Many 'Worn Out' By Campaign, Survey Of Social Media Users Shows

A Pew Research Center survey says most Americans on social media are stressed out by online political interactions — and those feelings appear to be bipartisan.

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In case you needed more evidence of the toll this divisive campaign is taking on America, a new survey says more than a third of social media users are “worn out” by the amount of political content they encounter. That’s nearly twice as many who say they welcome the political content they find on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The survey of more than 4500 adults was done by the Pew Research Center. It found that 37% of social media users report being worn out, compared to the 20% who say they like seeing lots of seeing lots of political information.

59%, meanwhile, describe their online interactions with people they disagree with as “stressful and frustrating,” and 64% say their online encounters with those they disagree with leave them feeling “as if they have less in common than they thought.”

If you find the tone of political discourse on social media troubling, well, you’re not alone. 40% of social media users strongly agree that that social media platforms are places where people say things they would never say in person; 49% say the conversations on social media are angrier, 53% say they are less respectful and 49% say they are less civil then their conversations in other parts of their lives.

In perhaps the least surprising finding, the survey reports the vast majority of Americans — 83% — try to avoid posts from friends they disagree with politically, and 39% say they’ve gone so far as to block or unfriend someone, or changed their settings in order to avoid another’s political views.

One bit of good news: as polarized as the country is, the sense of being worn out is not a partisan phenomenon. 38% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans describe themselves that way.

So maybe there is more common ground than it appears.

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The Story Behind The Indian Lamp That Donald Trump Lit

Ratnaram Diwala, 70, colors traditional earthern oil lamps at Kumbharwada. She’s part of the potters colony — some 500 families — living inside the Dhavari slum area in central Mumbai. Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Business is booming for India’s potters, who make the ceremonial lamps that are lit during the upcoming Diwali festival, officially celebrated on October 30 this year.

And politics is the reason. (Although no, not the politics involved when Donald Trump lit a lamp at a “Hindus for Trump” event in New Jersey on October 15 and said, “I am a big fan of Hindu,” and when on Wednesday Ivanka Trump will visit a Hindu Temple in Virginia for a pre-Diwali ceremony.)

This year, potter politics revolve around China.

Before we get to politics, let’s talk about Diwali and diyas.

In India, whatever your religion, a ceremonial oil lamp is lit for almost all auspicious occasions — conferences, housewarmings, groundbreakings. You name it, we light lamps. Lighting the wick symbolizes the end of darkness and ignorance, a fresh way forward. In many Hindu households, a clay lamp burns perpetually before a deity’s picture or idol.

All that is eclipsed during Diwali, aka the festival of lights. It’s the day when Hindus celebrate the return of King Rama from exile (according to the Hindu epic Ramayana), the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and the blessings of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Houses and offices are aglow with dozens of these earthen lamps, called “diyas” literally lamp in Hindi, or “deepa” in Sanskrit.

In the last five years, though, Indian shoppers have seen a glut of plastic Chinese-made products in the marketplace: cheaper, shinier and less durable. A half-cup size local earthern diya would cost 50 U.S. cents, but the Chinese variety costs only about a quarter.

Millions of Indians light earthen lamps for the Diwali festival. Designs range from simple to fancy. Subir Basak/Getty Images hide caption

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Subir Basak/Getty Images

Potter hubs in Delhi and Calcutta have been feeling the pinch and begged the government to protect them. And politicians have finally responded by urging Indians to boycott Chinese products this Diwali – but the impetus is motivated more by politics than economic concerns.

The reason: Late in September, China’s leader backed Pakistan after Jaish-e-Mohammad militants attacked an Indian army base in Uri in the state of Kashmir. And this month, China again blocked India’s effort to get the United Nations to designate Masood Azar, chief of that jihadist group, as a global terrorist.

First a group of youths in the northeast state of Bengal started a campaign, putting up posters, billboards, and social media messages asking people to buy made-in-India products. The hashtag #BoycottChina was trending for a while this month. In several towns and villages, potters have held rallies to protest the sale of Chinese lamps and raise awareness (and patriotism).

Finally, a week ago, the ruling political party has climbed on the bandwagon with its call for a boycott.

Potters in the city of Indore are especially excited. They say they were left with thousands of unsold diyas in the last few years, a situation they’d never faced before.

But in the urban sprawl of coastal Mumbai, where I live, neither potters nor consumers seem to care about Chinese competition. Several shopkeepers I spoke to said they didn’t sell China goods. One scoffed and said of the imports, “They catch fire the first time you use them.” Another vendor said he treks to Mumbai’s Kumbharwada potter district to choose all his own clay lamps.

Kumbharwada is a 12-acre settlement in the Dharavi slum, where every alley is thick with the smoke from hundreds of brick kilns. More than 5,000 potter families have been crafting and selling earthernware of all shapes and sizes here for six to seven generations. Men typically shape and sell the vessels while women do the decorations.

Diyas are the perennial hot ticket. The potters say that they make about half their annual sales in the month leading up to Diwali.

In his stall, Rajesh is busy answering queries, packing lamps and attending to customers. He says he doesn’t know how many lamps the potters of Kumbharwada sell. “Tens of millions probably, who can keep count?”

Though the potters and their families live in the slum, they’re not impoverished. They won’t tell me what their income is but say they’re doing well, they have no unsold stock, their kids go to school, they have cable TV.

“We work on these all year, but we set up stalls only for the season,” says Santosh whose makeshift tables on the main road display diyas in all hues and designs, some in garish neon colors with sequins and shiny golden piping, others more staid in pastel leaf and flower motifs.

There are still four days to go until Diwali but the outdoor stalls throng with shoppers — individuals buying a few dozen pieces as well as retailers picking up orders of several hundred to sell elsewhere in the city. One retailer quips about the Chinese competition, “It doesn’t affect us. People who want the real thing will always come to us. It’s Diwali! We’re earning, let the Chinese earn, as well.”

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Indians Or Cubs, The World Series Will Put An End To One Team's Drought

Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians, is set up Game 1 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night. Charlie Riede/AP hide caption

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Charlie Riede/AP

The World Series opens tonight between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs — essentially a matchup of long-suffering vs. longer-suffering.

You can watch coverage of Game 1 in Cleveland starting at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

The Indians last won a World Series in 1948, and the Cubs haven’t won since 1908. Fans and sportswriters are positively buzzing with excitement.

“Most of us have never lived on a planet where one of those teams is the champion of the baseball world,” ESPN writes. “So pardon us while we take a moment to get a vertigo prescription filled.”

As Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis wryly said Monday night: “I think that’s a very special part of this series … that one of these teams has to win,” ESPN reported.

The Indians have developed a reputation as “a bunch of grinders,” NPR’s Tom Goldman says. “They’ve overcome injuries to key players, they’ve won seven of their eight games in the postseason by an average margin of just two runs, so they’re not blowing people out — they’re winning with pitching, timely hitting, defense, base-stealing. They’re grinding.”

The Cubs are favored to win going into this series — including with Las Vegas odds-makers, as Tom reports. “The Cubs won 103 games during the regular season, that was a major league best. They have a star-studded lineup. Five of their players were elected as starters in this season’s All-Star Game. The Indians had zero,” he says.

But at the same time, Tom notes that you “can never count out a bunch of grinders.”

Sports Illustrated put it a different way: This is a face-off between “the best team in baseball vs. the best base-running team in baseball.” It goes on to say that “Chicago has the better roster and will win if all things are equal. Cleveland has the more opportunistic team and will win if the game is decided on the margins.”

Fans have flooded into Cleveland for Game 1, and as reporter David Barnett of WCPN ideastream tells All Things Considered, “the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that all downtown hotels are sold out, reminding some here of the GOP convention this past summer.” And while Cleveland fans are longing for a baseball victory, the city does have a big sports win under its belt: The Cavaliers won this year’s NBA title.

The start of the World Series also has Cubs fans wondering whether this championship could spell the end the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” As legend has it, when a man was barred from bringing his pet goat into Wrigley Field in 1945, he reportedly said something along the lines of “Cubs ain’t going to win no more,” Tom reports.

But the man “wasn’t specific in saying that the Cubs aren’t going to win the World Series no more — or the Cubs aren’t going to get in the World Series no more,” Tom notes. “So just to be safe, let’s say the Cubs have to win the thing to finally do away with the curse.”

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Watch Andrew Bird And The National's Matt Berninger Cover Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'

This intimate, completely unadorned cover of Lou Reed‘s “Perfect Day” will warm your heart. Andrew Bird and The National‘s Matt Berninger recorded the song together in Bird’s living room; Bird provided the instrumentation, his trademark whistling and violin gracefully looping together, and Berninger reads the lyrics from a sheet of paper on the floor.

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“What do you think happens at the end of the [perfect] day,” Berninger asks Bird at the end of the song. Bird says, “I think they go back to Jersey.”

The video and performance was filmed live in late August as part of Bird’s ongoing “Live From The Great Room” series. The weekly series, streamed live on Facebook, features interviews and cozy performances with Bird and some of his friends. Past guests include Fiona Apple, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and John C. Reilley.

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New Mix: Run The Jewels, Flaming Lips, John Prine, More

Clockwise from upper left: Laura Burhenn, Run The Jewels, The Flaming Lips, Sadie Dupuis of Sad13, John Prine Courtesy of the artists hide caption

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Courtesy of the artists

In this week’s All Songs Considered, we feature three solo projects by some of our favorite bandleaders, a solo artist’s duets record, and new music from some familiar faces, or more accurately put, some familiar Lips. The Flaming Lips are back with a new album, Oczy Młody, inspired by a Polish book that Wayne Coyne owns and finds phonetically fascinating (even if he doesn’t understand any of the words). We’ve also got Run the Jewels, a duo that’s all about the words and whose new single speaks to urgent issues of race relations.

Laura Burhenn (Mynabirds) and Kyle Morton (Typhoon) each have quiet solo records that tackle life’s preciousness, how the small things sometimes matter most and the tangles we amass. Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz went the loud route; I found one of the lyrics a little offensive, but that didn’t stop Robin Hilton from playing it.

We also hear from John Prine. He turns 70 this month and has recorded his highest charting record yet. For Better, Or Worse features a high spirited, often funny collection of cover tunes sung by a brilliant songwriter whose battle with cancer only seems to make him stronger. Every time I hear his Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn cover I laugh, and that’s where our show starts.

— Bob Boilen

Songs Featured On This Episode

Cover for For Better, Or Worse

01Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out (feat. Iris Dement)

2:41

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499208656" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

John Prine

  • Song: Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out (feat. Iris Dement)
  • from For Better, Or Worse

This song comes from John Prine‘s latest duets record, For Better, Or Worse. Originally sung by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb, the song is full of brightness and humor. For Better, Or Worse is the highest charting record of Prine’s career and comes just after he celebrated his 70th birthday.

Cover for Slugger

01Hype

2:31

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499209415" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Sad13

  • Song: Hype
  • from Slugger

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This song contains profanity.

Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz originally brought this song to her band, but they couldn’t bring themselves to record it because of one lyric that would offend their mothers. So Sadie put it on her debut solo record, Slugger, out Nov. 11 (and streamable via First Listen next week). Dupuis says the song is a critique on how women are treated unfairly in the music industry.

Cover for Apples & Oranges

01Apples & Oranges

3:37

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499209894" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Laura Burhenn

  • Song: Apples & Oranges
  • from Apples & Oranges

The Mynabirds singer wrote this song as a reaction to what she described as her confronting the “yawning black void” of her future. But rather than fearing the darkness, she took comfort in it. She says “Apples & Oranges” is about not knowing anything and being OK with it. Mike Mogis, known for his work with Conor Oberst, helped produce Burhenn’s new single.

Cover for Oczy Młody

01The Castle

4:50

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499210055" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The Flaming Lips

  • Song: The Castle
  • from Oczy Młody

The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne took inspiration for Oczy Młody from a book he bought that was written in Polish. Though he can’t speak or read the language, Coyne was drawn to certain words or phrases, one of which was oczy młody,” which means “young eyes.” Coyne says it also reminded him of a drug like Oxycodone, which informed the feeling he wanted the song to have.

Cover for What Will Destroy You

01Perverse Fascination

4:11

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499210389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Kyle Morton

  • Song: Perverse Fascination
  • from What Will Destroy You

“Perverse Fascination” comes from What Will Destroy You, the Typhoon singer’s delicate solo album, and deals with themes of the subconscious, “from old fashioned heartache to acute sadomasochism.” The song ends on what sounds like a cassette recording of Morton recounting a mysterious dream.

Cover for RTJ3

01Talk To Me

2:46

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498547946/499210590" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Run The Jewels

  • Song: Talk To Me
  • from RTJ3

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This song contains profanity.

A third full-length has appeared imminent from the rap duo of Killer Mike and El-P, and this week they confirmed the RTJ3 rumors with a new single, “Talk To Me.” They originally premiered it on Adult Swim’s website, where you can download the song for free. “Talk To Me” is fiercely urgent and political, taking on the state of race relations in the U.S., the war machine, and the presidential election. The release date for RTJ3 has yet to be determined.

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Not Fit To Print? When Politicians Talk Dirty, Media Scramble To Sanitize

Linguist Geoff Nunberg argues that the media’s decision to bleep or otherwise block out a particular word can result in concealing information the public needs to know. dane_mark/Getty Images hide caption

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dane_mark/Getty Images

It has become a familiar story in a world bristling with live mics. A public figure is caught out using a vulgarity, and the media have to decide how to report the remark. Web media tend to be explicit, but the traditional media are more circumspect.

Take the vulgar epithet that George W. Bush was overheard using to describe a New York Times reporter during the 2000 presidential campaign. Some newspapers printed it with dashes or asterisks. Others said it was a word that rhymed with “casserole” or “glass bowl.” And The New York Times itself described the word as an obscenity, which made it sound worse than it was.

It’s easy to ridicule that coyness. Concealing the letters of a word with asterisks is the orthographic equivalent of covering them with pasties and a G-string —they manage to make it look both less shocking and more salacious.

Anyway, whom exactly do editors imagine they’re protecting? Some of them plead the familiar defense of “not in front of the children.” The editors of The New York Times say that such words have no place in a “family newspaper.” But if The Times really thought of their readership as including 10-year-olds, they’d add a comics page.

The editors make a much better argument when they insist that the paper should stand for civility in public discourse. There’s a lot to be said for honoring the collective sanctimony that forbids the use of these words in public life. It’s in everybody’s interest to be a little hypocritical about the words, if only to preserve their impact. Swear words couldn’t convey strong emotion if we weren’t flouting a taboo every time we say them.

But you can carry the hypocrisy too far. At the signing of the health care bill in 2010, Joe Biden was caught on a live mic whispering to President Obama that the bill was a “big f***ing deal.” Some people clucked their tongues or called the remark a gaffe, others applauded it as a sign of blue-collar authenticity.

But come on. Biden was just using the F-word the same way most people do in private now and again, whatever their class — and whatever their gender. These words aren’t the exclusive province of truck-drivers and sailors — in fact they never have been.

When you swear, the words are bleached of their sexual or anatomical meanings, and swearing in private isn’t considered a serious social transgression. If it were, we’d come up with a stronger condemnation for it than the infantile “potty mouth.”

So it doesn’t really matter if the media bleeped Biden’s word or simply described it as an expletive. Decorum was preserved, and it’s not as if the media were concealing something the public needs to know.

When that 2005 Access Hollywood videotape turned up, some of the media tried to treat it like other live-mic incidents. They danced around the language, particularly that one phrase that made it sound as if Trump was crowing about sexual assault. They paraphrased it as “grab women by the private parts” or “between the legs.” Or they described the word he used as “a slang term for a woman’s genitalia.” But that left a lot of possibilities — in a brilliant segment on the Trump tape on her show Full Frontal, Samantha Bee reeled off about 30 slang words for a woman’s genitalia in quick succession.

Most of the media realized that it mattered which word Trump had used and tried to identify it, if not always explicitly. Some wrote it with asterisks, others got at it obliquely. NPR bleeped the word when they ran the tape and explained that it was “a very crude word that starts with P.” That’s how I’ll refer to it here.

But The New York Times broke with tradition when the editors decided to print the remarks uncensored. That was the first time any of these words had appeared in the paper with their literal sexual meanings.

But then as best I can tell, it was the first time a public figure had been heard using the words that way, too. Trump wasn’t swearing, and this wasn’t just locker-room raunch. That’s what made the remarks so unsettling — not so much the words as the attitudes they conveyed.

The word Trump used may not be the most obscene term for a woman’s genital area. But it’s the one that focuses on it in a purely sexual way. That’s why it can also be used as a collective term to reduce women in general to a purely sexual function. It’s like referring to workers as hands or referring to children as mouths to feed.

People keep describing Trump’s remarks as lewd. But that word makes them sound merely leering and ribald; it brings to mind the red-nosed Dutch merrymakers in a painting by Franz Hals. At best “lewd” is just a genteel way of saying “dirty,” which is a better description of the words themselves. But even that doesn’t get at the predatory contempt they convey when the P-word is paired with that rapacious G-word, “grab.”

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4 Reasons Mormons Are More Skeptical Of Trump Than Other Religious Conservatives

Donald Trump, shown speaking at a March rally in Salt Lake City, ended up losing the GOP caucus there — badly. Now, there’s a real chance he could lose in November in the deep-red state. George Frey/Getty Images hide caption

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George Frey/Getty Images

“There isn’t a simple answer when it comes to Mormons and Trump,” Stephanie Fowers said. “We are so torn right now that hardly anyone I know will even mentions his name any more because it’s too depressing.”

That makes her just another disenchanted voter in the endless slog that is Campaign 2016. Fowers, a writer from Cottonwood Heights, Utah — and a Mormon — said that among the Mormons she knows, she sees a lot of indecision.

“Some of us might pull the lever for Trump, because we don’t like Hillary,” both when it comes to her policies and her potential Supreme Court picks, Fowers told NPR. Because she lives in Utah, she has another option: Evan McMullin, an independent candidate, former House staffer and CIA operative, who is on the ballot in 11 states.

“Some of us might go McMullin, because we want to preserve the conservative movement (as we believe it to be), and we feel that Trump will damage it further if he becomes president.” She added, “But neither answer is fully satisfying. At all.”

Stories abound of Mormons who likewise find themselves unable to support a candidate who has philandered, bragged about sexually assaulting women and proposed keeping an entire religious group from immigrating to the U.S.

This year, the Pew Research Center found that Mormons are the most-Republican of 29 religious groups studied, followed by a half dozen evangelical churches. But this year, Mormons and white evangelicals appear to have split in their opinions of the GOP candidate. There are no national polls of Mormons in the 2016 election, but Utah — where around 60 percent of voters are Mormon — is a good place to start. In a recent poll, only 19 percent of Utah Mormons saw Trump favorably. Meanwhile, white evangelicals nationwide have embraced Trump — in another recent poll, 68 percent of white evangelicals view him favorably.

It’s unheard-of for a Republican presidential candidate to be this close to losing in Utah. Danielle Kurtzleben/Real Clear Politics hide caption

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Danielle Kurtzleben/Real Clear Politics

As a result, Utah could very well not go Republican for the first time in more than 50 years. Trump’s lead is slim in several recent polls, and in one, he’s losing to McMullin. So why are Mormons bristling when other conservative Christians are sticking with Trump? There are a few reasons:

1. Religious persecution

“Mormons as a group has deeply ingrained within their psyche that they are a religious minority that has experienced persecution in the not-distant past,” said David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics, pointing to the violence experienced by the Mormons in Missouri in the 1830s, culminating with an order from the governor that Mormons either leave the state or be exterminated.

Mormons hear Trump’s harsh rhetoric against Muslims, and they hear echoes of the widespread persecution they once faced.

“The fact that Trump has proposed the religious test — whether he really meant that or not — the fact that it was out there and resonating within the electorate was definitely radioactive among Mormons,” Campbell added.

2. Immigration moderates

Trump has made harsh rhetoric against immigrants a centerpiece of his campaign. And immigration just happens to be an area in which Mormons tend to be far more moderate than their fellow Republicans.

“Unlike [white] evangelicals, Mormons are actually quite moderate on the issue of immigration,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t say they’re liberal on immigration, but they’re much more in favor of some sort of immigration reform. They’re more sympathetic.”

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, as Campbell and co-authors Christopher Karpowitz and J. Quin Monson wrote in a chapter from Mormonism and American Politics (cited here by Religion News Service’ Jana Riess). One theory is that “the high proportion of Mormons who serve as missionaries in other countries fosters an empathetic perspective on illegal immigrants.” Particularly if the missionaries have served in places the immigrants are fleeing, they wrote, they understand why those people want to come to the U.S.

Another important reason: Latinos have been a tremendous area of growth for the church.

In 2014, a group of faith leaders, including Dieter Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met with President Obama to talk about immigration. Afterward, Uchtdorf told the Deseret News that, while he doesn’t agree with Obama on many issues, “We very much agree on immigration reform.”

“Our principle, I declared to the president, is that we love our neighbor, which means we love all people, in all places and at all times,” Uchtdorf said then. “One of the core values we stand for is families. The separation of families (in U.S. immigration policy) isn’t helping.”

3. Personal morals

“Mormons invest an incredible importance in the personal integrity, the character of a political leader,” Campbell said. “And that’s not to say evangelicals don’t, but I think we’re definitely seeing in this race, it must matter more to Mormons than evangelicals.”

Fowers says she is struggling over this question.

“How do we find that balance of politics and morality — shouldn’t they be the same thing?” she said. “I always thought they should be.”

She knows for sure that she doesn’t want Clinton in the White House, but she also can’t back Trump enthusiastically — and she’s not alone.

“The majority of people I’ve talked to have no idea what the right decision is,” she said. “We want to follow our conscience, but don’t know the best way to do that.”

4. Identity politics

McMullin is Mormon, which could make him more attractive to his fellow Mormons, who may like to have the opportunity to support someone from their own church. It would be wrong to see this as the primary driving factor behind Utah Mormons’ embrace of McMullin, Campbell said, but it could factor into it for some.

In addition, steady, staunch opposition to Trump by Mitt Romney may in the same way play into some Mormons’ opinions.

Of course, no one’s vote is driven entirely by one factor — people of any faith can take something other than religious dogma into account in the voting booth.

But that said, Mormons really do incorporate religion into their political choices more than most other Americans. “If you look across religious groups, Mormons are more likely to base their political decisions on their faith,” Campbell said.

One recent poll found that that since just five years ago, many white Protestants (especially evangelicals) have grown much more tolerant of politicians with moral failings — potentially because of Trump himself.

That poll didn’t include data on Mormons, but if Campbell is right, Mormons are less likely to make that kind of shift — meaning that many voters, like Fowers, could be agonizing even on Election Day about whom to choose.

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AT&T Deal For Time Warner Casts Renewed Attention On CNN

Donald Trump enters the debate hall during the Republican presidential debate co-sponsored by CNN in Coral Gables, Fla., in March. CNN is expected to see $100 million in extra revenues this year, thanks largely to its coverage of Trump. Alan Diaz/AP hide caption

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Alan Diaz/AP

AT&T’s proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner has cast renewed attention on the financial performance and journalistic independence of one of the media conglomerate’s best-known possessions, CNN.

“You have to allow the organization to run independently,” AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson tells NPR. “It’s not an altruistic thing either. I mean, I personally think it’s a smart business thing to do. If the customer ever believes that the news is being tainted by the opinion of myself or somebody else within AT&T, that’s brand damaging.”

Internally, some hope CNN’s financial performance will help ensure its independence and continued funding. The network has turned a financial corner thanks to the painstaking initiatives of its chief, Jeff Zucker, and to the unpredictable words of another man not employed by CNN: Donald Trump.

Presidential election years always give a huge boost to all three major cable news channels. For CNN, this campaign cycle has been particularly good.

According to two people with detailed knowledge of the network’s financial performance, CNN will make approximately $100 million in television and digital advertising revenues more than it would expect in the typical election year.

That’s thanks to the huge interest in Trump, who seemingly received blanket coverage of every public pronouncement and rally during the extended Republican primary season.

The heightened level of viewers meant CNN could guarantee advertisers relatively high audiences — and lock in higher advance rates rather than simply take pride in an unexpected spike in ratings. CNN has also landed big-name sponsorships that were hard to get in the past.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what made this year pop from an election cycle perspective,” says Tracy Stallard, the senior director of media for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s U.S. operations. “It’s certainly been a fun one to watch.”

AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, struck a sponsorship deal worth several million dollars to CNN. It included video vignettes — more than just a 30-second spot, Stallard says — that ran on CNN’s television channel and digital platforms. But AB InBev’s most famous labels, Budweiser and Bud Light, were sponsors of the CNN Grill, which served as both a television studio and an actual bar at the Republican and Democratic national conventions this past summer.

“CNN in particular was an exciting partner because of this ‘on-the-ground’ activation aspect,” Stallard says. “They were like-minded to us. They didn’t just believe they were going to sell us television ad placements.” The sponsorship brought added visibility for political, corporate and journalistic big-shots at the conventions but also won periodic mentions on the air, she said.

To be very clear, Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, has pursued a strategy featuring multiple prongs in recent years.

He placed an emphasis on breaking news, leading initially to much-lampooned blanket coverage of a missing plane believed now to have crashed in the Indian Ocean and a sinking cruise liner off the Italian Coast, and the sense among some critics that the definition of what news is actually breaking has been stretched past recognition.

CNN has also spent more time reporting on conflict, disaster and politics from abroad than its cable news peers. Indeed, Zucker has authorized the hiring of waves of journalists to cover stories on the air and online, raiding Politico, the Los Angeles Times and other prominent news outlets.

Additionally, Zucker invested in outside documentaries and highly produced original taped series too, featuring such stars as Anthony Bourdain and Lisa Ling, as he sought to give viewers a recurring reason to tune in during prime time in the absence of big news.

And, Trump became a big reason to tune in starting more than a year ago.

“We recognized much earlier than most that there was a little bit of a phenomenon to Donald Trump,” Zucker said to a group of students and faculty at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center earlier this month. “I’d say that if we made a mistake last year it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months unedited and just let them run.”

Zucker neatly summarized why Trump captured a television programmer’s heart as a rogue presidential candidate: “You never knew what he was going to say. You never knew what was going to happen.”

Viewers responded.

Zucker declined to comment to NPR about the AT&T deal or CNN’s performance.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes tells NPR that Zucker’s strategy prior to the election cycle set the table for this year’s financial gains, citing coverage of hard news abroad, and the documentaries and special taped series. “We were on this track without regard to the election,” Bewkes says. “We have the biggest newsgathering organization in the world with, increasingly, the best expertise in how to serve it into [video on demand] offerings, mobile offers, short-form offerings.”

CNN has been part of a repeating cycle of media synergy and spinoffs, cast into and out of a series of media conglomerates over recent decades that included a major movie studio, magazine company, music producer, cable provider, and book publisher, as well as CNN’s sibling television networks.

Joining the nation’s leading telecommunications company could have different implications, says Jon Klein, formerly president of CNN U.S. He points to AT&T’s involvement in national security issues, privacy concerns and tech policy.

“There is no corporate history at AT&T of journalism,” Klein says. “They’re more often in the news than the people who brought you Superman v Batman. And so these issues may come to a head more often. And the question will be: How will AT&T handle it when CNN becomes a burr in the saddle — even if inadvertently?”

Assuming the acquisition is approved by federal regulators, Bewkes is not expected to continue much past the transition of Time Warner from a free-standing corporation into a fully held subsidiary of AT&T. However, the Time Warner chief says he is confident the telecommunications company intends to keep CNN independent and viable.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of NPR’s interview with AT&T’s Stephenson and Time Warner’s Bewkes.


Interview Highlights

On the viability and journalism of CNN

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes says AT&T shares his company’s mission of keeping CNN independent and objective. Lionel Cironneau/AP hide caption

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Lionel Cironneau/AP

Bewkes: We feel strongly and have for decades … about the news independence and the objectivity of CNN. … Everyone argues and they should, as Americans, about whether the news coverage we’re getting is biased. Is it independent? Is it objective? Is it fair to all sides and points of view? That’s a challenge that you always have. There was a lot of controversy a few years back that you ought to pick a “political viewpoint” and have your news go that way. We never accepted that. We think our job is to cover all the viewpoints from all the sides. And we’re open for criticism as to whether we’ve succeeded or failed in that. We do it every day. But independence for that is what our viewers come for at CNN and it’s why we recruit the best journalists in the world. We know that that is the mission of CNN. And we know, and so does AT&T, that to in any way do anything other than support that would be a huge mistake.

On whether the acquisition would concentrate too much media in a single company

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, says his company’s proposed merger with Time Warner will not hurt competition. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Stephenson: I even heard the vice-presidential candidate [Tim Kaine] talk about that this is media consolidation. There is no consolidation in this transaction. There’s no telecom consolidation — not one bit. There is not one bit of media consolidation. This is a vertical merger. It is not a horizontal merger. This has no effect on competition.

Bewkes: It’ll increase competition, because it will make a more effective platform for advertising. And I think you should go ask … all the advertisers whether they would welcome another strong competitor that can offer the kind of 21st century ad platform that Google and Facebook have that are taking the lion’s share of the advertising.

On how the two companies describe the logic driving the deal

Stephenson: We have unquestionably the broadest distribution platform for video in the United States and even in Latin America. And our customers are demanding more and more premium content. And we have come to believe strongly that premium content always wins and is wanted in the living room where the TV set is. But that has also moved out to the mobile device and we have several million mobile customers who are demanding more and more premium content on their mobile devices. And they’re not just asking for premium content on their mobile devices but they’re wanting the content formatted differently, they’re wanting it curated differently that is really established and set up for mobility. [The benefit of working as one company rather than as two partners] is a function of speed and I would actually say completeness.

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Finding A Way Home Through 'The Door of No Return'

Writer Gene Demby, left, with his twin sister Stephanie and mother Jeanette. Courtesy of the Demby family hide caption

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Courtesy of the Demby family

So the family lore goes something like this: My mother was getting a check-up and some shots before a trip to Ghana with her boyfriend, who was from Accra. Then her doctor told her that she was pregnant. Then more tests and more news: she was pregnant with twins. She would have to cancel her long-anticipated sojourn to the Motherland.

I was in my early twenties the first time my mother told me that story, just a few days before she finally got around to her trip to Ghana. For decades, she’d put much of her life on hold for my sister and me — the twins. I was happy for her and felt a little sentimental about it.

I said nothing about the passing mention of her old boyfriend, my father.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I landed in Accra for the wedding of one of my closest friends. It was my first time there.

When we got off the plane, we were shaken down by a short, imperious airport employee named Edith who insisted that there was something wrong with my immunization paperwork. She said if we gave her some money (at our discretion, wink, wink) she would let us pass.

So I was already irritated as I waited for the customs officer to leaf through my passport.

“Welcome back, Mr. Afum,” he said, and looked up at me with a smile.

His skin was a little darker than mine and much smoother. He called me by the second part of my last name, the one after the hyphen, the one I never use or think about except when I’m filling out official paperwork. My father’s name. It was right there in my passport information. Gene Demby-Afum. The customs agent had taken me for a Ghanaian.

“Oh, I’ve never been here before,” I said.

He seemed incredulous.

“You don’t have any family here in the city?”

I told him no. But that probably wasn’t true. Accra was once my father’s home; I almost certainly had uncles or aunts or cousins — hell, maybe even half-siblings — who lived somewhere near there.

The agent handed back my passport.

“Enjoy your stay,” he said with a smile. Then we headed into the city.

This will sound hard to believe, I know, but I hadn’t really thought about the familial connection I had to Accra until then. Was there something distinctive about Afums? Was it just the Ghanaian equivalent of Jackson or Jones? This Afum business irritated me.

The tro tros are the ubiquitous vans that serve as group taxis in Accra. Their windshields are adorned with affirmative, often-religious sayings like, “God Is The Way.” Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria hide caption

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Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria

About That “Crisis Of The Black Family”

Okay, cards on the table: I hate talking about my father. And I hate it not because of any particular feelings I have about him but because of all the ways the story of black fatherlessness has been warped and weaponized.

How does it make you feel? You know, to not have a father? Don’t you want to know about his family? Do you wonder what your life would be like if your dad was around?

You will feel a vague annoyance whenever people pose a question to you like that — and many otherwise smart, courteous people will ask these things way more often than you might think. They’ve seen that misunderstood fact that 72 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. And they wonder how you fared, because of, you know, The Crisis. And you will bristle at the implication that there’s a kind of melancholy and yearning they want to hear expressed, a familiar template for brokenness that they want to see performed.

And by “you,” I mean me.

How are you faring, black man, in the daunting personal project of crafting your masculinity out of thin air?

I know I sound defensive, which is why I don’t like talking about it. But let’s back up a bit. In the Moynihan Report in 1964, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an official in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, sounded an alarm about the deteriorating economic condition of black folks in America. At the core, he wrote, was the rising rate of absent black fathers, which led to “the weakness of the family structure.”

His idea about black fatherlessness is now one of our most well-worn tropes: that it foments “aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that … now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.” It’s the kind of thing repeated so often that its invocation, without interrogation, informs today’s lexicon of pathology: “Black-on-black violence,” “the achievement gap,” mass incarceration.

And because I write about race, I get to read all the ways this explanation can stretch into the absurd. Did you know that the paltry number of black baseball players in the Major Leagues is a by-product of absent black fathers? That specious-but-popular idea was the headline of a press release I got in my email from a think tank as I was writing this essay. When I wrote a piece about the persistent phenomenon of white folks out-earning black folks, an exasperated reader emailed to tell me that the major reason for the racial wage gap was obviously the rate of black children born to unwed mothers. You know, black children like me.

More African-Americans visit Ghana than any other country in Africa. Many view Ghana as a kind of ancestral homeland. Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria hide caption

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Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria

Accra is a crowded place. Its population is about the same as Houston’s, but it’s packed into an area one-seventh the size. The traffic is awful. There were men and women carrying heavy loads on their heads in the sweltering heat as our small American contingent rode by them. The tro tros, vans that folks use as shared taxis, boasted inspirational phrases on their windshields like God Is The Way. Malik, a large, gregarious dude from Virginia, quipped to no one in particular: “Soooo, this is exactly what I imagined Africa would be like.”

There’s this thing that happens a lot when black folks from the States visit West Africa. In the retelling of the trip, the excursion takes on the language of pilgrimage — of finally going home. I think that’s especially true for folks who travel to Ghana, the birthplace of the pan-Africanist movement; a place some black Americans see as a kind of ancestral homeland for the Diaspora. That feeling makes sense, even if it requires an oversimplification of what we share; this universal blackness.

As our group walked down a teeming, dusty street that afternoon, our American-ness wafted off of us. Folks in cars craned their necks to look us over. We were being shepherded by a wiry, charismatic local dude named — no joke — Prince Versace. He knew everyone, and when we asked about his life, he offered each of us a different backstory. He was a former professional soccer player. Attorney. Carpenter. Whatever he thought we wanted to hear. People hawked their wares, calling them ‘cultural‘ — as in, the inscription on this bracelet is cultural and has special meaning. They were trying to sell us authenticity, some real, pure African shit.

I wasn’t trying to divine from the faces at the market or on the street any semblance of my father — hell, I couldn’t if I wanted to, since I only vaguely remember what he looks like. Here’s what I can remember. He had an accent. He worked as a janitor in a hospital in Center City, Philadelphia. The last time I saw him I was maybe 13. How could I have recognized his face in the people around me?

But maybe someone else might recognize something familiar in my face. Maybe a telltale tilt in my walk. There are a million ways that that was ludicrous, I know. But I still felt something vaguely like disappointment.

How It Really Worked In My Fatherless Family

Family isn’t merely lineage, but lived experience. Here, then, was what my lived experience was like growing up in South Philadelphia: My mom worked and fed us and tied my ties; my grandmother, who lived a little over a mile away, watched us after school and picked me up from Cub Scouts; my aunt fussed at me about my grades, and my cousin, her daughter, taught me how to shoot free throws. There were other relatives and play-cousins in the mix, too, but, this is how my family looked and worked — how nearly all the families around us looked and worked. It did not occur to me that all that fawning and fussiness and guidance was “weakness” in our family structure until other people labeled it that way.

For hundreds of years, the Elmina Castle, which sits on the Gulf of Guinea, was a major depot in the transatlantic slave trade. Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria hide caption

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Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria

My friend, the bride-to-be, gave a trigger warning to the busload of her American wedding guests ahead of our day-trip to the Elmina Slave Castle.

It’s going to be a lot, she said.

The 500-year-old fortress sits on the Gulf of Guinea, and for centuries it was a major hub of the transatlantic slave trade. I had heard stories from other black Americans about how traumatic these tours could be. Still, I told myself that I would not become some blubbering American cliché, that I could approach it with respectful remove. I knew this history. I was sure I’d be ready for it.

I was not.

It didn’t hit me all at once. I felt a rising disquiet almost as soon as the guide, a bald man who spoke too quietly, started to lay out the rough history of the castle. He took us to a courtyard.

This is where the Portuguese governor who oversaw the castle would line up the captive African women and choose one to rape.

I tried to camouflage my growing panic as we were led to several, barely ventilated dungeons that were the sites of routine torture and deprivation. The Europeans who once ran the castle wanted to starve and cull the Africans they considered weak. I lingered outside each station for as long as I could before joining the rest of the group.

We ducked our heads as we went through a dark passage to reach the “Door Of No Return” — a glorified hole in the castle’s stone wall that led countless captive Africans to enslavement or death.

Looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from Elmina Castle, I felt the pull of different forebears. Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria hide caption

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Courtesy of Kainaz Amaria

And then we came to a dungeon with no windows, with the painting of a skull above its door. The guide told us that this was where people who tried to revolt or escape were sent to rot. A few centuries ago, this was hell. Our guide closed the door and we stood there in total darkness. He asked us to bow our heads as he recited a prayer for the thousands of people who died on the castle grounds. I didn’t hear what he was saying. I was crying.

I felt none of Ghana, the genealogical fact of it, in me in the castle that day. I felt linked to different forebears. Not to my absent father, but to the people who were wrenched from that part of the African coast, crammed into the hulls of ships and sold on another continent like livestock. Those people from far-flung tribes and villages who arrived in their new land and cobbled together families that slavers and slave masters tried to shatter centuries before anyone sounded an alarm about the “weakness of the family structure.”

I felt the pull of this shared story, horrifying and beautiful, that shaped the lives of millions of Americans, including a black woman, her daughter, and me.

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