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Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized excerpt: The media’s role – Vox.com

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The following is an excerpt from Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized, published by Simon & Schuster and available January 28.

We talk a lot about the left/right divide in political media. But we don’t talk enough about the more fundamental divide that precedes and, in some ways, causes it: the interested/uninterested divide.

In All the News That’s Fit to Sell, economist James Hamilton writes, “News emerges not from individuals seeking to improve the functioning of democracy but from readers seeking diversion, reporters forging careers, and owners searching for profits.” That’s a bit more cynical than I’d be — a lot of us really do want to improve the functioning of democracy — but as a description of the overall economic system that surrounds our work, it’s useful. You can’t understand the news without understanding the financial and audience forces that shape it. The first thing to appreciate is that those forces have changed, and changed dramatically, in recent decades.

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Consider the options available to eager political news consumers in 1995. They might have had a hometown paper or two, a handful of radio stations, the three nightly newscasts, the newly launched CNN, and, if they were really hardcore, a couple of magazine subscriptions.

Fast-forward a decade. Those same consumers could fire up Internet Explorer and read almost any newspaper in the country — and most of the major newspapers of the world — online. For political opinion, they had a dizzying array of magazines, any op-ed page they chose, and, all of a sudden, a countless number of blogs. On television, CNN had been joined by Fox News and MSNBC. On radio, satellite began crowding the airwaves with more political commentary. In pockets, the launch of the iPod kicked off the age of podcasting. And the quantity of available political information has only multiplied since then. Never in human history has it been remotely possible to be this politically informed.

President Trump talks to journalists in November 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In most models of democratic politics, information is the constraint. Voters don’t have the time or energy to read thick tomes of political theory and keep themselves updated on every act of Congress, so they’re dependent on the political professionals — elected officials, campaign operatives, party staffers, lobbyists, pundits — who do. What follows from this model is tantalizing: If information ceases to be scarce, if it becomes freely and easily available to all, the fundamental problem afflicting democratic systems would be solved.

Over the past decade, the dreams of democratic theorists everywhere actually came true. The internet made information abundant. The rise of online news gave Americans access to more information — vastly more information, orders of magnitude more information — than they had ever had before. And yet surveys showed we weren’t, on average, any more politically informed. Nor were we any more involved: Voter participation didn’t show a boost from the democratization of political information. Why?

In the early aughts, Princeton political scientist Markus Prior set out to unravel this apparent paradox. The way he resolved the problem is, in retrospect, obvious.

Yes, there were more cable news channels, but they were dwarfed in number by the channels that had no interest whatsoever in news — channels that served up round-the-clock cooking, home repair, travel, comedy, cartoons, tech, classic films. The key factor now, Prior argued, was not access to political information but interest.

Yes, you could read the political coverage of any newspaper or magazine in the country online, but you could also read so much more nonpolitical coverage. The explosion in political media was more than matched by the explosion in media covering music, television, diets, health, video games, rock climbing, spirituality, celebrity breakups, sports, gardening, cat pictures, genealogical records — really, everything.

The key factor now, Prior argued, was not access to political information but interest in political information. He made his point by comparing it to television. Like the internet, television multiplied the amount of information available to people, and it spread like wildfire. But unlike the internet, television, at least in its early years, offered little choice. You might own a television because you refused to miss I Love Lucy, but if you had the TV on in the evening, you ended up sitting through the news anyway. Similarly, you might subscribe to the newspaper for the sports page, but that meant seeing the political stories on A1. Politics was bundled alongside everything else, and even the uninterested were pushed to consume political news.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) answers questions from reporters in September 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The digital revolution offered access to unimaginably vast vistas of information, but, just as important, it offered access to unimaginably more choice. And that explosion of choice widened that interested/uninterested divide. Greater choices let the devotees learn more and the uninterested know less.

To test this, Prior surveyed more than 2,300 people about their content preferences and their political knowledge. And because he was conducting this survey in 2002 and 2003, the early years of the internet and still reasonably early for cable, he was able to survey people who had internet access, those who had cable access, those who had both, and those who had neither.

Content preferences — which is to say, how much people wanted to consume political information versus how much they wanted to consume other forms of entertainment — had little effect on the knowledge of those without cable and internet access. Even if you wanted more political information, you didn’t have easy access to it, so the interest didn’t translate cleanly into information.

But among those with cable and internet access, the difference in political knowledge between those with the highest and lowest interest in cable news was 27 percent. That dwarfed the difference in political knowledge between people with the highest and lowest levels of schooling. “In a high-choice environment, people’s content preferences become better predictors of political learning than even their level of education,” Prior wrote.

Prior was conducting this research in the early 2000s, before Facebook and Twitter, before mobile internet and YouTube algorithms, before MSNBC’s leftward turn, before BuzzFeed and HuffPost, before Breitbart and the alt-right, before Vox. The internet has become much better at learning what we want and giving us more of it since then. The competition for audience, and the threat to journalistic business models, has become much more intense since then. And all of this has changed both how political news is produced and how it’s consumed.

In an age of choice, political journalism is a business that serves people interested in political news and that tries to create more people interested in political news. And to be interested in politics is, for most people, to choose a side. How could it be otherwise? The differences between the parties and their coalitions are profound. They are ideological, geographic, demographic, temperamental. Whether your side wins or loses is a literal matter of life and death — perhaps not for you, but, given the stakes for health insurance and foreign policy, certainly for someone.

In today’s media sphere, where the explosion of choices has made it possible to get the political media you really want, it’s expressed itself in polarized media that attaches to political identity, conflict, and celebrity. That is to say, it expresses itself in journalism and commentary that is more directly about the question of why your side should win and the other side should lose.

I’ve produced a lot of this kind of journalism. I cover politics because I think policy is important, which is to say, because I think who wins and who loses policy fights is important. And, obviously, my views on those questions are rational, judicious, disinterested, and objectively correct. The problem is lots of other people are doing that kind of work, too, and some of them come to different conclusions than I do.

But rather than argue over who’s right, I want to step back and look at how a political media system increasingly organized around that axis deepens political identity, hardens polarization, and raises the political stakes.

A man holding a sign with “CNN sucks” scrawled over a Trump-Pence logo.

A Trump supporter at a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in November 2018.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The simplest measure for assessing political journalism is whether it’s giving those who follow it a more accurate understanding of American politics. As one disturbing window into this question, consider a fascinating study published by Douglas Ahler and Gaurav Sood in 2018.

In it, Ahler and Sood conducted a survey asking people “to estimate the percentage of Democrats who are black, atheist or agnostic, union members, and gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and the percentage of Republicans who are evangelical, 65 or older, Southern, and earn over $250,000 per year.” They were asking, in other words, how much people thought the composition of the parties fit the caricatures of the parties.

Misperceptions were particularly high when people were asked to describe the other party. Democrats believed 44 percent of Republicans earned more than $250,000 a year; it’s actually 2 percent. Republicans believed that 38 percent of Democrats were gay, lesbian, or bisexual; the correct answer is about 6 percent. Democrats believed that more than four in 10 Republicans are seniors; in truth, seniors make up about 20 percent of the GOP. Republicans believed that 46 percent of Democrats are black and 44 percent belong to a union; in reality, about 24 percent of Democrats are black and less than 11 percent belong to a union.

Here’s the kicker: As the charts below show, the more political media people consumed, the more mistaken they were, in general, about the other party. This is a damning result: The more political media you absorb, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.

The more political information you consume, the more you misperceive the other party.
“The Parties in Our Heads,” Ahler and Sood, 2018

The old line on local reporting was “If it bleeds, it leads.” For political reporting, the principle is “If it outrages, it leads.” And outrage is deeply connected to identity — we are outraged when members of other groups threaten our group and violate our values. As such, polarized media doesn’t emphasize commonalities, it weaponizes differences; it doesn’t focus on the best of the other side, it threatens you with the worst.

As that last paragraph suggests, I’m about to step into some dangerous territory, so let me say this clearly: I’m not asserting moral equivalence, and in the book this article is adapted from, I have much more to say about the ways and reasons the left and the right — including their media spheres — have diverged.

But virtually everyone in political media is competing for audience attention and loyalty amid a cacophony of choices. We all make different decisions about how to compete for that audience, but since we are all trying to attract other human beings, there are certain similarities in our approach.

Historically, not only did the audience have less choice in what media to consume, the media didn’t have much information about the audience. The networks had ratings. The newspapers had subscription renewals. Everyone received letters. But that was it.

I used to regularly guest-host on cable news. The emotional rhythm of that workday crested at 4 pm, when the Nielsen numbers came out and everyone stopped to compare how their show did against the competition. If you beat your competitors, you could rest easy. If you didn’t, you had to worry. And if you lost a few times in a row, you’d start getting calls from upstairs. Maybe your programming should stick closer to the news of the day. Maybe you needed shorter intros, or longer intros, or more guests, or more heat.

Cable news is journalism, but it’s also a business. Chris Hayes, who anchors MSNBC’s 8 pm newscast and is among the most thoughtful, civic-minded journalists in the industry, referenced a Will Ferrell joke from Anchorman 2 on his podcast, saying, “What if instead of telling people the things they need to know, we tell them what they want to know?” That is, he says, “the creation story of cable news.”

From left, MSNBC State of the Union hosts Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace, and Chris Hayes in February 2019.
Rob Kim/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“At some level,” he continued, “we’re wedding DJs. And the wedding DJ’s job is to get you on the floor.” The point is not that this leaves no room for serious journalism. As Hayes says, there are good wedding DJs and bad wedding DJs, and the work of being a cable news host is making sure you’re one of the good ones. But this is the business context in which cable news decisions are made.

Then came the rise of real-time digital analytics. Every digital newsroom in the country, including Vox, subscribes to some service or another that tracks traffic in a gamified, constantly updating interface. The most influential is Chartbeat, which shows you every article on your site, indicates the number of people on each article at any given second, and colors the dots representing those people to tell you how they found the article. Green dots mean they found you through a search engine. Purple dots mean they came from a social network, usually Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit. It’s pure pleasure to watch the display for an article you worked hard on fill with dots.

But we don’t just want people to read our work. We want people to spread our work — to be so moved by what we wrote or said that they log on to Facebook and share it with their friends or head over to Reddit and try to tell the world. That’s how you get those dots to multiply. But people don’t share quiet voices. They share loud voices. They share work that moves them, that helps them express to their friends who they are and how they feel. Social platforms are about curating and expressing a public-facing identity. They’re about saying, “I’m a person who cares about this, likes that, and loathes this other thing.” They are about signaling the groups you belong to and, just as important, the groups you don’t belong to.

The rise of BuzzFeed made this subtext into text. Its co-founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti, originally built BuzzFeed on the side as a skunkworks for experimenting with how viral content spread online. The answer soon became clear: Identity is the slingshot.

“A classic early BuzzFeed post, and later video, was ‘13 Struggles All Left-Handers Know to Be True,’” Peretti tells me. “Another early classic was ‘Signs You Were Raised by Immigrant Parents.’ That one’s a racial identity but also an immigrant identity.”

There are so many more. One of BuzzFeed’s most popular series was “X Things Only a Y Would Understand.” A Google search for those keywords brings up articles like “14 Things Only Anxious People Will Understand,” “19 Things Only People With Fibromyalgia Will Understand,” “53 Things Only ’80s Girls Can Understand,” “30 Things Everyone Who Went to College Will Understand,” “27 Struggles You’ll Only Understand If You Were Born Before 1995,” “38 Things Only Someone Who Was a Scout Would Know,” “19 Comics Only Night Owls Will Understand,” “19 Things You’ll Only Understand if You Had Strict Parents,” “18 Photos That Only People Who Had Braces Will Understand.”

From left, Ben Smith, Jonah Peretti, and Jon Steinberg in BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles offices in 2013. When it launched, BuzzFeed was described as a media company for the social age, with a mix of breaking news, entertainment, and shareable content.
Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is identity media in its purest form. Sharing the scouting article says you were a Scout, and you were a serious enough Scout to understand the signifiers and experiences that only Scouts had. To post that article on Facebook is to make a statement about who you are, who your group is, and, just as important, who is excluded.

In political media, identity is affirmed and activated with slightly more oblique headlines. But the underlying dynamic is the same: This public figure that you and everyone in your group loathe said something awful. This poll came out saying you and your group are going to win or, better yet, that your out-group is going to lose. This slashing column explains why you’re right about everything and why your opponents are wrong.

A lot of these pieces are accurate, and some of them are genuinely useful. I have written many of them myself, and edited countless more. But cumulatively, it’s a sharp change from the days in which most political content people saw was self-consciously trying to avoid offending anyone. The stories that thrive when your business model is a local monopoly that needs a news product that’s appealing to every kind of person who might shop at a department store are different from the stories that thrive when your business model is people who strongly agree with your stories sharing them with their friends.

Identities are malleable things. They can be activated or kept dormant, strengthened or weakened, created or left in the void. The flood of identity-oriented content deepens the identities it repeatedly triggers, confirms, or threatens.

Many of us who wrote about politics on the internet before the rise of social media lament the feeling that something has been lost, that a space that once felt fresh and generative now feels toxic and narrow. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino offers a description of what changed that feels right to me, which is that social media shifted the “organizing principle” of online discourse:

The early internet had been constructed around lines of affinity and openness. But when the internet moved to an organizing principle of opposition, much of what had formerly been surprising and rewarding and curious became tedious, noxious, and grim.

This shift partly reflects basic social physics. Having a mutual enemy is a quick way to make a friend—we learn this as early as elementary school—and politically, it’s much easier to organize people against something than it is to unite them in an affirmative vision. And, within the economy of attention, conflict always gets more people to look.

When I entered journalism, the term of art for pieces infused with perspective was “opinion journalism.” The point of the work was to convey an opinion. Nowadays, I think a lot of it is closer to “identity journalism” — the effect of the work, given the social channels through which it’s consumed, is to reinforce an identity.

But an identity, once adopted, is harder to change than an opinion. An identity that binds you into a community you care about is costly and painful to abandon, and the mind will go to great lengths to avoid abandoning it. So the more media people see that encourages them to think of themselves as part of a group, and the more they publicly proclaim — through sharing and liking and following and subscribing — that they are part of a group, the deeper that identity roots and the more resistant the underlying views become to change.

Many people worry that modern media generates polarization by locking us into echo chambers. We’ve cocooned ourselves into hearing information that only tells us how right we are, and that’s making us more extreme.

There is an optimistic theory embedded in this story: If only we crossed the informational aisle, our enmity and polarization would ebb.

Beginning in October 2017, a group of political scientists and sociologists decided to test this theory. In the largest study of its kind conducted, they paid 1,220 regular Twitter users who identified as either Democrats or Republicans to follow a bot retweeting elected officials, media figures, and opinion leaders from the other side. The participants took regular surveys asking about their views on 10 issues ranging from immigration to government waste to corporate profits to LGBTQ acceptance.

The result of the month-long exposure to popular, authoritative voices from the other side of the aisle was that respondents became more, not less, polarized. “We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative posttreatment,” write the authors. “Democrats exhibited slight increases in liberal attitudes after following a conservative Twitter bot, although these effects are not statistically significant.”

Activists in New York City coordinated a die-in in front of Fox News to call attention to misinformation spread by the network surrounding the climate crisis, in October 2019.
Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The difference between the Democratic and Republican responses is interesting and merits more study. But the key finding is that neither group responded to exposure to the other side by moderating its own views. In both cases, hearing contrary opinions drove partisans not just to a deeper certainty in the rightness of their cause, but to more polarized policy positions — Republicans became more conservative rather than more liberal, and Democrats, if anything happened at all, became more liberal rather than more conservative.

I spoke to Christopher Bail, one of the study’s authors and the head of Duke University’s Polarization Lab. “For a long time, people have been assuming that exposing people to opposing views creates the opportunity for moderation,” he told me. “If I could humbly claim to figure out one thing, it’s that that’s not a simple process. If Twitter tweaks its algorithms to put one Republican for every nine Democrats in your Twitter feed, that won’t increase moderation.”

There is evidence that structuring positive, collaborative interactions can promote understanding. But very little in either political media or social media is designed for positive interactions with the other side. Most political media isn’t even designed for persuasion. For all the reasons we’ve discussed, the bulk of opinionated political media is written for the side that already agrees with the author, and most partisan elected officials are tweeting to their supporters, who follow them and fundraise for them, rather than to their critics, who don’t.

When we talk about political media, we tend to cut a sharp line between the political elites who create the media and the audience that consumes it. But that’s a mistake. No one consumes more political, and politicized, media than political elites. This is part of the reason political media has an enormous effect on politics, even though only a small fraction of the country regularly consumes it.

Politicians are increasingly addicted to Twitter, with the president being only the most prominent example. Fox News has whipped the Republican Party into a number of government shutdowns, and much of Trump’s most offensive rhetoric comes on a direct conveyor belt from conservative media feeding him conspiracies that he transforms into presidential proclamations.

Sean Hannity of Fox News introduces Trump during a rally in Cape Girardeau, Montana, in November 2018.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Indeed, the impeachment effort House Democrats launched against Trump stems from Trump believing a set of anti-Biden conspiracies pushed by Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer and heavily promoted on Fox News. Most Americans had never heard of Hunter Biden, much less followed vague insinuations about Ukrainian prosecutors. But the president was sufficiently persuaded that he threw the weight of his administration into an investigation, setting off a chain of events that changed American political history and further polarized the country.

Politics is, first and foremost, driven by the people who pay the most attention and wield the most power — and those people opt in to extraordinarily politicized media. They then create the political system they perceive.

Journalists are hardly immune to these forces. We become more polarized, and more polarizing, when we start spending our time in polarizing environments. I have seen it in myself, and I have watched it in others: When we’re going for retweets, or when our main form of audience feedback is coming from highly partisan social media users, it subtly but importantly warps our news judgment. It changes who we cover and what stories we chase. And when we cover politics in a more polarized way, anticipating or absorbing the tastes of a more polarized audience, we create a more polarized political reality.

The news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover — decide, that is, what is newsworthy.

Here’s the dilemma: to decide what to cover is to become the shaper of the news rather than a mirror held up to the news. It makes journalists actors rather than observers. It annihilates our fundamental conception of ourselves. And yet it’s the most important decision we make. If we decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals — which is what we did — then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.

While I’m critical of the specific decision my industry made in that case, this problem is inescapable. The news media isn’t just an actor in politics. It’s arguably the most powerful actor in politics. It’s the primary intermediary between what politicians do and what the public knows. The way we try to get around this is by conceptually outsourcing the decisions about what we cover to the idea of newsworthiness. If we simply cover what’s newsworthy, then we’re not the ones making those decisions — it’s the neutral, external judgment of news worthiness that bears responsibility. The problem is that no one, anywhere, has a rigorous definition of newsworthiness, much less a definition that they actually follow.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears in NBC coverage of the vote to impeach Trump on December 18, 2019.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

A simple example comes in the treatment of presidential and pre-presidential rhetoric. On some level, anything that the president says, or that a plausible candidate for president says, is newsworthy. Yet only a small minority of what is said by presidential candidates, or even presidents, gets covered as major news.

When President Obama gave a speech on manufacturing policy at an Ohio steel mill and when Sen. Marco Rubio held a town hall discussing higher education costs in New Hampshire, they struggled to get the press to take notice. Trump, meanwhile, routinely gets cable networks to air his rallies live by lying flagrantly, lobbing racist and sexist insults, and generally behaving outrageously. Whether this is strategy or intuition, the result is the same: Trump hacked the media’s true definition of newsworthiness, and it lets him control the agenda. This was true well before he won the presidency — indeed, it might be why he won the presidency.

In their book Identity Crisis, political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Michael Tesler find that “from May 1, 2015, to April 30, 2016, Trump’s median share of cable news mentions was 52 percent.” There were 17 Republican candidates running for president, so Trump was getting more than half of all the media coverage, with the other 16 candidates splitting the remainder.

It gets worse. “Trump received 78 percent of all coverage on CNN between Aug. 24 and Sept. 4, 2015,” and by November 2015, “Trump had received more evening network news coverage—234 minutes—than the entire Democratic field. By contrast, Ted Cruz had received seven minutes.” This was a choice the media made, and not for the best reasons. In February 2016, for instance, the chair of CBS said of Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the ratings it drew, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Sides, Vavreck, and Tesler argue that in a chaotic, crowded primary, the media coverage Trump received was crucial to legitimizing his campaign: “Republican voters had received no clear signal about who the front-runner was or should be. The resulting uncertainty meant that this signal needed to come from somewhere else. It was news media coverage that would fill this void.” The coverage of Trump also made it impossible for his challengers to get their messages heard.

As president, his rambling monologues, which are unusually detached from both factual rigor and his administration’s policymaking decisions, are treated as worthier of airtime than the more careful, factual, and policy-predictive speeches of his predecessors.

Trump makes his entrance during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 14, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

“Journalism academics have always known that newsworthiness, as the American press defines it, isn’t a system with any coherence to it,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, told me. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a list of factors that occasionally come together to produce news. There’s no real logic to it, other than it’s a list of things that can make something news. The advantage of it is that it leaves maximum leeway for editors to say, ‘This is news,’ and, ‘That’s not news,’ and so it’s news if a journalist decides it’s news.”

In practice, judgments of newsworthiness are often contagious; nothing obscures the fact that a decision is being made quite like everyone else making it, too. In the modern era, a shortcut to newsworthiness is social media virality; if people are already talking about a story or a tweet, that makes it newsworthy almost by definition.

This can lead the country into odd, angry cul-de-sacs. I remember returning from an offline vacation only to find the entire political media at war over a viral video in which students from Covington Catholic High School wearing MAGA hats appeared to harass Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder playing a drum. In the original video, which took place during a protest at the National Mall in Washington, DC, the teens were seemingly mocking, smirking, and making tomahawk chop motions at Phillips. A longer video muddied the waters, offering evidence that the teens were harassed by members of the fringe Black Israelites group beforehand. Soon enough, the media was filled with takes and counter-takes, and President Trump was weighing in. “Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,” he tweeted.

What was striking, walking into this debate without the (dis)advantage of being present for its initial escalation, was how angry everyone was over something that objectively didn’t matter. How was this newsworthy?

The answer was that it had been dominating social media all weekend, and that had made it newsworthy. And why had it dominated social media? Because it was a perfect collision of political identities: MAGA-hatted teenagers against a peaceful, drumming Native American elder. Liberal news outlets turning the country against conservative, Christian children from a religious school. It was an object lesson in how social media’s preference for identitarian conflict focuses the media on identitarian conflicts, even when those collisions are almost comically obscure.

These are dynamics that Trump exploits daily. He weaponizes outrageousness, offensiveness, and identity cues to capture a share of political coverage unknown in the modern era. He’s shown that in a competitive media environment — particularly one responsive to social platforms — you can dominate the media by lobbing grenades into our deepest social divides.

The media is how most Americans get their information about politics and politicians, and if the media is tilting, or being tilted, toward certain kinds of political stories and figures, then the political system will tilt in that direction, too.

Leslie and Anna White cheer in anticipation of President Trump for his homecoming campaign rally in Sunrise, Florida, on November 26, 2019.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump is a product of the tilting, but he is not the first, and he will not be the last. The political media is biased, but not toward the left or right so much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational. It is biased toward the political stories and figures who activate our identities, because it is biased toward and dependent on the fraction of the country with the most intense political identities.

You can order Why We’re Polarized, or find a full schedule of tour events, here. You can also listen to an excerpt from the audiobook book by subscribing to “The Ezra Klein Show,” or by streaming it here.

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Progress slow at COP talks although some agreement achieved, says Guilbeault

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Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says there’s been agreement on one of Canada’s main goals at the international conference in Montreal aimed at protecting the world’s declining biodiversity.

Guilbeault says the more than 190 nations at the COP15 meeting have agreed that Indigenous people must be fully consulted on conservation moves and play a role in how those decisions are made.

He says delegates have also agreed that women should have equitable access and benefits from conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The agreements have not yet been formally adopted by the conference.

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The plan for Indigenous involvement checks off one of the items that Canada listed as a priority coming into the meetings.

Guilbeault acknowledged on Thursday that negotiations, which began last weekend before the conference officially opened, aren’t advancing as fast as he’d like.

“It’s progressing, it’s rarely progressing fast enough for my taste, but things are moving forward,” he said. “I remain very optimistic.”

Other major goals include a commitment to preserving 30 per cent of the world’s land and water by 2030 and halting the decline of ecosystems around the globe.

Delegates have also discussed the role that the private sector can play in conserving biodiversity, including how current industrial and agricultural subsidies degrade environmental values.

The conference has created a small city within Montreal, with 17,000 delegates and about 900 accredited journalists. Many off-site events are also being held.

Advocates hope that the meeting results in an agreement equivalent to the one reached in Paris in 2015, which established hard targets for countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change and biodiversity are closely related, they say. Scientific studies have concluded that meeting climate targets will be impossible without preserving ecosystems that store massive amounts of carbon.

The meeting lasts until Dec. 19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.

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Transcript: CDC Media Telebriefing – Update on Respiratory Disease Circulation

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00:00

Welcome and thank you for standing by participants are in a listen only mode until the question and answer session of today’s event. At that time, you may press star one on your touch tone phone if you care to ask a question. Today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may please disconnect at this time. And I would like to turn it over to your host, Mr. Ben Haynes from the CDC. Answer You may begin. Thank you, Fran. And thank you all for joining us today to discuss respiratory disease circulation and kickoff. The National influenza vaccines Vaccination Week we’re joined by Dr. by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Board Chair of the American Medical Association, Dr. Sandra Fryhofer following their opening remarks, we will open up the lines to take your questions. I will now turn the call over to Dr. Walensky.

00:49

Good afternoon and thank you for joining us to discuss the need to increase vaccine uptake both flu and COVID during National Influenza Vaccination Week, and the high amount of multiple respiratory illnesses that we are seeing in the United States right now. Before I dive into the data with you, I just want to take a moment to recognize our healthcare and public health workers. The past several years have certainly not been easy, and we now face yet another surge of illness. Another moment of overstretched capacity and really one of tragic and often preventable sadness. I speak for many when I say we could not be more thankful for the work you continue to do to do every single day to save lives.

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01:32

As we are all aware, nationally, we are seeing elevated levels of respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19. Especially for RSV and flu, these levels are higher than we generally see this time of year. Levels of flu like illness, which includes people going to the doctor with a fever and a cough or sore throat are at either high or very high levels in 47 jurisdictions and that is up from 36 jurisdictions just last week. CDC estimates that since October 1, there have already been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4500 deaths from flu. Flu hospital admissions reported through HHS’s hospital surveillance system, which were already high for this time of year have nearly doubled during the last reporting period. Compared to the week prior hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade, demonstrating the significantly earlier flu season we are experiencing.

02:41

In addition, last week, we tragically reported two more flu deaths in children. A heartbreaking total of 14 pediatric deaths have already been reported so far just this season. So I want to emphasize that flu vaccines can be life saving and importantly, there is still time to get vaccinated to be protected against flu this season. And it’s potentially serious consequences. Getting vaccinated is especially important for those at higher risk of severe flu illness, including those who are younger than five years old. Those who are older than 65 pregnant people and people who have certain underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe and serious consequences. These also include groups experiencing the highest rates of hospitalization right now. concern only for some of these higher risk groups like children, adults over 65 and pregnant people. We are seeing lower rates of vaccination compared to this time last year. CDC also continues to closely track COVID-19 activity. In the past week, we’ve started to see the unfortunate and expected rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationally after the Thanksgiving holiday. This rise in cases and hospitalizations is especially worrisome as we move into the winter months when more people are assembling indoors with less ventilation. And as we approach the holiday season where many are gathering with loved ones across multiple generations. Additionally, RSP continues to remain high nationally with variations and activity levels regionally. We have seen signs that RSV may have peaked in some areas like the south and southeast and may be leveling off in the mid atlantic New England and Midwest. And while this is encouraging respiratory viruses continue to spread at high levels nationwide. And even in areas where RSV may be decreasing. Our hospital systems continue to be stressed with high numbers of patients with other respiratory illnesses. So as people look to protect themselves in their families, I want to leave you with three important steps we can all take to reduce the burden of respiratory illnesses. First and foremost, get vaccinated for two of the three viruses discussed today. There are vaccines updated

05:00

COVID-19 bivalient vaccines and flu vaccines are safe, they’re effective and they can lower the risk of infection in general, and especially lower the risk of severe illness and death, mostly updated COVID-19 vaccines and this year’s flu vaccines were formulated to protect against the viruses that are currently circulating right now. And recent data from CDC show updated COVID-19 vaccines help protect against COVID-19 illness, and COVID-19 associated deaths. Early surveillance shows that people who received their updated COVID-19 vaccine this year were nearly 15 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to people who are not vaccinated, and were also less likely to die from those than those who were vaccinated but had not received an updated COVID-19 vaccine. Importantly, we know that if you’ve received your primary series only your primary COVID vaccine series only you are considered fully vaccinated but you are not considered fully protected. To be best protected against severe disease this winter, you should get an updated vaccine as soon as you can, so that you are up to date with your COVID-19 series this winter. Second, take your everyday preventive actions such as covering your coughs and sneezes, staying away from people who are sick and staying home if you yourself are sick, washing your hands and improving ventilation in your home and workplaces. We also encourage you to wear a high quality, well-fitting mask to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, most especially for those in the 5% of the population currently living in counties with high COVID-19 community level. CDC continues to recommend masking for anyone choosing to travel by plane, train, bus or other form of public transportation, or for anyone who may be immunocompromised or increased risk of severe disease. Third, and finally, if you do get sick present to your provider for early care, there are prescription antivirals to treat both flu and COVID-19. And these treatments are especially important for people who are at higher risk of complications from respiratory disease. Talk to your health care provider as soon as you have symptoms, so that these treatments can be started within the first few days of illness when they are most effective. So, as we approach the holiday season, togetherness, family, community and connection are truly now more important than ever to achieve all of those things in good health. It’s critical. We all take the steps to protect both our ourselves and our loved ones. With that I’m grateful to have Dr. Fryhofer with me and we’ll turn things over to her. Thank you.

07:40

Thank you so much, Dr. Walensky. I’m Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, board chair at the American Medical Association. I’m also an internal medicine physician in Atlanta. I see patients in my office every day and I can tell you firsthand, this year’s flu season is off to a rough start. Flu is here. It started early. And with COVID and RSV also circulating it’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season. Over the last few years COVID protective measures also prevented spread of flu and other respiratory infections, but we’re really no longer in that bubble. And that’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated for both flu and COVID. And you can get both vaccines at the same time. I know everyone’s tired of getting shots. We all have booster fatigue. But understand. You could get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations if you don’t get vaccinated. On a good note, this year’s flu vaccine formulation seems to be a good match to circulating viruses. It takes two weeks to build up protected antibodies, which is another reason to go ahead and get vaccinated now, this year all flu vaccinations are quadrivalent meaning they cover four strains of flu – two flu A’s and two flu B’s. And different flu strains can circulate within the same flu season. Right now, we’re seeing outbreaks of influenza type A and the only thing worse than getting flu once in a season is getting it again and you can so even if you’ve already had flu this season, you should still get vaccinated once you recover from the acute illness to keep you from getting it again with a different flu strain. Everyone six months and older needs flu vaccinations every year. Those at highest risk for severe flu complications include the very young, the very old people with chronic medical conditions and also pregnant people. And this year for the very first time, three specific vaccine products are now preferred for those aged 65 and older. These include two higher dose formulations BlueZone high dose and the recombinant flu vaccine flu block and also the adjuvant ID flu vaccine flu add the adjuvants added to improve immune response. But if one of those is not available, don’t wait. It’s better to get any flu shot, than no flu shot at all. Now, vaccines are not 100%. And that said, if you do get sick, even if you’ve been vaccinated call your physician, you may need an antiviral, go ahead and do a home test for COVID. You also will probably need to get tested for flu. There are specific antivirals for flu and specific antivirals for COVID. But flu antivirals don’t work for COVID and vice versa. And the only way to know for sure what you have is to get tested. It is going to be a confusing respiratory infection season. figuring out what’s making people sick is going to be a conundrum. So your best bet to stay well during the holidays is to get vaccinated for flu. And also make sure you’re up to date on COVID vaccination, which means getting that Omicron bivalient booster when you’re eligible. And please stay home when you’re sick. Share your love by not sharing your sickness this holiday season, please get vaccinated. It’s the best way to protect yourself. It’s the best way to protect your loved one’s loved ones, and it’s the best way to protect your community.

10:00

Thank you Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fryhofer. Fran, we are ready to take questions.

11:18

Thank you very much. If you would like to ask a question, please press star one. Please unmute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted, Your name is required to introduce your question. Our first is from Adriana Rodriguez with USA Today your line is open.

11:35

Hi, thank you so much for doing this and for taking my question. Outside of sort of the world of respiratory viruses. I’m looking at the UK their health agency had reported an uptick in strep a infections compared to pre pandemic years, and also reported six pediatric deaths. I was wondering if strep a was a concern here in the U.S. as well? Are we doing any sort of real time surveillance on these inspections? And if so, what does that say?

12:12

This is Dr. Walensky. Maybe I will start and then pass it over to the subject matter experts on my team and just say we have seen some outbreaks of streptococcal disease as well. Those tend to be more localized, but maybe defer to my team to see if they have anything more to add.

12:33

This is Barbara Mahon. We do have surveillance ongoing for invasive group A strep infections are the most severe infections that are found in the bloodstream or not just in the throat. And as far as I’m aware, we have not heard of an any notable increase. But we can check on that and confirm that with you.

13:02

Great, thank you.

13:03

Next question, please. Karen Lambman with Fox.

13:10

Hi there. Thanks for taking my question for having this conference. I we’re hearing a lot about disproportionately elevated pediatric hospitalizations. Due to RSV and flu. I’m just wondering how adult hospitalizations compare these if you have any data or context that you can share, to help people understand just how out of proportion. The adult burden of severe disease due to respiratory illness has also been this year.

13:34

I’m sure I will say over the last week we’ve since seen a rise in hospitalization from COVID-19, up about 15%, 15 to 20% week over week. So that’s the first step that we’ve seen related to COVID-19. Generally, when we see these increases, and as you know, increased rates of severe disease, for COVID-19, as well as for RSV and influenza in those over the age of 65. And much of those increased hospitalizations are related to those in the older age demographic and those with comorbidities. So, I would say even more reason to emphasize vaccination in those more vulnerable groups.

14:22

Next question, please. Emanuel John Milton with Bloomberg News.

14:28

Thanks for taking my call. So vaccination rates of black and Hispanic children appear to have improved from last year but vaccination rates for white children are dropped from last year and are down 7% from pre pandemic levels. So why are these? Why is the drop happening and how’s that being addressed by the CDC?

14:50

(Dr. Walensky) Maybe I’ll start and can defer to my team as well and say we have made a lot of intentional efforts not just in in COVID-19 vaccine, but in influenza and COVID 19 vaccine to bridge the demographic divide where we have seen it in vaccination rates across this country and again specifically in COVID. We have seen those not just in race and ethnicity but also in in regional and rural versus urban. And we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on that work. I think Dr. Fryhofer commented that there is now vaccine fatigue. And we have seen under vaccination in many diseases, not just an influenza and COVID 19, but also a drop in pediatric vaccinations as a whole. We’ve reported that from the CDC, we have intensive efforts working with communities working with the AMA, as we are here today working with the AMA and many other organizations, community-based organizations, trusted messengers and outreach to try and try and bridge many of the areas where we have low vaccination rates. I can defer to my team to see if they have more to add. But this is a lot of the hard work that we have ahead. And we actually also look to the media to help us share the stories of the challenges that happen when vaccinations are not administered.

16:15

(Dr. Fryhofer) This is Dr. Fryhofer. I wanted to also add that over the last two years with the COVID protective measures, you know, wearing masks washing our hands, staying isolated, we really had just almost non existent flu seasons. And so I think there was a there’s probably like a sense of complacency. We think we’ve forgotten how bad flu can be. But this year season is a shout out that it can get really bad and it’s here so people need to get vaccinated.

16:47

Next question, please. Spencer Kimball with CNBC.

16:53

Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. You mentioned that the children, the elderly, flu vaccination uptake is lower compared to last year. How much lower? I see the children’s data on the website. But I’m curious in particular about the elderly. And then the CDC have any data on vaccine efficacy yet? And finally, what are you anticipating for hospitalizations moving forward, given that we’re coming out of Thanksgiving and heading into Christmas? Thank you.

17:25

(Dr. Walensky) Thanks, Spencer. So in terms of pregnant women, we’ve seen lower vaccination coverage. Again, some of this is really just commercial, public private payers, so not all of it is coming into us uniformly. But we’ve seen lower coverage from pregnant women of about 12% lower than last season, children we’re seeing lower rates are about 5% lower than pre pandemic in terms of where we were at the same time last season. And just to be clear, people are continuing to get their flu shot. And it is really important that you do continue to get your flu shot because getting it now it’s certainly better than not getting it at all. And I can give you the numbers for where we are compared to those over the age of 65. We, of course look in real time as to how well we think the flu the influenza match is to what’s circulating right now the good news is that looks like it is a very good match. We have more definitive data later in the season, of course in the spring as to how we did. But I also want to emphasize even an imperfect matching season, we see 35% decreased rates of hospitalization, even when we don’t have a good match which really just emphasizes when we do have a good match how much more effective it will be. And of course so much of what we can anticipate in the season ahead. We do know so far that we have seen an early season both for influenza as well as for RSV. We do know that if we do a lot of the work now and people roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated, there is a lot that we can do to prevent severe disease. What we don’t know is what will happen in the weeks ahead. Thank you.

(Dr. Fryhofer) This is Dr. Fryhofer, also want to point out how important it is for pregnant women to get vaccinated. Mom getting her flu shot protects baby during those first few months of life when the baby’s too young to be vaccinated because we can’t vaccinate against flu until you’re six months old. So, just so important for particularly for pregnant women to go ahead and get vaccinated.

(Dr. Walensky) Yeah, thank you. That’s an essential point. If you’re not doing it for you do it for baby.

19:41

Next question.

19:43

I’m sorry, this is Barbara Mahon. I just want to add the same goes for COVID that pregnant women being vaccinated protects their babies for the first six months against hospitalization for COVID. And both of these vaccines are safe for pregnant women.

20:03

All right, next is from Mike Stobbe. With the Associated Press.

20:08

Hi, thank you for taking my call. And thanks for doing this. It’s really a question I was gonna ask guys, it’s been asked, but I should ask you there’s news out this morning that Pfizer is asking the FDA to authorize COVID You know, the the bivalent booster shot to be used as the third dose for kids five and under. I don’t think there’s been any announcement about Moderna. Do you have any information about? Are we going to see consideration or decision making from the federal government on bivalent shot for kids? Younger than five on Moderna? And also, what’s your anticipation of uptake of the Bible and booster the uptake has been pretty low in that age group? Could you tell us why and what your anticipation of uptake is going to be?

21:07

(Dr. Walensky) Mike, I’ll maybe I’ll start with that and say, obviously, I’m going to have to defer some of those questions to the FDA. But what I will say is to maybe go back to the second point that you’re making, which is, we have demonstrated through probably the most extensive vaccine safety system in this country’s history, the overwhelming safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Right now, I think one of the most important things that we can do is, especially as pediatric hospitals and parents are overwhelmed with this respiratory virus season is get children vaccinated for influenza. And for COVID, I will just give some statistics of that, you know, less than 5% of children, between the ages of two and four years old, are have completed their primary series. So I think that really this is a call to say, we need to keep those kids well, we need to keep them out of the hospital, the best way to do that is through vaccination with a primary series with a booster as well as with influenza.

22:19

Next question, please.

22:21

Fenit Nirappil with Washington Post.

22:25

Thanks for taking time. You mentioned earlier how if you’re in a high community level COVID-19 community level jurisdiction, you should consider masking. I’m wondering is it time to revisit the community levels which are focused on COVID And to make it more holistically look at respiratory viruses overall, like if you’re in a community without much COVID-19 and hospitals, but there’s a lot of RSD and flu isn’t that reason to be wearing a mask?

22:56

(Dr. Walensky) Yeah, I appreciate that question. It’s something that we are actively looking into at CDC. In the meantime, what I do want to say one need not take, wait for CDC action in order to put a mask on. So we do know that 5% of the population is living in places with a high COVID-19 community level –  we do encourage people to mask. We know that 32% of jurisdictions, our populations have areas with medium COVID-19 community levels. And so we would encourage all of those safe, preventive measures – hand washing, staying home when you’re sick, during masking, increased ventilation for during respiratory virus season, but especially in areas of high COVID-19 community levels. And we are exactly looking into the question you asked.

23:48

Next question.

23:50

Hilary Brueck with Insider.

23:54

Hi, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask, we’ve been hearing from some folks who are testing negative for various things, including, you know, some people who test negative for the flu and for COVID and for RSV and they’re feeling frustrated that they’re, you know, completely bulldozed by these respiratory effects infections that maybe they haven’t had in a few years. What would you say to those folks?

24:21

(Dr. Walensky) Dr. Fryhofer, you want to start with that one, and then I’ve seen coming behind you.

(Dr. Fryhofer) Sure. I think the people that are testing negative for flu COVID and RSV, should be very glad but understand those aren’t the only respiratory infections that are out there. People can still have regular colds, but all these things we’ve talked about masking, washing your hands, covering your cough, staying home if you’re sick, all those things can keep down the spread of all these respiratory infections. And you know, it’s it’s that time of year.

24:54

(Dr. Walensky) Yeah, maybe I will just add, you know, that we’ve always known colds and flu season is more than just flu. Now we have, of course, flu and RSV that are on people’s radars as well with COVID. But again, there are numerous other respiratory pathogens, viral pathogens that circulate this time of year. Turns out that the cold weather the gathering indoors, all of that is good for respiratory viruses and bad for symptoms. But what I would say is, you know, there are other pathogens out there, we want to make sure that we are on top of the ones that people can do something about that is prevention with vaccines, flu and COVID, for sure. And then intervention with antivirals, again, influenza and COVID. We want to make sure people know that they can do their injury prevention and treatment interventions for both of those.

25:48

Great, we have time for two more questions.

25:51

Sidney Spencer 11 Alive News Atlanta, WXIA.

25:56

Hi, thank you for taking my question. I wanted to ask, I know you mentioned there’s been a rise in hospitalizations, particularly for children. So we’ve seen that there’s been shortages of a lot of antibiotics and antivirals. So I was wondering, how’s that has? How has that? How would that has been affecting hospitals abilities to treat these patients? And also, I know you mentioned that we might ask for antivirals from our healthcare providers. Can we always expect those to be available? If we do need to get those?

26:29

Yeah, maybe I’ll start and say CDC is aware of the reports of some of the shortages for both antivirals as well as antibiotics across the country. I know FDA is working and manufacturers, and working with manufacturers, to try and explore what can be done to address this. I do also want to put in a plug at this point and some of those are outpatient antibiotics and outpatient antivirals, as well. And I think important now, to put in a plug for responsible antibiotic stewardship here. We do know that there’s often an overuse of antibiotics, especially in the case where people are coming in with a viral sickness where the antibiotics won’t be helpful in that case. So we are working to explore what can be done as is FDA, but importantly, we’re asking physicians also to practice responsible antibiotic stewardship in this case. Thank you.

27:26

And our final question, Elaina Block with USA.

27:31

Hi, there. I wanted to ask regarding the 14 pediatric cases that ended in deaths, the influenza cases, what do we know about the demographics and about whether or not they were vaccinated for influenza? Thank you.

27:49

(Dr. Walensky) That’s a good question. I don’t have the details of that. I wonder if anyone on my team does and if not, we can get back with you to the extent that we received them at CDC.

28:01

(Lynnette Brammer) Yeah, this is one that I mean, in general. Right now. We don’t have the information. On vaccination rates. Much of that information is still missing. But very consistently year to year, approximately 80% of the pediatric deaths are unvaccinated.

28:27

Thank you, Dr. Walensky and Dr. Fryhofer and thank you all for joining us today. If there are further questions, please contact the CDC media office at 404-639-3286 or you can email media@cdc.gov.  Thank you.

28:46

Conference has now concluded again thank you for your participation please disconnect at this time.

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