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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
June
16
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

We tend to think of “otherness” – the discriminatory root cause of so much current global rancor – as something that’s imposed on, well, others.

Wagon-circling may feel like a defense from that. But isn’t that just becoming an “other” yourself?

There seems already to be some pulling back from Thursday’s ballpark bipartisanship. You’d need to go back to the Civil War, one political scientist told The New York Times, to find more animus in this country than we see today. A lot of it is finger-jabbing. But some of it is just smugly “knowing better” and turning away. Retreating into our micro-collectives.

Recent weeks have brought all kinds of group statements of separateness. The reasons often seem defensible. But should subgroups (of any makeup) hold walled-off graduation ceremonies? Should subgroups (of any makeup) pursue exclusive screenings of films?

Globally, it’s not just about the obvious – and often violent – kind of cultural exclusion. It can be quieter. In Egypt, for example, parliamentarians are preparing to discuss a law that would prohibit parents from giving newborns Western names. 

What are the costs, to us all, of any group turning inward?

Now, let’s go to our five stories for today.

1. How to govern under a legal cloud? A one-word strategy emerges.

Robert Mueller’s investigation appears to be widening. Linda Feldmann, our Washington bureau chief, explores recent political history to provide some insight into how the administration might still continue to get its work done. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadHow do you govern a country while under legal scrutiny? That’s a question facing the Trump White House as it struggles to enact major legislation amid intensifying FBI and congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collaboration by Trump associates. On Friday, President Trump appeared to confirm that he personally is under investigation, following news reports this week that he faces scrutiny over whether he obstructed justice. Veterans of former President Bill Clinton’s White House, which was dogged by perpetual controversy, say the answer comes down to compartmentalizing your work – and remembering that it’s for a cause you believe in. Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff during Clinton’s second term – including impeachment – would focus on concrete initiatives such as helping school kids or delivering hurricane relief. “That allows you to come into work and ignore that [other] stuff and say, ‘Well, at least this part matters, so I’m working on that.’”

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1. How to govern under a legal cloud? A one-word strategy emerges.

Ask veterans of the Clinton White House how they managed to do their job every day, despite the perpetual controversies, and one word comes up over and over again: “compartmentalize.”

In other words, put your head down and focus on your work. Don’t become consumed by negative headlines. And keep your eye on the prize: that you are working for a cause you believe in.

“It’s very difficult, because no matter what, you walk into an office to discuss something, and they want to discuss the scandal, even as an ally,” says Patrick Griffin, who ran legislative affairs for former President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1996. “But it doesn’t give you a chance to advance any policy program that you have.”

Two decades later, the same advice applies to a Trump White House struggling to enact major legislation amid intensifying FBI and congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collaboration by Trump associates.

On Friday, President Trump appeared to confirm that he personally is under investigation, following news reports this week that he faces scrutiny over whether he obstructed justice on the Russia matter.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted.

To be sure, Messrs. Trump and Clinton are different men with dramatically different backgrounds upon entering the presidency. Clinton had years of governing experience and leadership in national Democratic organizations long before running for president. Trump made the leap from business and entertainment directly to the Oval Office, and the learning curve has been steep.

In addition, Clinton had years in the White House under seemingly constant but not politically dire controversy before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, which led to his impeachment for lying under oath.

Trump took office amid much more intense political polarization, and an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election – a probe that quickly ensnared current and past advisers, and now himself.

Then there’s Twitter. Clinton didn’t face the temptation of blasting out near-daily messages directly to the American people. Trump seems to revel in it, despite the reported urgings of staff and lawyers to lay off. And the news media can’t resist covering every intemperate tweet.

It has become an endless cycle of “call and response” that is drowning out the more mundane, but vital, business of governing.

Soldiering on

Despite reports of a White House in “chaos,” the understaffed Trump team is soldiering on – organizing events, briefings, travel, roundtable discussions with the president, and “theme weeks” aimed at highlighting policy goals.

Last week was “infrastructure week,” but the congressional hearing of fired FBI Director James Comey on the Russia investigation dominated coverage. House passage of the CHOICE Act, which would remove key aspects of the Dodd-Frank banking reform law, was barely noticed.

This week, testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (more Russia) and the shooting of the No. 3 House Republican and three others at a baseball practice were the week’s big news. (A fifth individual sustained a non-gunshot injury.)

Next week, Trump will travel to Iowa for a campaign rally, a chance to absorb the energy and goodwill of his supporters. But back in Washington, the Russia probe presents a constant threat of distraction – both in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no doubt that keeping members [of Congress] focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda and detracts somewhat from what we’re trying to deliver to the American people,” Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, told reporters last week.

Trump, top adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and now Vice President Mike Pence have all “lawyered up.” For all, retaining outside counsel does not imply guilt, but rather allows administration officials to focus on their jobs, and policy, and leave legal matters to a professional. 

At the daily White House press briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s most common response was a variation on a theme: “Please reach out to the president’s outside counsel.”

Working under the cloud of impeachment

Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff during Clinton’s second term, recalls being asked how she could focus on work under the cloud of her boss’s impeachment.

"I was like, ‘Because the work I’m doing actually matters in real people’s lives,’ ” whether it was an initiative to help middle-school and high-school students or delivering hurricane relief, she says.

“That’s how you frame it in your head,” she adds. “That allows you to come into work and ignore that [other] stuff and say, ‘Well, at least this part matters, so I’m working on that.’ ”

Bruce Reed, who served all eight years under Clinton as a top policy adviser, agrees that “compartmentalizing” helped. And there was something else.

In contrast to Trump, whose average job approval rating sits at 40 percent, Clinton enjoyed job approvals above 60 percent during impeachment, in late 1998.

“It makes an enormous difference when the country is behind you,” Mr. Reed says.

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2. Weighed down by corruption, Brazil seeks a way back up

A regional giant with a role that keeps growing – consider the mass of Venezuelan asylum-seekers at its door – Brazil has struggled with scandals. Whitney Eulich unpacks those amid questions over whether Brazil’s institutions are strong enough to be a bulwark.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadHow did Brazil get here? A few years ago, it was a darling of emerging markets, with a booming economy and growing middle class. But 2014 ushered in Brazil’s worst recession, soon followed by its worst corruption scandal: “Operation Car Wash,” as the investigation is called. When President Michel Temer took over from impeached President Dilma Rousseff last year, he was expected to bring stability and financial austerity. Instead, he now faces charges of corruption and obstruction of justice. This month, the top electoral court dismissed charges of illegal campaign funding that could have unseated Mr. Temer. But he isn’t in the clear, and more accusations keep rolling in. Many Brazilians are calling for early direct elections, as the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2018. But a longer-term question is whether they can resist "corruption fatigue" as Operation Car Wash rolls on: Prosecutors have opened investigations into one-third of senators, 10 percent of lower-house deputies, four former presidents, and members of the judiciary. 

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2. Weighed down by corruption, Brazil seeks a way back up

Brazil’s top electoral court dismissed charges this month of illegal campaign funding that could have unseated the country’s second president in less than a year. But President Michel Temer isn’t in the clear. He’s still under fire for separate charges of corruption and obstruction of justice, and the uncertainty isn’t helping Brazil’s political and economic turmoil.

What’s going on in Brazil?

The recent court hearing questioned whether in 2014 Dilma Rousseff and Mr. Temer, then her vice-presidential running mate, won the presidential race using illegal campaign donations. Ms. Rousseff was impeached last August over charges she manipulated the government’s budget, and Temer took over. But the backdrop for these events is Brazil’s largest corruption scandal in history – the so-called Car Wash scandal. That kickback scheme, involving the state-run oil company, Petrobras, has reached so far and wide that few politicians have been left unscathed. Prosecutors have opened investigations into one-third of senators, 10 percent of those in the lower house of Congress, four former presidents, and members of the judiciary. Top businesspeople have been implicated as well, sending the tentacles of the investigation beyond Brazilian borders.

Last month, Temer came under fire for yet another controversy: Two meatpacking tycoons had alleged in plea-bargain testimony that he took millions of dollars in bribes and encouraged hush money payments to a jailed politician. Although Temer is deeply unpopular with the public, he’s gained the confidence of international investors because of his moves to pass austerity measures, including a proposed reform of Brazil’s costly pension system.

Citizen protests against corruption, which reached their height last year when some 3 million people took to the streets in more than 200 Brazilian cities, have not been as widespread in recent months. Analysts attribute that to corruption fatigue, as more and more scandals are exposed.

What is Temer accused of doing?

Temer may have been given a small reprieve this month with the campaign finance ruling, but he’s still in hot water. As part of the controversy last month, an audio recording emerged that seemed to show he was encouraging payments to the former speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who spearheaded the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff. And one of Temer’s former top aides, now under arrest, was videotaped carrying a suitcase full of cash, which prosecutors say was a bribe from JBS, the company whose executives' plea-bargain testimony implicated Temer. If the aide strikes a plea deal, his testimony could further hurt the president.

Temer denies the charges against him, but the allegations seem to keep rolling in: This month, a weekly newsmagazine reported that he told the country’s intelligence agency to look into the top judge presiding over the Car Wash scandal prosecutions, potentially trying to obstruct further investigations.

Now, Temer’s political future may be in the hands of fellow officials. If he maintains enough support, he could stave off possible impeachment or indictments. A two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress is required to launch impeachment proceedings.

How did Brazil get here?

Not long ago, Brazil was the darling of emerging markets, with a booming economy and growing middle class. But 2014 ushered in Brazil’s worst recession, with both unemployment and inflation rates reaching about 10 percent. That, coupled with the massive Car Wash scandal, has hurt Brazil’s reputation.

But over the past several years, many have pointed to a bright spot: Despite the overwhelming corruption allegations, Brazil’s institutions have proved themselves independent and strong. Also, the country is starting to inch out of its recession.

And yet, this month’s electoral court decision about the Rousseff-Temer campaign has some people concerned: The 4-to-3 vote to acquit struck many as a political maneuver.

“We cannot be changing the president of the republic all the time, even if the people want to,” Gilmar Mendes, the chief judge of the supreme electoral court, said of the decision. Controversially, the court decided to throw out evidence that came from a plea bargain by engineering firm executives who testified their company had channeled millions of dollars into Rousseff and Temer’s campaign. At least one of the judges on the court faces his own graft charges.

If Temer is removed from office, what next?

Multiple impeachment requests have been filed against Temer, and it’s still possible that he could be booted before his term ends. Next in line for the presidency is the speaker of the lower house of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, a loyal Temer ally who would become the interim president for 30 days. During that time, Congress would choose a caretaker, as the Constitution stipulates if there are less than two years left in a presidential term (the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2018).

Brazilians are frustrated by Temer – a president they didn’t vote for. Many say that whether he’s ousted or not, they deserve early direct elections. At the end of May, as many as 150,000 activists, trade union members, and artists descended on the capital to demand Temer’s resignation and a fresh vote. 

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Overlooked

Stories you may have missed

3. A Tennessee town’s rebuild draws a spectrum of volunteers

Each day brings some creative new measure of America’s divisions – a 100-degree ‘thermometer’ scale now rates how voters from opposite sides feel toward each other (it just hit zero). In this lean-back story, Doug Struck found people’s actions to be a more uplifting metric. 

Kat Humlicek, an AmeriCorps volunteer, wields a chainsaw to help clear fallen trees on the property of Dean Cato in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
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Doug Struck
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn this time of boiling civic hostilities, the volunteers living on church cots and in campers in Gatlinburg to help others seem an affirmation of community spirit. The Tennessee town was raked six months ago by an express-train fire that killed 14 people and destroyed 2,175 homes. The helpers now come from churches, colleges, and neighboring mountain towns to help the neediest survivors work toward recovery. Many of the volunteers to Appalachia Service Project come from “blue states,” and CEO Walter Crouch is not oblivious to the partisan squabbles sweeping the country. “Our job is to bring people together,” he says. But the desire of the volunteers to help the disaster victims is a unifying force. Patty Hoppel felt that pull. She moved from Ohio to Tennessee to help distribute donations. She stayed on to help coordinate the cleanup for Volunteer East Tennessee. As summer and students arrive, she will have as many as 200 volunteers every day. She notices the change in younger volunteers. The work has changed her, as well. She downsized from a 2,000-square-foot home to a 500-square-foot home and is “learning to live for today, taking nothing for granted, being totally unmaterialistic,” she says. “I also had to learn to be really flexible and work well with people of all different faiths and politics.”

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3. A Tennessee town’s rebuild draws a spectrum of volunteers

Dean Cato called with growing worry. Once, twice, six times, he says, he called the Gatlinburg authorities Nov. 28 to ask if the raining ash from forest fires meant he should leave his home.

Stay put, he says they told him. It’s just smoke.

When he looked outside and saw the flames leaping over the ridge behind his house, he, his wife, and 14-year-old son ran to their two cars and raced away as the fire tasted their home.

Careening down the Tennessee mountain road, flames on both sides, the tires on his wife’s Jeep melted. His daughter’s pet rabbits – she was staying with her grandmother – perished. His house was left in ashes.

Mr. Cato is furious with local authorities. And he says he has gotten no help from them since the fire. He quit work to build his home again. But on a recent morning, he had only praise for six strangers toiling away in the sun and sweat and gnats to help him clear his property of the latest calamity: a wind storm that blew down dozens of fire-tinged trees, crushing the new roof he had just built, knocking Cato out, and dislocating his shoulder.

“I’m incredibly grateful to these people,” says Cato, grabbing a chainsaw to work alongside the volunteers. Partway up the ridge, AmeriCorps volunteer Kat Humlicek ran her own snarling saw on a fallen 80-foot oak tree. Below her, a management team from a Knoxville credit union had traded their desk jobs to haul debris for a day.

“We think this is our community too,” says Chris Boler, part of the team from the credit union, named ORNL. “So it’s in our DNA to help.”  

It’s a scene repeated around the mountains of Gatlinburg, which was raked six months ago by an express-train fire that killed 14 people and destroyed 2,175 homes in the county. The town was spared. Tourists now jam back into the carnie arcades and honky-tonk gift stores.

Hikers are traipsing in the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But it has been an inspired trickle of volunteers – many of them from churches and colleges dotted throughout Appalachia, others from further away – who have been left to help the neediest of the survivors struggle toward recovery.

“There’s no way I could have done this by myself,” says Cato. “It was killing me.”

'It's in our DNA to help'

Volunteers from around Tennessee say it is part of the rugged independence of Appalachia to turn to neighbors rather than relying on government agencies for help. Other volunteers say they stepped in just because they get more out of helping than watching.

“Oh, I’m no model for anybody else. That’s not my job,” demurs Jim Bailey, a retired engineer from Oak Ridge, Tenn., helping build a new house for an elderly woman left homeless by the blaze. “I just like being out here.”

Yet in this time of hand-wringing over a divided country and boiling civic hostilities, the volunteers living on church cots and in campers in Gatlinburg to help others seems an affirmation of spirit.

Jim Bailey and the crew of retired volunteers are 'a good bunch of guys,' Mr. Bailey says. He says they enjoy the work of volunteering.
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Doug Struck

“If they weren’t here, there’s nobody else to help some of these folks,” says Patty Hopple, coordinator for a group called Volunteer East Tennessee.

The fire started on Chimney Tops Mountain, a much-photographed peak of the national park. Two teenagers have been charged with setting the blaze. It smoldered on the isolated peak over Thanksgiving. But on Nov. 28 it leaped into the arms of a roaring wind, which carried it from ridge to ridge, quickly overcoming mountain homes and businesses.

The flames torched 17,000 acres in and outside the park, causing an estimated $930 million in damages. Tennessee officials said it was the worst fire in the state in a century.

Gatlinburg lies in the creases of the mountains, and many lived on those folds of land. On the outskirts of town, near Cato’s house, homes had stunning views into the blue haze of the Great Smoky Mountains. Here, the wildfire was ruthless – taking nine of every 10 homes, leaving only a few untouched by the whim of wind and embers.

The scene now is a mosaic of the recovery process. Dozens of homes are rising again; carpenters and masons swarm over them as trucks lumber up the curving lanes with building supplies. Some other properties are marked by a flag of surrender: “Lot For Sale” banners planted beside a charred foundation. Still others remain undisturbed, steel girders blackened and twisted by the intense heat, scorched appliances half-buried in rubble.

Those rebuilding had home insurance, or a job or the assets to convince a bank to loan them money to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration made $12.6 million in grants and loans.

Thousands had fled to shelters, but after they drifted off to relatives or friends, about 490 were left in need, many of them in motels, according to John Mathews, Sevier County’s director of emergency management.

Allan Rivera holds onto his son Nathan as he looks at the remains of their home for the first time on Dec. 5, 2016, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The family evacuated from their rental cabin before it was completely destroyed by a wildfire. Hurricane-force winds whipped up fires that killed more than a dozen people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains tourist region.
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Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP

They were showered with heart-felt help. Donations poured in – clothing, furniture, and appliances. Their motel bills were picked up by charities and government grants. Singer Dolly Parton, who grew up in a poor Appalachian family nearby, started a charity that gave each homeless family $10,000 in six months. Churches, foundations, and businesses chipped in.

'I'd have to live in one of those ... storage sheds'

But even the maximum FEMA grant, $33,000, would not rebuild a home, Mr. Mathews notes, and many with no ability to repay the federal loan did not qualify for that. Families who had lived in the mountains for generations often had no insurance and no place to live. Seniors, people with disabilities, the unemployed ... they hit the limits of the aid available, and still had no way to rebuild.

“What could I do? I’d have to live in one of those little storage sheds,” says Glenna Ogle Bjorklund, a septuagenarian, motioning to the prefab structures she has put up on her property just outside Gatlinburg, to store her few remaining things. She and a companion fled when she opened her door to flames on Nov. 28. They started to drive on a narrow lane that clings to the hillside, the only way out, but the road was blocked by a fallen tree.

Ms. Bjorklund grabbed Rachel, her pet Pomeranian, in her arms and leaped down the hillside – “slid the whole way on my butt,” she says. She landed at the bottom at the Travelers Motel, just as the itinerant workers who stayed in the cheap rooms to work tourist jobs were fleeing for their lives.

She begged for help from three men wrestling another man in a wheelchair into their truck.

They drove her to safety. She never saw them again; she ponders if they were angels. Four people in the motel died.

Bjorklund now spends her day watching the frame of a new home rise on her property. The builders are a shifting cast – sometimes a church group, sometimes college kids. Three women from the last crew helped her dig a grave to bury Rachel, who succumbed to the smoke. On this day, Jim Bailey and a crew of retired buddies are putting up the outside walls and headers to a modest three-bedroom, one-bath house for Bjorklund.

'I figure I've got some skills'

Four of the men are from Knoxville, and two from Oak Ridge. Mr. Bailey says he has often worked with the men doing similar volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s a good bunch of guys, and we all work together pretty well,” says Bailey, who jokes with three of the crew in sign language – they are deaf. “A group from another Knoxville church said they are coming up, and two students from the University of Tennessee will be here this afternoon.” A team of volunteers from FedEx have been in and out. Bailey shrugs off the generosity of his own efforts.

“I figure I’ve got some skills, and I have the time to use them,” says Bailey. “When I retired, what else was I going to do? Read books? Write books? Go to the beach? That’s not me.”

Johnnie Beeler supervises the project. At 72, he was brought out of retirement as a construction superintendent by the Appalachian Service Project to oversee construction of 25 houses for survivors of the Gatlinburg fires.

“It’s going to be good to hand this over,” Mr. Beeler says. “Ms. Glenna’s house will be special because it’s the first. Mr. Ogle will be the next one. His wife passed away. He’s 74, low income. If his son hadn’t been with him, he would have died.”

The Appalachia Service Project has been working with low-income families in the region for 49 years, and stepped up to the job at Gatlinburg after the fires. This year, the group will organize work by 17,000 volunteers, many from church or college summer youth programs, says Walter Crouch, chief executive officer of the group.

“The fires were close to home,” says Mr. Crouch. “My first thought was for the low-income families that people won’t think about.” Gatlinburg and Sevier County are known for Dollywood, attractions, and the Great Smoky Mountains. “People think of the entertainment industry, and they think it has money. They don’t think of the people who clean the hotel rooms, wash the dishes, do the maintenance work, or the older retired folks who are on fixed incomes.”

After any disaster, there is a flood of donations. But as time passes, “the national interest moves on,” Crouch says. “It’s hard to keep people focused on the work we are doing.” The homebuilding effort in Gatlinburg has been frustratingly slow, he says, because of the bevy of building permits and multiple jurisdictions – each with its own set of restrictions.

“We are just anxious to get people back in homes,” he says.

'Our job is to bring people together'

Many of the volunteers to Crouch’s organization come from “blue states,” and he is not oblivious to the partisan squabbles sweeping the country.

“Our job is to bring people together. There’s a lot of passion out there and it would be very easy to get involved in arguments,” he says. But the desire of the volunteers to help the disaster victims is a unifying force.

“We believe that getting people out of their comfort zone and getting them into central Appalachia upsets their equilibrium to where they are open to asking life’s tougher questions,” Crouch says. “They have a different attitude about poverty, about their own ability to make a difference, and they understand that life is not about getting, it’s about giving.”

Patty Hopple felt that pull. She closed up her home in Fremont, Ohio, and moved to Tennessee to help distribute donations to the fire victims for three months. She stayed on to help coordinate the debris cleanup for Volunteer East Tennessee.

As the summer and students arrive, she will have as many as 200 volunteers every day. She organizes them in teams of seven. She notices the change in younger volunteers.

“You see the look on their faces at the first debris site, some of them go pale. They realize the people who live at this home lost everything, and unfortunately some lost their lives.

“You look at these kids absorbing this,” she says.

It has changed her, as well. She downsized from a 2,000-square-foot home to 500 square feet and is “learning to live for today, taking nothing for granted, being totally unmaterialistic. Stuff is really not that important,” she says. “I also had to learn to be really flexible and work well with people of all different faiths and politics.”

Daryl Brewer put away chores on his hay farm nearby to work with Ms. Hopple. He values the blue state volunteers – “they’re a funny bunch,” – and appreciates their work.

He has less regard for local government agencies that have, in his view, put too many regulations in the way of rebuilding.

“I’ll be doing this until the need is gone,” he says. “I go into the Wal-Mart, and people come up to me and say ‘thanks.’ I don’t remember them, but they are saying ‘thanks.’ That’s nice.”

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4. Outpaced by political reality, political TV dramas flag

Actual drama tends to trump drama of the manufactured kind, however well done. In this piece, Story Hinckley explores the nexus of the two kinds of political programming between which Americans now can choose. (Popcorn’s an option either way.) 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadComey – or “House of Cards”? Stef Woods, who teaches a class on the popular political drama at American University in Washington, confesses she didn’t watch the last season of the popular Netflix series. But, along with 19.5 million other people, she did tune in to former FBI Director James Comey’s hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. An unusual presidency is taking up Americans’ bandwidth for political drama and making it more difficult for creators to write stories that don’t get overtaken by headlines. As a result, while political satire is booming, viewership of top political TV shows from NBC’s "Scandal" to CBS’s "Madame Secretary" is down by an average of about 20 percent. “The escapism is gone,” says David Howard, a Pennsylvania fan of “House of Cards,” which has dropped from being Netflix’s most popular show to No. 6. “There is a degree to which people are seeing fiction reflected in reality and reality reflected in the fiction,” says Nikki Usher, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “All of these forms of entertainment have a mirror.”

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4. Outpaced by political reality, political TV dramas flag

An unpopular president was just elected, despite running against a party darling with an ideal résumé. The win came as a surprise: voter turnout among rural, white Republicans was high and Democrats didn’t show up to the polls.

Today, voters chant “Not My President!” outside of the White House gates, while pundits criticize the president’s authoritative tendencies.

No, this is not the tale of President Trump, but rather the fictional President Underwood from Netflix’s hit show, House of Cards.

While political comedy has entered a golden age under Mr. Trump, with “Saturday Night Live” wrapping up its most-watched season in 23 years, political dramas are losing their appeal. Viewership of hit TV shows like ABC’s “Scandal,” NBC's “The Blacklist,” and CBS’s “Madam Secretary” has fallen by about 20 percent in the past year.

“Madame Secretary," the most-watched show of the three, got an average of 8.3 million viewers. By comparison, the real-life hearing of former FBI Director James Comey last week drew an audience of nearly 20 million.

A variety of factors may be behind the decline: different show times, increased television options, or a natural waning of popularity. But an unusual presidency has likely also played a role, taking up Americans’ bandwidth for political drama and making it more difficult for creators to write storylines that don't get overtaken by headlines.

“There is a degree to which people are seeing fiction reflected in reality and reality reflected in the fiction,” says Nikki Usher, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “And that can be disorienting to people.”

Some viewers contacted by the Monitor say that they enjoy political dramas more since the election. The majority, however, say their interest has waned.

“The escapism is gone,” said David Howard, a “House of Cards” fan from Pennsylvania.

Pining for a different West Wing

When “House of Cards” premiered in 2013, the White House was occupied by the Obamas – a supportive family unit that contrasted with the competitive marriage of Frank and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

But today, real-life political developments are so fascinating that many tune into that instead of drama, says Stef Woods, an instructor of American studies and media at American University in Washington. As a result, “House of Cards” has dropped from Netflix’s most popular show to No. 6, according to independent media company surveys reviewed by Ms. Woods.

“I haven’t watched the latest season,” confesses Ms. Woods, who teaches a popular class on the show, “but I was sure to watch the Comey hearing.”

However, other political dramas have seen a resurgence. According to Google Trends, there was an influx of searches for “The West Wing” around the time of Trump’s election and inauguration – the highest spike since the popular show ended in 2006. VICE’s Motherboard recently speculated that that was driven by liberals struggling to cope with Trump’s presidency, musing that an ideal – if fictional – Democratic president “is available on-demand to soothe frayed nerves.”

Entertainment as a mirror

Writers, producers, and actors say the Trump administration has made their job more difficult.

“Now, we have a hard time competing with reality,” Kerry Washington, who plays “Scandal” main character Olivia Pope, told Hollywood Reporter in April. Shonda Rhimes, the creator and showrunner, had to rewrite the second half of Season 6 before it aired this spring because the plot line included Russia hacking the US presidential election – a development that turned out to be too real for their fictional drama.

Just as writers’ imaginations are influenced by the same events shaping real-life politics, so some see the dramas’ influence on the Trump administration. The New York Times’ fashion section, for example, recently suggested that some of first lady Melania Trump’s sartorial choices have been inspired by the fictional first lady of Netflix, Claire Underwood.

“We know that these shows are influencing real life,” says Dr. Usher. “All of these forms of entertainment have a mirror.”

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5. Turning outward to escape the loneliness trap

This last piece, by Eoin O’Carroll, is a quick-but-intricate look at social isolation – remarkably common in a “connected” age. It’s also not a downer, but rather a balm. “[L]oneliness is everyone’s business,” one of his sources explains. “Loneliness is not inevitable.”

Reclusive – if not necessarily alone – a hermit crab scrambles across coral pieces washed up on a beach.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
 

The 30 Sec. ReadBreaking free from loneliness can be difficult, leaving people feeling trapped in a cycle of isolation. But a new study points to ways in which this cycle can be broken, and at the same time reveals the redeeming value of loneliness as an evolutionary adaptation for social animals. This complex emotion sustains our species’ sociality, says John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of the study. “Loneliness contributes to our humanity,” he says. “It makes us not want to live a life alone.” But for those experiencing an enduring sense of loneliness, the path back into the social fold is not always obvious. The researchers suggest that effective interventions would be ones that shift lonely people’s attention and concern away from themselves and toward mutual welfare. Volunteering, Professor Cacioppo suggests, can be an effective way to connect with others. “There are actually decent, nice people in the world,” he says. “The way we find them is we treat them decently.”

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5. Turning outward to escape the loneliness trap

If you feel alone, you’re not alone.

Chronic loneliness has become so commonplace that some US public health experts say it is reaching crisis levels. Breaking free from loneliness can be difficult, a study suggests, because the very desperation for human contact that it creates can actually encourage people to focus more on themselves, thus leading to further isolation.

The paper, published Tuesday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, explains how this feedback loop is consistent with a model that could explain the origins of this complex emotion.

But the research also points to ways in which this cycle can be broken, and at the same time reveals the redeeming value of loneliness as an evolutionary adaptation for social animals.

“Loneliness contributes to our humanity,” says John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study. “It makes us not want to live a life alone.”

Even loneliness’s tendency to make people retreat inward and become self-centered may have served an evolutionary purpose, as hunter-gatherers who suddenly found themselves alone in the wild would have benefited from a heightened sense of self-preservation.

This emotion also sustains our species’s sociality, Professor Cacioppo says. It pushes people who find themselves isolated back into the social fold. “That’s its evolutionary power.”

When loneliness served a purpose

Over 11 years, Cacioppo and his colleagues conducted annual physical exams and gathered psychological questionnaires from 229 subjects born between 1935 and 1952. They found that those who reported lacking companionship in a given year were more likely to score higher on a self-centeredness scale the following year. And those who scored higher on self-centeredness one year would report greater feelings of loneliness the following year.

“I think what’s so interesting about the Cacioppo study is that it catches the way in which loneliness is both adaptive and maladaptive and can split in either direction,” says Richard Schwartz, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who, along with his wife, fellow psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, authored the 2009 book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century.”

In 2014, Cacioppo, his wife, University of Chicago psychologist Stephanie Cacioppo, and Dutch psychologist Dorret Boomsma posited an evolutionary mechanism for loneliness. Under their model, loneliness – like many of our social emotions – evolved when our ancient ancestors lived in small groups whose members relied on each other for survival. When an individual separated from that group, he or she would have to work harder to stay alive.

Loneliness, under this model, is an expression of that self-preservation instinct. For instance, research led by Stephanie Cacioppo has shown that loneliness is associated with a heightened response to social threats.

“To the extent that loneliness, like pain, triggers us to do something to set it right, it is very adaptive,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But there is this other quality about loneliness that seems to become circular and lead to more and more withdrawal, and that is extremely maladaptive.”

Where do they all come from?

As ancient as the emotion of loneliness may be, it is widely seen as arising from the dislocations of modernity. Indeed, the word “lonely” first appeared in print at the dawn of Europe’s scientific revolution, in William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”

Research has shown that chronic loneliness is rising in the United States, driven by a host of social and cultural changes. The Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal project sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, suggests that more than a quarter of Americans are lonely, a percentage that has increased by three to seven points over the past two decades. In 2015, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy characterized loneliness and social isolation as an “epidemic.”

Schwartz and Dr. Olds place some of the blame on American culture’s enthusiasm for rugged individualism. “People sort of step back, falling in with an old American tradition of kind of admiring self-sufficiency too much,” she says. “And in their stepping back, they start to essentially notice that the rest of the world is going on without them. And sometimes they feel left out and sort of shafted, even though they did it to themselves.”

In Britain, the Campaign to End Loneliness estimates that there are 1.1 million people over the age of 65 who are chronically lonely. “Long working hours and a culture of constant ‘busyness’ means people do not prioritize reaching out to lonely older people,” says Laura Alcock-Ferguson, the campaign’s executive director.

Later this year, her organization plans to launch a major campaign calling for people to commit to acts of kindness for this “Missing Million.”

“It will be challenging – but we believe that loneliness is everyone’s business,” says Ms. Alcock-Ferguson. “Loneliness is not inevitable.”

Previous analysis by Cacioppo and his colleagues suggests that targeting social cognition – that is, retraining the way lonely people think about others – can be more effective at combating loneliness than targeting shyness, building social skills, or increasing opportunities for social contact.

Simply putting lonely people in the same room as other people isn’t terribly effective, says Cacioppo. Even enhancing social support for lonely people has limitations. “It’s about mutuality,” he says. “A person isn’t actually satisfied if they’re just getting.”

The most effective known interventions are ones that shift lonely people’s attention and concern away from themselves and toward mutual welfare.

“The advice I usually give is volunteer for a group that you enjoy being a part of anyway,” says Cacioppo. “Because when you start handing food to others, let’s say on a soup line, all of a sudden you find out others are grateful. There are actually decent, nice people in the world, and the way we find them is we treat them decently.”

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The Monitor's View

When Muslims march for peace

 

The 30 Sec. ReadWith the so-called Islamic State instigating more attacks on the West, Muslim groups in Germany hope a march for peace Saturday will show that such terrorism is not part of Islam. Organizers say they want to show that Muslims have “no spiritual proximity” to terrorist groups. Like those of any faith, Muslims are diverse in their practices and beliefs. Yet with the rising threat from Islamic State and other groups, they are becoming more united in making clear to the world their belief in peaceful coexistence with others. Many Muslims hold prayer vigils with other faiths after an attack. Or they issue statements of condemnation. But a public march like the one in Germany is a new way to enlist Islam as a force for peace.

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When Muslims march for peace

Several Muslim groups in Germany hope to rally tens of thousands on June 17 in a march with a simple message: Acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam are not Islamic. This very public support for peace represents a new step for Muslims in the West beyond statements that denounce terrorism. And it is also a necessary one. The Islamic State has called for more attacks in Europe as well as the United States – with the goal of driving a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Organizers of the march say they want to show that Muslims have “no spiritual proximity” to terrorist groups. They also hope a protest against violent extremism will help them protect their faith in God and affirm their belief in peaceful coexistence with others. 

The march has another purpose, says organizer Lamya Kaddor, a teacher born in Germany to Syrian parents. It is to lessen the fear of Islam by nonMuslims. After the recent terrorists attacks in Europe, and with Germany trying to absorb nearly 1 million refugees from the Middle East, democracy is under threat from the rise of anti-Islamic political parties.

Britain, too, faces a rising fear of Islam. After the attacks on London Bridge and in Manchester, England, Prime Minister Theresa May said there is “far too much tolerance” of extremism in Britain. She asked the whole of society to come together to take on extremism, adding, “we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom.”

Like those of any faith, Muslims are diverse in their practices and beliefs. Yet with the rising threat from Islamic State and other groups, they are becoming more united in making clear to the world the purpose of Islam. Many Muslims hold prayer vigils with other faiths after an attack. Or they issue statements of condemnation. But a public march like the one in Germany is a new way to enlist Islam as a force for peace.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

In service of God and country

 

In view of this week’s shooting in Washington, D.C., of politicians, one former government worker gives us something healing to consider. Allison Rose-Sonnesyn points out that people in many positions in government and of varying backgrounds and political leanings have a sincere desire to end suffering, to find solutions to national and international problems, to bring about peace and eliminate corruption. This global community of service is a strength to humanity. When frustrated by politics, Allison finds that messages from the Bible, particularly the idea that God is Truth, have helped her stay true to herself without getting carried away by political divisiveness. She’s found prayer can bring practical solutions to problems and a way to move past polarized politics and fear.

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In service of God and country

I live in Washington, D.C. Many have the impression that life in this area is just like it's portrayed in television shows, or reported in the press and on social media. Based on these impressions, a lot of people have asked me how any good person could stand to live in such turmoil. In particular, when preparations for a nonpartisan baseball game turned into the tragedy of this week’s shooting, it might seem that this is a toxic atmosphere within which to work.

But that’s not how I see it. I’ve found that living in Washington gives me moment-by-moment opportunities to put my love for God, for my country, and for humankind into practice, with a view to make people’s lives better. That might sound idealistic, but I’m certainly not the only one in Washington who would respond in this way. People in a variety of positions in the government, civilian work, and the military – of all different backgrounds and political leanings, who simply want to serve their government in order to help others – would say that’s largely what brought them to Washington in the first place. They have a sincere desire to end suffering, to find solutions to national and international problems, to bring about peace, to uncover and eliminate corruption both here and abroad.

These examples of service aren’t limited to my country, but are found in countries around the world. This global community of service reminds me of what Mary Baker Eddy says in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “Unselfish ambition, noble life-motives, and purity, – these constituents of thought, mingling, constitute individually and collectively true happiness, strength, and permanence” (p. 58).

This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when the desire to help others isn’t tested by political challenges in the workplace. I certainly had plenty of those moments while I was working in government. On many occasions when I felt upset, frustrated by a lack of progress on projects due to politics, or seemed to be losing my sense of perspective about a situation, I would turn to the Bible to find comfort and inspiration that enabled me to regain my equilibrium.

Similarly in the face of crime, I have turned to the Scriptures for peace and healing. Praying with the message of the one infinite God, good, found in those pages has always reminded me that I am not alone, that there is something bigger than myself that is in control and governing creation harmoniously.

In terms of working for the common good, praying with this passage has always been helpful to me: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). It’s a reminder to me that ultimately my job is to be true to myself as a child of God, who Christian Science teaches is Truth itself. We are God’s image and likeness, reflecting Truth by being truthful, honest, and loyal. Thinking that I need to please other people, or accept “polarized politics” as a god, instead of the God that is Truth and Love, can keep me from being true to myself. Understanding this helps me regain my spiritual perspective and the ability to find practical solutions to problems, and a way to move forward, past the politics and fear.

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Viewfinder

'Yanqui,' come down?

A bicycle taxi stands ready in Havana. In a speech today in Miami, President Trump placed restrictions on travel and business with Cuba, saying that he was “canceling" President Obama’s policy. Some observers called Mr. Trump’s moves more of a "shift" from Mr. Obama’s policy. In the final two years of his presidency, Obama sought to warm relations with the island nation. He visited in 2016.
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Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 19th, 2017 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks so much for reading today. We’ll be back next week with the stories that we’re wringing now for angles – including one on Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Market and the broader changes that could bring to a major realm of retail.

Before we leave you for the weekend – Father’s Day weekend in the US – a recommendation: This delightful essay by the Monitor’s books editor delivers a remarkable tribute to her empowering dad. 

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