Last year, how many people contracted Ebola in America and died?
Think hard. Remember all those news alerts, scary guys in masks, Republicans demanding that President Obama build a wall around Africa.
Well, there must have been… Nope. Zero. Not one.
Two nurses — required by their chosen profession to endure intense physical intimacy with the nine people who contracted the chronic disease outside the country and traveled back to the United States — became infected. Both survived. Of the nine who came to America already sick, seven survived.
That’s the whole story. While some 32,000 Americans died of gun violence in 2014 and thousands more likely died because Republican politicians refused to expand Medicaid, the medical story of the year was… Ebola.
If anything, that “crisis” was a story of an amazingly effective government intervention in health care — much like the advent of the Affordable Care Act (after the initial Healthcare.gov rollout), which has seen us possibly reach the lowest uninsured rate ever recorded. Officials didn’t just effectively limit the Ebola outbreak in the U.S., they helped meet the problem at the source and contain the tragic costs of this very real epidemic in Western Africa.
But did you see President Obama under a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”? Is anyone bragging about how “he kept us safe”?
There are two theories about why Democrats don’t get credit for their successes. The first is that they suck at manipulating the media. With rare exceptions — like the successful effort to defend the Iran deal in the Senate — Democrats lack the discipline, cohesion, and ruthlessness to convey a convincing narrative. A second, and more likely, theory is that Republicans are experts at playing the media.
While they lack skills related to job creation and actually keeping us safe, conservatives compensate with their ability to package and sell propaganda. This is not a haphazard or slight accomplishment. It’s the central organizing principle of a movement built to sell a wildly elitist idea — that making life easier for the rich and powerful will somehow benefit Average Joe — as populism.
Republicans are masters of lighting up a story like a Roman candle and watching the media scramble around it in amazement.
Here are five ways they do it.
1. Playing with words.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press announced that it was making a change to its Stylebook: “Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.”
AP claims the move comes out of respect for skeptics because “proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” And the word “deniers” is too harsh because it “has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier.” Vox‘s David Roberts, who endlessly toils to cover the climate crisis, calls such language debates “tiresome” and prefers the term “climate truther.” But we can’t underestimate how powerful framing and contests about framing are in shaping policy and debate, or even the appearance of debate when none actually exists. Even the word “mainstream” has become pejorative thanks to the right’s endless assertion that only a “plucky band of billionaires and oil companies” is willing to tell the truth.
Laws that allow workers to benefit from collective bargaining without any responsibility to contribute to the effort to bargain are known almost universally as “right to work” laws, even in the New York Times. Perhaps this is because the left hasn’t offered a quick, neutral-sounding phrase of its own to identify “union busting.” But it’s more likely because there’s an organized effort on the right, sustained over decades by the world’s best marketing, consecrated by think tanks and academics, and then spread by a disciplined messaging machine. This relentlessness is born of the necessity to both deny reality and shape it. Its effect is to wear us all down to accept their definitions and their reality. And it works.
2. A network of harassment.
If you’re lucky enough not to be a journalist, or a raging conservative who appreciates a site that contests the notion that the body of a post should make more sense than the comments, you may not have heard of Twitchy. It’s the cornerstone of what Cosmopolitan‘s Jill Filipovic calls “The Right-Wing Hate Machine.”
“Twitchy may be one of the most powerful political platforms online, but its role as an organized harassment tool is almost never discussed,” Filipovic wrote. “Founded in 2012 by conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, the site has half a dozen editors who troll Twitter for content to post; each post consists of a tweet or series of tweets along with some brief and often outraged commentary.”
Find your tweet in a Twitchy post framed by a zinger you heard in a cellphone ad two years ago and your Twitter mentions will explode with righteous hate from guys whose profiles are littered with references to guns, #Benghazi and bald eagles mounting fey liberal beta males — especially if you are a woman.
Conservative cesspool Breitbart has recently delighted in picking out a regrettable offensive tweet of a “civilian” non-journalist regular Twitter person, with some tendency toward activism, upon which to sic some of the 8 million or so “readers” who visit the site each month.
And while it’s good that conservative sites are doing something to keep these people away from small children or sharp objects, the goal of such harassment is obviously to shut people up. Or at least to get you to think twice before you deviate from the conservative “truth.”
3. Taking advantage of cultural amnesia.
Remember the deficit?
The deficit hasn’t just been cut… so have the long-term deficit projections that Paul Ryan used as justification for gutting Medicare (while slashing taxes for the rich). Do we hear about the amazing success of Obamanomics? No, we just don’t hear about it.
Same with gas prices. Same with jobs. We’re in the longest private-sector expansion in American history and Republicans still act as if their predictions that Obama was going to drive America into a bottomless fiscal hole has some relationship to reality.
How can they take advantage of this? It’s not “Breaking News” worthy of special graphics or a half-dozen news alerts to say, “Hey, these guys were completely wrong about everything!” So Republicans know their accusations will go unchecked and their massive unprecedented failures are soon forgotten—it’s not as if their base is particularly big on fact checking.
4. Enabling endless investigations.
The Benghazi House Select Committee has now been empaneled longer than the Iran Contra investigation, which found an actual crime. It’s the longest congressional investigation in American history. After seven separate congressional committees found no intentional misconduct, this top-shelf effort is spending a fortune in hopes of inventing something to destroy Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The closest they’ve come is to discover that the former Secretary of State used an unconventional private email server that she shouldn’t have used. And amid this smoke, the right — as it has for decades — is suggesting there’s some fire. Meanwhile the Washington press credulously serves up biased leaks from congressional Republicans as news, though they continually get debunked — but far too long after the false shadow of criminality has been cast.
The press isn’t just holding Clinton to a much higher standard than it holds itself. It’s playing accomplice to purposeful distractions that conjure “ethical concerns,” while ignore the vast injustice of using a congressional committee as a SuperPAC in an attempt to destroy a political opponent — all over again. This is how we wasted millions on Whitewater and a baldly political impeachment proceeding. This is how we got the war in Iraq after 9/11. Republicans know just how to bounce the ball to make sure the media chases it. The lure of being the journalist who finally destroys the Clintons is like Pavlov’s bell. All the right has to do is ring it and some members of the media drool all over their keyboards.
5. Inventing the media.
When all else fails, start a news channel that pretends it’s fair and balanced, then makes sure its candidates never deviate far from the message that liberalism is a foreign enemy that must be destroyed.