When political reporters are compelled by necessity to report on subjects that cast liberals in a negative light, nothing is more welcome than a reaction quote from a Republican. If a Democrat or a progressive interest group finds itself in the dock, the press can always count on Republicans to rescue liberals from due opprobrium by virtue of their very existence. The story is never the story; for political reporters and editors alike, the Republican reaction to the story is the preferred prism through which to view events Democrats find… discomforting.
On Tuesday, the federally-subsidized abortion provider Planned Parenthood had its worst news cycle since the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. In a candid video filmed over a two-and-one-half hour lunch, Planned Parenthood’s senior director for medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, dished about the marketplace for discarded fetal organs and body parts in between delicate bites.
“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part,” Nucatola told her dining partner. “I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” She went on to describe how to best remove a child from a womb and to remove its brains while preserving its body in order to meet the demand for infant hearts, lungs, muscle tissue, et cetera.
The bombshell revelation about an organization that received $27.8 million from taxpayers this year alone should have made national headlines if only to clarify the nuanced legalities of Planned Parenthood’s organ transfer practices. The 1993 National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act makes it illegal to “knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce,” although exceptions are made for reimbursements related to the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, and storage of human tissue. It is, however, legal to donate the discarded tissue of aborted infants with parental consent.
That does not mean that there is no profit motive involved in the trade of fetal organs. Planned Parenthood is “reimbursed” for its services; Nucatola even referenced specific dollar figures. “Nucatola’s blasé butcher’s banter makes it clear that this is a competitive market and that supply and demand, not Planned Parenthood’s expenses, is what sets prices,” National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed. It’s a marketplace the American public would surely be interested to know more about.
But there was no shocked media coverage and little appreciable outrage over the grotesque callousness displayed by Nucatola outside of traditionally pro-life conservative circles. The Washington Post, for example, didn’t cover the video that was released in the early morning hours until 4:31 p.m. ET. Similarly, former Washington Post reporter and current Vox.com scribe Sarah Kliff excused her paper’s refusal to cover the criminal late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell because that was a “local crime story” in the backwater burg of Philadelphia. But at least the Beltway paper ran with the story. Many of its competitors ignored it entirely. Something is amiss here. A political media that catapulted an obscure Texas state senator to stardom over the quixotic filibuster of her state’s 20-week abortion ban barely uttered a peep about this shocking video despite its wild popularity in social media outlets. In retrospect, the delay was perfectly explicable. The press was searching for a particular angle: How to frame this story as a peculiar fixation of conservatives.
The Hill led the way: “Republicans seize on Planned Parenthood video,” the headline read. The critical information, the pitiless discussion of human dismemberment and the value of their precious organs for traffickers, was apparently not as fascinating to The Hill as was the reaction from conservatives to Nucatola’s bloodless candor.
This is not a new phenomenon. Republicans engaging in displays of human cognition and reacting to exogenous events often frees the press of their responsibility to report on the merits of a particular story that reflects poorly on Democrats or liberal interest groups. In the spring of 2013, the Obama administration found itself embroiled in a series of simultaneously unfolding scandals. From the IRS targeting scandal, to the White House emails revealing Benghazi-related talking points, to the Department of Veterans Affairs systematically covering up deadly wait times, the administration found itself besieged on all fronts. But what was the political press fascinated with? When Republicans would inevitably “overplay their hand.” The story is never the story.
Political reporters are curiously enthralled by how frequently “Republicans pounce” on stories that could imperil Democratic electoral prospects. “Gasoline prices are on the rise, and Republicans are licking their chops,” read the lead in a 2012 Politico report on the Republicans who “pounce” on skyrocketing prices at the pump. When a hot mic caught President Barack Obama promising then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev more “flexibility” in his second term, National Public Radio discovered that Republicans had pounced yet again. When Obama contended in that election year that the private sector was “doing fine” in the third year of an anemic economic recovery, Republicans pounced once more. Flash-forward to Hillary Clinton’s preposterously false assessment of her family’s post-presidential financial situation, and Republicans were accused of pouncing on her “dead broke” comment.
Another variation of the familiar theme holds that Republicans “seize” on news that puts the opposition party in an uncomfortable position. “Republicans seize on HSBC scandal to hold up Loretta Lynch’s confirmation,” read The Guardian’s headline regarding a 60 Minutes exposé surrounding Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s role in negotiating a settlement with the China-based bank after it was implicated in facilitating money laundering by Mexican drug cartels and helping its clients evade U.S. sanctions. “Republicans seize on health law’s growing problems to slam Democrats,” the Associated Press revealed in 2014, much to the presumed glee of the majority of the public that disapproves of the law and its myriad disastrous effects on the insurance market. When President Obama failed to produce a budget in February 2014 (his previous two budgets having received precisely zero votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate), Republicans seized again.
To any competent editor, a political party capitalizing on the problems of its opposition is a dog-bites-man story. If that narrative construction distracts from Democratic scandals or failures of governance, however, it’s excusable. It is no longer possible to suspend disbelief; once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but the course of an entire two-term presidency is enemy action.
When Republicans pounce, you can be sure that the press will cover the leap and not their target.
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When Republicans ‘Pounce’
Must-Reads from Magazine
The limits of religious liberty.
Jack Phillips once more finds himself on the sharp end of liberal “tolerance.” He was the Colorado baker at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the one who in 2012 refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. A state civil-rights commission censured Phillips and ordered him to undergo ideological retraining. But a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found that the commission had exhibited such overt hostility to Phillips’s religious views as to have violated the state’s “obligation of religious neutrality” under the First Amendment.
But it appears the commission didn’t get the message. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips in the original case, reports:
On June 26, 2017, the same day that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, an attorney asked Phillips to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Phillips declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. Less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled for Phillips in his first case, the state surprised him by finding probable cause to believe that Colorado law requires him to create the requested gender-transition cake.
This time, however, Phillips and the ADF are taking the fight to the state. On Tuesday, the ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the members of the commission, alleging anti-religious bullying and harassment of Phillips aimed at ruining his business and livelihood.
Many religious conservatives see this new case as an opportunity to “firm up” the Court’s Masterpiece holding. If it makes it to the Supreme Court, especially one with a Justice Kavanaugh, there is a good chance that Americans will end up with sturdier protections against illiberal liberalism than former Justice Anthony Kennedy’s whimsical jurisprudence permitted.
But by my lights, the renewed persecution of Phillips also reveals the limits of “religious liberty” as a sword and organizing principle for the right. As I predicted when the original decision was handed down,
the inner logic of today’s secular progressivism puts the movement continually on the offensive. A philosophy that rejects all traditional barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression won’t rest until all “thou shalts” are defeated, and those who voice them marginalized. For a transgender woman to fully exercise autonomy, for example, the devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew must recognize her as a woman. People of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.
And here we are. “Religious freedom,” without a substantive politics that offers a vision of the common good, can easily allow liberalism to frame traditional moral precepts as little more than superstitions best relegated to the private sphere of the mind. Under the banner of liberty, religious conservatives might win procedural victories here and there. But they will be cornered in the long-term.
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Whatever Donald wants, he's gonna get it.
What do Republicans believe? Whatever Donald Trump tells them they should believe, it seems.
In survey after survey, self-described Republicans—admittedly a severely truncated demographic in the Trump era—are surrendering not just principle but common sense to whatever Trump needs them to say at the moment. The positions Republicans adopt to prop up the president are often so outside the American right’s traditional credo that it’s hard to believe they’re being honest.
According to a June Axios-sponsored SurveyMonkey poll, a whopping 92 percent of Republicans believe the conventional press deliberately runs with false or misleading stories. That’s not especially surprising. Republicans have a long-standing grievance with the mainstream media, and nearly three-quarters of all respondents in this survey agree with them. What is unique and, frankly, disturbing is the apparent resolve of GOP voters to do something about it.
A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed that a majority of Republicans agree with the Trump White House’s determination that the press is the “enemy of the people.” An Ipsos poll released around the same time confirmed that close to a majority of GOP voters believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.” That same poll showed that a significant plurality of GOP voters—43 to 36 percent—think Trump should have the expressly unconstitutional authority to shutter media outlets with which he disagrees. Or, rather, “news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” whatever that means.
The GOP base also seems generally unfazed by Donald Trump’s bizarre rhetorical deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. An Economist-backed YouGov poll in early July showed 56 percent of the GOP said that “Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is mostly a good thing for the United States,” while only 40 percent said that the United States should remain a member of the NATO alliance. In 2014, only 22 percent of Republicans thought of Russia as friendly toward or allied with the United States. Today, via Gallup, that’s up to 40 percent of Republicans.
Given that, it’s no surprise that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans broke with the vast majority of the public and gave the president high marks for his press conference alongside Putin, in which he disparaged his own Cabinet and intelligence officials and heaped praise upon the autocrat in the Kremlin.
Donald Trump’s rhetorical servility toward Putin contrasts greatly with his administration’s admirably hawkish posture toward Moscow, but don’t ask Republican voters to reconcile these contradictions. A July Fox News poll found that 57 percent of GOP voters think that Trump’s toughness toward Russia is “about right.” So, which is it?
“An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Donald Trump said to the applause of Republicans as he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. Ever since, the president has occupied his time attacking law enforcement, and Republicans are with him all the way.
Seventy-five percent of Republicans in a recent poll agree with the president that the special counsel’s office established by a Trump-appointed deputy attorney general is conducting a “witch hunt” targeting him and his allies. This position concedes that the 12 Russian nationals, 13 Russian intelligence officers, and five Americans who pleaded guilty to various crimes as a result of Robert Mueller’s work retain the president’s full faith and confidence. But perhaps that conclusion takes the average Republican voter literally and not seriously.
More seriously, six in ten Republicans tell pollsters that they believe the FBI is actively trying to frame the President of the United States for a crime. Logically, then, it stands to reason that most in the GOP believe that law enforcement is a politicized institution that is waging an underhanded campaign to de-legitimize an election and carry out something akin to a coup. In February, Reuters/Ipsos found that 73 percent of Republicans believe just that. But if the coup narrative were true and an existential threat to the foundations of the Republic had been uncovered, would Republicans really behave as they are—placidly allowing Democrats to out-raise, out-organize, and out-campaign GOP candidates consistently for over 18 months?
Even in trifling matters in which the stakes are so low that they hardly merit the effort it takes to lie—like the president’s baseless claim that “between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election,” thus robbing Trump of a popular vote victory in 2016—a majority of Republican voters are willing to compromise themselves. And only to spare the president from the shame of trivial embarrassment.
Some contend that these results are an outgrowth of the fact that voters have deciphered the pollster’s game. Respondents are savvy enough to know when survey-takers are genuinely trying to take the public’s temperature on an issue and when they are merely seeking to exacerbate tensions within the GOP camp. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, respondents who support Trump are more likely to answer questions in a way that demonstrates their fealty toward the president even if they don’t necessarily hold that position. In other words, these are all lies. Maybe that’s true, but it’s cold comfort. The lies we tell ourselves become our truth if we tell them often enough.
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Podcast: Snap back or new normal?
“Dog’s dinner” is a term for something that is a lot of things smushed together, and that’s what defines this podcast—we talk about commercials and elections and Thanksgiving Day balloons and Trump and other stuff. Give a listen.
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The final frontier.
In 1957, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago named Eugene Parker submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal, the most prestigious journal in that field. In it, he predicted the existence of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles, streaming out from the sun in all directions. The idea was considered so ridiculous that two reviewers rejected the article. But the editor of the Astrophysical Journal, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, (one of the giants of 20th-century astrophysics, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1983) couldn’t find any flaws in the math, so he overrode the reviewers and published it. Within four years, the paper had been vindicated by the earliest space probes, and our understanding of the sun and its dynamics took a quantum leap forward
On Sunday, a Delta IV heavy-lift rocket took off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Parker Solar Probe (the first time a NASA mission has been named for a living person) to explore the sun and its outer atmosphere, the corona, close up. Very close up. The Parker space mission will get within 3.83 million miles of the sun’s photosphere (the “surface” that you see when you look at the sun, which you should do only with proper eye protection).
How close is that? Well, since sunlight is subject to an inverse square law, just like gravity, when you get twice as close to the sun, you are getting four times as much sunlight per unit of area. At 3.83 million miles the Parker space probe will be getting about 590 times as much sunlight per square inch as we get on earth. In other words, the sunburn you would get in one hour of a bright sunny day on the equator, you would get in about six seconds if you were 3.83 million miles from the sun. In one hour, you would be, well, long since toast.
The Parker mission will (we hope) be able to withstand such an enormous energy flux thanks to some very fancy engineering. According to Space.com, “To deal with heat, the solar-powered probe is equipped with a 7.5-foot-wide (2.3 meters), 4.5-inch-thick (11.4 centimeters) shield made of an advanced carbon-composite material, which will keep most of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments at a comfortable 85 degrees F (29 degrees C).”
The probe, at times, will accelerate to about 430,000 miles an hour over the course of its seven-year mission, by far the fastest man-made object in history. (A high-powered bullet has a muzzle velocity of about 4000 feet a second, or 2,700 miles an hour, not even one percent the speed that the Parker space mission will achieve).
If all goes well, within a decade, our knowledge of the sun will have taken another quantum leap forward.