Newsletter 55: Newsbusters, and Back When We Could Look at Each Other As People
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from May 2017, about two very different experiences with the site Newsbusters, almost exactly a year apart. What a world.
Back in April 2015, when I’d just started with the Bloomberg Politics gig, my friend and colleague John Heilemann asked me to come on his “With All Due Respect” show to discuss some sort of “politics bracket” they’d put together for the show. I was in Indianapolis covering the Final Four and didn’t really have time to dig into their bracket conceit, but they needed a guest and there was a studio nearby and I had some time before I had to be at the arena, so I said sure.
When I was a kid, I imagined every television show took months of planning, orchestrated like an opera, aged like a wine. Turns out, if they’re short on guests and long on time, they’ll just grab you off the street, strap you in a chair and just scream “Wing it!” right before they go live. I actually kind of like it. There’s a certain rush you get when you’re figuring things out on the fly, in front of a home-viewing audience. It’s like nightmare improv where if you say the wrong thing you can destroy your whole career in roughly two seconds. Workin’ without a net!
Anyway, it turned out in one of the brackets, Bloomberg Politics readers had voted some sort of victory for Jon Stewart over the Pope. (This was a couple of months after he had announced he was going to retire.) John asked me on air what I thought about Stewart beating the Pope, and I didn’t really understand what this bracket was, so I just sort of spitballed this idea that Stewart represented more than just comedy to your average reader of Bloomberg Politics and thus might even be more popular with those readers (whom I had found, anecdotally but not overwhelmingly, to be more liberal than conservative) than the Pope. John, amused, gently mocked me for saying that Jon Stewart was more popular than The Pope, and we ended the segment and I didn’t think any more about it.
That night, a site called Newsbusters, which advertises itself as “exposing and combating liberal media bias,” decided to write a post about the segment. It was titled “Bloomberg Columnist: Tina Fey, Jon Stewart More Universal Than the Pope.” The minute I saw it in my news feed, I knew I was in trouble. The post itself was relatively innocuous — the author even called me “affable and funny” — but pretty soon the emails started to flow in. One guy just copied and pasted his comment under the post: “I’m sure that as we speak, this guys parents are on their way to his office to slap the silliness out of their sons head. They are asking themselves, where did we go wrong?” And that was one of the nice ones! (And one that wasn’t particularly untrue, all told.)
I hadn’t meant to say I thought Jon Stewart was more popular than the Pope in a literal sense, just among readers of Bloomberg Politics (hence, why they voted for him over the Pope), but I understood why I’d be called out for it. So I responded in the comments of the post, writing, “I’m not sure this was “leftist” or not … but it was probably a pretty dumb thing to say. Mea culpa. (For the record: I like the Pope a lot more than I like Jon Stewart.)“
I know, I know. Decades of writing on the Internet have trained me not to read the comments, let alone wade around in them, but I was new to politics and, more than anything, determined not to be known as a “leftist” writer. Not only did I not consider myself one — and I still don’t — but we also didn’t want Bloomberg Politics to be known that way; I wanted to be able to write about the 2016 campaign in a truthful, non-activist, humanistic way that could be enjoyed and appreciated regardless of your political persuasion. I felt it was worth it to risk to head in there and admit my mistake head on. And you know what happened? The Newsbusters readers loved it.
“Bravo!! It took class to come here and say that!” “Well done! Mom always said it was the mark of a real man to admit when he was wrong. God knows I’ve had to admit it more than a few times.” And so on. It felt like we were all just fellow travelers. We disagreed on all sorts of views of the world — obviously, because we are all separate human beings with separate life experiences — but we probably agreed on a lot as well, and besides, why let something like politics get in the way of recognizing each other’s humanity and sharing a moment as regular people? I came away encouraged. This was how I wanted to discuss politics. As grownups. You might not agree with me on this thing, I might not agree with you on that thing, but dammit, we’re all just floating around this planet one time, let’s try to be good to each other while we’re here. HUGS.
Ah, for the halcyon days of April 2015, back when this was a reasonable dream, back when it didn’t seem like the stupidest thing in the world.
Two months later, Donald Trump would enter the Presidential race — a concept so bemusingly ridiculous that I wrote a big piece previewing it that was almost, almost, admiring of the guy — and nothing has been the same since. So many things have changed since then, nearly all of them for the worse *** , that harping on this particular one stands to be justly accused of being exclusionary or even privileged, but it’s still a shame that it’s impossible to have such an illusion now. We were partisan before. But now our partisanship is a code of arms emblazoned on the sword we plan on disembowling you with.
(*** In writing that sentence, I realized I couldn’t think of many things that had actually gotten better since April 2015. First three things that come to mind: Jimmy Fallon now is behind in the ratings, airplane Wifi has infinitesimally improved and Illinois has excellent coaches in football and men’s and women’s basketball at the same time for the first time since ever. Other than that … I’m at a loss. We got a new Kendrick Lamar album? Sturgill Simpson broke huge? Better Call Saul has run two terrific seasons? Help me out here.)
It is just disappointing that your partisanship — which is a factor in who we all are as people, but, I’d argue, not a fundamental one, particularly for those who prefer to keep their “social” and their “media” separate, a far larger number of people than are ever credited for existing — is such a determining factor in everything now, to the point that neither side is able, or even willing, to have a conversation with the other. Until Trump, I had no idea who my parents had voted for their entire lives, or my wife, or some of my closest friends, and it didn’t make a lick of difference to me. Sure, if we got to drinking and talking, I’m sure we’d have a fun, rousing debate on these things, and they’d fail to change my mind and I’d fail to change theirs. But it wouldn’t be a bloodsport. It wouldn’t make a difference how we feel about each other.
I see this happening constantly now. I see families torn apart, friendships ended, strangers immediately at each other’s throats. I see fury and rage and close-mindedness, from every direction. I know our national politics, and the venues in which we discuss them, have changed over the years. But it was Trump who was the match. Hating what he has done to our national discourse, what meanness he has brought out, in both sides, is not a political stance. It’s a human one.
My political writing career is over now. I thought I was going to write a series of pieces about the ongoing carnival of our political system, about the bizarre mix of idealism and opportunism that modern politics uniquely provides. It turned out to be the most depressing experience of my career … and one of the most depressing ones of my life. And the worst part is that it’s still going on — that it has gotten worse.
Is there hope? This week has featured the usual Trump ugliness, but … also the first signs that the sorts of reasonable people whom I reasonably disagreed with in the past are starting to at least tilt toward reason and away from what they (mistakenly) saw as political expedience to do something about the monster we’ve put in charge of this country. (Or at least some of them are.) I don’t know whether it will work or whether it won’t. But my fear is that it’s already too late.
A year after that initial piece, Newsbusters went after me again for something I wrote in my review of ESPN’s O.J. Simpson documentary. I hadn’t made a mistake this time. But I didn’t bother going in the comments to defend myself this time either. I’d be wading into a viper’s nest. It was a different planet, already. It still is.
(I will still give anyone who can find me in this photo, from the August 2015 Trump rally in Mobile, Alabama, I covered for Bloomberg, a shoutout in the newsletter. This part of political reporting was actually fun. It was before everyone went insane.)