The Case for Less Political Reporting

Why broader news coverage could lead to a better-informed population

Illustration of a mid-20th-century newscaster
H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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Conversations of Note

Reflecting on last week’s unusually tumultuous news cycle, James Fallows makes the case for less political reporting at Breaking the News:

Reporting on politics has somehow become the prestige pinnacle of newspaper and broadcast journalism. Its practitioners are on TV panels and the book circuit.

I’ve long argued that Americans would be better informed, and simply more interested in the news, and reporters would feel more energized, engaged, and useful, if 90% of today’s political press corps were re-deployed on other beats. And if 90% of the airtime and online emphasis were given to other topics.

Partly that’s because other topics offer so much more depth and variety. The world is two-dimensional when it comes to presidential politics. The incumbent is doing well, or poorly. The next election will go this way, or it will go like that. Of course this matters, tremendously. But it’s binary. By comparison, stories on other topics—science, business, art, a community’s past and future, interests and achievements, practically anything —are as rich, surprising, and varied as life itself. When you read the presidential-politics stories or sit through the electoral-forecast panels, the world is unsurprising and gray. When you read or learn about anything else, it’s in full color and 3-D.

Building a Better Coronavirus Vaccine

The Biden administration is spending $5 billion on a program aimed at hastening the development of new coronavirus vaccines. Eric Topol argues that this is a wise investment.

Among his reasons:

The prospects for another Omicron-like event—a new family of variants that will challenge the immunity we have built up via vaccines, boosters, infections and their combinations. As I’ve previously reviewed, the chance of us seeing another highly troublesome variant is estimated to be 10-20% over the next 2 years, and higher as we go beyond that timeline. There are too many paths for this to happen, as shown below, for us not to worry about it. To anticipate this we need a pan-coronavirus vaccine that exploits our knowledge of not just the Spike protein, but also conserved regions of the virus, and a wealth of academic lab studies that have discovered critical antigenic sites (epitopes) of the virus for highly potent, broad, neutralizing antibodies which can serve as templates for such a variant-proof vaccine. We don’t need to “dream” about such a vaccine anymore. (This excellent review was published in Science, April 2021).

With all the science that’s been done, it ought to be attainable! The NextGen program will help accelerate that by promoting and de-risking the vaccine development programs. There are undesirable side effects, some lack of durability of protection beyond 4-6 months, and vaccine-induced injury for current Covid vaccines that can certainly be improved upon.

The Real Reason for Military-Recruiting Shortfalls?

In 2022, the Department of Defense implemented a new online platform called Military Health System Genesis to track the medical records of applicants before they could sign up for service. As a result, recruits have been prevented from fudging their own medical history to avoid being disqualified—which, Irene Loewenson and Geoff Ziezulewicz assert in Military Times, had been a common (if technically illegal) practice among many who wished to enlist in the pre-Genesis era. This newly accurate screening system is now fueling a military-recruitment crisis, Loewenson and Ziezulewicz write:

Political leaders and partisan pundits blame today’s recruiting crisis on everything from so-called “woke” diversity training to kids these days being too fat and lazy to cut it. Military brass have blamed an under-educated public, a roaring civilian jobs market and bad perceptions of service fueled by negative headlines. But multiple recruiters who spoke with Military Times blame Genesis above all else.

“When Genesis hit the scene, it was a night-and-day difference,” Navy recruiter Peter Harris, a petty officer, noted. Once an applicant signs their consent, Genesis vacuums up the entirety of their medical history, flagging past and present health issues.

That makes it harder, some recruiters say, to squeeze applicants through despite past maladies they did not disclose—such as ADHD, depression or a years-old broken bone. Recruiting numbers suffer as a result. Previously, such applicants could enlist if they concealed, or genuinely had forgotten about, these issues.

Reader Emails on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Robin argues that Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez should be applauded for a recent letter sketching a version of DEI that coexists with freedom of speech rather than constraining it:

I believe Dean Martinez reinvigorated the DEI movement with its humane and perhaps original intent, which is to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, concepts that practically all of us will champion. In the university context, she pointed out that a basic aim is to provide an atmosphere “most conductive to speculation, experiment and creation,” and that promotes “the widest range of viewpoints … free of institutional orthodoxy ...” She called this part of “basic norms of pluralism,” which I think would be an appropriate way to summarize the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion. The extreme form of DEI is, instead, a moral effort to impose a way of thought, with pre-approved means and outcomes, which does not lead to a useful exchange of ideas that is essential to a thriving social network. We must welcome all comers; disagree vigorously when we don’t see eye to eye; stop, overcome, reverse past discrimination against groups among us; in order to live together for everyone’s benefit.

Paul describes a nonprofit group that he co-founded:

We started PROPEL Pequannock (Pequannock Residents of Pride, Equity, and Leadership) in an effort to make our [82 percent] white, very conservative Morris County, NJ, town more welcoming to all. Our families had experienced bias in the community, and soon we had members of the LGBTQ , Asian, and Black communities authoring their own first-person stories of bias that they had experienced in Pequannock, which we published on our website. We’ve succeeded in many firsts including June Pride Month Proclamations in 2021 and 22 as well as the 1st Annual Pequannock Pride Fest held at a public park last June. We had 30 vendors, music all day long, five food trucks, three children’s entertainment venues, and about 1,000 attendees all enjoying a beautiful day of kindness.

Meanwhile our local school board has been challenged by far-right candidates who combine DEI, socialism, CRT, and LGBTQ-themed books into a conspiratorial soup of what they deem pornography intended to “groom” their children. We’ve managed to defeat them in the last two elections, but this year Moms for Liberty endorsed one such candidate and we fear their money along with their well organized disinformation campaigns will be increasingly challenging.

So, in many ways it doesn’t matter to our PROPEL efforts what DEI, or CRT, or socialism means to people. Educating Americans these days seems a useless exercise in frustration. Instead we’ve settled on the simple notion of kindness as a way to achieve inclusive equity. This year we will award a scholarship to a graduating senior who demonstrated kindness throughout their high school career, and another to the student who most supported our mission. This year’s Pride Fest is sponsored by a regional hospital and a major corporate bank, so we’re establishing a solid foothold in the community. Whether kindness will prevail remains to be seen, but we’re hopeful.

And Mike questions efforts to supplant equality with equity:

If DEI refers to diversity, equity, and inclusion it is worth noting that one of these terms seems somewhat out of place. Diversity as a goal seems laudable: there is value in promoting diversity in academia and workplaces where it leads to better problem solving and outcomes. While some quibble over what forms of diverse individuals should or should not be included (one rarely sees attempts to include poor white people despite their exclusion from many important civic arenas), the basic thinking appeals to most.

Inclusivity, or the notion that it is worthwhile to work to make all people feel welcome, is an extension of basic manners. Asking a little extra of a workplace to accommodate people who have been underrepresented or ignored in order so they feel as though they belong is a natural next step of diversity efforts; there is little point to inviting different types of people somewhere only to treat them as if they shouldn’t have been invited.

But the last term, equity, seems the most fraught. Here’s one definition I found: “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.” Equality is a common value in America. The idea that people should be afforded the same opportunity and then do the most with it, even if reality hasn't always lived up to that ideal, feels familiar. But everyone achieving the same outcome does not, and seems antithetical to equality. Different people have different abilities, interests, and work ethics.  

Why would anyone expect them to achieve identical outcomes? More to the point, who decides what is the ideal outcome? Who decides who will and will not receive those resources and opportunities? How will they allocate them? What happens if they aren’t allocated according to the dicta of the decider? Who decides who the decider will be? Diversity and inclusivity are about respect for the individual and bringing them into a common goal. What they do once they’re part of that group is up to them. Equity, at least how it is often promoted, seems to be more about paternalistically deciding goals for people, and picking winners and losers. One of these three is not like the other.

On the Death of a Mother

In an obituary for Joan Farrell McArdle, her daughter writes:

Nothing prepares you to lose your mother because, for you, there has never been a world without her in it. You floated through your days unaware that you were sustained by knowing she would be there to return to, in triumph or disaster. All you can do after is find things to fill the void, ideally things that remind you of her.

At War on the Rocks, Paul Scharre argues that the militaries that will best harness AI’s advantages “will be those that effectively understand and employ its unique and often alien forms of cognition.”

He explains:

When an AI fighter pilot beat an experienced human pilot 15-0 in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s AlphaDogfight competition, it didn’t just fly better than the human. It fought differently. Heron Systems’ AI agent used forward-quarter gunshots, when the two aircraft were racing toward each other head-to-head, a shot that’s banned in pilot training because of the risk of a collision. One fighter pilot characterized the AI’s abilities as a “superhuman capability” making high-precision, split-second shots that were “almost impossible” for humans. Even more impressive, the AI system wasn’t programmed to fight this way. It learned this tactic all on its own. AI systems’ ability to perform not just better than humans, but to fight differently, is a major potential advantage in warfare … U.S. defense projects sometimes conceive of AI systems as operating like a teammate or copilot. Yet AI systems often think in a radically different way to humans. These differences can be an advantage, but only if warfighters understand AI’s unique inhuman strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. military should increase its investments in prototyping, experimentation, and wargaming with AI systems to better understand their potential in warfare and how to best employ them.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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