Last April, CNN broke the news that Chris Evans—who by that time was probably as famous for his left-leaning Twitter feed as for his turn as Captain America—was launching “a website where you can hear both sides of a political issue in a succinct, digestible way.” The civic engagement project, dubbed A Starting Point, would feature videos from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and its goal, reportedly, was to reduce partisanship and promote respectful discourse.
I wasn’t really sure how it would be possible to have “respectful discourse” about putting babies in cages, nor was I thrilled to think about Evans portraying matters of life and death as fodder for a friendly debate, which would be naïve at best and deeply irresponsible at worst. So, I was glad when talk about the site died down and I could go back to my uncomplicated belief that Chris Evans is the best Chris. (Hemsworth is maybe a little too beefcake-y, Pine a little too symmetrical and Pratt too… um, into his anti-LGBTQ church and white supremacist t-shirts.)
But A Starting Point is back. Or rather, almost here. This week, Esquire dropped its April/May issue, which featured Evans looking handsome—if kind of cranky—on the cover, and a fairly long explanation of the site, which is launching sometime this spring, in the accompanying article. To be fair, his reasons for building A Starting Point are admirable. “I just want to say to people, ‘You know what’s helpful?’ That’s the beginning of the sentence. The site is not an antidote. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It’s not the solution. It’s just something I think is helpful. But one thing I’m really trying to stay away from is declaring, ‘This is what’s wrong with today,’” he told writer Mike Sager. Clearly, he’s trying to fix the ever-widening rift between Democrats and Republicans in America.
But now that we know a little bit more about how it will work, I’m even more convinced that it’s a bad idea. According to an earlier Wired feature, the site will be stocked with one-minute videos featuring Congresspeople from both parties answering questions like, what is DACA? Or, is the electoral college still necessary? Visitors will be able to navigate through dozens of answers to the same question, which Evans hopes they’ll use to draw their own conclusions informed by both parties’ opinions.
And that’s the first problem: Evans and his business partner, his Puncture co-star Mark Kassen, are relying on people to behave in a way they do not normally behave. We’ve known for ages that people generally seek out information that supports their own views. Even the most politically-minded among us don’t want to be exposed to lots of different opinions; they want to know that what they already believe is right. That means average people are unlikely to spend their time trying to synthesize dozens of conflicting opinions about any one issue, much less all the issues they should be informed about.
But hey, maybe Evans’ star power is enough to draw a devoted audience. There’d still be two other, bigger problems, though. First, the information on the site is not actually non-partisan. Every politician will answer every question in a way that aligns with their party’s stance (for example, picking and choosing what statistics to quote). Secondly, it’s not going to be as accurate as its founders think. Evans says A Starting Point will be fact-checked by a third-party, but it doesn’t sound like there will be any context offered—so how will a visitor to the site know about a congressperson’s conflicts of interest, past endorsements or voting history? That’s easy: they won’t, even though that’s very important information if you’re trying to judge credibility.
Worse, the very structure of the site encourages a false premise. As GQ pointed out when this news broke way back in 2019, “presenting an issue as a matter of two sides simply disagreeing can give the illusion that some middle point between them is actually the best approach.” But that’s not actually the case. Sometimes—like when we’re talking about babies in cages, or any number of other human rights abuses—one side is just wrong.
Like so many of you, unfortunately we’ve had to move some things around. We’re making plans and will keep you updated. I hope everyone is planning ahead and seeking reliable information. Stay safe!!— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) March 14, 2020
Initially, A Starting Point was meant to launch in March, but that clearly didn’t happen, likely due to the coronavirus. But is it totally ridiculous to hope that Evans and Kassen are also realizing the flaws in their plan? Or! Maybe they realized there’s already an industry that is focused on demystifying politics and answering questions about pressing issues? Because there is. It’s called journalism, and I wish Evans had used the money it took to film these videos, build the CMS and design the site to invest in people who are already doing this work better than he can.
Yes, there are biased media sources. But there are also lots of newsrooms turning out strong reporting and insightful, important analysis despite plummeting revenue, layoffs and all manner of uncertainty. But imagine if someone decided to support one, or several, of those newsrooms with a no-strings-attached grant. Even better if they’re at local news outlets, which are disappearing at an alarming rate—something that has serious implications for democracy.
In one of the many articles about Evans’ new project, Princeton political researcher Lauren Wright said the actor is “not taking the route that a lot of celebrities have, which is: The solution to American politics is me.” Only… he kind of is. Sure, he’s not appearing in any of the videos. But he’s conducting every single interview, promoting it pretty much endlessly and, oh yes, hinging his entire strategy on the idea that his fans will follow him to this new venture.
This is a project that centres Evans at every level—but unfortunately, he’s not the answer to the problem he’s trying to solve.
And Did You Hear About…
Jack Dorsey, of Twitter and Square fame, donating a quarter of his wealth to COVID-19 research? There’s just one thing: it’s not actually a donation.
All the Karens who are mad about the internet calling people Karen. (Let’s just get it out of the way now: Karen is not a slur, okay?)
That wild NYT story about the honeymooning couple who are stuck at a Maldives resort, and relatedly, this Twitter thread tracking Kristin Cavallari’s adventures while “sheltering-in-place” in the Bahamas. Love to see two separate stories about privileged people “stuck” in tropical countries that ignore the people who actually live there.
This Vulture as-told-to from a mysterious celebrity who feels guilty about all her privilege. Who do we think it is? (My guesses: Katharine McPhee or Catherine Zeta-Jones, assuming the subject fudged her husband’s age by a couple of years to avoid detection.)
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