It’s been a widely accepted trend in financial circles for nearly two decades. But suddenly, Republicans have launched an assault on a philosophy that says that companies should be concerned with not just profits but also how their businesses affect the environment and society.
More than $18 trillion is held in investment funds that follow the investing principle known as E.S.G. — shorthand for prioritizing environmental, social and governance factors — a strategy that has been adopted by major corporations around the globe.
Now, Republicans around the country say Wall Street has taken a sharp left turn, attacking what they term “woke capitalism” and dragging businesses, their onetime allies, into the culture wars.
The rancor escalated this week as Congress entered the fray. Republicans used their new majority in the House on Tuesday to vote, 216 to 204, to overturn a Department of Labor rule that allows retirement funds to consider climate change and other factors when choosing companies in which to invest. The Senate followed on Wednesday, as two Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, joined Republicans in a 50-to-46 vote to send the resolution to President Biden’s desk.
The White House has said Mr. Biden will block the resolution, in what could be the first veto of his presidency.
E.S.G. investing has been routine on Wall Street for years. Most major companies issue extensive reports about their efforts to combat climate change and commitment to workplace diversity.
But in recent months, conservatives have increasingly attacked the practice, arguing that it promotes liberal priorities ranging from renewable energy to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And while E.S.G. applies to everything from diversity among corporate leaders to corruption controls, it’s the “E” in E.S.G. — the idea that the private sector needs to consider its impact on the environment — that has emerged as the top target of Republicans.
Officials in Republican-led states argue that it would lead to disinvestment in fossil fuel companies that provide tax revenue and jobs in their states, making it a top target of right-wing commentators and politicians. . . . . “It’s become a liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican issue.”
The Labor Department rule is likely to remain on the books, as Republicans do not appear to have the votes to overturn a promised veto. But the House vote on Tuesday was just the start of what’s expected to be a lengthy campaign against E.S.G.
Already this month, Representative Patrick McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who leads the House Financial Services Committee, announced the formation of a “Republican E.S.G. Working Group.” Republicans plan hearings this year at which conservative lawmakers are likely to grill executives from some of the nation’s biggest banks on their views about climate change, social issues and more.
As the Securities and Exchange Commission considers a new rule that would require corporations to disclose their carbon emissions, industry groups and Republican lawmakers have been pushing to limit its scope.
Around the country, Republican state treasurers have been withdrawing billions of dollars from firms like BlackRock that they deem “woke.” . . . .To the ranks of wonky risk management professionals who have toiled over the minutia of E.S.G. reports for decades now, the political fracas is perplexing.
As more companies began talking about their efforts to combat climate change and improve diversity, the issue was pushed to the forefront of the corporate agenda. Among the loudest proponents of E.S.G. has been Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, who has called on companies to reach beyond profit statements to consider the role the private sector could play in addressing societal problems.
That advocacy has made him a target of scathing critiques from conservative commentators and politicians, as well as dark conspiracy theories. . . . “They’re trying to demonize the issues.”
The current E.S.G. backlash can be traced to Texas, where in 2020 oil executives began complaining that big banks like JPMorgan had stopped lending them money. . . . Republican legislators in Austin, as well as officials at the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s energy regulator, took up their cause.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said he believed the Republican position on E.S.G. was more about ginning up outrage than about just how much of a financial risk climate change posed to long term investments.
“They invent culture-war provocations that drive clicks, and woke capitalism is part of that,” he said.
Mr. Whitehouse added that he believed the fossil fuel industry was responsible for funding much of the pushback. Groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been opposing climate action around the country, are supported by oil and gas companies.
Financial institutions caught in the middle of the fight say it makes their work difficult. “It is having an impact,” said Ivan Frishberg, chief sustainability officer of Amalgamated Bank. “It’s a chilling one. It’s a complicated one. And none of that is good for business.”
Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, March 04, 2023
The Right's Latest Bogeyman: “Woke Capitalism”
DeSantis Appoints Nutcase to Disney Oversight Board
An appointee to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new oversight board in control of Disney’s special tax district called homosexuality “evil” last year and shared a baseless conspiracy theory that tap water could be making more people gay.
On Monday, the Republican governor appointed Ron Peri, an Orlando-based former pastor and the CEO of The Gathering – a Christian ministry focused on outreach to men – as one of five people who will now oversee the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body that has given Disney unique powers in Central Florida for more than half a century.
DeSantis signed a bill in February that allowed him to replace the district’s existing board – mostly people with ties to Disney – with a five-member body that he hand-picked. The move to remove power from Disney comes nearly a year after the company spoke out against a Florida bill – which DeSantis later signed into law – to restrict certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.
A CNN KFile review of Peri’s past comments found that he frequently made derogatory remarks about the LGBTQ community.
“So why are there homosexuals today? There are any number of reasons, you know, that are given. Some would say the increase in estrogen in our societies. You know, there’s estrogen in the water from birth control pills. They can’t get it out,” Peri baselessly said in a January 2022 Zoom discussion, later put on YouTube. “The level of testosterone in men broadly in America has declined by 50 points in the past 10 years. You know, and so, maybe that’s a part of it.”
“But the big part I would suggest to you, based upon what it’s saying here, is the removal of constraint,” he continued. “So our society provided the constraint. And so, which is the responsibility of a society to constrain people from doing evil? Well, you remove the constraints, and then evil occurs.”
Testosterone levels in men have dropped in recent decades, and researchers are unsure why, but the drop is not 50%, and there is no indication that a drop in testosterone affects sexual orientation. Likewise, there is no evidence that estrogen in the water supply, for which birth control pills account for a statistically insignificant amount, affects sexual orientation. The claim that chemicals in tap water could turn people gay has gained ground with conspiracy theorists over the years, most memorably with fringe commentator Alex Jones . . . .
Peri called homosexuality “shameful,” linking it to disease. . . . Peri has also said that LGBTQ people “don’t have a stake in the future” because many do not have children, and he called gay people “deviant.” In one discussion, he linked homosexuality to the fall of the Roman Empire – a fringe historical belief occasionally pushed by some Christian activists. . . . . Peri and DeSantis did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
Peri’s appointment to the oversight board comes after a long-standing battle between DeSantis and Disney over the Parental Rights in Education Act – which critics have called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. The law bars schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms and in older classrooms that do not meet yet-to-be-defined standards.
After Disney’s then-chairman spoke out against the bill last year, DeSantis stripped the company of its unique governing power within the Reedy Creek Improvement Distric
The new law ousted the existing board, renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and allowed DeSantis to appoint all five members – one of whom was Peri.
This week, DeSantis told supporters that Disney’s opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act was a “only a mild annoyance” and that the motivation for effectively punishing the company was in response to it allegedly injecting “a lot of this sexuality into the programming for young kids.” He has suggested that the new board could influence Disney’s business decisions by adding park discounts for Florida residents and even altering the company’s entertainment offerings.
In addition to Peri, DeSantis also appointed to the board Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer whose private investment firm contributed $50,000 to the governor’s 2022 reelection campaign, and Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of the conservative organization Moms for Liberty and the wife of Christian Ziegler, the new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
DeSantis and his minions are a clear and present danger to freedom and democracy.
Friday, March 03, 2023
CPAC: A Circus With Trump as Ringmaster
The Conservative Political Action Conference once was a don’t-miss annual gathering of Republican leadership and anyone who aspired to it. That doesn’t describe the Trumpified four-day CPAC that started Wednesday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Absent will be such GOP stars as former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. All three say they’re busy or otherwise booked; DeSantis is attending the Club for Growth’s annual conference in Palm Beach, Fla.
A bunch of other high-profile Republicans also won’t be attending CPAC this year: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
For what it’s worth, these GOP leaders have not publicly said they’re no-shows because of sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Schlapp, who runs CPAC. But the allegations — denied by Schlapp, that last fall he groped a male campaign aide for Herschel Walker, the GOP Senate candidate in Georgia — certainly don’t make appearing at CPAC look more appealing.
However, CPAC will feature former president Donald Trump, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and My Pillow king and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. There is no more vivid indicator of CPAC’s trajectory across the years than the fact that the conference’s annual Ronald Reagan Dinner address will be delivered by Arizona gubernatorial sore loser Kari Lake.
At a time when many Republicans are ready to move on from lunatic arguments about 2020 presidential election theft, CPAC organizers are doubling down, shining an even brighter spotlight on conspiracy-minded election losers and their acolytes.
Year by year, CPAC has become less and less of a wonky conservative movement networking event and more and more of a circus. The guest list features fewer and fewer policy experts debating the correct path for conservatives . . . . The tone is now indistinguishable from one of Trump’s campaign rallies.
And no one should be all that surprised; Matt Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, served as White House strategic communications director under Trump, and both Schlapps are widely perceived as Trump loyalists. The image of CPAC is now indistinguishable from Trump’s.
If CPAC’s main goal is to fill seats, it appears to be working well enough. Like all conferences, CPAC runs on paid attendance and sponsorships, and you can’t begrudge organizers for wanting a lineup of speakers who will draw a crowd and fire ’em up.
But there’s an inevitable trade-off when the conference chooses Trumpification, prominently featuring figures such as Lindell and Lake. They become the face of the event. Suddenly, the streaming service Fox Nation isn’t so interested in being a sponsor anymore.
The cost-benefit analysis for an aspiring president such as Pence or DeSantis changes when the Venn diagram of CPAC’s brand and Trump’s brand becomes almost a perfect circle. If you’re trying to beat Trump, does it make sense to go to a de facto four-day Trump rally on the Potomac?
Granted, CPAC attracts a big crowd of the most die-hard conservative grass-roots activists, but a Republican presidential candidate can reach that demographic in plenty of other ways — interviews on Fox News, talk radio, podcasts or other conservative outlets. Nikki Haley, a declared Republican presidential candidate, who served as Trump’s United Nations ambassador, is attending CPAC, in a daring move, given that she’s challenging the star of the show.
CPAC chose the path of being identified as a Trumpy affair. Organizers shouldn’t be surprised when candidates not named Trump aren’t so enthusiastic about showing up. Much like the fictional “Spinal Tap,” CPAC would likely insist it isn’t losing popularity, it’s just that the gathering’s “appeal is becoming more selective.”
Thursday, March 02, 2023
GOP Bills Seek to Restrict All Transgender Health Care
Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson stood on the Tennessee Senate floor last month to open the discussion on a bill he is co-sponsoring. The measure would limit gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgeries for minors.
But Johnson is also backing another bill, HB1215, that would effectively cut off access to gender-affirming care for low-income people, including adults. The measure prohibits Tennessee’s Medicaid program from working with health insurance companies that cover gender-affirming care.
As of late February, Republican lawmakers in at least five states have introduced legislation that would limit such care for adults. Until this year, most proposed restrictions on transition-related care targeted people under 18. Some of the new measures prohibit it for individuals up to age 21, while others block Medicaid from covering for it for all ages.
“It’s interesting that initially we heard that this was a thing to protect youth, but now we are seeing that it’s really about all transgender people,” Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said while HB1215 was being discussed on Feb. 21 in the Tennessee House.
“Last year, the rhetoric was to protect kids, but now they are going after adults,” said Allison Chapman, a legislative researcher and transgender rights advocate based in Virginia.
In Oklahoma, House Republicans also approved a bill Tuesday that would prohibit any facility that receives public funds from offering gender-affirming care for minors or adults, as well as blocking insurance coverage for it. Another bill would make it a felony for a physician to provide transition-related hormone treatments or surgeries to anyone under the age of 26. In Kansas and Mississippi, legislators wanted to ban gender-affirming care for people up to age 21. In South Carolina, a measure would block the state’s Medicaid program from covering any transition-related medications or procedures.
Tennessee Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), who supports HB1215, said on Feb. 21 that the bill was not making transgender health care illegal because people could still obtain it privately. Instead, it was “simply taking away a service” that does not align with the “values of most Tennesseans.”
Angel Luci Pellegrino, a 38-year-old transgender man based in Chattanooga, Tenn., said the measure, if passed, would probably end his access to gender-affirming care. “My doctor informed me that if this bill passes, insurance will no longer cover my medicines, my doctor’s appointments and my laboratory tests,” he said, adding that he is on disability and “can’t afford private health care.”
Transgender advocates said the push to extend restrictions to those over 18 should not come as a surprise. They view bans on gender-affirming care for minors as part of a broader attack on transgender rights.
Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project, said his organization wants gender-transition procedures for minors and adults to be unthinkable in the future.
Focusing on protecting children first was obvious, according to Schilling, because “they are so vulnerable.” But when it comes to adults, he said, he doesn’t want to ban gender transition care but rather use the threat of malpractice suits to discourage health-care providers from offering it.
The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society and other major medical organizations oppose restrictions on gender-affirming care. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in August that called such care “medically necessary and appropriate” for some minors and criticized the “rampant disinformation” spread by those seeking restrictions.
Supporters of bans on gender-affirming care for youths have argued that minors are not capable of making decisions about gender transition, even though those decisions are made with parents and health-care providers. . . . “It’s a very big, big decision, so people are realizing that you should be older when you make it,” Olsen said. The legislator also wrote a bill to lower the minimum age to carry a firearm from 21 to 18.
So far, Republican legislators in four states have passed bans on gender-affirming care for minors: Utah and Mississippi this year and Arkansas and Alabama last year. . . . The laws in Arkansas and Alabama are tied up in court. In Florida, the state Board of Medicine has approved a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, and the state no longer allows Medicaid to cover it for anyone, regardless of age.
The Endocrine Society has called the Florida ban on gender-affirming care for minors “blatantly discriminatory” and said it “contradicts medical evidence.” Major medical groups have also filed an amicus brief in support of Medicaid recipients in Florida who are challenging the state’s ban on Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care in court. Despite the lawsuit, a judge has allowed the policy to take effect.
In Tennessee, Pellegrino is watching what is happening at the state Capitol with growing apprehension. A suicide survivor, he said he can’t imagine how it will feel if the state “forces him out of transitioning.”
With his limited resources, he said, he can’t afford to leave Tennessee. So he is searching for a legal recourse to access gender-affirming care in case the bill becomes law. “Transitioning was not a cosmetic procedure for me; it was lifesaving treatment,” he said. “I am in a really dark place with this news right now.”
Be very afraid. Transgender individuals are the immediate targets, but gays and racial and religious minorities will be next as will the right of married heterosexual couples to use contraception.
Wednesday, March 01, 2023
Florida's Continued Slide Towards Fascism
Last year, Governor DeSantis championed the “Don’t Say LGBTQ” law as part of a broad censorship agenda that included book banning and attacks on academic freedom, while punishing businesses and individuals who spoke out against it. Today, Representative Adam Anderson (R-Tarpon Springs) proposed to expand that law in HB 1223.
“Don’t Say LGBTQ policies have already resulted in sweeping censorship, book banning, rainbow Safe Space stickers being peeled from classroom windows, districts refusing to recognize LGBTQ History Month, and LGBTQ families preparing to leave the state altogether. This legislation is about a fake moral panic, cooked up by Governor DeSantis to demonize LGBTQ people for his own political career,”. . . . The legislation expands the Don’t Say LGBTQ law’s dangerous empowerment of a small cadre of anti-LGBTQ activists to sue a school district to enforce a complete ban on classroom instruction regarding “sexual orientation or gender identity” from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades. Banning school districts from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is detrimental to LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ parents.
The Desantis Administration’s obsession with far-right Presidential primary voters are why we have seen one of the country’s largest state university systems subjected to a McCarthy-era witch hunt for equity and diversity programs and provision of transgender healthcare, sweeping censorship of books by Black and LGBTQ authors, doctors’ careers threatened for providing transgender Floridians life-saving healthcare, and even a complete far right take over of the New College of Florida. Florida stands in the midst of an unprecedented campaign of censorship and surveillance, targeting anyone who doesn’t share the increasingly extremist ideology of Governor Ron DeSantis.
But DeSantis' and Florida Republicans extends far beyond educatio, both public and private. As attacks on Disney and DeSantis' boasts underscore, private business thatdo not adhere to DeSantis' far right culture war dictates stand to suffer severe financial consequences with DeSantis and his Christofascist minions seeking to control Disney's programing and content. The moves are like something out of the early 1930's in Germany. Frighteningly, too many Floridians either are not paying attention or do not care - at least until DeSantis decides to target them as well. A piece in New York Magazine looks at the sinister developments and agenda in Florida:
Last year, after Disney had the temerity to issue a statement opposing one of his prized legislative initiatives, Ron DeSantis punished the company by removing its self-governing status. (DeSantis justified the maneuver as a removal of unjustified privileges, but he had not previously opposed Disney’s status and made little attempt to disguise its nakedly retaliatory nature).
On Monday, he took matters much further. DeSantis appointed a board to oversee Disney. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is stacked with DeSantis cronies, including Bridget Ziegler, a proponent of his education policies; Ron Peri, who heads the Christian ministry the Gathering USA; and Michael Sasso, president of the Federalist Society’s Orlando chapter.
While the board handles infrastructure and maintenance, DeSantis boasted that it could use its leverage to force Disney to stop “trying to inject woke ideology” on children.
It is worth pausing a moment to grasp the full breadth of what is going on here. First, DeSantis established the principle that he can and will use the power of the state to punish private firms that exercise their First Amendment right to criticize his positions. Now he is promising to continue exerting state power to pressure the firm to produce content that comports with his own ideological agenda.
Whether he is successful remains to be seen. But a few things ought to be clear. First, DeSantis’s treatment of Disney is not a one-off but a centerpiece of his legacy in Florida. He has repeatedly invoked the episode in his speeches, and his allies have held it up as evidence of his strength and dominance. The Murdoch media empire, which is functionally an arm of the DeSantis campaign, highlighted the Disney conquest in a New York Post front page and a Fox & Friends segment.
Second, DeSantis’s authoritarian methods have met with vanishingly little resistance within his party. The only detectable Republican pushback has come from New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who warned, “Look, Ron’s a very good governor. But I’m just trying to remind folks what we are at our core. And if we’re trying to beat the Democrats at being big-government authoritarians, remember what’s going to happen. Eventually, they’ll have power … and then they’ll start penalizing conservative businesses and conservative nonprofits and conservative ideas.”
And third, DeSantis has been very explicit about his belief that he sees his methods in Florida as a blueprint for a national agenda. So there is every reason to believe that, if elected president, DeSantis would use government power to force both public and private institutions to toe his line. Speaking out against him, or even producing content he disapproves of, would become a financially risky proposition.
Part of what makes DeSantis so dangerous is that Donald Trump created a very defined idea of authoritarianism in the minds of his critics. His refusal to accept the 2020 presidential-election results was indeed a dangerous attack on democratic legitimacy — but this especially notorious episode has overshadowed his other efforts to abuse state power. Trump wielded federal regulations to punish the owners of the Washington Post and CNN for coverage he disapproved of and used diplomatic leverage to extort Ukraine into smearing his political rival. Republicans either supported or ignored these abuses of power.
To whatever extent they have principled objections to authoritarianism, those objections are limited almost entirely to fomenting a violent mob to overturn an election. And while inciting an insurrection is extremely dangerous, it hardly exhausts the scope of illiberal tools available to a sufficiently ruthless executive.
A year ago, I wrote a long profile of DeSantis, in which his deep-rooted distrust of liberal democracy was a major theme. Last fall, I attended the National Conservatism Conference, where the attendees laid out rather plainly their ambition to turn DeSantis into a model for a ruthless, illiberal party that would use the organs of the state to crush its enemies. Since those pieces appeared, DeSantis’s actions have made me more, not less, concerned.
Whether DeSantis would actually do more damage to American democracy in office than Trump could remains hard to say. Perhaps, perhaps not. But we should recognize that he is not putting himself forward as a critic of Trump’s authoritarianism. He is promising, on the contrary, to exceed it.
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
The GOP's/DeSantis’s "Apocalyptic" Attack on Education
In 2017, the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban passed a law intended to drive Central European University, a prestigious school founded by a Hungarian refugee, George Soros, out of the country. At the time, this was shocking; as many as 80,000 protesters rallied in Budapest and intellectuals worldwide rushed to declare their solidarity with the demonstrators. “The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe,” wrote Franklin Foer in The Atlantic.
Liberalism, sadly, did not: The university was forced to move to Vienna, part of Orban’s lamentably successful campaign to dismantle Hungary’s liberal democracy.
That campaign has included ever-greater ideological control over education, most intensely in grade school, but also in colleges and universities. Following a landslide 2018 re-election victory that Orban saw as a “mandate to build a new era,” his government banned public funding for gender studies courses. “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women,” said his chief of staff.
Many on the American right admire the way Orban uses the power of the state against cultural liberalism, but few are imitating him as faithfully as the Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Last week, one of DeSantis’s legislative allies filed House Bill 999, which would, as The Tampa Bay Times reported, turn many of DeSantis’s “wide-ranging ideas on higher education into law.” Even by DeSantis’s standards, it is a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom. Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, described it as “almost an apocalyptic bill for higher education,” one that is “orders of magnitude worse than anything we’ve seen, either in the recent or the distant past.”
House Bill 999 bars Florida’s public colleges and universities from offering gender studies majors or minors, as well as majors or minors in critical race theory or “intersectionality,” or in any subject that “engenders beliefs” in those concepts. The bill prohibits the promotion or support of any campus activities that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric.” This goes far beyond simply ending D.E.I. programming, and could make many campus speakers, as well as student organizations like Black student unions, verboten.
There’s more. Under House Bill 999, general education core courses couldn’t present a view of American history “contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence,” creating obvious limits on the teaching of subjects like slavery and the Native American genocide. The bill also says that general education courses shouldn’t be based on “unproven, theoretical or exploratory content,” without defining what that means.
Finally, the bill centralizes political control over hiring by allowing faculty to be cut out of the process. . . . . Under House Bill 999, rather than an up-or-down vote on candidates vetted by university bodies, trustees could just hire whomever they want. “They don’t even have to hire someone who applied through the regular process,” said Young. “They can just say, ‘Here’s my friend Joe, he’s going to be the new history professor.’”
This would give DeSantis’s cronies enormous power over who can teach in Florida’s colleges and universities.
The bill, of course, is only one part of DeSantis’s culture war. His administration has already limited what can be taught to K-12 students about race, sex and gender. (Some teachers removed all books from their classroom shelves while they waited for them to be reviewed for forbidden content.) When Disney spoke out against one of DeSantis’s education measures, the governor punished the corporation. And he is pushing legislation taking aim at the news media by making it easier for people — especially those accused of racial or gender discrimination — to sue for defamation.
[T}he governor, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has made his political program very clear.
“DeSantis seems to be putting into practice some of the political lessons Orban has to teach the American Right,” Rod Dreher, an American conservative living in Budapest, recently wrote with admiration. If you want to see where this leads, Hungary has a lot to teach us.
Monday, February 27, 2023
Why Fox News Lied to the Viewers It "Respects"
There are some stories that are important enough to pause the news cycle and linger on them, to explore not just what happened, but why. And so it is with Fox News’s role in the events leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. Thanks to a recent filing by Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation lawsuit against Fox, there is now compelling evidence that America’s most-watched cable news network presented information it knew to be false as part of an effort to placate an angry audience. It knowingly sacrificed its integrity to maintain its market share.
Why? There are the obvious reasons: Money. Power. Fame. These are universal human temptations. But the answer goes deeper. Fox News became a juggernaut not simply by being “Republican,” or “conservative,” but by offering its audience something it craved even more deeply: representation. And journalism centered on representation ultimately isn’t journalism at all.
To understand the Fox News phenomenon, one has to understand the place it occupies in Red America. It’s no mere source of news. It’s the place where Red America goes to feel seen and heard.
n the time before Donald Trump, I spent my share of moments in Fox green rooms and pitching stories to Fox producers. . . . . but over time Fox morphed into something well beyond a news network.
Fox isn’t just the news hub of right-wing America, it’s a cultural cornerstone, and its business model is so successful that it’s more accurate to think of the rest of the right-wing media universe not as a collection of competitors to Fox, but rather as imitators. From television channels to news sites, right-wing personalities aren’t so much competing with Fox as auditioning for it.
But that kind of loyalty is built around a social compact, the profound and powerful sense in Red America that Fox is for us. It’s our megaphone to the culture. Yet when Fox created this compact, it placed the audience in charge of its content.
During the Trump years, Fox faithfully upheld its end of the bargain. . . . . There you’d be reminded that the Democrats are the real radicals. That the Democrats are the true threat to America. And if you voted for Trump even though you were uncomfortable with some of his conduct, it was only because “they” forced your hand.
As the Trump years wore on, the prime-time messaging became more blatant. . . . So you can start to understand the shock when, on Election Day in 2020, Fox News accurately, if arguably prematurely, called Arizona for Joe Biden. It broke the social compact.
In the emails and texts highlighted in the Dominion filing, you see Fox News figures, including Sean Hannity and Suzanne Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, referring to the need to “respect” the audience. To be clear, by “respect” they didn’t mean “tell the truth” — an act of genuine respect. Instead they meant “represent.”
Representation can have its place. Fox’s deep connection with its conservative audience means that it can be ahead of the rest of the media on stories that affect red states and red culture.
But there is a difference between coming from a community and speaking for a community. In journalism, the former can be valuable, but the latter can be corrupt. It can result in audience capture (writing to please your audience, not challenge it) and in fear and timidity in reporting facts that contradict popular narratives.
There are courageous reporters at Fox. We learned some of their names in the Dominion filing. They were the people who had the courage to tell the truth. But then there are the leaders, and the prime-time stars. Tough? Courageous? Hardly. When push comes to shove, they embody the possibly apocryphal remark of the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And follow them they did, straight into a morass of lies and conspiracy theories that should undermine Fox’s credibility for years to come.
Sunday, February 26, 2023
The Bigger Question Behind the Fox News Debacle
As Oscar Wilde might have put it, it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy the massive facepalm that should be today’s semi-official Fox News emoji.
Thanks to a flood of texts and emails that became public last week, we learned that key members of the Fox News team — from owner Rupert Murdoch on down — knew that former President Donald Trump’s “rigged election” assertions about the 2020 race were flatly false, but that saying so was driving away viewers, with potentially disastrous results. (“The stock price is down,” Tucker Carlson wailed.) To protect its turf, one executive warned, it was critical to “respect our audience” — which meant giving voice to the conspiracy theories and, with rare exceptions, letting those theories go unchallenged.
Beyond the schadenfreude lies a significant legal issue, and one that reaches beyond Fox News. The revelations suggest that Fox is highly vulnerable to a defamation verdict in the $1.6 billion case brought by Dominion Voting Systems, whose machines were at the heart of the most bizarre election lunacies.
What the filings revealed was the equivalent of a courtroom confession, where the defendants in effect said: “Yes, we knew what we were airing was false, but we let the falsehoods air to keep our viewers happy.”
Why does this matter? Because — barring a powerful rebuttal from Fox — it means that Dominion has met a very high bar in defamation law. Because it’s in the public arena, Dominion has to prove that Fox knew they were airing lies, or “recklessly disregarded” the truth or falsehood of their reports.
It’s tempting to celebrate a verdict against Fox; “reckless disregard” might as well be its slogan. But a blow to the loudest media voice on the right would come at a time, ironically, when other conservatives have launched a fundamental attack on the free press that hits directly on the issue of defamation. At risk is a 58-year-old Supreme Court case that is a powerful protection of First Amendment rights: New York Times v. Sullivan.
The case, Justice William Brennan wrote, had to be framed in the context of “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
To protect that principle, the court set down a new standard: When it comes to public officials, they had to prove not just that a statement was false and injurious, but that it was made with “actual malice” — an inartful term that meant not “ill will,” but that it was published with willful knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard.”
In recent years, New York Times v. Sullivan has gotten new scrutiny by powerful conservatives. In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argued for a reassessment, amid consideration of a libel lawsuit from a woman who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. In 2021, Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed to the radical change in the media landscape as a reason to reconsider the law . . . .
The call for weakening New York Times v. Sullivan is also emanating from conservatives in the more explicitly political arena. Trump, no stranger to litigation on both sides of the defamation issue, has argued for its overturn. It’s also now part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ nascent presidential campaign. In a roundtable discussion earlier this month, DeSantis said the ruling served as a shield to protect publications that “smear” officials and candidates. Indeed, the governor has gone further. A bill he proposed that has now been refiled in the Florida legislature would leave the press wide open to lawsuits, including by stating that comments made by anonymous sources would be presumed false in defamation suits.
In other words, if Woodward and Bernstein did not identify “Deep Throat,” or their countless other anonymous sources in Watergate reporting, their stories would have been presumed false under this bill. It would make the effective end of whistleblowers as a tool of investigative reporting.
None of this is to say that Fox News should escape judgment if its defense team cannot rebut the damaging evidence that is now on the record. But it doesn’t eliminate the need for great caution about the protection the Supreme Court gave the press nearly 60 years ago. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the court took away from public figures the power to bankrupt or intimidate their critics with a storm of litigation. We cannot put that power back in the hands of the powerful again.
Putin Is Courting America's "Christian Right"
Here’s a scoop for you: Vladimir Putin is sounding like someone who wants to enter the 2024 Republican presidential primaries.
How else do you explain that in the middle of his bellicose speech Tuesday promising success in his assault on Ukraine, the Russian dictator fired a series of heat-seeking verbal missiles into our culture wars.
“Look at what they’ve done to their own people,” he said of us Westerners. “They’re destroying family, national identity, they are abusing their children. Even pedophilia is announced as a normal thing in the West.” Never mind that Russia is a world leader in sex trafficking.
Putin didn’t stop there. In one rather convoluted passage, he came out against same-sex marriage, backed off a bit, and then doubled down:
“And they’re recognizing same-sex marriages,” he said. “That’s fine that they’re adults. They’ve got the right to live their life. And we always, we’re very tolerant about this in Russia. Nobody is trying to enter private lives of people, and we’re not going to do this.”
Well, not quite, but he pressed on: “However, we need to tell them, but look at the scriptures of any religion in the world. Everything is said in there. And one of the things is that family is a union of a man and a woman.”
Among his enemies, Putin charged, “even the sacred texts are subjected to doubt.” Also, watch out, Britain: The “Anglican Church is planning to consider the idea of a gender-neutral God,” Putin mourned. “What can you say here? Millions of people in the West understand that they are being led to spiritual destruction.”
It has become a habit to cast the struggle over Ukraine in Cold War terms. Maybe that’s natural, given Putin’s old job as a KGB agent and his determination to expand Russia’s imperial reach to something closer to the hegemony once enjoyed by the old Soviet Union.
But it’s closer to the truth to see Putin as trying to build a right-wing nationalist international movement (no pun intended). And it’s obvious that his embrace of social and religious traditionalism is aimed at winning over right-wing opinion in the democracies and splitting the traditional right.
You don’t have to watch Fox News commentators waxing warm about the Russian president to see that this strategy is working. Opposition to helping Ukraine is growing among rank-and-file Republicans.
A Pew Research survey in January found that 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said that the United States was providing too much help to Ukraine, up from 32 percent in the fall and 9 percent last March. A Jan. 27-Feb. 1 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 50 percent of Republicans saying that the United States was doing too much to support Ukraine, up from 18 percent in April.
[M]any Republican leaders are resisting the lure of selling out Ukraine (Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has been especially outspoken), many are not so brave. Especially striking were the comments of former president Donald Trump’s leading 2024 rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
“I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea,” DeSantis said on Fox News. He added: “It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that and steamrolling that is not even coming close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”
As a narrow political matter, DeSantis has been crafty in straddling the fence dividing Republican opinion. He has been Trumpy enough for the former president’s base, but different enough to appeal to those in the GOP who want to be done with Trump. On Ukraine, DeSantis fell off the fence. It was not an auspicious illustration of how he will deal with the balancing act he faces.
The much larger problem is for U.S. foreign policy. For the medium term, enough Republicans share Biden’s view of the Russian threat and Ukraine’s heroism to maintain assistance to the war effort.
But Putin is very shrewd about opinion on the right end of politics — in the United States and in Western Europe, too. He is counting on a backlash against social liberalism and the idea of a “gender-neutral” God to rustle up support for ungodly aggression.