The 2016 film 10 Cloverfield Lane is a taut psychological thriller in which doomsday prepper Howard Stambler (John Goodman) holds Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) in his underground bunker after unexplained, possibly catastrophic events have taken place on the surface.
The viewer spends most of the movie attempting to answer this question: Is Howard a disturbed, unstable, dangerous lunatic, OR is he the only person who prepared for and understood the fact that the Earth was being invaded by aliens?
The film is solid overall, but what makes is particularly interesting is the answer it ultimately provides for this puzzle.
Meanwhile, back on our Earth, we are less than two weeks into a new presidency, and the nation is already rapidly moving toward a boiling point.
Just this past weekend, an avalanche of criticism and widespread protests targeted the Trump Administration because of an executive order that instituted an unprecedented Muslim ban, blocking Muslim entry into the United States from a list of seven countries, despite the fact that the EO wasn’t even reviewed by the Justice Department. Even Dick Cheney opposes this EO, for heaven’s sake!
Except a lot of that isn’t accurate.
I repeat: A lot of what you’re hearing isn’t accurate.
I’ll be blunt: I don’t agree with the administration’s policy, or at least the breadth of it. I think this executive order is a mistake. I still think the “no countries, no borders” crowd are kooks, and the people who think there’s no correlation between organized terrorist activity and certain nations are kidding themselves.
That said, this is a flawed executive order, and, more to the point, the implementation has been handled as awkwardly and terribly as could be imagined. Specifically, anyone who is a permanent resident / green-card holder should be exempt from any policy like this (and, in fact, I think that facet was an error caused by the ham-handed implementation).
Most pressingly, this entire episode underscores my concerns about how much influence certain elements have over this White House, particularly the much-maligned Steve Bannon—who, by the way, now has a seat at the NSC “table,” which is a more significant story than the EO in my view.
Going back to the immigration controversy, I also think that the order will survive legal scrutiny, at least based on precedent as it currently exists. Likewise, it’s silly to suggest that this is some kind of monumental shift in policy (or the dawn of a dark, new America), when every president in my lifetime has engaged in similar limitations on immigration or refugee resettlement for various countries—often with heartbreaking consequences for certain individuals.
This is nothing new, in other words. In fact, that “list of seven countries” doesn’t appear anywhere in the EO. Go ahead, read it. You won’t find any nation mentioned explicitly, other than Syria.
Instead, the EO actually refers to a law signed by President Obama in 2015 to account for which countries are included.
The proliferation of half-truths and untruths are the order of the day, and that is a particularly dangerous development in the face of an administration that has such a casual relationship with reality. One of President Trump’s major themes is that the media lies about him—or at least covers him “unfairly” or inaccurately.
Tough love time: He’s not entirely wrong about that.
Here, the “Muslim Ban” really isn’t. And, while it’s Trump’s own fault that his sloppy and divisive campaign rhetoric helped frame the EO in those terms, there’s also no question that the media is motivated to run with that portrayal, which isn’t helpful.
From the false Time Magazine story about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s bust being removed from the Oval Office, to the misleading Washington Post story about changeover in the State Department, to ABC’s misquoting of Ari Fleischer, to the, uh, Washington Post‘s awful reporting on the Vermont power plant “hack,” to the disingenuous exaggeration about Betsy DeVos’ thoughts on grizzly bears, to the whole “Dick Cheney speaks out about against Muslim Ban” fallacy, the errors of an overzealous media class have a cumulative effect of further undermining collective journalistic credibility.
When WaPo is being successfully debunked by Vox, and Mic is doing important clarification work on the “Muslim Ban” story, we’re wading into uncharted waters, folks.
Shaky reliability would always be a problem, but it’s especially difficult at a time when there’s no question that this administration is brazenly self-serving when it comes to presenting unverifiable information that sometimes crosses over into a realm bordering on fantasy.
We can’t expect perfection, because even elite-level journalists are human beings. But my criticism is that some of these mistakes and coverage choices that lend credence to President Trump’s position stem from (1) a rush to be “first” or to drive as much traffic as possible, which is what happened in the MLK bust story, or (2) a lack of discipline when it comes to putting personal feelings aside for the sake of objectivity.
That second point manifests itself in a number of ways, but let me give you arguably the most destructive: The mutual hostility between Trump and the media gives rise to journalists of note and top-level publications focusing on inconsequential nonsense. These outlets will say it’s because he’s talking about these things, and, so, they are compelled to do so, but this point rings hollow.
A recent example is very illustrative of this phenomenon. Last week, a rumor began circulating on Twitter that the White House had photoshopped Trump’s hands to make them appear larger. The story was lent credence by a New York Observer writer named Dana Schwartz. It became so discussed that the aforementioned Washington Post (God bless ’em) had to fact-check the photoshopped hands story.
Trump’s presidency has “broken” the press in some ways. Real stories, like the immigration EO, get covered in a fairly inaccurate way, while numerous non-stories like the photoshopped hands or an inartful tweet, get picked up as if they’re monumental. What the media doesn’t realize is that the non-stories don’t connect with the general public, and the inaccuracies serve to hurt themselves as much as the stories hurt Trump. People in the middle become fatigued by this Chicken Little routine, which is only magnified by social-media outrage.
Plus, as I mentioned before, cries from the mountaintop about how this country is unrecognizable, or how Trump is a fascist, in part don’t resonate because we heard so much of this same talk during the Bush Administration. And “But THIS time, we MEAN it!” doesn’t cut it.
If you need more evidence that journalists’ collective compass has been spinning wildly since November, look no further than the midpoint of where our “national conversation” has come to rest—at least as presented by journalists.
For instance, this WaPo story about the Inauguration Day protests made sure to hear from people who are on the “pro” side of the “Is destruction of property while protesting ok?” “argument!” And, according to myriad outlets, there’s now a “national debate” as to whether it is acceptable to punch someone if they are a “Nazi.”
Of course, many of the people answering in the affirmative have called people like George W. Bush a Nazi in the past, so I’m not sure if we should be listening to them. If the people throwing the punches are also the ones who get decide which ideas are “bad enough,” half the people reading this website will suddenly become punch-eligible. But I digress.
All of that is to say nothing of the abandonment of journalistic ethical norms we’ve seen at places like Buzzfeed News in order to try to take down Trump. But, like punching people in the face or smashing windows, that behavior, rather than being universally condemned, suddenly becomes a “gray area” when the target is Trump.
At the core of this entire discussion is the truth that a media that can’t divest itself of emotional, visceral grudges or disdain is a less-effective media. A distracted media. An undisciplined media.
If you do not yet believe it, just wait a few days, when an inevitable anti-Trump statement by Lady Gaga at halftime of the Super Bowl leads to a Twitter feud between the leader of the free world and a musician (and the media) that will just happen to coincide with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and increased Russian military activity in the Ukraine.
We need the media to be effective. And, after eight years of an administration for which most journalists had great personal affection, they haven’t been for a long time.
This all funnels back to an essential question. The essential question.
Is Donald Trump’s inner circle dangerously lacking in competence, expertise, and good, workable ideas about how to handle America’s most pressing problems, OR are Trump and company actually savvy in how they’re able to push the reckless, out-of-touch, agenda-driven media into making excessive mistakes and focusing on all the wrong things?
The answer to this question is identical to the answer to the question posed by 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it is the most troubling answer possible.
Tom Garrett is a Richmond-born writer and attorney who currently resides in an undisclosed location in Northern Virginia. He is NOT the man who just got elected to Congress from Virginia’s Fifth District.