Plus, a question about The New York Times' headlines.
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Today’s read: 12 minutes.
The debate over whether Washington D.C. should become a state, a question about why The New York Times headlines are bad and a wish for a happy, healthy weekend off.
A view of Washington D.C. Image by David Mark / Pixabay
In yesterday’s numbers section, I said Amy McGrath defeated Charles Booker in Kansas’s Democratic primary. She won the Kentucky primary, not the Kansas primary, and will now face Senator Mitch McConnell in the general election. This was a rather embarrassing crossing of K-letter-state wires and I hope it goes without saying that I know where McGrath was running. Speaking of McGrath: I’ve been reaching out to her campaign for an interview since March, as she’s a fascinating candidate, and I’m hoping she comes to speak to Tangle soon. Finally, I blame the error on my editors.
This is the 7th Tangle correction in its ten-month existence and the 3rd in the last month. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.
Tomorrow is a national holiday. I’m taking my first day off in months, and you should too. Staying informed can be difficult, and Tangle is supposed to make it easier, but having a better understanding of our country and the people you disagree with is a marathon — not a sprint. Enjoy some free time if you can, and I’ll be getting a good night’s sleep so I’m not confusing Kentucky and Kansas next week. I’ll be back in your inbox on Monday.
Yesterday, I published a note from Josh Brahm, the president of the Equal Rights Institute, a pro-life group. A pro-choice reader named Maggie from Denver wrote in with her own take on Josh’s feedback to my writing (it’s a feedback loop!). I’ve put Maggie’s response in a separate Word document because it includes some formatting (where she crosses out and replaces things Josh wrote) I can’t run here, and also just in the interest of space. Still, to be as balanced as possible, I wanted to share it. You can read her take by clicking here.
- Seattle police dismantled the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone yesterday, the autonomous area occupied by protesters and designed to be a police-free zone. Two shootings over the last few weeks led to an outcry that resulted in Mayor Jenny Durkan sending the police in. “More than three dozen people were arrested, charged with failure to disperse, obstruction, assault and unlawful weapon possession,” The Associated Press reported.
- The Los Angeles City Council voted to cut $150 million dollars from the LAPD budget, a reduction of about eight percent. The money will be re-routed to community programs, including a youth summer jobs program. It’s also expected to reduce the police force from 9,988 to about 9,757 next summer. “This is a step forward, supporting minority communities in ways in which they deserve – with respect, dignity and an even playing field,” Councilman Curren Price said.
- Russian voters approved a constitutional amendment yesterday that allows President Vladimir Putin to stay in power through 2036. Putin has already ruled for two decades and the win was declared a “resounding victory.” Campaign literature explaining the reform made little mention of its real purpose, instead claiming the vote was to return to old fashioned family values, like heterosexual marriages. Putin’s “popularity is genuine,” CNN reports, but he benefits from a “servile state media that allows for little open debate on domestic politics.”
- The United States House of Representatives passed a bill that will penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new “security law” in Hong Kong. It’s the United States’ first effort to stymie China’s power grab in Hong Kong. The security law has been condemned by the U.S. and other western countries as an anti-democratic effort to silence dissent in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong region. China has warned the U.S. to stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs, saying it would resolutely and forcefully resist.
- The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 11.1% in June as the U.S. regained some 4.8 million jobs. The new report doesn’t reflect the most recent closures due to COVID-19, but does show people are “getting back to work faster than anticipated,” The Wall Street Journal reported. The U.S. labor market is still operating with 15 million fewer jobs than it had in February before COVID-19 broke out in the states.
What D.C. is talking about.
D.C. is talking about D.C. (I’ve been waiting to say that). Late last week, House Democrats passed a new bill that would make Washington D.C. a state. The bill would shrink the federal capital to a much smaller area around the White House, Capitol Building and Supreme Court. Then the rest of the area would be admitted as a new state called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth (named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass). The state would get two senators and a representative in the House. The bill passed by 232-180 vote.
Yesterday, Senate Republicans opposed the bill during a virtual hearing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up for a vote and President Trump pledged to veto it if it ever made it to his desk.
The issue of D.C. statehood is not new, but this is the first time it’s come close to changing since 1993, the last time there was a vote on D.C. statehood. Because Washington D.C. is not part of Maryland or Virginia, the 700,000 D.C. residents — despite outnumbering Vermont and Wyoming — have no voting representation in the federal government. D.C. license plates have bemoaned this reality for years, reading “Taxation without representation.”
However, making D.C. a state would be difficult through Congressional action. Unless Democrats abolish the filibuster (which effectively allows 41 of 100 Senators to stop a bill from becoming law), or Senate Democrats absolutely crush Republicans in 2020, it’s unlikely they’ll make D.C. a state in Congress. That means they need to amend the constitution, which requires three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment. Again: unlikely. The last time a constitutional amendment was tried was in the 1970s, and just 16 states supported it. In 2019, a Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans said they thought D.C. shouldn't become a state and just 29% favor the idea. That’s in line with past polls dating back decades, including a 1989 Washington Post poll that found almost an identical result.
What the right is saying.
The right’s argument against D.C. statehood is twofold: First, D.C. as a state runs counter to the founders’ vision of America. Second, this is a clear attempt by Democrats to gain power in the Senate, knowing full well any D.C. state would be overwhelmingly liberal.
The founders made the first part clear in the Constitution, calling explicitly for a national capital that is not part of a state and not treated as a state. Instead, they wanted a unique enclave — just as D.C. has become — that’s exclusively under the authority of Congress. It’s meant to be neutral and represent an area where all states can meet on “equal footing.” The bottom line: if Democrats want to make D.C. a state, they need to revive and ratify the 1978 District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment (in addition to the 23rd amendment to the constitution which, they ratified in March of 1961, when Ohio became the last state to agree and finally gave D.C. residents the ability to vote in presidential elections). This requires three-quarters (38) of the states signing on.
“The District of Columbia — our national capital district, named for Christopher Columbus — has only once in its history, barely in 1972, given 20 percent of its presidential vote to a Republican,” the editors at the National Review argued. “Its local government has been wholly dominated by the Democratic Party for all of living memory. Agitation for D.C. statehood is about partisan advantage, no more and no less.”
Those editors argued that it’s “difficult to see how the people of D.C. are oppressed, easy to see how their influence is already disproportionate,” and easier yet to imagine how a local government official overseeing a state surrounding our federal government would yield too much power. Arguments of the past do not apply to the D.C. of today: it is no longer majority-minority, its median income is 136.7% of the national average (higher than any state) and its suburbs are “uniquely recession-proof” due to the overwhelming majority of its residents working in government.
In The Week, Matthew Walter took a similar tone, arguing that we would end up questioning why the New York City’s and Los Angeles’s of the world did not have statehood, too.
“If admitted to the Union as a state in its own right, [DC] would not only be far and away the smallest state in geographical terms; it would have the third lowest population but the highest median household income and unprecedented influence over the workings of the federal government,” he wrote. “It would also be the only state with no rural population. It would be, constitutionally speaking, a freak, an arbitrary creation that would forever alter the meaning of statehood itself.”
What the left is saying.
The left’s argument centers around two issues at the forefront of today’s conversation: voting rights and racial justice. First, D.C. residents only got the right to vote in presidential elections after a long and arduous battle to pass the 23rd amendment in 1961, and were only allowed to elect their own mayor starting in 1973. This is the logical next step. Second, the city was majority black for much of its history, with no federal representation. While it’s now about 46% white and 46% black, many residents are still completely left out of the conversation.
“D.C.’s population is larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont; it pays more federal taxes than 22 states; its budget is bigger than those of 12 states; its Triple-A bond rating is higher than those of 35 states; and its sons and daughters willingly go off to serve and fight for their country,” The Washington Post editorial board argued. “Yet it has no voice in Congress.”
“If there is any distinction to be made,” the board argued, “it is that about 45 percent of D.C. residents are black, a higher share than in any state. That puts the GOP’s opposition to giving the District a voice in Congress squarely in line with its efforts to disenfranchise black people across the country as a way to hold on to power.”
Paul Waldman was merciless in his call for D.C. statehood, saying “if anyone charges that Democrats want statehood only for partisan reasons, they should reply: So what?”
“If D.C. voted reliably Republican, it would have been a state by now. Anyone who says otherwise is either fooling themselves or just lying,” Waldman said. “Democrats need to get over their fear that voters will punish them for being ruthless, and embrace their inner [Mitch] McConnell. What do you think he would do if there were two guaranteed Republican Senate seats just waiting to be created?”
Here’s a little history lesson, courtesy of Ian Millhiser of Vox: in 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed legislation admitting Nevada into the union as a state when it was a barely populated desert with a few thousand people, because most of the people there were Republican. Not long after, President Ulysses Grant, also a Republican, signed legislation admitting Colorado and its 40,000 residents to become a state because it too was dominated by Republicans. Then, in 1888, Republicans defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland and “celebrated by splitting the GOP-dominated Dakota into two territories and admitting both of them as states.” Today, there are still two Dakotas and four senate seats because of the Republicans from 1888.
All this is to say: the argument that D.C. statehood would be a Senate power grab is not an argument that should stop it from happening. Americans being granted their rights to representation should have nothing to do with their party affiliation. And even if Democrats managed to secure D.C. as the 51st state, red, rural, Republican-dominated states are still going to be far more represented than more populated Democratic areas. By 2040, one University of Virginia study estimates that half the country will live in eight states and 30% of the population will control 68% of the U.S. Senate. So the “over-representation of Democrats” argument is simply laughable.
The right has also made some dreadful, ugly, stupid comments over D.C. statehood. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) embarrassed himself last week by arguing that Muriel Bowser and former Mayor Marion Barry, both Black, would not be trustworthy enough to be governor of a new state. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) suggested that outside D.C., “where the real people are,” nobody wants D.C. to be a state. Newsflash: the 700,000 people living in Washington D.C. are very real. And they deserve representation.
But that doesn’t mean independent statehood is the answer.
The right’s best arguments, and the ones I can’t shake, concern the “freakish” nature of D.C.’s statehood. The city is not what it was 40 or 20 or even ten years ago. Its economy and citizenry are dominated by government employees, political campaigns, government contractors and lobbyists. The National Review editors make a strong point about the state boundaries laid out, as they would be disproportionately rich and recession-proof, unlike the rest of the country it’d be voting alongside.
Then, too, is the outsized power a D.C. governor would suddenly have. While I’m not one to blindly worship the wisdom of men who lived 250 years ago, the founders’ vision of a neutral ground for federal representatives to live and work and govern does seem wise. It’s easy to imagine how the Democratic governor of a D.C. state could wield his or her power over federal government officials, threatening to raise taxes, change laws, launch investigations or otherwise establish unfair leverage over the residents in those states who also happen to be members of the federal government.
And yet, it’s undeniable that the 700,000 residents of D.C. are being disenfranchised. It’s also undeniable that that city has been, for a long time, majority-minority, deeply segregated and full of structural racism. There’s no clean solution to this but the best one would be to reincorporate the district into Maryland, where the city’s residents would have Senators, House representatives and federal representation. They’d even get their own state attorney and could name themselves Douglass County, as one D.C. resident who supports this idea has advocated. It’d be much like how Alexandria went through a “retrocession” in the 19th century, re-joining Virginia after 58 years as the nation’s capital city.
This possibility is one the left seems to be steadfastly avoiding. The one place I did see it addressed was in this Los Angeles Times editorial, which made the following argument:
“That would, theoretically, take D.C. from having no voice to having a minor voice in a state with an already established political base. But reincorporating the District into Maryland would usher its residents into a different kind of second-class citizenship. They would be like the new kids who transferred into high school halfway through and have no say in the existing power structure.”
If D.C. residents became part of Maryland and lived with a “minor voice in a state with an already established political base,” they would be like every other major city in every other state in America. Cities of comparable size to D.C. like Denver, Seattle, Boston, El Paso, Nashville and Detroit all live at the whims of state governors and their federal representatives, too.
The LA Times’ argument defeats itself, in a way, as it makes the case that D.C. residents should be granted something more than what other cities get, simply because it is unfairly underrepresented now. Two wrongs won’t right this ship and that argument doesn’t pass the sniff test for me. A little new kid on the block syndrome is no reason to pass up representation, and 100 years from now D.C. will be no less a part of Maryland than Alexandria is now a part of Virginia. Expanding Maryland to include the majority of D.C.’s residents, while leaving the White House and Capitol areas behind, seems like a fair solution.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: Reader questions are one of my favorite parts of Tangle. You can ask a reader question, or chime in with any feedback at all, by simply replying to this email.
Q: I saw the NYT headline that said “Senate Democrats Plan to Block GOP Police Bill, Stalling Overhaul” and it reminded me of countless other actively misleading headlines that the NYT has run that paint Democrats in a negative light. It's very possible that they have a similar number of "afactual" headlines that go against Republicans — though I sincerely doubt it — but even if so, what do you make of this kind of nonsense? It's an undeniable pattern with them. I'm not criticizing the rank and file journalists, just the headline-writers and NYT leadership. The NYT has had so many instances of this that it cannot be a coincidence. The Washington Post, for example, has managed to stay away from such a pervasive pattern — what is going on?
— Jeff, Aston, PA
Tangle: I also find The New York Times’ headline language to be quite frustrating sometimes. As anyone who has read this newsletter for a while knows, when someone asks “where to get their news” I often suggest The Big Three: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. I do this because they have the best, highest-paid journalists and thus make the fewest mistakes and are under the most pressure to “get things right.”
They’re not perfect, though, and the evidence of their “bias” or “lean” is obvious in the fact that the three can cover the exact same story but write it completely differently. Despite that, though, I think The New York Times largely produces incredible, valuable and fair journalism, even if it’s published through a lefty lens.
And yet, it does seem to have a habit of publishing headlines that infuriate the masses. I will push back a bit on your assertion, though, that these headlines disproportionately paint Democrats in a negative light. Or at least that The Times does. In fact, about half the country would vehemently disagree with you, given that the Times is widely seen as a left-leaning outlet in 2020. Republicans often complain that The New York Times and other outlets consistently frame Republicans as “seizing” or “pouncing” on mistakes Democrats make, instead of framing Democrats as having made a mistake (this argument has been refuted and de-constructed).
The Times has also had a number of headline incidents that the right has decried, from its framing of dictators in obituaries to its framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some, like The New York Post’s Kyle Smith, have contended that the liberal “mob” now makes The Times headlines, not the Times editors.
Perhaps the most notable instance of a New York Times headline blunder was when it ran a “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” headline. That drew huge blowback, even from The Washington Post, as it came after what many people saw as Trump equating racists with protesters in Charlottesville, along with his many incendiary and racist tweets about certain minority groups and members of Congress.
At first, my suspicion was that The New York Times was simply publishing more stories because it had a bigger staff, and thus was more likely to make mistakes. That’s not true, apparently, as The Washington Post publishes around 500 stories and videos a day compared to The New York Times’ 200-300 (part of the Post’s advantage is because it publishes more “wire” stories, or stories from other publications).
Then I found this story, from 2017, where The Times explained how its headlines are produced, which is worth reading for any American. Most people don’t know that journalists don’t write their own headlines, editors and headline writers do. It’s one of the most infuriating parts of being a reporter, as you often lose control of the first impression readers will get of your story (it’s also, unexpectedly, been one of my greatest joys of producing Tangle: no more headline writers!).
What struck me about their headline writing explanation is that it emphasizes a few things I think contribute to the infuriating nature of their headlines: 1) they try to create tension, or make two elements of the headline at odds with each other. This, The Times reasons, creates a “mystery that can only be solved by reading further.”
It also produces headlines like “Trump’s Tweet Was Condemned as Racist. His Response: No, They’re The Racists.” This was after Trump suggested Democratic congresswomen of color “go back” to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” The representatives he singled out, with the exception of Ilhan Omar, were all women of color born in America. Suggesting they “go back” to places they were not “from” is pretty much textbook racism, and Trump’s tweet did not need to be framed as having tension. This is a great example of how The Times fails.
2) The Times also revealed that using a “startling quotation” can be “effective.” This produces headlines like “Everything I’ve Done Is 100% Proper, Trump Says of Russia Inquiry.” Again: a really, really bad headline that simply elevates something that isn’t true (nobody — not even the most staunch Trump supporters in Congress — suggested “everything” Trump did was proper, so there’s no need to single out his own defense of himself).
These two headline rules that The Times employs — startling quotes and creating tension with phrases that are at odds with each other — seem like the source of a huge chunk of their bad headlines. All I can conclude from this is that The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal simply have a different mindset about headline writing, or a readership that is less prone to outrage over a headline (sorry, but I do think this is part of it).
Ultimately, headline writing is incredibly hard. When a reporter produces a 3,000-word story with all sorts of nuance, caveats and quotes, making a representative headline out of that story in 10 words or less is daunting and difficult. I’ve written plenty of my own headlines and it’s not easy, so I sympathize with the headline writers at the most read paper on the planet.
That being said, I do think it’s clear the WSJ and WaPo avoid the same kinds of headline writing tactics that get The Times in trouble. I also think The Times perception as a left-leaning paper of record could be part of the whole equation: maybe the headline writers are over-correcting by trying to bring balance and tension to stories that are less nuanced? Maybe they are catering to a more right-leaning audience? I’m not sure. But it’s done them no favors and I agree it continues to hurt their credibility.
A story that matters.
Drug overdoses are soaring during the coronavirus pandemic. Suspected overdoses jumped 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May, according to a Washington Post report on ambulance teams, hospitals and police. “Nationwide, federal and local officials are reporting alarming spikes in drug overdoses — a hidden epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic,” The Washington Post reports. “Emerging evidence suggests that the continued isolation, economic devastation and disruptions to the drug trade in recent months are fueling the surge.” Because of how slowly our government collects data, the definitive numbers on this increase could be months away, but a real time tracker of drug-related overdoses indicates the rate is still increasing. Click.
- $580,600. The cost per couple to attend a fundraiser for Trump’s campaign and the RNC.
- 2%. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden among investors with household ownership of at least $10,000 in equities or mutual funds.
- 7%. Incumbent Democrat Gary Peters’ lead over Republican John James in the Michigan Senate race.
- 9%. Democrat Mark Kelly’s lead over Republican incumbent Martha McSally in the Arizona Senate race.
- 10%. Democrat Cal Cunningham’s lead over Republican incumbent Thom Tillis in the North Carolina Senate race.
- 17%. The percent of Americans who consider China an ally or friendly to the U.S.
- 65%. The percentage of Americans who consider China an enemy or unfriendly to the U.S.
- 6%. The percentage of Americans who consider Iran an ally or friendly to the U.S.
- 76%. The percentage of Americans who consider Iran an enemy or unfriendly to the U.S.
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Have a nice day.
Two parents in California have launched a “Common Sense Camp” for their 12 and 17-year-old kids. With sleep-away and day camps canceled across the U.S. this summer, the at-home curriculum is eight weeks of learning about the real world — and how to be a grown-up. The weekly curriculum includes “Confidence in the kitchen” with lessons about how to cut up and cook food, home repairs with lessons about changing light bulbs and other basic fixes, and even financial classes — like saving money, operating a checking or savings account, and how to use a debit card. Oona Hanson, the mom behind the idea, says it’s something she and her husband have joked about their kids needing for a long time. Now, the curriculum is available online. Click.