🎧 LEVER TIME: Where Spirituality Meets Politics (w/ Russell Brand)

Before liberals knew him as the butt of a Hamilton joke, John Adams once said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

But as the Great Airline Meltdown of 2022 illustrated last week, today’s media now routinely does that altering — by promoting or suppressing facts based on which party and which infantilized audience they serve. That is a problem not just for air travelers, but also for our entire democracy.

To review: As up to one million travelers were stranded by Southwest Airlines over the holiday season, The Lever uncovered documents (here, here, here and here) showing that Democratic state officials and congressional lawmakers had repeatedly begged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to toughen rules to deter airlines from mistreating their customers.

As those documents and our new video detail, Buttigieg — the sole airline regulator under federal law — has plenty of power at his disposal. But he’s refused to use that authority, even after Southwest had experienced a similar meltdown a year ago. As William McGee of the American Economic Liberties Project put it: “Southwest was inevitable after [Buttigieg] failed to punish awful behavior all year.”

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Buttigieg’s inaction was part of a larger pattern of lax regulation and weak enforcement that by some measures have been even weaker than those under the Trump administration. This is hardly surprising, considering Buttigieg is a political appointee who had never managed a major transportation system before being given his Cabinet job. His formative experience was working at a corporate consulting giant that would later suggest ways airlines could extract more fees from passengers.

The point of The Lever publishing this story was to do what nonpartisan journalism is supposed to do in a democracy: hold public officials accountable for their action and inaction.

In this case, that meant holding the nation’s chief airline regulator accountable for ignoring regulatory demands from elected officials in his own party. The premise of this kind of journalism — the very reason why the press is considered a crucial part of a functioning democracy — is to inform the public about problems, so that the public can pressure their elected officials to start doing their jobs and fixing things (sign our open letter urging Congress and Buttigieg to do just that).

And yet, despite these revelations, our reporting only prompted discussion, analysis, and commentary among conservative media and Republican leaders, from The New York Post, to Fox News to Newsmax to House Republicans to Donald Trump, Jr. These opportunists seized on our reporting not because they genuinely support accountability journalism or stronger consumer protection legislation, but because they want to weaponize news against Democrats.

By contrast, even as the reporting ultimately went viral across the Internet, the documents and facts holding Buttigieg accountable went almost completely unmentioned by major legacy and left-of-center media outlets.

Indeed, as thousands of travelers were stranded, MSNBC and CNN offered wall-to-wall coverage of the situation, but with little context — and almost no mention of Buttigieg and his refusal to regulate.

As the disaster intensified, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman quickly pumped out an apologia insisting that the debacle had nothing to do with corporate greed, while neglecting to even consider whether regulatory failure had played a role.

One newspaper openly ridiculed attacks on Buttigieg’s record, pretending critics were ignoring “the simple reality that his department does not have direct control over airlines.” Fact check: Buttigieg is literally the airline regulator.

Another Washington newspaper cast criticism of Buttigieg as a residual and petty intraparty dispute from the 2020 Democratic presidential primary generated by “the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party,” rather than what the fiasco actually was: a regulator’s negligence helping create a national debacle that harmed up to a million travelers as well as their families.

Tweeting Through Disaster Because Nobody Holds Anyone Accountable

This media dysfunction exemplifies what I’ve previously called The Algorithm: an information ecosystem in which news outlets promote or suppress facts based on whether those facts will flatter or offend their audience’s partisan impulses.

Stories that might shame Democrats are amplified by right-wing media, but effectively shadowbanned by legacy and left-of-center media that do not want to offend a liberal readership that loathes news that might shame the Democratic politicians they worship. This is why previous reporting months ago about Buttigieg’s refusal to do his job was similarly erased from the liberal discourse.

It’s the same thing on the other side: Reporting that might embarrass Republicans is touted by those legacy and left-of-center media, but never mentioned by right-wing media outlets that don’t want to offend the MAGA movement.

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All these twisted news decisions are then amplified by social media platforms’ throttling and recommendation formulas.

The result: A regulator’s failure that harms hundreds of thousands of people is now only considered newsworthy by the media outlets and the audience affiliated with the regulator’s opposition party. To everyone else, the failure is a non-story and the regulator must not be held accountable. Instead, he must be defended in the name of protecting The Party.

For news consumers, the problem becomes self-reinforcing. When journalism that embarrasses Democratic politicians is promoted by Fox News — and ghosted by MSNBC — liberals either never see the reporting, or they get to eyeroll and smugly laugh at it, insisting the verifiable facts must be false just because they happen to be amplified by Rupert Murdoch rather than by Rachel Maddow. The converse is also true: When facts embarrassing Republicans are reported by MSNBC — and ignored by Fox News — most conservatives never even see them, and those who do get to brush it off as “fake news” from “liberal media.”

This dynamic is a big part of the democracy crisis in America. It has created two throngs of zombie partisans fighting a never-ending war of attrition from behind screens that tell them only what they want to hear, and censor facts that might alter their thinking.

In sowing such mass ignorance, this system ultimately shields public officials from accountability. Those in government now know that their negligence, corruption, and malfeasance — if reported at all — probably will not be reported to their own party’s voters, or at least it will not be reported in a hard-hitting way that might make those voters perk up and demand justice.

We saw this dynamic during a financial crisis when both sides’ media gave a pass to their respective party members in the Bush and Obama administrations who let Wall Street criminals off the hook. We saw it during the Iraq War, when the Republicans and Democrats who lied us into the conflict were almost never held accountable, and were instead rewarded with permanent media platforms. And we saw it in miniature last week during the Buttigieg fiasco.

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On social media, the McKinsey-consultant-turned-Cabinet-secretary tweeted right through the holiday disaster, knowing well that many liberal outlets would never tell Democratic voters of his failure to regulate. He pretended to his credulous sycophants that an attack from the conservative Wall Street Journal op-ed page proves he’s been an “aggressive” regulator (he hasn’t — and he still hasn’t even assessed any fines against Southwest).

At the same time, many liberals — including one pundit at the Washington Post — didn’t seem to even know that the Transportation Secretary is the nation’s chief airline regulator. Their ignorance likely reflected their partisan media outlets refusing to tell them and their fellow liberals such inconvenient facts, for fear of upsetting an audience conditioned to think Democratic officials should never be criticized or pressured.

Worse, out of a sense of party loyalty, many liberals tried to defend their Saint Pete first by pretending Southwest’s mass flight cancellations were just the result of bad weather (Buttigieg himself admitted that’s not the case), and then by parroting one of the right’s anti-regulation arguments, insinuating that no government action could have possibly forestalled Southwest’s bad behavior.

To be sure, Southwest executives are a big culprit here. As The Lever reported, they paid themselves $112 million and authorized a $428 million shareholder dividend while they failed to make the computer upgrades they knew were necessary.

But those executives made these destructive decisions inside a permissive regulatory environment. The company higher-ups assessed the Transportation Department’s lax enforcement posture and presumed that in the event of a meltdown, the government punishments, if any, would be a minimal corporate rounding error.

This is precisely why Democratic attorneys general and Democratic congressional lawmakers had been demanding Buttigieg impose tougher regulations: They wanted stronger rules and sanctions that might actually deter the kind of behavior Southwest executives have been engaging in with impunity.

Those rules should have been put in place a long time ago, but part of the reason they (and so many other consumer protections) weren’t is because of the domino effect from America’s distorted information bubble.

With the media ecosystem only selectively informing partisan tribes about government malfeasance, regulators like Buttigieg know they rarely have to fear sustained, broad-based, transpartisan political consequences for failure. Consequently, CEOs know that those insulated regulators will rarely be forced to impose harsh sanctions when companies abuse millions of consumers.

“Always Be Drastically Independent, Never Be Afraid To Attack Wrong”

Fixing this nightmare requires the kind of media that Joseph Pulitzer envisioned — a media that will “never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong.”

Clearly, America doesn’t have that media — and many seem to know it, as polls show trust in media plummeting.

We’re trying to help address this problem by building something different at The Lever. Unlike so many others, we’re committed to holding the powerful accountable, regardless of which political tribe that may upset. We believe journalism should expose regulators who refuse to protect the public, not defend politicians who decline to do their jobs. And we report on government malfeasance, even though we know that doing so will enrage partisan automatons.

But as much as our reporting has managed to travel online, we are still one small reader-supported outlet trapped inside The Algorithm that is hostile to our ethos, and that makes it ever harder for us to reach an audience.

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We will continue to do the kind of reporting we do for as long as we can find enough readers to pitch in and support our work. But if most news consumers continue to bolster The Algorithm — if they continue to reward red and blue media outlets that omit inconvenient truths and only provide news they want to hear — then we should expect government officials to continue selling out the public, and we should expect more of the same consumer abuse that pervades the American economy.

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