does so if the prime minister asks.
Johnson asked the queen to prorogue Parliament last week as a part of his plan to reintroduce a Brexit plan in the next session, and all hell broke loose in the press and among leftist voters. They called the move a “coup,” among other things, and gave the general impression the move was unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional.
Was that true? Parliaments are often prorogued after a long session to give the government a chance to start fresh with a new speech from the throne, which sets out a new agenda for Parliament to consider. And the session of Parliament that just ended was an extraordinarily long one. Back in May, The Guardian noted the session was already the longest in 400 years. Hitting the reset button through a brief prorogation is to be expected under those circumstances.
Johnson’s detractors then note that by keeping Parliament out of session until Oct. 14, the PM is suspending Britain’s very democracy for an intolerable length of time. Yet, as the BBC noted the day the news was announced, the length of the prorogation is not that great, even by modern standards: “The last two times Parliament was suspended for a Queen’s Speech that was not after a general election the closures lasted for four and 13 working days respectively. If this prorogation happens as expected, it will see Parliament closed for 23 working days.”
While the prorogation would be the longest since 1945, it also includes three weeks when Parliament would already be in recess for party conventions, so comparatively little actual working time is lost. Why the uproar? Because a prime minister the mainstream press hates initiated the parliamentary maneuver in pursuit of a policy goal the media despises. Again, mainstream journalists presented an ordinary act as extraordinary because it conflicts with their politics.
Even before seeing this sleight-of-hand journalism in Britain and Brazil, we have seen plenty of it in the United States. By now, the instances are almost too numerous to mention. Some were harmless, such as the online freak-out when Trump proclaimed “Loyalty Day” on May 1, 2017, conjuring images in the Resistance hive mind of creeping fascism (as nearly everything does for them). But, as NPR reassured them, every president has issued a similar proclamation since 1955: “Despite some initial alarm on Twitter, Loyalty Day is not unique to President Trump. In fact, it’s been around for decades.”
There are more serious “confusions” about Trump policies, as well. As the press began to notice in 2017, illegal entrants into this country are often held in detention centers. Once Trump was in charge of the executive branch, these centers suddenly became, in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s memorable phrase, “concentration camps.” The press treated us with wall-to-wall coverage of these sites, with members of Congress performatively crying in parking lots. To be fair, conditions there, especially concerning illegal entrant children, were not ones most Americans would consider ideal.
But as quickly became apparent, these detention facilities did not spring up overnight. In fact, many of the abuses breathlessly cited in forwarded and retweeted articles were from 2015 and 2016, back when Trump was still a private citizen and Barack Obama was the chief executive. In 2014, these same detention centers were considered merely “a headache” for the Obama administration. Swap out the Democratic president for a Republican, and the same centers are a national crisis.
Last week’s kerfuffle over an immigration regulation is a more recent example. When the news broke, people read the summary of the regulation quickly and decided it meant that children of American servicemen and diplomats born overseas would no longer be citizens. That would have been a horrible rule and almost certainly would have required a change in the law, not just a rule-making. So why did the administration do it?
The answer, as became clear when knowledgeable people read the rule, was that it didn’t. The rule had nothing to do with the children of citizens, whose status is unchanged. Even most children of legal permanent residents are not affected. Actual immigration lawyers explained on Twitter and elsewhere the narrow, technical change the new regulation put forth, but by then, the revived echoes of “Trump Hates Immigrants!” had already circled the globe several times. The media issued corrections, but most people will never read them.
The press does this constantly. They are ignorant, and they fill the gaps in their knowledge with bias. The death of journalism is a part of the problem, but there have always been writers who didn’t completely understand their beats. The difference now is that every journalist opines — not reports, opines — on every topic, and when they don’t know what they are talking about, they just fill in the partisan bent they otherwise pretend not to have. Reporting on Trump has always been bad, but its echoes around the world show things are only getting worse.
Kyle Sammin is a lawyer from Pennsylvania, a senior contributor to The Federalist, and the co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast. Read some of his other writing at his website, or follow him on Twitter at @KyleSammin.