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Retreating Again

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Retreating Again

By Steven A. Smith

In my circles it was a collective sigh of relief.

It was a year ago, about a week after the Nov. 3 election, that it became clear to most of the world that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump and would be the next president.

Thinking back, it seems to me that I had been holding my breath for four years as the incumbent produced one insanity after another culminating in his abdication of leadership during the deadliest stages of the pandemic.

Like so many others, I thought the worst past us and that some sort of normalcy would return. I even started following the news again, vigorously, having previously reduced my news intake for no other reason than to preserve my mental health.

As a journalist, scaling back news consumption was difficult. It was easier after retirement, in Trump’s last year, but never felt right. By last Thanksgiving I was back to reading four or five newspapers every day and occasionally dipping into CNN reports. News life was back to normal.

Retreating from the news

But, it seems I have retreated once again.

I had not fully realized what was happening until election night last week. Surprise. I was in the dark. Except for efforts to follow a few local races, it occurred to me that I had not read pre-election stories in any paper or watched any reports on TV.

The governor’s race in Virginia was going to a Trumper, New Jersey nearly so. I did not know that ahead of time having deliberately avoided national election news for weeks. I had not planned it that way. It just happened.

Across the country, the most conservative elements in our society were working to take over school boards and city councils, their efforts often punctuated by violence or threats of violence at school board and city council meetings. Except for local school board disruptions, I was mostly in the dark on that, too.

Lies, which are now fully ingrained into the GOP’s radical agenda, are focused on false assertions that public school systems are indoctrinating children with so-called critical race theory and arguments against mask mandates and vaccination requirements based on nutjob fake science. LGBT students, especially trans students, are special targets. I am now catching up to that.

Promoting “The Big Lie”

Around the country, Republicans at all levels and in all walks of life continue to promote the big lie, that Biden was elected through fraud and that the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was really the result of official overreaction to the visit of a few innocent tourists. Or maybe it was Antifa. (For the most detailed riot deconstruction yet, read this magnificent Washington Post report that provides insight as never before into Trump’s treasonous actions on that day.)

Not even an incremental retreat from the news kept me from the big lie. But I don’t think I have actually read a Trump-focused story in weeks, maybe months. It is as if I do not see them, a news blind spot.

But now, having caught up a bit following election night, I am thinking another retreat from the news, even if not deliberate, is understandable. Not all the news, to be sure. But a retreat from the ceaseless tsunami of frightful reports that make clear our exhalation a year ago was premature.

As reported by the conservative digital news site, The Hill, fully 30 percent of Republicans believe violence may be necessary to cure what they perceive as Democrat evils.

QAnon influnece

Worse, according to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, “1 in 5 Americans believe in the core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy that ‘there is a storm coming soon,’ while 1 in 6 believe the United States government is controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking ring. The same share, 18 percent, say they agree with the statement that America has gotten so far off track that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Challenging the integrity of our electoral systems is fundamental to Republican strategy at all levels.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank cited last week’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey as one example.

In Virginia, Trump supporter Glenn Youngkin narrowly defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Shortly after that result was clear, McAuliffe conceded and wished Youngkin well.

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Republican Jack Ciattarelli by a nearly identical margin. But Ciattarelli immediately claimed fraud, urged his supporters to back his claims, and accused news media of producing “fake news.” Right out of the Trump/big lie playbook.

A campaign against democracy

Said Milbank, “ It’s another sad reminder that the Republican Party isn’t just campaigning against Democrats. It’s campaigning against democracy. Reckless, irresponsible GOP leaders and candidates have convinced their voters that there are two possible outcomes in any election: A. The Republican wins. B. The Democrat stole the election.”

Meanwhile, Republican obstructionism and typical, suicidal Democratic infighting have combined to cripple President Biden’s agenda – notwithstanding last week’s infrastructure deal. Polls show the Dems will likely lose both the House and Senate in next year’s midterms.

Figure a resurrected President Trump is not far behind.

What is it in our national DNA that blinds so many to these existential threats to our democracy? That allows the forces of hate and economic suppression to prosper? That allows fake science to drown out truth? And why do the countervailing forces have so much difficulty developing a response or even articulating one, meaning the news agenda is too often established by the demagogues?

Retreating again

I suppose if I pursued the news with professional diligence, I might find some hints if not answers. But as I was surprised to realize last week, I have begun to retreat again.

There is no pride in saying that, especially coming from a journalist. In so many ways it is an irresponsible reaction and the antithesis of good citizenship.

Still, it is one thing to stay more-or-less aware of current events. It is another to drown oneself in the perpetual negativity those events generate.

Behind the retreat is nothing less than a necessary drive for self-preservation. At least while I wait to exhale once again.

About Steven A Smith

Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.

Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.

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