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Corrected a small matter regarding the Fairness Doctrine.

We have a new president. Joe Biden took the oath on January 20th, meaning we no longer have to look at our TV in fear of what Donald Trump did this time? There is a sense of normalcy taking over the nation. For me, the moment it really hit me was the press conference. If you are a reporter and have ever been around Public Information Officers, this was a normal presser. There was give and take between members of the media and Jan Psaki, Press Secretary. There were no facts made up, and there were full sentences.

The jokes on social media involved things like wait, no claims about the size of the inauguration? What no files of made-up facts, and claims? Yes, there were dodges and there were back and forths. It was normal, just like the inaugural speech that brought a tear to my eye. We are now beginning a new administration.

There were other things that were immediately obvious. These involve COVID. All reporters were issued N95s, and there were fewer reporters in the press room. This means that pool reporting will become the norm, as they cycle people in and out. Then there was that executive order, where the president said mask up in all federal properties and interstate travel. This backs the airlines who have been fighting passengers who resist mask orders from them. It also signals to the nation, this is something serious. I, under the recommendations of health officers, will be looking for N95s.

There were other steps that President Biden immediately took, He canceled the building of the border wall and the Muslim ban. His orders reverted a lot of the things that former President Donald Trump did. The America first policies were taken down, by the stroke of a pen. This will make the MAGA nation angry because many in the MAGA nation are white supremacists. The speech addressed them, and yes, when Senator Rand Paul said that this all felt like an attack on MAGA Nation as if they were white supremacists, indeed, many are white supremacists. This is precisely how Tucker Carlson took it at Fox Opinion. It is near impossible to call them a news service anymore, especially when they have fired actual journalists. This is part of the problem we face.

We as a nation need to deal with this ugly underside of American life. It must keep the peace but we must address this because this is bringing us ever closer to a hot civil war. We have media and right-wing interests that keep up with the divisive propaganda and this is why one of the first acts from the new administration was to take down the 1776 project from the White House site. That document, apart from the fact that it strangely lacks footnotes and cribs from a lot of places without acknowledging where the material came from, is white supremacy. Full disclosure, I have a copy. I know the context of why it came to be, It was an answer to the 1619 project, which is also a response to life in a multicultural nation that is starting to address the history we have resisted. Trump was seen as the first white supremacist president or at least the first openly white supremacist in modern times. I think we can argue that Andrew Jackson was as well. Fun fact, he was also Trump’s favorite president, which is no coincidence.

That portrait is no longer in the oval office, which should surprise no one.

There are rumors on the bowels of the internet that the new decor points to Biden not being president. The heavily propagandized base does not understand that with every administration the decor in the Oval changes to reflect the new administration. Removing Andrew Jackson and replacing him with Ben Franklin is logical. This new president promised to be guided by science because of COVID and the climate emergency. Franklin is a hero of the scientific method and the American Enlightenment. Yes, this change in decor is part of the conspiracy at the moment. Some of this is unironically funny and reflects a problem that affects the nation. We have very poor public education when it comes to civics. This affects people across the political spectrum and is the entry point to a lot of misinformation and conspiracy.

So we need to do a few things for us to step away from the ledge. Because for the moment we continue to move straight towards a hot civil war. This list is hardly inclusive but will address some of the issues that we desperately need to enact in order to rebuild civil society and trust.

Invest in local news: Believe it or not, the heart of misinformation lies in the lack of local information. Most of the current crop of national reporters cut their teeth covering things like fire boards, and boards of education. These two are at the heart of local civic engagement, and while they tend to be highly procedural, they are essential for local citizens to engage with local leaders. If you do not have reporters there, let alone city hall and board of supervisors, local issues fly under the radar. We are there because local news is not done.

These are also the places where politicians usually first cut their teeth as well, This is where local politics become extremely relevant. Newspapers have greatly cut back on the coverage of these issues, because quite honestly what brings eyes on screen is not the education beat, though it should, but the crime beat. And when you need those eyes to pay the bills, it is obvious then why city hall has fallen off the radar. Then there is the other truism of this. A lot of local newspapers have folded.

Full disclosure, we tried to run such a service, because many readers told us that they wanted that. It was economically not feasible. Two relevant examples are in order. The city budget always garnered very light traffic. On the other hand, a traffic accident that affected at most fifty people, between those affected by it, those who were in the crash, emergency services, lookie-loos, and reporters, had one of the highest traffic in the short history of the site. It literally made no sense, and to this day makes no sense. People have interest in the if it bleeds it leads, but have no interest in how the city spends their money, to the tune of just shy of $4 billion at this point.

Invest in Investigative reporting: Like local news, the heart of keeping the government’s feet to the fire is literally a good team of aggressive investigators, who are not afraid of, the rich, the powerful, and the well connected. This is not a cheap thing to do. There are fees that at times need to be paid, and in a few cases, lawsuits that need to be filed. The government is not going to willingly turn all relevant files to reporters all the time. Fun fact, it took a few years for the Feds to finally turn over a maintenance log of a jeep that we suspected started a fire. By the time we got those, the story was mostly dead.

Call propaganda what it is: These days not only are we having an issue with two different versions of the world, but we have whole outlets on both the far-right and to a lesser extent the far left, committed to putting out propaganda. We usually call the Breitbart’s and Fox’s of the world for this, but be aware that there are far less well-funded groups that are doing even more damage. This has led to a distrust of legacy media from the right-wing, or to be far more precise, the far right. According to Pew partisans:

  • Are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.

This is a serious problem because at this point many Americans are not watching the same sources. Ergo, we do not share the same universe of facts. In fact, Pew does not go there, but I will. What Fox, OANN, Breitbart, and others are doing is propaganda. They have been at this for a few decades and this is creating two different countries, where the other side (democrats and liberals) are portrayed as the enemy within. We know how this movie can end because it has in places like Rwanda.

As a nation, we may need to regulate both social media and what is called news. We once did, when the country had a Fairness Doctrine, passed in 1949. It required those who held FCC licenses to present controversial information fairly, factually, and balanced. While It ended during the Reagan administration the Clinton era telecommunication Act opened the way to modern-day partisan media. This went away finally during the Clinton administration, and in the age of cable, this meant that Fox News could do whatever it wanted. They would technically not be bound by it, but the local FOX stations would be since they are over the air FCC licensees.

These requirements helped to moderate speech and to stop what the country saw during the 1930s with Father Charles Edward Coughlin. He was in many respects the Rush Limbaugh of his age. Then there was the history of World War Two and Nazi propaganda. Both lessons were raw and recent in American memory. There was a national consensus that we could not afford to do that. This went away after two generations, as collective memory faded.

The problem is how do you regulate content on cable news and force a clear delineation between opinion programs, whether it is CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, or almost all of Fox’s content, from hard news. The consumer must be aware that what they are watching is an opinion, and that it has a certain slant. These days Fox keeps calling itself news when it truly is not. Newsmax and One America News Network, OANN for short, are worse than Fox in that respect and are more open about their propaganda. Breitbart, Red Caller, and other web-based services are competing for the same audience, and create a reverse feedback loop.

Then there is Alex Jones and the conspiracy world. It used to be that there was a line between those telling us that Sandy Hook was a false flag and even Fox. As we saw this year with the Stop the Steal legend, there is no line anymore. So those have to be called for exactly what they are: Lies, and big lies. Fascism relies on the big lie.

Education: Thus here lies some of the problem. We have a poorly educated population that does not understand how the political system actually works. This is why people cannot tell the difference between the three branches of government, or that bills that were not passed in the last Congress, are now dead. Here is where that coverage of local news helps. But we need to have civic education return to all schools, and we also need competent media literacy classes.

We used to have them in high schools, and they need to return. Students must learn how to read papers, how to distinguish between opinion and news, as well as the slant that different papers will inevitably have. They also must learn to recognize propaganda, of which we have a lot on the internet. Just because it is posted on the internet, does not mean it is true. This is part of a civic education essential to rebuilding a civic society. It also will help to make citizens better able to resist manipulation and disinformation. This comes from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government:

the Kremlin views disinformation and influence operations as the most effective and efficient means of affecting political outcomes

We assess that Western governments must reweight the risk portfolio to emphasize the threat from information operations to elections over direct technical interference with election systems. If the Baltic experience is a guide (and we believe that it is), protecting election integrity is much more than merely a technical or security problem — it is a society-wide information challenge. Reweighting the risk portfolio does not imply the Baltic states and their Western allies should ignore the threat that Russian cyber capabilities pose to their election systems. On the contrary, Baltic governments rightly prioritize election cybersecurity — and continued investment in the security of election infrastructure remains a necessity. However, it will be necessary for Western governments to place significantly greater emphasis on the cognitive and information aspects of Russia’s strategy and address directly the multiple vectors through which Russian tactics undermine political stability and affect election outcomes.

Russian efforts to interfere in the domestic politics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania suggest the Kremlin views disinformation and influence operations as the most effective and efficient means of affecting political outcomes. Cyber operations and efforts to compromise critical technical systems — including elections infrastructure — have played a secondary role in Russian strategy, complimenting and providing ammunition for a coordinated, persistent set of information operations in the Baltic states that have lasted decades. Russia’s interference campaigns in the US in 2016 and throughout Europe feature a similar strategic emphasis. In both these cases, the core of Russian efforts to affect election outcomes consisted of the strategic release of damaging information and a coordinated campaign of disinformation on social media rather than efforts to compromise election systems and alter voting results.

This matters, because the United States, for a variety of shifting reasons, has been way behind the power curve when it comes to this. Educating the population on cybersecurity, for both personal safety and national safety, is important. It will also help most people identify propaganda, even when internally produced.

This education will hopefully help to redirect interest in news from the vacuous to the important. When we ran a local paper, there was another series of stories that crashed websites. One was the collective stories around Comicon, which explains why entertainment is very large. It is a moneymaker, (though not the story on continuing legal education.)

As I wrote above, budgets were of no interest. I also read the federal budget. This is why I know things like foreign aid is the literal pennies on the national couch. However, many Americans believe it is a huge area because it is in the billions. The budget is orders of magnitude larger, and foreign aid is a sliver in it. This is a sore point because people rant and rave over USAID, which in many cases people do not even know what it does. But it is easy for politicians to rile up people and a source of the America First anger, even if this is so small that withdrawing all aid will not do much for the rest of the programs. However, cutting the Department of Defense by ten percent will actually free a lot of funds that could be used for other programs, and we would still be ahead in spending of at least another eight nations combined. Now it is ten to twelve, depending on who you read. Due to COVID, it will likely contract as well.

We are in a new administration, but the old patterns will not change until we confront the manifold of issues that led to the rise of Donald J Trump. He is not sui-generis in this story. He is a symptom. Spending ten minutes on any far-right so-called media outlet will make this clear. We also need to realize that for Republicans this Frankenstein they created will make or break their careers. If all they are interested in is in power, they will follow this base wherever it goes.

Education will help to blunt this and to rebuild that civic society. But for that to happen, we also need people with the moral courage to also say enough and put the country ahead of their careers. President Biden cannot do this alone. He will need people who see him as an internal enemy to put down that mentality and put the country ahead of themselves.

Chiefly, and this is directed at Democrats, we need to leave behind us the cults of personality that come with modern American politics. No, Biden is not perfect, and criticism will come. And to the media, we need to call balls and strikes and do the job no matter who is called on it. However, we will have to call outlets that mostly engage in propaganda for exactly doing that. It is because of that, and lack of civic education, that we find ourselves here.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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