Suddenly, the Postal Service is the biggest story in America. Donald Trump’s latest “assault on our democracy” jockeyed for the lead theme on the first night of the virtual Democratic National Convention. Multiple speakers used the phrase “defund the post office” to describe efforts by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy – the latest in a long line of Trump acolytes occupying the Oil Can Harry role in news coverage – to pull a seeming postal slowdown.
Hashtags like #SaveThePostOffice are flying around social media. John Ratzenberger, the actor who played beer-drinking mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers, recorded an Instagram video on behalf of the beleaguered service. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis described seeing a man wearing a “red cap” with “white letters” towing a postal truck away made her wonder:
Conspiracy? Outright attempt at stealing the election by denying the access of the USPS?
Pictures of mailboxes being moved or warehoused behind fencing rocketed around the Internet. Another tweet making the rounds looked like a graphic made by the postal workers’ union, and was retweeted by the likes of Hillary Clinton:
The graphic wasn’t made by the postal union, but whatever. The post office’s journey from America’s most serially-ignored public institution to subject of a massive international sympathy campaign – the U.S.P.S. is currently the world’s largest baby trapped at the bottom of the world’s largest well – is the latest bizarro development of the Trump years, when news coverage has devolved into a never-ending procession of moral panics, some real, some less so. Which is this?
In April, Trump called the U.S.P.S. a “joke” and tied a $10 billion emergency loan to a request that the it quadruple prices on packages, ostensibly as a way of sticking it to Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and the “fake news” Washington Post. I hate Bezos as much as the next red-blooded American, but Trump’s comments ended up mostly serving as kindling for a later national wig-out.
On May 9th, the Postal Service’s Board of Governors announced that DeJoy, the CEO of a company called New Breed Logistics and a major Trump donor, would become the new Postmaster General. Almost immediately, DeJoy began implementing a series of moves that seemed designed to reduce the efficiency of the post office, from removing 20% of letter sorting machines to moving or removing large quantities of mailboxes. Then on July 29th, the U.S.P.S. appears to have sent letter to multiple states warning that mail-in ballots might not be received on time to be counted, because the states’ deadlines are incompatible with the postal service’s “delivery standards.”
This was followed by Trump going on Fox and announcing he was unwilling to spend money to keep funding the Post Office as part of a Covid-19 relief package, saying, “They want $25 billion… if they don't get [it], that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because you they're not equipped to have it."
Even by Trumpian standards, this was a semi-crazy thing to say out loud. It gave outlets like The Week the ammo to say Trump was “sandbagging the Post Office to prevent Americans from voting by mail.” The logic is simple: about 72 percent of Democrats say they are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail, compared to 22 percent of Republicans. A slowdown of the post office means a torpedo in the hull of the Biden campaign.
By this week, images of mailboxes became synonymous with voter suppression, and the postal service supplanted the Muslim ban, “kids in cages,” Muellermania, the Brett Kavanaugh fiasco, the campaign to save the job of Jeff Sessions, the Ukraine whistleblower, and a dozen other episodes to become the latest all-consuming Media Fire That Never Dies.
In the Trump years, the news has been covered as an ongoing emergency, borrowing from techniques pioneered by Fox News and perfected through episodes like Benghazi. That story was blown into a frenzy for years, as Fox created the impression that litigating every detail of the Libyan mission narrative was at least 95% of what the average person should be caring about at any given moment.
CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post are now following the same script with the Trump panics. The pattern is consistent. Day one involves spectacular claims of corruption. By day two, placard-bearing protesters are hitting the streets (“You can’t fire the truth!” a protester in Times Square proclaimed in the Sessions affair), celebrities are taping video appeals, and experts are quoted suggesting Trump is already guilty of crime: OPEN TREASON in Helsinki, “bribery” in Ukraine, or in this case, election interference (some are already speculating that Trump could get a year for the mail slowdown).
.@realdonaldtrump derides reports with which he disagrees as “fake news,” then buys the Russian narrative hook, line, sinker, pole and boat. https://t.co/TGHurpVDKy— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) July 16, 2018
An early look at Tuesday's front... pic.twitter.com/BXsoZsIT4B
Almost always, by day three or four, key claims are walked back: maybe there was no direct “promise” to a foreign leader, or the CIA doesn’t have “direct evidence” of Russian bounties, or viral photos of children in cages at the border were from 2014, not 2017. By then it doesn’t matter. A panic is a panic, and there are only two reportable angles in today’s America, total guilt and total innocence. Even when the balance of the information would still look bad or very bad for Trump, news outlets commit to leaving out important background, so as not to complicate the audience response.
That’s the situation with this story, where the postal slowdown is probably more serious than other Trump scandals, but people pushing it are also not anxious to remind readers of their own histories on the issue.
Take the New York Times, currently cranking out about a feature an hour about the U.S.P.S. Paul Krugman is now telling us “The Postal Service facilitates citizen inclusion. That’s why Trump hates it.” Apparently, until recently, all decent Americans had bottomless affection for the communal spirit of the Postal Service and supported it without hesitation. Yet in April, 2012, in the middle of the Obama presidency, the Times ran a very different house editorial.
The paper argued mounting losses necessitated swift action to reduce costs. The Times worried that “lawmakers in both houses” would “procrastinate as usual,” and blasted the Senate for devising a bill that “timorously aims at part-time ‘downsizing,’ not closing, lightly used post offices.” The paper added that decreased revenue thanks to email could mean losses of “more than $20 billion a year by 2016,” and hoped that, so long as “courage trumps procrastination,” the U.S.P.S. could be granted the “flexibility of a modern business.”
If you look back, you’ll find the overwhelming consensus in both the Bush and Obama years was that a fully-staffed post office was a money pit, and “flexibility” was needed to allow the service to budget-slash its way back to relevance in the Internet age.
For a significant period – between the mid-2000s and the Trump years – it was hard to find a big-name politician who would talk about the post office at all. An exception was Bernie Sanders, whose office labored to get major news media organizations interested (I got some of those calls) in an alternative narrative about the post office.
During the Bush years, the U.S.P.S. was put on the “high risk” list by the General Accounting Office, headed at the time by a future Pete Peterson foundation CEO named David Walker who would later come out in favor of privatizing the post office. The GAO recommended cuts and other measures to address the “rapidly deteriorating” financial situation of the U.S.P.S.
But when an analysis by the Office of Personnel Management was released in November, 2002, it turned out the U.S.P.S. had a “more positive picture” than was believed. The U.S.P.S. was massively over-paying into its retirement fund, headed for a $70 billion surplus. Then in 2003 the Postal Pension Funding Reform Act was passed, which among other things forced the U.S.P.S. to pay the pension obligations of employees who had prior military service.
A few years after that, in 2006, the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” passed with overwhelming support in both houses, forcing a series of incredible changes, the biggest being a requirement that the U.S.P.S. fully fund 75 years worth of benefits for its employees. The provision cost $5.5 billion per year and was unique among government agencies. “No one prefunds at more than 30%,” said Anthony Vegliante, the service's executive vice president, at the time.
The bill also prevented the post office from offering “nonpostal services” as a way to compete financially. This barred it from establishing a postal banking service, but also nixed creative ideas like Internet cafes, copy services, notaries, even allowing postal workers to offer to wrap Christmas presents. Coupled with the pre-funding benefit mandate and other pension changes, this paralyzed the post office financially, making it look ripe for reform.
By 2012, those took the form of calls for the U.S.P.S. to eliminate 3,700 post offices (a first step toward eventually closing as many as 15,000) and 250 mail processing centers. Sanders, along with other Senators with large rural constituencies like Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill, managed to change the bill and save a lot of the mail processing centers. The Senate that year also cut the amount of required pre-funding for benefits and began refunding the U.S.P.S. for about $11 billion in overpayment for retirement costs.
A few years after that, in 2015, the Post Office Inspector General issued a blistering report about CBRE, the company that had served as sole real estate broker to the U.S.P.S. from 2011 on. The report found that CBRE had been selling and/or leasing post office properties at below-market prices, often to clients of CBRE – a company chaired by Richard Blum, the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. This chronic problem had a financial impact on the Postal Service, and would have become a much bigger problem had the U.S.P.S. been forced earlier on to sell off a massive quantity of infrastructure through that broker, as originally hoped.
The thread running through all of these stories was that panic over the financial condition of the U.S.P.S. was often a significantly artificial narrative, caused by a bipartisan mix of stupidity, greed, and corruption. This high-functioning civil service organization, which provided tremendous value to the public through everything from subsidized news deliveries in the Pony Express years to the well-maintained public meeting places built in remote rural locations, has not had real backers in either party for most of the last thirty or forty years.
None of this means the Trump-DeJoy story isn’t serious. It just means that Trump is not the first person to try to gut the U.S. Postal Service. Going back decades, it’s been stuck with impossible funding mandates, used as a piggy bank by both parties in congress (which refused to let it stop making massive retirement overpayments for fear of the “adverse” impact on the federal budget), artificially prevented from expanding or innovating by lobbyists, and ripped off by connected contractors.
Combine that with the maddening sloppiness of these panic stories – one wild report after another of mailboxes ripped from the streets “right before our eyes” in a “plan to steal the election” turns out later to be another old photo or a shot of a routine maintenance operation – and it becomes increasingly difficult for nonpartisan news audiences to know what they’re dealing with.
OK so everyone has seen the "viral" photo going around of the piles of mailboxes in Wisconsin being used as evidence that Trump is sabotaging USPS. Problem is, they have been there for years: Hartford Finishing Inc. powder coats and refurbishes the old mailboxes. (1/8) pic.twitter.com/HQpAprWxoK— Gary He (@garyhe) August 17, 2020
Is this unprecedented corruption, something a little worse than normal, or just the usual undisguised? If press outlets never dial back excesses, we may miss it when we’re actually supposed to panic.