Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, September 16, 2017 12:56 pm

ESPN, journalism, and what the network owes people of color

The question isn’t why Jemele Hill said what she said. The question is why ESPN isn’t saying the same thing.

ESPN, which is not known for having the most perspicacious and nimble PR department, got into hot water again this week for its treatment of Sports Center host Jemele Hill. And the way in which it handled the situation raises some questions about ESPN’s perceived and actual roles in our media culture and what it owes the people, predominantly people of color, who make ESPN possible.

It started on Sept. 11, when Hill tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” She elaborated on that tweet here, here and here.

Now, this is a fact, as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post points out in a short but damning bill of particulars:

  • As a candidate for president, Donald Trump retweeted bogus statistics massively exaggerating the rate at which blacks murder whites. When asked about that move by then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump replied, “Bill, I didn’t tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert. … Am I going to check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people @realDonaldTrump. All it was is a retweet. It wasn’t from me.”

  • As a very public private citizen, Trump appealed for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York after the Central Park rape case made headlines. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” wrote Trump in a 1989 ad that ran in various newspapers. The “Central Park Five” — a group of black and Latino teens — were later convicted of the crime, and years later exonerated. After the Central Park Five reached a settlement with the city in 2014, Trump wrote an opinion piece calling it a “disgrace.”

  • As a publicity-seeking reality TV star, Trump led the “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama, one of the most racist escapades in this century. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump said in September 2016, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

  • As a brilliant self-taught campaign strategist, Trump said at his kickoff event, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Pressed later by CNN’s Don Lemon about the offensiveness of those comments, Trump responded, “Somebody’s doing the raping, Don.”

One could question whether it’s appropriate for Hill, who co-hosts a sports show that generally doesn’t touch on politics, to raise that point, at least on company time, but, yes, it’s a fact.

That fact notwithstanding, the right-wing media Wurlitzer picked up on the item and started demanding that Hill be fired. ESPN publicly went only so far as to issue a statement Tuesday saying only that

The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.

But Hill’s fact drew the attention of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who declared on Wednesday that Hill’s remarks constituted “a fireable offense” (video).

(Fun fact: Title 18, Subsection 227 of the U.S. Code makes what Sanders did a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. She should go to prison. But I digress.)

While there’s no evidence in the public record that ESPN has threatened to fire Hill, we do know that the network intended to substitute for her in her regular 6 p.m. timeslot on Wednesday. And in a move that’s cynical even by the standards of cable networks, they tried to find another person of color to replace her.

At 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, just three hours after the White House encouraged ESPN to fire her, Jemele Hill sat next to her co-host Michael Smith on the set of their daily SportsCenter show and, after a warm welcome to her live broadcast audience, began discussing the Cleveland Indians’ historic 21-game winning streak.

Hill — who was caught in the middle of a firestorm of controversy that began on Monday night when she tweeted that President Donald Trump was a white supremacist, which escalated when ESPN issued a statement on Tuesday reprimanding her comments and which exploded when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Hill’s tweets were a “fireable offense” — was calm and composed throughout the hour, and the show went on as usual.

However, two sources familiar with the situation told ThinkProgress that this was not the original plan.

ESPN originally tried to keep Hill off the air on Wednesday evening, but Smith refused to do the show without her, the sources said. Both sources also said that producers reached out to two other black ESPN hosts, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to ask them to serve as fill-ins for the show — but Eaves and Duncan did not agree to take the place of Hill and Smith, either. …

Faced with the possibility of having to replace Hill and Smith with white co-hosts, the sources said, ESPN then called Hill and asked her to come back on her show.

(It’s worth noting that while Hill has apologized for putting ESPN in the position she did, she has stood by her remarks about Trump.)

Now, given a nascent revolt by announcers of color, one would think ESPN might rethink its position on this issue. And one would be wrong, even though I would argue that they should.

Because here’s the thing: Although most people see sports as entertainment — which is what the “E” in ESPN stands for — ESPN has fashioned and marketed itself as a journalism outlet. It also has executed some respectable journalism, too, particularly, although not exclusively, on the show “Outside the Lines.” And it takes itself seriously enough as a journalism outlet to have created the position of public editor. Typically, in a news outlet, the public editor, or ombudsman, advocates for the reader/viewer, seeking answers to questions that audiences have about coverage and explaining why the outlet does what it does from a journalistic standpoint.

The incumbent at ESPN is Jim Brady, and to judge from his tweets this week, he has not covered himself with glory on this issue (and he didn’t improve heading into the weekend). Give him credit for engaging deeply with his audience, but he’s trying to have it both way on the question of journalism and even on the question of whether Trump’s a white supremacist.

And much as it might like to, ESPN can’t have it both ways. ESPN’s whole existence is based on athletes, particularly in major sports like football, basketball and baseball, who are disproportionately people of color. It can’t call itself a journalism outfit, and don the trappings of one, and then ignore societal conditions that place those people at a disadvantage, particularly when the president of the United States might be the most formidable obstacle to addressing those conditions.

Yeah, there probably are a lot of racist white people who watch ESPN, and with its audience already dwindling because of such factors as cable cutting and concern about brain injury in football, the network obviously doesn’t want to contribute further to the fall-off. But those people aren’t the only ones in ESPN’s audience; doesn’t it owe something to its audiences of color? Moreover, sometimes journalism means telling your audience something they need to know but don’t want to hear.

And yes, ESPN’s a business, and it doesn’t want to alienate advertisers when its audiences, which set the rates advertisers pay it, are dwindling. But you know what? Sometimes, if you’re a journalism outlet, you have to publish stuff your advertisers don’t like. Tough; they don’t get a vote in the newsroom (or, at least, they shouldn’t).

I don’t expect ESPN to report on, say, the crisis with North Korea. But many stories out there — immigration and race relations (which are related), to name just two — offer ESPN a way to carry out its journalistic mission while remaining true to its sports mission. It can report on the effects of trends and retrograde policies on athletes, coaches, and audiences of color. It can look into what led Las Vegas police to arrest and threaten to kill Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett when he and others in a crowd were fleeing gunshots. It can resist political pressure. As a network, it can do its job in a way that would lead Jemele Hill to think that anything she could add on Twitter would be superfluous. And if it’s going to continue to think of itself and market itself as being in the journalism bidness, that’s what it needs to do.

 

 

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:20 pm

Rachel Maddow and Trump’s 2005 tax return (redux)

Immediately after Rachel Maddow’s show ended last night on MSNBC, I jotted down a few thoughts on Facebook, which follow:

1) Maddow tweeted she had “returns,” plural. That implied she had both full returns and multiple years. Neither was true.

2) We learned not much substantive from one year’s 2-page Form 1040. Without the schedules, we don’t know WHERE he got his income, which is much the more important question.

3) The long intro at the top of the show ground on a lot of people’s nerves, including mine, and for people who don’t watch Maddow regularly it probably was almost unwatchable. But she often has long intros that serve valuable purposes. In this case, it was valuable for two reasons: to provide background to low-info viewers, and to suggest future avenues of inquiry for other reporters.

All of that said, this was a 30-minute segment that someone unwisely stretched into an hour.

4) It’s a start. It’s a bloody start.

I had more thoughts, but I also wanted to go to bed, so I did. The additional thoughts follow, in no particular order:

While I’m sure MSNBC scored high if not record viewership on Maddow’s show last night, it did so at the cost of a big chunk of its credibility. It grossly overhyped what it had in terms of substance. Although Maddow (or the $25,000-a-year production assistant who actually runs her Twitter account) tweeted only twice before the show started, as noted in Point 1 above, even she implied that she had more substance than she really did. Maddow’s unspoken schtick has been that her show isn’t like the rest of cable news. That schtick took some big hits below the waterline last night.

Although I am not confident that Johnston’s source for his copy of the Form 1040 was Trump himself, as Johnston suggested it might have been, the two pages almost certainly were sent to him with Trump’s knowledge. (Johnston explains here how he got the return.) It smacked of what the Watergate-era Nixon folks called a “limited, modified hangout,” meaning they would admit to the absolute minimum truth that they could admit to without further damaging themselves. Because, after all, what did we learn about this? Trump earned about $153 million and paid about $37 million in taxes. Those numbers aren’t abnormal for people presumed to be rich. So for a lot of low-info viewers and voters, this release was the equivalent of Trump saying, “Here, see? There’s no THERE there! Lying media! Fake news! Thorax!” And a lot of those people will believe that. (More in a bit on what else we learned, most of which will fly over the heads of low-info viewers despite Maddow’s best efforts.)

Johnston’s own reporting on the Form 1040 is much less breathless and more substantive. Among his findings and observations:

  • “Donald Trump was paid that year like a member of the 0.001%, but he paid taxes like the 99%. And by at least one measure, he paid like the bottom 50%.”
  • “There is one clear expense, however, that can be discerned because portions of Trump’s 1995 state tax returns became public last fall. Trump got out of repaying nearly $1 billion he borrowed for his failed casino business. When you don’t repay a loan Congress says that money is income and you owe taxes on it immediately. Instead, Trump made use of an abusive tax shelter that Congress soon closed to newcomers. Like magic, the tax shelter converted what should have been a tax bill of about $360 million into future tax breaks. Ten years later, on his 2005 return, Trump was still saving tax dollars thanks to that tax shelter.”

Johnston also finds that the only reason Trump paid as much in income taxes as he did was because of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which he has said he wants Congress to abolish — a move from which he would benefit directly. And, he says, the return tells us more about the $916 million tax write-off contained in his previously-released 1995 state tax return — the write-off that led to suspicions that Trump had paid no income taxes for 18 years thereafter. Johnston explains it like this:

To understand the Trump tax returns it’s important to realize that America has two income tax systems. The regular income tax was supplemented by a parallel tax system, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, called the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

How these two systems interact is central to understanding the Trumps’ taxes.

Viewed in terms of the regular federal income tax system, here is what Trump did:

Trump reported $152.7 million of income. He also reported $103.2 million of negative income, the remainder of the roughly $918 million tax shelter he bought in 1995. That deal was disclosed earlier in three summary pages of his 1995 Connecticut, New York and New Jersey state income-tax returns.

That Trump had only $103 million of his $918 million tax shelter left in 2005 also tells us something about his past income. Using up the other $815 million of negative income in the tax shelter indicates that he earned an average of $81.5 million annually during the 10 years from 1995 through 2004.

Deducting the negative income lowered Trump’s adjusted gross income or AGI to $48.6 million. AGI is the last figure on the bottom of the front page of a federal tax return.

From that, the Trumps took $17 million in itemized deductions, which are not specified. That left  $31.6 million of taxable income.

The Trumps paid just $5.3 million of regular federal income tax. Measured against their cash income of almost $153 million their federal income tax rate was 3.48%.

That figure is slightly lower than the tax rate paid by the poorest half of Americans. The half of taxpayers whose income was less than $33,485 that year paid 3.51% of their money in federal income taxes.

Trump’s total federal tax bill was larger, though, because of the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

The President, in writing, has called for eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. Now we know one reason why—he lives like a king, but wants to pay taxes like a Walmart cashier.

All high-income Americans must calculate both their regular income tax and their AMT income tax and pay whichever is larger.

Most of that $103 million of negative income was ignored under the AMT, which meant that for tax purposes Trump’s income was larger than under the regular system.

The Trump income subject to AMT was $111.7 million, according to Daniel Shaviro, a New York University law professor who as a Congressional staffer helped draft the AMT three decades ago.

The Trumps paid $31.3 million in AMT which, together with the regular tax, made their total federal income tax $36.6 million.

Viewed in terms of their positive income of almost $153 million the total Trump tax bill came to 24%. That’s in the range paid by two-income career couples who both work all year to earn about $400,000. The Trumps income was $418,460 per day.

So Trump is, to be kind, manipulating the tax system to pay a lot less tax than a person earning as much as he might be expected to pay. But you know what? A lot of rich people do that. It shouldn’t be legal, but it is, and it probably always will be as long as rich people are the only ones writing the tax code.

Still, this wasn’t a non-story. Seth Abramson, in this thread on Twitter, wrote last night that we actually learned some other important things:

  • We got confirmation that Trump has been lying about not being able to release his 2005 and other returns because they’re being audited.
  • We therefore have reason to believe that if the White House has reason to think other returns might be released soon, it may do so on its own.
  • Someone, somewhere who had access to at least some part of Trump’s tax returns was able and willing to send them to a reporter, with or without Trump’s knowledge. (And I would add that he knew to send them to Johnston, perhaps the most qualified reporter on the planet to address them.)
  • Maddow’s and Johnston’s publication of the return proves that the press is willing and able to publish the material despite allegations that doing so is illegal. (The 1971 Supreme Court case on the Pentagon Papers backs this up, by the way.)
  • Trump made only $150 million or so in 2005 despite the housing market’s still being way up at that point. (I have said all along that Trump’s claim of a $10 billion net worth is bullshit; Abramson thinks this return confirms my suspicions.)
  • Trump may have lied to the FEC at some point, which would be a crime. (Maddow touched on this too last night, but I admit she was talking so fast I wasn’t clear on the details.)
  • The White House now has a “tell” that the press and public can use to gauge its responses to any future revelations regarding Trump’s taxes: “The WH’s willingness to talk about this return sets a standard we can use later on if/when the WH balks at discussing other returns. Indeed, the moment the WH reacts differently to the possible release of a tax return than it did tonight, we’ll know something’s up.”

One last thing: My friend Dan Romuald wonders whether the White House might have made a copy of this one particularly nonthreatening 1040 available to certain White House staffers suspected of leaking to the press, to see whether they could catch a leaker in the act. That, too, is possible and would not be out of character for this administration. I like my modified-limited-hangout scenario better. But that’s just a gut feeling. I could be wrong.

So where do we go from here? In search of more tax returns — the whole things, not just the two-page summaries. I would not encourage anyone to do anything illegal to get them, but in the unlikely event Congress gets sufficiently incensed, that wouldn’t be necessary: Congress, as we saw during the Clinton and Obama years, can subpoena anything it damn well pleases and probably get it. And if more news outlets get returns in their mailboxes with no return addresses, they need to publish them (after verifying their authenticity, of course). It’s perfectly legal and it would be a huge public service.

Because at the end of the day, there’s still a huge question hanging over this country: To what extent do our so-called president’s financial and political ties to the Russians allow Russia undue influence over American policy? Keep in mind that 1) for all Trump’s praise, Vladimir Putin is and always has been a dictatorial, murdering fuckhead (to quote Eddie Izzard), and 2) the Russian government, the Russian banks and the Russian Mafia are all pretty much the same thing.

Trump’s tax returns — in full, all of them — would be the quickest, easiest way to answer that overarching question. And I’m not the only one willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that that’s why he has been keeping them hidden.

 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 9:05 pm

In which your news media attempt to polish a turd

A couple of months ago, I warned you that whatever came of Donald Trump’s likely disaster of a presidency, the news media would be of no use in helping us fight it. We got proof of that last night and today in the media’s coverage of Trump’s joint address to Congress.

To begin with, as several media fact-checking outlets reported, practically every factual assertion made by Trump was a lie. Despite having an army of researchers at his disposal, the president of the United States stood before Congress and told lie after lie after lie. One can only conclude that the lies were intentional, and that alone should have led to universal condemnation of the address.

But, no, it gets worse.

Trump highlighted his executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to create something called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, to work with people who are victims of crimes created by immigrants. He did this despite the fact that immigrants commit crimes and are incarcerated at a rate significantly lower than native-born Americans. He also did this despite the fact that it is quite reminiscent of the practice of Nazi Germany of publicizing crimes committed by Jews.

If the lies didn’t turn off the media, the Nazism should have. And if Trump had stopped there, it would have been bad enough.

But no.

As the grotesque centerpiece of his speech, Trump “honored” Carryn Owens, who was widowed in late January when her husband, Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, was killed on a mission in Yemen.

Keep in mind that this mission was launched without adequate intelligence, one result of which was that both Ryan Owens and numerous civilians were killed. As commander-in-chief, Trump bears the ultimate responsibility for the outcome, yet earlier Tuesday he had tried to throw military officers under the bus:

“This was a mission that started before I got here,” the president said. “This is something that they (his generals) wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do.

“My generals are the most respected we’ve had in many decades I believe.”

Indeed, The Washington Post quoted Trump as saying of his generals, “The y lost Ryan.”

Trump touched all the bases of appallingness in this set piece.

He insisted that the military had obtained actionable intelligence from the raid, a claim the military insists is not true.

He overlooked the fact that not only was Ryan Owens’s father, William, not present, William Owens has strongly criticized Trump’s handling of the raid, had refused to meet with Trump when his son’s body arrived back in the United States, and has called for an investigation of the raid.

And then, as applause for Carryn Owens filled the chamber, Trump added, “And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record” with that applause.

I am running out of words to say how vile this construction is. He was using  Carryn Owens as a hostage, a human shield against his manifest mishandling of the raid. And he managed, by remarking on the level of applause, to make it all about him, not Carryn Owens or her late husband.

One would think that a perceptive and competent media would recoil at this performance. And as I predicted, you would be wrong. While there were a few dissenters, many commentators focused purely on Trump’s tone — which was, in fact, significantly more reserved than in his previous speeches — in saying that he had been “presidential.”

I would expect a toad like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say something like that, even if, in doing so, he was admitting that up until now, Trump has not been presidential. McConnell is about GOP power, not the public interest.

But CNN commentator Van Jones, normally a liberal stalwart, announced, “He became President of the United States in that moment. Period,” and added that if Trump can conjure more moments like that, “He’ll be there for eight years.”

Perhaps the second-worst offender behind Jones was Chris Cilizza, who writes for The Washington Post’s political column The Fix:

1. Trump rapidly grasped that this was a real moment — and he didn’t step on it by trying to immediately return to his speech. Lots of politicians, obsessed with making sure they got the speech out in the allotted time, would have moved on too quickly — missing the resonance of the cascades of applause that washed over the rawly emotional Carryn Owens. Trump understands moments; he stepped away from the podium, looked to Owens and just clapped. For the better part of two minutes, the only thing you heard in the room was loud applause and the only thing you saw was Owens crying and looking heavenward. Very powerful stuff.

Critics will say — and have already said — that Trump was using a widow’s emotion for political gain. But Owens willingly agreed to come to the speech knowing Trump would single her out. And, politicians of both parties regularly use these tragic moments to make broader points about our country and its policies. That’s politics. To suggest that Trump somehow broke with political norms here is to turn a blind eye to virtually every speech like this given by any recent president of either party.

2. Trump showed some grace. There has never been any question that Donald Trump is happiest when people are talking about, looking at and generally obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s never shown much grace in the public eye, often exhibiting a sort of ham-handedness in situations where some delicacy is required. But not Tuesday night. Trump, dare I say, gracefully handed the spotlight to Owens — even taking a few steps back to let her have that moment. For a candidate, a man and a president who has shown a stunning inability to ever make it about anyone other than him, it was a very deft move.

Well, no. As regards Point 1, Cilizza is engaged in the perennial DC media both-siderism that deprives the American people of an honest understanding of what is causing our problems. It’s true that both parties have used widows/widowers of fallen heroes in political appearances, but no one — no president ever — has used a newly minted, grieving widow as a human shield the way Trump did. As for Cilizza’s Point 2, the “grace” Trump showed was that of a person with narcissistic personality disorder who, for perhaps 30 seconds, became asymptomatic. Applauding that is like cheering a grown man for not deliberately shitting on the carpet.

Cilizza must have been stung by some of the comments, because he then posted on Twitter, “I ask again though: Why can’t Trump be praised for delivering a good speech full stop?”

SpecialKindOfStupid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But his column did not hide him, nor his Twitter feed give him shelter. Among some of the Twitter responses:

“Because speech as performance is meaningless to non-pundit human beings deeply impacted by the substance of a president’s policies.”

“Because you eat up everything he says, no matter how dangerous it is, as long as he leaves you out of it.”

“Only reason you think it’s ‘good’ is Trump avoided saying Jewish bomb threats = false flags. You know, like he did EARLIER THAT DAY.”

“Gee, Chris, you know who ELSE gave nationalist speeches while hating on immigrants?”

You get the idea: There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who aren’t employed by the Washington Post who were just happy to point his errors out to him.

But that’s not good enough. The errors do damage, and corrections or walkbacks, if any, don’t undo that damage. The media need to be calling out this bullshit for what it is, and they need to be doing it in the moment.

But that’s not going to happen. The earlier post I linked to at the top of this post goes into most of the reasons why, and the media’s performance after last night’s Trump speech merely confirms what I predicted months ago: We are well and truly on our own.

 

Monday, January 23, 2017 10:38 pm

How the media should strike back

On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held the first “press conference” of the new administration. Only it wasn’t a press conference, or anything more than a tantrum, really. As Dan Gillmor wrote for Slate [disclosure: I hosted Gillmor when he spoke at the News & Record in 2005], “Press secretaries almost always alienate White House reporters, but typically that takes a while. Spicer took care of it on his first full day in the job by spouting demonstrable untruths about the inauguration audience even as he lambasted the press.”

He kept reporters waiting for more than an hour. Then he read a vitriolic screed in which he falsely insisted that the news media had deliberately understated attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Then he excoriated the press. And then he left without taking questions. Watch:

There are several things going on here.

First, he’s lying about the crowd size.

Second, he’s claiming that the administration refuses to be held accountable by the news media, despite that having been the media’s role since the framing of the Bill of Rights.

Third, he’s refusing even to take questions, let alone allow response to his unreasoning accusations against the media.

Why is he doing all this? I don’t know what’s in Spicer’s head, let alone in the heads of his bosses, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump himself. But here is what I believe: He’s doing it not because he actually thinks he’s right, but because he’s trying to create a media atmosphere in which readers/viewers simply conclude that there IS no objective truth, that the truth is not knowable, and that therefore the media cannot and should not be believed. In such an atmosphere, a government leader may act, and even do terrible things, secure in the knowledge that the public will not hold him accountable because he can simply say that whatever the media claims about him never happened. And people will either believe that it never happened or they will shrug and conclude that there’s  no way ever to know and so there’s nothing that can be done.

Then, on Sunday morning, administration spokesflack Kellyanne Conway insisted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that what Trump and Spicer were saying about Friday’s attendance numbers were “alternative facts.” Counting on Chuck Todd to do the right thing where Republicans are involved is almost always a fool’s game, but on this day he pretty much did the right thing, pointing out to Conway that her “alternative facts” were actually “falsehoods.” I wish he, and NBC generally, would learn to call these things “lies,” as CNN did in its chyron on the same subject:

cnnaltfacts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We continue.

What the Trump administration wants to do to objective knowledge is not only, a short, wide road to dictatorship and atrocities, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Forget such issues as foreign relations (and tricky negotiations about nuclear weapons), that hurricane off the coast is going to strike somewhere, sometime, whether you say it is or not.

So, kind of a big deal. What can the news media do about this?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know where they can start: Trump and his administration want to make the news media their bitch, and the media simply should not allow that to happen.

At the White House, I suggest two parallel steps: 1) The media can inform Priebus that their reader/viewer mindsharer is off-limits, live or otherwise, to such inveterate liars as Spicer and Conway. They can tell Priebus that he simply will have to pick someone to speak on behalf of the president who is not an inveterate liar. I neither know nor care whether Priebus/Trump would even try to do such a thing, so I also suggest 2) that news media simply abandon, for all intents and purposes, its presence in the White House and go elsewhere after different kinds of stories: enterprise and investigative stories that will show what is actually happening in the administration, what policies are being formulated, and what the effects of those policies on everyday people. And then only contact the White House for comment on those stories when they are completed and ready to be broadcast with or without official comment.

Spicer has said he intends to “hold the press accountable.” The only problem with that is that this is America, not Russia. In America, the press holds the administration accountable, whether that whiny liar likes it or not, and if he doesn’t like it, I’m sure Vlad Putin is hiring.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University (disclosure: I was on a panel with him once about a decade ago) posted today on this subject and offered his own suggestions, including:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

He elaborates:

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with [what Spicer is trying to do]. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people to it.

They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

How likely is this to happen? Not very, if one Twitter exchange Rosen had with a New York Times reporter is any indication. (Although, as you’ll see if you read on down the thread, it didn’t work out too well for the reporter.)

If you don’t want to take my word for it, or Rosen’s, you might want to take the word of Russian journalilst Alexey Kovalev, who has learned about covering Trump by covering Vladimir Putin, Trump’s BFF:

Welcome to the era of bullshit

Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, examples of false moral equivalence, and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. …

Don’t expect any camaraderie

These people are not your partners or brothers in arms. They are your rivals in a fiercely competitive, crashing market and right now the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them. If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow-up on your behalf. It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention.

This is particularly the case in Russia, where Putin holds an annual news conference, four hours or more in length and attended by journalists from across Russia. We can hope, at least, that journalists covering the White House, a smaller cohort whose members generally see each other every day, can come to a common agreement on how and how not to cover the Trump White House. Even better, we can lobby our news outlets on how and how not to do it, just as Rosen, whose work is widely read in the news industry, is doing now. More from Kovalev:

Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”

A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions. Which also happen to be Putin’s favorites. Mr. President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food? “Questions” of this sort, sure to melt Putin’s heart … A subtype of this is also statements-as-questions, but from people who really love the man on the stage and will bob their head and look at the stage adoringly and say something to the tune of “Mr. President, do you agree that a lot of media are treating you unfairly?”

You’re always losing

This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t — in Putin’s case — campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.

That final point is essential and echoes mine and Rosen’s: You can’t win Trump and Spicer’s game, so don’t even start to play it.

Gillmor also recommends:

  • Don’t air live press conferences or other events featuring known liars. And don’t live-tweet them either except to document the lies. As Gillmor points out, tweets are like headlines, and many readers don’t read past the headlines.
  • With this administration, assume deceit well beyond the “normal skepticism” of journalists.
  • Always, always, call lies lies in the headline and top of the story — again, because so many readers never read past that, but also because simply repeating the untrue statement, even as pure stenography, helps reinforce it in the minds of readers/views.
  • Try to determine whether the “story” is news in and of itself, or whether (like so many of Trump’s tweets) it’s an attempt to divert media attention away from other news that makes the administration look bad.

Gillmor concludes:

… journalists now realize that the new president and his senior staff view the press in the way all authoritarians see real journalism: not a vital part of a functioning system of government. Not a sometimes annoying collection of insecure people who would rather watch the action than join it. Not even an occasional adversary.

No, for Trump, the press is truly part of the enemy—the people and institutions who might challenge his unfettered right to say and do exactly what he pleases, publicly or in secret, in the most powerful job on the planet.

Please, journalists: Act accordingly.

hope they realize that. I pray they do. And I hope and pray that they will be smart and brave enough not to play Trump’s game. Because nothing is riding on that except the future of our democratic republic.

Finally, if journalists are successful, will Trump’s supporters pitch a bitch about this? Wrong question; Trump’s supporters will pitch a bitch about this whether journalists are successful or not. A nontrivial minority of Americans already are inclined to believe both that anything Trump says is true and that anything the news media say is false. Fuck their feelings. Real journalists and the rest of us are going to have to save freedom in spite of them, just as we won freedom from Britain in spite of people like them, so let’s get started.

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 8:32 pm

Could Trump be a Russian spy? That train might have left the station years ago

Boy, life really does come at you fast. One day we’re (almost all of us) making golden-shower jokes; the next day, an ex-journalist like Dan Conover, whom I’ve known for more than a decade, takes the time that news-media outlets didn’t to peruse the document dump made public by BuzzFeed to bypass the salaciousness and get straight to the news.

For those of you playing catch-up, this Guardian article provides both background as to where the documents came from and some explanation of the basis for believing they might be reliable. (That said, the article itself is not well sourced.) Several outlets have identified the source of the documents as retired MI6 agent Christopher Steele and the author as an opposition-research specialist initially hired by one of Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later by a party or parties unknown.

Washington media apparently have known of the existence of the documents for weeks, if not months. Buzzfeed finally posted them; editor Ben Smith’s justification for doing so is here. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan thinks this was an ethically bad call and explains why here. Normally I would stop and dig into the details of that ethical decision — I’ve always been fascinated with ethical hard calls in journalism — and at some point I will. But right now I want to try to keep focused on the actual news in the dump.

Nota bene: The documents remain unverified. But more on that in a bit.

I haven’t had time to read the whole thing. But Dan did and wrote about it on Facebook; with his permission, I’m reposting a good bit of what he said here:

The real meat is in Report No. 95. It’s the only report in the Buzzfeed dump that is incomplete, as it appears to be missing the final page, which would include the date on which it was filed.

If it is deemed credible, then it accuses Trump and his campaign of an actual crime — not poor judgment, not allowing themselves to become vulnerable to blackmail at some point in the future. Report No. 95 says that “TRUMP’s team” passed intelligence on Russian oligarchs and their families living in the United States directly to Russian agents.

In other words: Espionage.

The report is titled “RUSSIA/US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: FURTHER INDICATIONS OF EXTENSIVE CONSPIRACY BETWEEN TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN TEAM AND THE KREMLIN”

The opening summery claims that a Trump associate admitted that the Kremlin was behind WikiLeaks’ DNC hack, and that “TRUMP’s team” used “moles within DNC and hackers in the US as well as Russia.”

It further claims that Russians received intel from Trump’s team on “Russian oligarchs and their families living in US,” and that the mechanism for transmitting this intel involved “pension disbursements to Russian emigres living in US as cover, using consular officials in New York, DC and Miami.”

Detail item No. 1 cites a “Source E,” described as “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP.” In late July, Source E told a compatriot that:

“…there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy adviser, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN apparently both hated and feared.”

Detail item No. 2, still citing Source E (who appears to be an unwitting source), talks about the WikiLeaks operation and claims this was conducted “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.”

Highlighted: “In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.”

Detail item No. 3 discusses the structure of the anti-Clinton intelligence network, and the mechanics of the two-way flow of intelligence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

And there’s Detail Item No. 4, which I quote in its entirety:

“In terms of the intelligence flow from the TRUMP team to Russia, Source E reported that much of this concerned the activities of business oligarchs and their families’ activities and assets in the US, with which PUTIN and the Kremlin seemed preoccupied.”

Detail items Nos. 5 and 6 describe the Trump team’s political calculations and Trump’s investment efforts in Russia.

But let’s go back to the important part. Detail No. 4 alleges a crime, and other passing references in other reports reinforce the claim — particularly in Report No. 97 (30 July). In the opening summary of the July 30th report, the opposition research consultant writes:

“Source close to Trump campaign however confirms regular exchange with Kremlin has existed for at least 8 years, including intelligence fed back to Russia on oligarchs’ activities in US.

“Russians apparently have promised not to use ‘kompromat’ they hold on TRUMP as leverage, given high levels of voluntary co-operation coming from his team.”

The consultant expands on that claim in Detail No. 4:

“As far as ‘kompromat’ (compromising information) on TRUMP were concerned, although there was plenty of this, he (ed note: the source is described as a Russian emigre in an earlier Detail item) understood the Kremlin had given its word that it would not be deployed against the Republican presidential candidate given how helpful and co-operative his team had been over several years, and particularly of late.”

Long story short: This material is unverified, but if it can be verified, it means that we’ve gone way past “conflict of interest” and “potential security risk” and have wound up at “Trump is guilty of having spied for the Russian government for the past eight years.”

Can it be verified? I don’t know. Dan knows a lot more about the national-security apparatus than I do, and he doesn’t know.

But here’s what I do know: We as a country can’t afford not to try to find out. If this doesn’t call for a joint select Congressional committee with an investigative staff full of hard-nosed former prosecutors, nothing does. This is sure as hell more important than Hillary’s emails. This is about giving a longtime Russian spy the keys to the thermonuclear kingdom.

And here is where we find out who the real patriots are. They’ll be the ones, in Congress, elsewhere in government, and in the media, who make an effort to find out the truth. They’ll face some of the most vicious opposition in the country’s history. And it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the country could depend on whether they succeed — even if the ultimate truth is that Trump, for all his bad qualities, is innocent.

 

 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 8:03 pm

When the watchers are doing the pillaging

The Associated Press, noted for its balance and sobriety, seldom uses the word “eviscerate” in the lede of any story not datelined from a butcher shop. So when it announced that, in the dark of night on a national holiday, House Republicans had voted Monday to “eviscerate” the Office of Congressional Ethics, I sat up and paid attention.

The vote, in a closed-door meeting the night before the new Congress was sworn in, was to severely weaken that office, ending its independent status and placing it under the partisan (and therefore Republican-controlled) House Ethics Committee. The measure, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was part of a larger package of House rules covering the 2017-2018 legislative session that was to be voted on today. (There is no corresponding Senate office. You might wonder why that is.)

Not the least of the reasons for paying attention was that the whole reason the office was made independent in the first place, by House Democrats in 2008, was in response to the congressional lobbying scandals created by Jack Abramoff, who went to prison on corruption charges. The Abramoff case demonstrated that the House Ethics Committee was either unable or unwilling to police the House. Last night’s vote was so bad that Abramoff himself strongly criticized the measure today. (I believe it was one of Charlie Pierce’s commenters who said that if Jack Abramoff says you’re corrupt, you should strongly consider the possibility that you are corrupt.)

In addition to stripping the office of its independence, the measure also would have prevented staff from making public statements independent of the Ethics Committee and would have prevented it from investigating anonymous tips. It even would have prevented the office from reporting crimes, even crimes against children, which is not just a hypothetical:

Last year, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for fraud charges linked to allegations that he sexually abused boys while he was a high school wrestling coach more than 30 years ago.

During Hastert’s tenure as Speaker, congressional Republicans turned a blind eye to Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate relationship with an underage male page. Foley resigned after text messages he sent to the page were leaked to the press.

A number of media outlets reported that this package passed over the objections of senior GOP leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan. That’s bullshit of the purest ray serene, as well known Marxist political analyst Norm Ornstein of the radical-hippie American Enterprise Institute points out:

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker.

My local daily, which is also my former employer, didn’t post a story until 10:26 this morning. But a good number of news outlets did last night, and the issue went viral. Both independently and at the urging of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, citizens nationwide bombarded their GOP representatives’ offices with calls and emails demanding to know how their reps had voted, and why. Many also insisted that the measure be reversed. (It should be noted here that Talking Points Memo’s similar response to an initially secret GOP plan to privatize Social Security in 2005 smoked that plan out, and ultimately strangled it in its cradle, in much the same way.)

Earlier today, the measure was stripped from the House rules package in response to public pressure, although there’s nothing that would keep Republicans from sneaking or ramming it through at any future point. President-elect Donald Trump issued a statement objecting to the timing of the measure but not the substance. Naturally, he later took credit for its reversal.

Worse, The New York Times and some other media outlets also wrongly credited Trump for bringing about the change, with CNN saying Trump had “dramatically strong-armed” the change.

So what have we learned from all this?

First, and once again for those who aren’t paying attention, we as a nation are screwed because the people in charge of the executive and legislative branches of government for at least the next two years simply cannot be trusted. They cannot be trusted to make policy in the public interest. They cannot be trusted to police themselves. And they cannot be trusted to attack public corruption on the part of others. That’s just not what they do. That’s just not who they are. And you should not believe anyone who tells you differently.

Second, and worse, it is clear that the agenda of both executive and legislative Republicans right now is plunder, pure and simple. Trump and his family show no intention of doing anything but using the presidency to fill the family coffers to bursting. The Congressional Republicans appear inclined let them do that so long as, in return, he allows them to plunder public resources and what remains of the wealth of the middle and working classes, by gutting Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act and selling off public assets for cheap to cronies, all of which will result in huge upward transfers and concentration of wealth.

As Ornstein wrote:

Given Ryan’s solidarity with President-elect Trump on Russian hacking—preceded by his deep-sixing any bipartisan statement during the campaign warning against foreign attempts to influence our elections—along with Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s indifference to any investigation of conflicts of interest or ethical problems with the president-elect and his cronies, this is chilling evidence that we are headed for a new age of official embrace or at least acceptance of unethical and illegal behavior. The core of America’s political system depends on real checks and balances, on a Congress that puts country ahead of party. The House leadership showed this week that party comes first.

Third, and unsurprisingly, Trump shows no compunction whatever about telling whatever lies he thinks he needs to tell to inflate his public image and feed his own ego, no matter how demonstrably untrue they are. This isn’t news.

Fourth, and more dismayingly also not news, is that even major-league mainstream news outlets like CNN and The New York Times appear uninterested in fighting Trump’s lies. As I said before, the media will not help us. We’re going to have to fix this ourselves.

Which brings us to Point 5: Encouragingly, we have seen evidence once again that if Middle America pitches a bitch at Congress, Congress — even this Congress, saturated in its own pustulence — will, at least temporarily, take a hint. Screaming at the top of your lungs all the time gets tiresome, and it’s hard on a body. But when the evidence shows that it works at least some of the time and other available tools appear to lie thin on the ground, maybe that’s just what we have to do.

 

 

Lindy West, Gamergate, and the alt-right Nazis

Feminist writer and educator Lindy West quit Twitter today because Nazis:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

 

That wasn’t why she quit though, or wasn’t what prompted her to pull the trigger. No, that was something rather more than personal:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

Well, yes, Nazis* are bad, and Twitter isn’t the only medium or social medium wrestling with what, exactly, to do about that. Still, Twitter has been almost unique in its ratio of encouraging talk to gross inaction. And I suspect that, as with most problems, it probably comes down to money.

What I mean by that is this. I’ve been online in various ways for going on 30 years, and in all that time I have yet to see an online community that wasn’t ruined by, for lack of a better term, trolls in the absence of moderators. (For the first decade or so of my life online, I wasn’t convinced moderators were necessary; not for the first time, I admit I was wrong.) But moderating takes time, and time takes money, and over its life as a public company (i.e., since late 2013), Twitter has, per generally accepted accounting principles, never made money. Since its 2006 founding, it has burned through more than $2 billion. And its user growth has slowed to the point at which near- to medium-term profits look unlikely.

More to the point, though, CEO Jack Dorsey has never said anything publicly that suggests to me that he truly understands that he has a problem. But he does. As Leigh Alexander (no relation) wrote in the context of Gamergate, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”

Dorsey, his executives and his board absolutely have a moral obligation to users of their service not to let that service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit. And for a lot of people who don’t look like me — a cishet middle-aged, white, until-recently-Republican male — it already is.

Moreover, I would argue that they have an obligation to their shareholders not to let the service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit, because while that might give you a profitable quarter or two, it spells doom for the business’s long-term financial interests and those of its shareholders.

And, finally, I would argue that they have an obligation to the public in general, in the U.S. and abroad, not to allow their service to become a sinkhole of Nazi shit because Nazi shit is gaining popularity and causing problems around the world. It is competing with Vlad Putin right now as the No. 1 danger to small-l liberal democracy worldwide. And it should be denied any foothold it attempts to seek. Twitter isn’t just a medium anymore; it’s also an organizing and fundraising tool. Dorsey et al. need to deny its benefits to Nazis and their backers.

And it’s especially important to do so here in the U.S., where an illegitimate president-elect is backed by Nazis. As an article a month ago in the Guardian by Matt Lees explains, what happened in Gamergate absolutely predicted what has happened in the past year, and is happening now, with Donald Trump:

The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it. …

n 2014, the media’s reaction was often weak or overtly conciliatory – some sites went out of their way to “see both sides”, to reassure people that openly choosing to be affiliated with a hate group did not make them in any way responsible for that hate. Olive branches were extended, but professional lives continued to be ruined while lukewarm op-eds asked for us to come together so we could start “healing”. The motivations may have been sound, but it’s the language Trump and his supporters have used post-election to obliterate dissenting voices.

In 2016, new wave conservative media outlets like Breitbart have gained trust with their audience by painting traditional news sources as snooty and aloof. In 2014, video game YouTube stars, seeking to appear in touch with online gaming communities, unscrupulously proclaimed that traditional old-media sources were corrupt.

Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago. …

Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.

We have no idea where this will lead, but our continued insistence on shrugging off the problems of the internet as “not real” – as something we can just log out of – is increasingly misled. 2016 has presented us with a world in which our reality is being wilfully manipulated. Fake news, divisive algorithms, misleading social media campaigns. The majority of people who voted for Trump will never take responsibility for his racist, totalitarian policies, but they’ll provide useful cover and legitimacy for those who demand the very worst from the President Elect. Trump himself may have disavowed the “alt-right”, but his rhetoric has led to them feeling legitimised. As with Gamergate, the press risks being manipulated into a position where it has to tread a respectful middle ground that doesn’t really exist.

Prominent critics of the Trump administration need to learn from Gamergate. They need to be preparedforabuse, for falsified concerns, invented grassroots campaigns designed specifically to break, belittle, or disgrace. Words and concepts will be twisted, repackaged and shared across forums, stripping them of meaning. Gamergate painted critics as censors, the far-right movement claims critics are the real racists.

Perhaps the true lesson of Gamergate was that the media is culturally unequipped to deal with the forces actively driving these online movements. The situation was horrifying enough two years ago, it is many times more dangerous now.

Obviously, Jack Dorsey and Twitter aren’t responsible for all of this. But within his own lane, Dorsey and the organization he leads have an obligation to the service’s users and their fellow Americans to run a service that, if it doesn’t facilitate the best that America on the Internet can be, at least doesn’t allow the worst to prey on everyone else.

 

*In this post, and on this blog generally, I do not use the term “alt-right.” That’s Orwellian nonsense. These people are Nazis, just as their dads were when I was covering the Klan and other right-wing white-nationalist groups back in the ’80s. They’re not even “neo-Nazis”; there’s nothing neo- about them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 1:53 pm

“There is no kindness in them.”

Neal Gabler, author of a number of books examining the intersection of U.S. history and popular culture, has posted an essay that is, I think, essential to what we who would oppose Trumpism must stand for. It also, unfortunately, helps to illustrate why I think resistance to Trump can expect very little help from the media.

The gist of it is that kindness, and such related tendencies as community responsibility and mutual aid, have gone by the wayside in American culture in general and Republican politics in general. He traces this change from a 1961 essay by Gore Vidal on the subject of Ayn Rand and the psychopathic “philosophy” she espoused. Vidal quotes Rand:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her.

Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.

To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.

The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral …

Keep in mind here that Rand was writing in the giant shadow of World War II, which democratic countries (and, yes, the Soviet Union) would not have won without “the creed of sacrifice.” And yet she argues that altruism undercuts America, she conflates selfishness with freedom and altruism with slavery, she values money above relationships and dismisses everything that every great religion and moral code going back thousands of years has taught us about the value of unselfishness.

Gabler comments:

In most quarters, in 1961, this stuff would have been regarded as nearly sociopathic nonsense, but, as Vidal noted, Rand was already gaining adherents: “She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.”

Because he was writing at a time when there was still such a thing as right-wing guilt, Vidal couldn’t possibly have foreseen what would happen: Ayn Rand became the guiding spirit of the governing party of the United States. Her values are the values of that party. Vidal couldn’t have foreseen it because he still saw Christianity as a kind of ineluctable force in America, particularly among small-town conservatives, and because Rand’s “philosophy” couldn’t have been more anti-Christian. But, then, Vidal couldn’t have thought so many Christians would abandon Jesus’ teachings so quickly for Rand’s. Hearts hardened.

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.

Yep, that’s where we are, folks. Our House speaker, Paul Ryan, who famously grew up and got educated with the help of Social Security benefits, equally famously gives his staffers copies of Rand’s works to read and is planning to privatize (read: kill) Social Security. And writ large, that is the problem with today’s GOP politicians and the large swath of the electorate that supports them, Gabler says: “There is no kindess in them.”

Moreover, Gabler blames this lack on the media:

The media have long prided themselves on being value neutral. It was Dragnet journalism: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Or: “We report, you decide” — a slogan coopted by the right-wing Fox News, ironically to underscore that they weren’t biased, at least not liberally biased.

Of course, not even the most scrupulous journalists were ever really value neutral. Underneath their ostensible objectivity there was a value default — an unstated moral consensus, which is the one Vidal cited and the one to which most Americans subscribed throughout most of our history. But it took a lot to activate those values in the press. The mainstream white media moved ever so slowly to report on the evils of segregation. Yet when they finally did, they didn’t behave as if African-Americans marching for their rights and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing dogs on them were moral equals. Value neutrality had its limits. The reporting of the movement was one of journalism’s proudest moments, and you can read about it in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanonff. It is a story worth telling and remembering in these frightening days — a story that shows how the press can serve us.

However long it took for them to grow a conscience, those journalists who covered the civil rights movement didn’t think they were violating their professional code of objectivity by exposing the heinous conduct of the Southern authorities, because they knew what they were upholding wasn’t subject to debate. The morality was stark. (I have a suspicion from the way the Black Lives Matter movement is covered that it wouldn’t be so stark today.)

Taking sides against the KKK and redneck sheriffs, however, was one thing, as was taking sides against lunatic fringe right-wingers like the John Birch Society who hated government. But what happens when those extremists who advocate a bizarre morality that elevates selfishness and deplores altruism commandeer one of our two major political parties? What do you do then?

We know the answer. You do nothing.

The media sat by idly while American values were transmogrified. Even the so-called “good” conservatives — David Brooks, David Frum, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, et al. — refused to speak the language of kindness, preferring the language of free markets. As far right conservatives took over the Republican Party — the very same conservatives who just a few years earlier were considered crazies — the media dared not question Republican opposition to anything that assisted the disempowered and dispossessed, which is how a value-neutral media wound up serving the cause of conservatism and Republicanism and how the moral consensus was allowed to be turned upside down.

Read those Ayn Rand quotes to your children as moral instruction, and you will see how far we have fallen. This is Republican morality. This is Trump morality. And the media, loath to defend traditional American values in an increasingly hostile conservative environment, let it happen. That is what value neutrality will get you.

Gabler acknowledges the potential pitfalls of media determining not only facts but also values. And yet, he says, the risk is greater if we do not:

It is true that we don’t all share the exact same values, though in the past I think our fundamental values were pretty close to one another’s. But even if values differ, all values are not created equal. Some are better than others. Most of us do know what is right. Most of us do know that we have moral obligations to others. Most of us understand kindness. It is just that we have been encouraged to forget it. That was Ayn Rand’s mission. Trump is proof of how well she and her acolytes, like Paul Ryan, succeeded.

This election turned on many things, but one that both the public and the press have been hesitant to acknowledge is the election as a moral referendum: the old morality against the new Randian one Republicans had advanced for years and Trump fully legitimized. There is no kindness in him. We prefer the idea that Trump voters were economic casualties, that they were frustrated with the system, that they felt marginalized and misunderstood. It lets us avoid seeming condescending.

Perhaps. But I think it behooves us to recognize that many of those voters bristled under the old morality and turned to Trump because he removed the guilt Vidal had cited when we tried to harden our hearts. Shame helped keep the old morality in force. Trump made shamelessness acceptable. We are reaping that whirlwind every day.

And so he charges the media:

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth,” Tolstoy said. Going forward, that could be the basis for a politics. And we must press our media to understand that they can only restore the values they once took for granted by doing what the best of them did during the civil rights era: observe events through a moral lens. Appealing to our worst selves is usually a winning strategy, as it was for Trump. The media must remind us of what it means to be our best selves. This should be their new mission: a media in opposition. It should be unrelenting, regardless of the right-wing blowback.

Moreover, Gabler observes, it’s not just that Americans are selfish. For many Americans, including Trump, it’s not good enough merely that they succeed; their competitors or opponents also must be punished (indeed, in Trump’s case, humiliated):

America is in moral crisis. Many Americans seem far more interested in making sure that those they consider undeserving — basically, the poor — get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something. A friend recently told me a joke told him by a Hungarian acquaintance, who intended it as an example of Hungarian schadenfreude, but I have modified it because I think it is a harrowing parable for contemporary America and its strange moral turnabout. This is Trump’s America:

There were three farmers: a German, a Hungarian and an American. Each had a cow. One day, misfortune befell them, and their cows died. Each remonstrated against God, saying God had failed him, and each lost faith. God realized he had to do something to make amends. So he came to Earth and approached the German.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked. And the German answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me another cow.” And God did so.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked the Hungarian. And the Hungarian answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me that cow and another to compensate.” And God did so.

And finally God came to the American, and He asked, “What can I do to restore your faith?” And the American answered, “God, I lost my cow. Shoot my neighbor’s cow.”

Not only can no civilization embrace such “values” and be called great, no civilization can embrace such values and even survive. As for the media’s role, I have argued for years that media should be transparent not only about methods but also about values, a notion that went over like a rock because being transparent about values first requires you to have some. But what might a news outlet’s values be?

I have suggested such examples as loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law. The presumption that the best government is that which governs in the open. That government service be just that, service, and not merely the opportunity to enrich oneself and one’s cronies. That policy be based on what produces the greatest good for the greatest number. And so on.

To that list, Gabler adds, and I agree, that the news media must view the personnel and policy choices of the Trump administration through a moral lens that encourages each and all of us to be our best selves. Rand argued that the pathway to our best selve was money, but we have millennia of experience to shows us that not only couldn’t she write, she also couldn’t think.

To Gabler’s point, I would add only that both the media and we, the people, must watch not just Trump and his administration through such a lens, but also the choices of government, corporations, nonprofits, and powerful individuals at all levels. If, as a lot of Christians like to suggest, God has turned his face from us, it’s because we have failed to do so.

Thursday, December 15, 2016 8:06 pm

… and the fuckery continues

fuckerydeptI don’t have all the facts and don’t yet know where to tell you to go to get them. But, apparently, both the State House and the State Senate cleared their galleries today, turned off the microphones to negate the audio feed in the building and on the Internet, and did, or attempted to do, the public’s business in private.

In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a clear violation of North Carolina law. Sadly, it’s only a civil law. It should be a crime with mandatory jail time.

Some protesters were arrested. My friend Joe Killian, a former colleague of mine at the News & Record who now reports for N.C. Policy Watch, was arrested as he attempted to cover those arrests. In other words, he was arrested for doing his job. As I write this, he hasn’t been released yet.

If you’re wondering how fascism comes to a democratic republic with a long history of free self-governance, this is your answer.

The battle is joined

My friend Beau Dure, who, among other things, writes for The Guardian, both sounds and heeds the call to battle against fake news:

Let’s be absolutely clear. This is not “left wing” vs. “right wing.” The two sides here are not equivalent. This is truth vs. lies. In this case, it’s an attempt to label demonstrable facts on border crossings as “fake news,” lumping it in the same category as the websites that have made Weekly World News look rational.

And it’s part of an ongoing deliberate attack on the nature of truth, one that leads to many Americans going against overwhelming scientific consensus on everything from climate change to vaccines (with creationism still lurking in there somewhere). It leads to the propagation of absurd conspiracy theories like the one that prompted a North Carolina man to walk into a D.C. pizza place armed to the teeth in what we would call an act of terror if a Muslim did it.

Do Democrats sometimes bend the truth? Yes. Call them out on it. We all should.

But don’t pretend that it’s the same as what you’re seeing here, where the powers-that-be don’t just want to spin something but want to undermine the very forces that hold them accountable.

And we cannot allow that to happen.

Like Pichard in the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode in which he is captured and tortured by the Cardassians, we are about to be placed under enormous pressure to believe things that simply are not true and, worse, are lies told with malicious intent. Journalists are the first line of defense. Their bullshit meters will need to be sensitive, high-capacity, durable, and loud, or else the U.S., after 240 years of relative freedom, will emerge as an autocracy within the next four years.

Saturday, December 3, 2016 12:19 am

The media and Trump

Sixth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment, fifth installment)

So what is to be done about the president-elect and the executive branch he is forming? I’ll get to that in the next installment, but I first want to make a point that I believe is crucial: Whatever we try to do, we will get no help from most news media. They are hobbled by the interests of ownership and, worse, their own blinkers as they confront what faces us.

The concentrated corporate control of most of the largest news media outlets has been covered in great detail elsewhere, and I won’t rehash that fact except to say that it is the rare outlet where the financial interests of the owner or chief executive does not, from time to time, interfere with news judgement in a way that disadvantages the less powerful. Does that happen every day, at every outlet? With the possible exception of a few outlets like Fox News, and with the obvious exception of propaganda mills like Breitbart, I’d say no, but it happens often enough even at outlets, like The New York Times, that are perceived as left-leaning. (In point of fact, true leftists in other countries — we have few here in the U.S. — would consider the Times center-right, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Moreover, I’ve argued off and on for 20 years or more that news media need to be more forthright about defining their interests in more detail than vague platitudes such as “all the news that’s fit to print” or “provide a free people the information they need to govern themselves.” For example, I think that, if pressed, most mainstream news outlets would concede that they have an interest in requiring government at all levels to do its business in the open, and the more advanced among them would frame this discussion not just as an interest of the news outlet but also as an interest of the public.

But I have thought for some time — and the ascension of Trump, I think, demands — that news outlets also must explicitly state additional values, in particular equal justice under the law and the Constitution, and should make clear that upholding those values means opposing all who would oppose them. If someone wants to make an argument for changing the Constitution for this reason or that, that’s a perfectly legitimate political argument to make, and news outlets should cover it like any other. But if someone wants to ignore the Constitution, U.S. statutes, and Supreme Court precedents, news outlets should, at the least, take the position in editorials and news reports alike that the individual supports positions that would be at odds with the oath of office and therefore is unfit for office.

That’s a radical position for most U.S. journalists for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, for most of the past century, U.S. journalism has embraced what journalism scholar Jay Rosen and others have called “the view from nowhere” — in perhaps too short, objectivity carried to the point that it omits even the most relevant context.

For another, journalists have a mostly-well-justified fear of becoming “part of the story.” Avoiding that is a good way to try to achieve fairness and accuracy, but sometimes it is not sufficient to deliver to the reader/viewer a fully accurate story. For example, extraordinary efforts by bureaucrats to hinder journalists’ access to records essential to documenting a story should indeed become part of the story, even if that means including steps journalists had to take to obtain those records, such as suing.

And for another, news journalism has almost by definition sought to avoid advocacy. But in America, I would argue, in some cases, advocacy journalism is essential to preventing the destruction of what makes America America and/or what makes journalism journalism. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (formerly the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War II) famously observed that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Well, neither is journalism, in that it should not just report on but also should actively oppose that which would make journalism difficult or impossible, not only for the sake of the outlet but also for the sake of the citizens that outlet purports to serve.

But American journalism has not just the right but also an affirmative moral duty to oppose that which would destroy our constitutional form of government and/or the journalism that provides the information that citizens of our democratic republic need to govern themselves. And not only must American journalism take this position, it must hold it without compromise.

Unfortunately, doing so directly endangers the financial interests of most owners of journalism outlets. So we’re back to Square 1, even if individual journalists try here and there to do the right thing.

And most journalists won’t.

There have been signs of this from the very beginning of Trump’s campaign. Cable news, in particularly, gave Trump large chunks of free air time to spew his views to American viewers, without editing, curation or context, even though their executives knew that doing so gave Trump a huge advantage over the rest of the large and ungainly Republican field.  And they did it for one reason: ratings. As Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, stated, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Media outlets also have proven themselves unable to resist outside forces, from Trump himself to the Russians. Worse, they’re making unforced errors. The broadcast networks, for example, devoted far less time in 2016 to coverage of issues than they did in the seven previous presidential campaigns dating back to 1988 — and devoted more than three times that amount of coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails, a “scandal” that, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Print and online media did no better, UNC sociologist Zeynep Tufekci found: Her survey of pre-election coverage by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico found that they devoted five times as many stories to Clinton’s emails, 1,372, as to Trump’s conflicts of interest, 279 — again, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Since the election, there has been no sign that things are getting any better. New York University professor Jay Rosen highlights one example of news media’s inability to grapple with Trump’s numerous, outrageous lies: The media provide what he calls “accusation-driven” journalism rather than what is needed: evidence-based journalism.

And the news media, with little education, perspective or background and no fucking sense of history, is utterly ignorant of Hannah Arendt’s trenchant observation about the Nazis’ lies and the German newspapers’ failed 1930s efforts to fact-check: The Nazis don’t lie to tell you what they think is true. They lie to explain what would have to be true to justify what they’re doing. For example, Trump didn’t claim on Twitter that millions of people had fraudulently voted for Hillary Clinton because it was true. He claimed it to lay the groundwork for even worse restrictions on minority voting once he takes office. It was his Reichstag fire.

Some journalists are ready to admit defeat. Others are at least suggesting ways in which journalists might combat Trump effectively; Ned Resnikoff at Thing Progress has done better at this than most. (I personally think that every time journalists at a Trump rally are derided by the president-elect, they ought to respond with birds and wanking gestures, just as a start.)  But none of them, with the honorable exception of Jamelle Bouie at Slate, seem willing or even able to grasp the reality that Arendt laid out a half-century ago.

Which leads us to a poignant question raised just this morning by the editorial-page editor of my local paper, a paper where I once worked for 22 years. Allen Johnson asked on his blog: Are we out to get Donald Trump?

My response was pretty simple:

First, he didn’t win the election “fair and square.” A large, multi-state effort coordinated by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach illegally purged large numbers of voters — primarily voters from demographics statistically likely to vote Democratic — from rolls in several swing states, as documented by journalist Greg Palast on his website and in his new book. Forget allegations of Russian interference and voting-machine tampering; we know for a fact that this happened and that its effect was more than large enough to have swung the Electoral College vote. See Palast’s website and book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” for more information.

Second, Trump is doing and and has announced plans to do things that are not just mean-spirited, destructive and dangerous, but also unconstitutional. Opposing such an individual is the highest form of patriotism.

But for reasons outlined above, the media almost certainly aren’t going to be any help.

So where does that leave us, as a nation and as individuals? I’ll discuss that in my next post an upcoming post — sorry, but the next post got so big it needed splitting into pieces.

 

 

Monday, November 7, 2016 7:30 pm

Jay Rosen on what the media missed, and me on what we need to work hard to miss

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has posted a piece titled “A Miss Bigger Than a Missed Story,” his final reflection before the election on how badly U.S. media have lost the thread of this election. It’s not that long, and its underlying thread is how politics simply doesn’t deal in reality anymore and how unprepared the media  have been for that change. He makes clear that this trend didn’t arise overnight with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The real value of the piece, though, is this conclusion:

Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.

That last graf is really what Donald Trump is up to, and it’s the one I want most to commend to the attention of my friends at the Times and the Post and Politico and CQ and The Hill and all the other primary drivers of national political coverage in this country.

I’ve made quite the pest of myself with y’all by emphasizing that this was the campaign that repealed Godwin’s law. That tenet of Internet dialogue holds that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Naziism. A corollary, also itself often referred to as Godwin’s law, is that whoever does so automatically loses the debate.

But in this campaign we have seen a candidate, Donald Trump, who has, in no particular order, advocated torture; advocated massive forced relocations; espoused racism, sexism (including sexual assault), many other forms of bigotry, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualismHe has embraced some of the most virulent anti-Semites currently operating in U.S. media and made them a key part of his campaign. His campaign’s final television ad was one long anti-Semitic dogwhistle. Look, I realize no one wants to look hysterical AND that comparisons to Hitler/Naziism have been overplayed on other subjects in the past. But, kids, at some point, if the jackboot fits, you’ve got to wear it. Trump and his campaign have been functioning in exactly the same way, with largely the same result, as all of the big totalitarian propaganda efforts of the 20th century, from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to China. And while some in the media get this, way too many are still in denial.

But, you say, Trump isn’t going to win tomorrow.

And as I write this, that looks like it’s probably true. My own prediction remains what it was once the two major-party nominees were determined last spring: Clinton wins with at least 310 electoral votes, and the Democrats tie for or retake the Senate. (Fun fact for us North Carolinians: Our polls close at 7:30 p.m. In 2012, the Associated Press called the state for Romney at 10:53 p.m. If North Carolina gets called for Clinton, particularly if that happens a lot earlier than it did in 2012, it’s game over for Trump. Clinton can afford to lose North Carolina. Trump cannot; he simply has no road to 270 electoral votes without us.)

But a huge number of Americans have supported Trump, and in so doing, they’ve demonstrated that they’re OK with the hatred, they’re vulnerable to the propaganda, or both. And those people will still be around and still creating trouble Wednesday and probably for years, perhaps decades, after. This campaign hasn’t just injected massive doses of hate into our political mainstream, as Rosen and Stanley point out, it has tried to make that the new reality.

Even worse, I can guarantee you that right now, this minute, someone both smarter and more disciplined than Trump already is plotting how to build on Trump’s accomplishments to capture those voters in off-year state and local races and in a race for the White House in 2020 and beyond.

That is what our news media will be facing, and denialism could be lethal to the American experiment as well as to nontrivial numbers of individual Americans. I realize that after this longest and ugliest of campaigns, no one wants to hear this — and God knows I’d love to be wrong about it — but I think the media, and all Americans of good faith and good sense, must fight this, starting immediately. I pray to God we’re up to it.

Monday, October 24, 2016 7:19 pm

Accountability journalism, how to make a profit, and the free-rider problem

This is a fascinating Q&A with James T. Hamilton, whose book “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism” comes out this month. He talks about how he found that investigative reporting provides a public good worth $100 or more for every dollar invested — and how a news outlet’s inability to recover some of that value keeps the market undersupplied with good investigative stories.

We wrestled with this problem at the News & Record when I worked there, and every news outlet that produces accountability journalism wrestles with it, too. The reasons are pretty simple. Accountability journalism is time- and labor-intensive, and it pretty much never earns back its production costs, let alone anything like a return on investment. (I say “pretty much never” because it’s possible that a series like Barlett & Steele’s “America: What Went Wrong” for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was so popular it was adapted into a best-selling book, might have generated a real return for Barlett & Steele, if not for the Inquirer.)

In economic terms, accountability journalism is a “public good,” meaning that while private, for-profit interests produce it, they almost always do so at a loss because the economic good is socialized — people and institutions benefit from it without paying for it and in many cases without ever buying the newspaper or watching the TV broadcast that produces that public good. Economists call that they free-rider problem.

Economists have pretty decent ways of estimating the value of public goods — they can tell you, for example, roughly how much a saved life is worth. What they haven’t come up with (and to be fair, neither has anyone else) is a reliable way of ensuring that private interests that produce public goods can recapture some of their investment — if not enough to profit, at least enough to recover the direct costs.

(My favorite example of this is the series “Bitter Blood,” which my former co-worker Jerry Bledsoe published in the Greensboro paper back in the 1980s. It sold roughly 10,000 copies of the paper per day over and above what the paper otherwise would have expected to sell. That sounds like a lot of extra papers, and it is. But each paper produced only 25 cents of revenue, so each day’s added sales yielded gross revenue of only about $2,500 — less than a 1-day, 1-page, black and white advertisement would have yielded. And that’s before you figure in the additional paper, ink and labor costs of printing and distributing those extra copies.)

How valuable is the public good produced by accountability journalism? Pretty valuable. Hamilton estimates that value at $143 for every dollar invested by The Washington Post in one of its projects, on police shootings, and $287 for every dollar invested by The News & Observer in a series on the state’s system of parole, in the first year following policy changes. In the case of the N&O, he says, that would have been enough money to hire 90 additional reporters for that year. He adds:

For comparison, when the Office of Management and Budget looked at the total ratio of annual benefits to annual costs of some regulations, the ratios were 3.0 for a Department of Labor rule on hazard communication and 5.5 for a Department of Energy conservation standard. Investing in investigative work appears like a relatively good investment from society’s perspective.

Ya think? Yeah, I’d say investing a buck and getting $287 or even $143 back is a “relatively good investment” compared to getting back three bucks or $5.50.

But the question remains: How can news outlets recapture some of that value? Hamilton offers some logical solutions, but I question whether the solutions would work, much as I want them to. For example, he suggests foundation funding. Most foundations would look askance at giving money to a for-profit news outlet, particularly when that outlet has been skimping on acountability journalism to support an artificially high profit margin, as many have. And for a news outlet to seek large donations from a single donor means adopting that donor’s charitable and political baggage, which almost all large charitable donors have. That can damage the outlet’s reputation for independence, which in turn harms its credibility, which could lessen the impact of its reporting and thus the value of the public good it produces.

I suppose it might be barely possible to give news outlets tax credits based on a small percentage of the public good their accountability journalism supplies. But as a practical matter, those benefits might take years to realize, and as a political matter, I don’t know of a politician alive or dead who would vote to give tax breaks to news outlets for investigative work.

Here’s the thing: Accountability journalism has NEVER paid for itself. It has always been subsidized, either by other, more profitable things that news outlets do (advertising, the comics, the horoscope, etc.) or by outside funding (as in the case of the investigative nonprofit Pro Publica). Hamilton has helped quantify the economic value of this problem, but at least based on this Q&A, he brings us no closer to the solution. Still, I plan to read the book and hope it will be more encouraging.

(h/t: John Robinson)

Updated 10/25 to fix the stupid paragraph breaks.

Thursday, September 22, 2016 6:42 pm

Instajackass

Apparently there is no situation so bad that Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds cannot make it worse.

Once upon a time, one could argue that Reynolds was at least an interesting and iconoclastic thinker from time to time, but he passed his sell-by date a long time ago.

 

Saturday, September 17, 2016 2:45 pm

The press is lying, but so are the voters

Two of our greatest American institutions are badly failing us today — our news media, and our very electorate. Both like to think of themselves as standing up for our essential American-ness, embracing values as defined in, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance. But both groups are lying, to us and to themselves.

Evidence of the problem can be found in the news media’s problems in covering Donald Trump, which I addressed earlier this week, and I’ll have more to say on that in a bit. But let me start with the electorate.

We voters like to think of ourselves as spokespeople for American values, holding these truths to be self-evident — a free and independent country, a democratic republic where all are equal, with liberty and justice for all, and so on and so forth. In point of fact, those truths are not self-evident; they are evident only to the extent that we do the work of making them real, every day, everywhere. And that is not what American voters have chosen to do. Largely although not exclusively by embracing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, a large minority of Americans has said something quite different: that they choose to be ruled by a tyrant.

This is not a new development. That segment of Americans has always been present and has been politically active continuously since World War II. They were there in the 1950s, lining up behind Joe McCarthy; they were there in the 1960s, hailing the domestic spy and hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover long after it was clear he was a constitutional abomination; they were there in the 1970s, defending the indefensible Richard Nixon; they were there in the ’80s, supporting the lawbreaking and increasingly senile Ronald Reagan; they were there in the ’90s, cheering George H.W. Bush’s pardons of the Iran-contra lawbreakers as he left the White House; they were there in the aughts, angrily denigrating anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s serial violations of U.S. and international law; and they are here today preparing to cast a ballot for a dyed-in-the-orange-wool fascist. Take it away, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

A substantial portion of this country wants someone not to govern, but to rule, to defeat the imaginary enemies they have concocted so as not to bestir themselves to resist the forces that actually are working against their interest. For the balance of this election cycle, and largely due to the presence in it of this ridiculous man and his ridiculous campaign, the American people have proven themselves profoundly unworthy of being called citizens. …

[Trump’s personal and financial involvement with Moammar Qaddafi] likely will occasion another spasm of impotent introspection on the part of our elite political media on the topic of, “Why doesn’t any of this stick?” But few of the members of that media will dare to look at the real answer, which is that there is a substantial constituency for what Trump has been peddling. …  Americans are bored with their democracy and they don’t have the democratic energy to do anything about it, so they’ll settle for an entertaining quasi-strongman. When they decline, democracies get the dictators they deserve. A country mired in apathy and lassitude gets a dictator who can’t even put in the hard work of becoming very good at it. …

But the truth is that the facts are out there if anyone wants to make the effort and find them. (The elite political media makes this harder by its curious reluctance to let these stories fully inform its coverage of the campaign.) That’s our collective job as citizens, and to do it requires a collective national will that no longer may be in us. With every new poll that is released, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not willing to put in the hours to be a competent authoritarian, which is cold comfort, I know, but you take what you can get.

That cannot be said of the next guy to try it, and there will be a next time, because the basic tectonic plates beneath our democracy have shifted so as to make the next guy inevitable. The mechanics of tyranny are not a magician’s prestige, the third part of a trick in which the lady is reassembled or the rabbit brought back to the hat. The mechanics of tyranny are primal in all of us, and vestigial in very few. They are reflexes, like breathing or flinching. We engage them without thinking. In fact, that’s the very best way to do it.

These are people who largely have decided not to do the hard work of self-goverance. Rather than seeking wisdom, or at least knowledge, they seek candidates who reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and who seek extraconstitutional power. They do so secure in the belief, though lacking any proof of that belief, that should such a tyranny come to pass, they would never suffer.

Why do they do so?

One big part of the problem, as I noted on Monday, is that the U.S. news media, for the most part, has not provided the information that a free people need to govern themselves, but the problem with the press is bigger than that. Donald Trump has presented the press with a campaign in which it is important, perhaps for the first time, for the press to respond not only with facts but also with values — and the press has almost completely failed to do so.

When Web 2.0 and social media began to become a thing back in the early 2000s, I wrestled with this issue in my role as an editor, Web jockey and blogger for the News & Record in Greensboro. Among the many things that seemed clear to me was that “objectivity,” the standard of the mainstream U.S. news media for the past century or so, was an inadequate standard for a changing industry. I suggested to co-workers at that paper and in the industry, and to the occasional reader who asked, that we needed something different, something more.

I argued, in different times and places and with differing levels of coherence, that we needed not objectivity, but fairness, accuracy and transparency in pursuit of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” called “the discipline of verification.” With respect to transparency, I said, news organizations need to be open to their publics about how they do what they do, and about why they do it. And those reasons, I argued further, should stem from clear, well-defined values.

What should those values look like? I never completed a list, but I did start one. I would have hoped, for example, that a U.S. news organization would embrace and stand for some of the country’s fundamental values — like, well, liberty and justice for all. Equal protection under the law. Government by the people, which meant, as a practical matter, that the people needed to be able to know in almost all circumstances what the government was doing, and how, and with whose money and for whose benefit.

It sounds pretty basic and pretty logical, but the longer I spent in newspapers, the less I believed that the U.S. news media really stood for this stuff anymore, if it ever had. (Some of the country’s best, and best-known, newspapers were segregationist until relatively recently, for example. For another example, U.S. news media did not uniformly criticize our government’s use of torture, a crime against both U.S. and international law for which it had hanged representatives of other governments.)

And that is part of the reason why the media are failing to confront the danger that a possible Trump candidacy poses to those American values, writes Brian Beutler in The New Republic: The press hasn’t expressed those values because it hasn’t embraced them except in very attenuated circumstances. What it values most is itself.

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment [or about how his financial dealings conflict directly with national interests — Lex] have a hard time breaking through.

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.

So when someone points out weaknesses — often huge ones — in the press coverage of Trump, the press doesn’t perceive the criticism as highlighting a danger to the country, it perceives the criticism directly as a danger to itself. As Beutler notes, this tendency was highlighted by Liz Spayd, the grossly inferior successor to Margaret Sullivan as public editor (ombudswoman, if you will) of The New York Times.

This problem can be prevented if the press will define and then act in accordance with its explicit values as elucidated in the founding documents, crafting those values as reflective of the press’s historical role as the representative of the people, all the people, who govern this country: its citizens. It also can be prevented if journalists will stop spending so much of their time worrying about what effect this proposal or that comment will have on one candidate or the other’s standing, and worry instead about what we talked about earlier: pursuit of the discipline of verification, including eyewitness verification.

Beutler agrees, in a separate article published just yesterday:

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.

What we do about the large minority of the electorate that appears to desire, or at least be content with, the election of a tyrant is a larger and more difficult question, likely encompassing everything from family dynamics and civic education to neuropsychology. And the stakes could not be higher outside the realms of global warming and giant meteors: The future of the 240-year-old American experiment depends on our finding an answer, for as Pierce observes, while this tyrant is quasi-comical and in many ways inept, the next tyrant quite likely will be neither. But one thing that cannot hurt and almost certainly will help is a press that strives to pursue the discipline of verification within the context of explicitly stated and observed values that will inspire us to be our best national self, which is the best the world has to offer.

Monday, September 12, 2016 6:32 am

The normalization of Donald Trump

If Donald Trump is elected our next president, there will have been several reasons why, but the most important one by far will have been the national news media’s performance. The media have both beaten up Hillary Clinton over nonexistent “scandals” and ignored or downplayed aspects of Trump’s character and actions that in any sane society would render him fundamentally unfit to be a major party’s nominee for the highest office in the land.

Examples of the former date back at least as far as the original New York Times story on the Whitewater real-estate deal in 1992, in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were suspected of having somehow benefitted improperly — the fact that they lost money notwithstanding. In Hillary Clinton’s case, they have included allegations of wrongdoing over investing in cattle futures, misplacing documents, and mishandling emails, and in no case was Clinton found to have committed wrongdoing.

Most recently, the Associated Press purported to prove that donors to the Clinton Global Foundation had somehow benefitted improperly with their relations with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. In point of fact, none of them did. Two weeks after it tweeted that it had found “pay for play” in those relationships, a claim the AP’s own reporting did not bear out, the AP took that tweet down with no explanation or apology that I’m aware of.

And just this weekend, the media, following as always the lead of their GOP sources, have acted outraged that Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Only here’s what Clinton actually said:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people (and) now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Was it scandalous that Clinton said this? On the contrary, polling shows that she is understating the problem. Hell, The New York Times found that almost 20 percent of Trump supporters thought freeing the slaves was a bad idea and another 17 percent weren’t sure. They’re not just a basket of deplorables, they’re a kettle of vultures and a gen-u-wine Bucket o’ FAIL. Hell, Trump himself frequently retweets people who are white supremacists themselves and/or follow some of the leading white-supremacist Twitter accounts.

And yet somehow Republicans and the media alike thought Clinton owed these people some kind of apology, with CNN describing Clinton’s assertion as a “shocking statement.”

Meanwhile, the media continue to normalize Trump’s bullying, narcissism, and bigotry, which has been blatantly obvious since he started his campaign more than a year ago with this assertion:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Oh, some are good people. How big of him.

Trump has proven himself to be a serial liar of world-historical proportions. He has lied about tariffs, reporters, his own political performance, the economy’s performance, and whether he was self-funding his campaign. He has lied, bigly, about his charitable givingHe even has lied about who was the biggest liar in the GOP nomination race. And one finding of the independent fact-checking site Politifact is that not only is Trump the most dishonest major politician on the U.S. scene today, Hillary Clinton is second only to Barack Obama in honesty.

His temperament, which some professionals have identified as narcissistic personality disorder, makes him a significant threat to place in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Yet despite clear evidence that Trump is too deeply flawed to be qualified for president, cable news gave him far more free air time than it gave his GOP opponents for the nomination:

According to The New York Times, Trump has received $1.9 billion worth of earned media, which includes coverage of the candidate on television and social media, and in newspapers and magazines. That is more than twice the amount of earned media Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton has received and more than six times the amount received by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the second-biggest earner of free media among Republicans.

Meanwhile, print/online pundits have persisted in reassuring the American people that he would “pivot” away from such views after winning the nomination to appeal to more moderate voters. This is staggering, for there has been no evidence whatever that such a transformation was ever in the cards. Trump has lied voluminously, but he has said one thing that the media need to take to the bank: “I am who I am. It’s me. I do not want to change.”

As I write, Trump trails Clinton by 5 percentage points in national polls, and, also at this writing, the way to 270 electoral votes appears shorter and straighter for Clinton than it does for Trump. But given the dramatic difference in qualifications of the two major-party nominees, the gap ought to be much wider.

Part of the problem is that about three in four white evangelical Christians say they’ll vote for Trump. That group makes up almost half the Republican primary vote and, on the basis of Christ’s teachings, might be expected to reject Trump’s bullying and bigotry. A number of prominent evangelical leaders have done so, but the rank and file appear almost all in (and some other evangelical leaders are just cashing in).

But I think a significant segment of the blame also lies with U.S. news media, who seek to create equivalence between Trump and Clinton when there simply is none.

Why? I don’t know. I suspect sexism plays a nontrivial role. In addition, perhaps the people who run news media are, as a group, Trump supporters. Perhaps they simply want to see a close race, figuring that that would generate higher ratings and readership (and possibly increased political-ad revenue as well). Perhaps reporters and pundits are in a rut of adhering to narratives that either were never true or, if they once were true, no longer are. Perhaps all of the above.

But whatever the reason, it adds up to journalism that is at best lazy and incompetent and at worst dishonest and dangerous, given the stakes for the Republic if Trump wins. And that will be the big takeaway of news-media coverage of this campaign, whatever the outcome of the election.

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 7:31 pm

Kaepernick, cont.: Bleacher Report says team execs hate him

I have mixed feelings on this Bleacher Report story by Mike Freeman:

Across NFL front offices, there are team officials who are not offended, and even embrace, the controversial position of Colin Kaepernick. They are out there. Statistically, they have to be. But they are keeping a low profile.

They seem to be far outnumbered by the members of NFL front offices who despise him. Truly, truly hate him.

“I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” one front office executive said. “He’s a traitor.”

A traitor?

He wasn’t alone in the anger directed toward Kaepernick. In interviews with seven team executives, each said he didn’t want Kaepernick on his team. This is far from scientific, but I believe this is likely the feeling among many front office executives. Not all. But many.

All seven estimated 90 to 95 percent of NFL front offices felt the same way they did. One executive said he hasn’t seen this much collective dislike among front office members regarding a player since Rae Carruth. Remember Rae Carruth? He’s still in prison for the plot to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

Personally, I think the dislike of Kaepernick is inappropriate and un-American. I find it ironic that citizens who live in a country whose existence is based on dissent criticize someone who expresses dissent.

But in NFL front offices, the feeling is very different.

The story goes on like that for a good bit longer, letting one exec after another take some often-ridiculous potshots at Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem at last Friday’s 49ers-Packers game in protest of police violence toward people of color.

So, let’s take these executives’ complaints about Kaepernick at face value and analyze them, starting with the executive quoted above:

  • “He’s a traitor.” Well, no, he’s not. Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution, and the Constitution defines it as making war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Kapernick is guilty of neither.
  • “”He has no respect for our country. F— that guy.” I’m not sure how this exec became a mind reader, but let’s assume for a second that he’s correct. Given the real and documented nature of the problem about which Kaepernick is complaining, why should he respect this country, which asserts it offers “liberty and justice for all” but which in practice has a long way to go before that will be true?
  • “Another said that if an owner asked him to sign Kaepernick, he would consider resigning, rather than do it.” No reason given, but I wonder how this exec feels about signing domestic abusers and dogfighters.
  • ” (Executives) also don’t believe he appreciates what he has. Many of them pointed to Kaepernick’s salary and said he would never make that kind of money if not for football.” What the hell does that have to do with anything? Kaepernick made it very clear that he was speaking in support of people of color generally, not just for himself. He was using a platform that he has that most people of color do not. Do league executives, who famously don’t give up a penny not called for in the contract, actually think that paying a player buys his silence on topics of which team execs do not approve?

Granted, not many direct quotes here, but what quotes there are don’t seem to come from a place of reflection or even logic.

Now, I’m glad that Freeman did this story. It’s good to know how at least some league execs feel. But I have some problems with it as well.

For one thing, we have only Freeman’s word that it’s in any way representative of team execs around the league. Seven is a very small sample.

But more damningly, I think it was unethical of Freeman to grant these men (I’m certain they were all men) anonymity in order to hurl their invective at Kaepernick. If these guys felt as strongly as Freeman would have us believe, certainly they’d have been willing to go on the record. And if they weren’t willing, then that calls into question just how right they actually think they are.

Which leads us to the question of what, exactly, is going through these executives’ minds. We hate what we fear. Are these execs really afraid of what would happen if this country, as Kaepernick suggested, got serious about erasing racial discrimination, especially in law enforcement? Or, on a more basic level, are they just afraid of people of color in general?

Either way, such fear not only is not grounded in reality, it’s un-American. The NFL makes a big deal about being the most patriotic of our national sports, but its executives would appear to have a lot to learn about the ideals on which this country was really founded and what it takes to make those ideals real.

 

 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 7:41 pm

WikiLeaks isn’t just committing bad journalism, it’s also putting lives at risk

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 7:41 pm
Tags: ,

I don’t pretend to know what motivates WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. But here’s what I do know: The site, which was started ostensibly to reveal secret government documents of public interest, now apparently is taking whatever it can find and just dumping it, actually putting lives at risk:

WikiLeaks’ global crusade to expose government secrets is causing collateral damage to the privacy of hundreds of innocent people, including survivors of sexual abuse, sick children and the mentally ill, The Associated Press has found.

In the past year alone, the radical transparency group has published medical files belonging to scores of ordinary citizens while many hundreds more have had sensitive family, financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims. In a third case, the site published the name of a Saudi citizen arrested for being gay, an extraordinary move given that homosexuality is punishable by death in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom.

“They published everything: my phone, address, name, details,” said a Saudi man who told AP he was bewildered that WikiLeaks had revealed the details of a paternity dispute with a former partner. “If the family of my wife saw this … Publishing personal stuff like that could destroy people.”

WikiLeaks’s response to the Associated Press’s reporting did not instill confidence that the organization is thinking clearly about its aims and goals:

US big media scramble to side with presumptive winner . We expect many more recycled attacks like AP’s today as our leaks continue.

So, no explanation of, let alone justification for, the publication of people’s private information, including information that could be lethal in the wrong hands.

As I said yesterday in my post on Gawker, with great power comes great responsibility. WikiLeaks could be a tremendous force for government transparency and a tool to give people greater control over their governments and other institutions. But now, I’m not sure what the hell it’s trying to prove. Is Assange just going after people over petty grudges? Worse, is he subjecting random people he doesn’t even know to this treatment? Honestly, it’s enough to make me wonder about Assange’s own state of mental health.

I would reluctantly agree that there can be some times when hacking is justified, in an ethical sense if not a legal one: when the public good urgently requires information to be distributed that can be obtained in no other way. That’s a vague criterion on purpose: Every case and every set of circumstances is different.

I say I “reluctantly” agree because hacking is such an enormous invasion of privacy and because the potential for its abuse is extremely high, as this case illustrates.

It’s ethically dicey enough when a source willingly provides a news outlet information knowing that he could be retaliated against. How much worse is it when, in this case, the information was both illegally obtained and given without the permission of the owner of the information in a situation in which no public good appears to be served?

Again, I don’t know what motivates Assange, and I care only insofar as that knowledge might be used to influence him not to publish private stuff about people who, so far as we know, have done nothing wrong. But if he doesn’t watch it, he’s going to have innocent blood on his hands.

Monday, August 22, 2016 9:59 pm

Yes, Gawker was killed, but, no, Tom Scocca, it was never gaslighted

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 9:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

The news and gossip site Gawker has been shut down. But on its last day of existence, writer Tom Scocca made clear that he didn’t really understand how and why it had happened.

He wrote:

A lie with a billion dollars behind it is stronger than the truth. Peter Thiel has shut down Gawker.com.

This is the final act in what Thiel wished to present, and succeeded in presenting, as a simple and ancient morality play, a story of hubris meeting its punishment. The premise behind that morality play was, as Thiel wrote in space given him by the New York Times last week, that “cruelty and recklessness were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model.” The $140 million judgment that his lawyers secured for Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media, sending the company into a bankruptcy from which its flagship site would not emerge, was a matter of “proving that there are consequences for violating privacy.”

And in so writing, Scocca demonstrated that he — and quite likely most of his erstwhile co-workers — never understood the Spider-Man Axiom of Investigative Reporting: With great power comes great responsibility.

When you undertake to publish negative information about someone, both law and ethics dictate that a number of conditions apply: That the material be true. That it be of legitimate public interest. That the benefit to the public outweigh the harm caused by publishing it. And on and on. And Scocca needs to get over himself, because the fact of the matter is that Gawker, for all its legitimate iconoclasm, flouted those principles repeatedly.

That doesn’t mean that Silicon Valley billionaires with grudges should be allowed to bankrupt news organizations at will. They shouldn’t. And pretty much every state in the union could use stronger anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) protections to ensure that true but unflattering information about individuals and organizations that control significant parts of our society can be published without legal or financial penalty.

But news outlets, I would argue, have an obligation to publish damaging information for the benefit of the public, not for the public’s titillation alone. That’s where Gawker screwed up, and not just in the case of the Hulk Hogan sex tape. Yeah, that was the wrong hill to die on, but Gawker had published many other stories into which Peter Thiel could just as easily have gotten involved, with the same result.

Scocca wrote, “Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them.” Well, no, lawsuits and settlements do NOT happen to everyone. Plenty of investigative reporters complete full and rewarding careers without ever having been sued, not because they were timid but because their reporting was so goddamned bulletproof that no plaintiff’s attorney would be so foolish as to even take the case. In a 25-year journalism career I was threatened with lawsuits over at least a half a dozen stories, but I was never sued, and I’m far from atypical.

As I noted a few days ago on Facebook, I need a word that means I am appalled by what Peter Thiel did in funding the Hogan lawsuit against Gawker, without supporting everything that Gawker ever has done. I said there’s probably no such word in English, that it probably exists in German but has something like 17 syllables.

Gawker as an institution deliberately blurred the lines between news and gossip and made a lot of money doing so for a long time. But in the end, both law and karma bit it in the ass. (FWIW, invasion of privacy for publication of true but unflattering information hasn’t been a tort claim in North Carolina since the Great Depression, according to my last conversation on the subject with the News & Record’s Smith Moore lawyers more than a decade ago.)

I’m under no illusions. I know goddamned well that, emboldened by the outcome of the Gawker case, Thiel, or someone like him, not only can but will go after some other news outlet that has published nothing but legitimate news and will try to bankrupt it. That very thing happened recently with Mother Jones magazine, which won a lawsuit it had virtually no chance of losing but at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But investigative reporting can be a devastating weapon that can ruin people’s lives. It must be used carefully, ethically, and always with the public good in mind. To do otherwise is bullying or worse, and makes it harder for those involved in legitimate, ethical investigative reporting to do their jobs.

I’m sorry Gawker is gone, and I don’t for one second underestimate the threat that Peter Thiel and billionaires like him pose to free and independent discourse, and thus to self-government, in this country. But when you go after a target, your heart needs to be pure and your skirts clean. Gawker thought that sentiment too precious, and Gawker will cease to exist after today in significant part because it thought that way.

 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 7:44 pm

Kathleen Parker, Elon University, free speech, and …

The Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker has been in the news here because some students at nearby Elon University are not happy that she has been booked to speak there.

To be clear, my reaction to the anti-Parker petition has been and remains: Grow up, kids. College, of all places, should be where you are confronted from time to time by views different from your own. Besides, if I had to sit through William F. Buckley’s faux-philosophical bullshit (which cost us $7,500 in student fees back in the day, not that I am bitter), you can survive Kathleen Parker. Even if she does lean conservative, she’s right from time to time — she despises Donald Trump, for example, and unlike a lot of conservatives, she isn’t afraid to say so — now, at least. Granted, she’s not right THAT often — typically, it happens so seldom that when she is right, I email her to tell her so — but it does happen.

That’s not to say I think she will be a great inspiration or even particularly useful. Like most other big-league journalists, she has missed the biggest political story of the past 50 years in our country, which is this: Liberals have been right about damned near everything, even while taking ungodly amounts of shit for it.

That’s bad enough, but what makes Parker worse is that she somehow acts like she hasn’t contributed her fair share of the ungodly amounts of shit. Brother Driftglass elucidates:

… thanks to the magic of fiction and the genius of Billy Wilder, this particular corpse [in the movie “Sunset Boulevard”] floating face-down in a swimming pool is able to ruefully narrate the story of every craven compromise and mercenary decision that led to his own demise.
And, amazingly, so does Ms. Parker.
Because when she runs down an abridged but accurate list of the craven compromises and mercenary decisions that led to her party’s demise–
The party of Lincoln, a sometimes laughable bragging point for diehards whose racial attitudes survived the Civil War intact, is long gone. Its dissolution began at least with Richard Nixon, who embraced a Southern strategy that pandered to racists and set the course for today’s GOP.
The party of angry men and patient women tried to add a little sugar and spice, plunging itself ever lower on the curve when it embraced a cute little winkin’, blinkin’ and noddin’ gal-gov from Alaska as vice-presidential running mate to John McCain — and a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Next came the tea party movement, to which Sarah Palin briefly attached her Winnebago, followed by the government shutdown, and culminating with the glittering, twittering Tower of Trump.
— she shows that she has clearly known all along that what Liberals have been saying about the GOP all along has f—–g well been true all along.
But there has never been any profit in telling that truth, has there?
And so Ms. Parker played ball and played ball and played ball right up until the monster that Richard Nixon began raising in a flower box on the Truman Balcony grew big enough to eat the whole party — Lincoln, Burke, Eisenhower and all.
And now, from the safety of her overpriced column in the Washington Post, she is having a good pout over it.
Parker has spent about the past 30 years as a defender of and apologist for the very things that gave rise to the Trump candidacy she finds so objectionable. Now, possibly too late and certainly way behind a lot of people she considers her intellectual inferiors, she realizes that she was wrong and they were right, even if she can’t quite bring herself to say so.
So, Elon students, yes, you should quit whining and go hear what Parker has to say. But know that your speaker has, for most of her career, had a huge moral and practical blind spot of which she only now is becoming aware, and judge her remarks accordingly. And by all means, question her ruthlessly about it when you get to the Q-and-A portion of the festivities.

Saturday, July 2, 2016 12:15 pm

Unseemly appearances

Not for the first or last time, Bill Clinton has committed, at the least, an enormous unforced error, to the significant detriment of his wife’s presidential campaign.

Clinton met at an Arizona airport with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. This would be the same attorney general whose Department of Justice is investigating possible crimes with respect to Hillary Clinton’s having used a private email server and who ultimately must sign off on any decision about prosecutions.

Clinton and Lynch have said they did not discuss the case. I’m skeptical, and we’ll probably never know. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that they didn’t: It was still an enormously stupid thing for Bill to have done.

This meeting happened just after the release of a report by the congressional committee that is investigating the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. (Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was part and parcel of that investigation.) That report, two years and $7 million in the making, found no wrongdoing on the part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Given that the whole investigation — indeed, the whole committee — was nothing but a partisan witch hunt, this should have been an opportunity for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to take a big ol’ victory lap and rub the GOP’s face in its own failure. Instead, the story of Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch popped up almost immediately, and the media hubbub over that meeting pretty much drowned out the good news for the Clinton campaign.

Now, a lot of people I’ve interacted with on social media claim that this is a bullshit nonstory blown up by a GOP-compliant media. To which I respond: So what? We already know that our news media tend to make nothingburgers about Democrats into Big Hairy Deals while ignoring or downplaying the much worse excesses of Republicans. (Here’s just one particularly relevant example: The GOP established a special congressional committee to look into the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi — but did nothing about the deaths of 60 Americans in dozens of attacks on U.S. embassies that took place during the George W. Bush administration.)

As someone in the PR business, I would tell any client that you need to deal with the news media as they are, not as you wish they were. To do otherwise is to violate a basic rule of PR: If you do something that looks bad, a nontrivial number of people in the media are likely to claim that it is bad even if it really isn’t.

Critics of this position tend to argue that the news media need to be better at their jobs (which they do) and that because there’s no actual, substantive wrongdoing here (so far as we know), it doesn’t matter. But it does. One reason the Clintons score so low on the trustworthiness scale is that they have a long history of doing things that look wrong even if they actually aren’t wrong. That history includes, among many greatest hits, Bill’s claim to have smoked pot without inhaling, Hillary’s unlikely but apparently legitimate profit at cattle-futures trading, and Hillary’s latter-day flip-flops on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Each of these things, in isolation, means little or nothing. But put them all together, combine with the aforementioned media flaws and Republican pile-ons, and shake well, and you get a pretty poisonous PR cocktail.

The Clintons’ defenders in this instance argue that this somehow doesn’t matter, but unforced errors this big always matter. And the vehemence with which these defenders argue their position, even though it makes no sense to anyone with a lick of common sense, let alone PR training, suggests that on some level, they know Bill Clinton screwed up and they’re angry about it but just don’t want to admit it.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m voting for Hillary in November because I am a single-issue voter and my single issue is not opening the seventh seal and ushering in the Apocalypse. But given the ability and willingness of Republicans and their media allies (unwitting or otherwise) to turn nothingburgers into “scandals,” the Clintons desperately need PR counsel with absolute veto power over their worst instincts. And history suggests that they either don’t know this or don’t care.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 5:40 am

The Big Lie: Andrew Sullivan on Donald Trump

You can tell people who actually think from the poseurs by what they think of Andrew Sullivan’s new piece for New York magazine.

Sure, Sullivan’s main point is unassailable: The rise of Donald Trump puts America closer to tyranny than it ever has been (except, maybe, immediately after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, I would add). But how he gets there is shot through with errors and omissions large and small, not least of them the fact that Sullivan has both enabled and defended what gave rise to the situation he now decries.

He places an inordinate amount of faith in Plato’s take on democracy: that it is probably the only path to tyranny, and that a democracy gets closer to tyranny the more democratic it becomes. Uh, Andy, just within living memory of a nontrivial number of Americans and Britons, let us examine the examples of Weimar Germany, which turned to tyranny after just 15 years of not-particularly-accelerating democracy, and Russia, which has lurched from tyranny to tyranny in the past century with barely a few years of anything resembling democracy.

Which wouldn’t matter if he didn’t then go on to blame “our own hyperdemocratic times.” But, of course, he does, because in Sullivan’s worldview, democracy is part of the problem:

And so, as I chitchatted over cocktails at a Washington office Christmas party in December, and saw, looming above our heads, the pulsating, angry televised face of Donald Trump on Fox News, I couldn’t help but feel a little nausea permeate my stomach. And as I watched frenzied Trump rallies on C-SPAN in the spring, and saw him lay waste to far more qualified political peers in the debates by simply calling them names, the nausea turned to dread. And when he seemed to condone physical violence as a response to political disagreement, alarm bells started to ring in my head. Plato had planted a gnawing worry in my mind a few decades ago about the intrinsic danger of late-democratic life. It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.

Yeah, about that book: See above.

He goes on to blame hyperdemocracy for the emergence of such ultimate presidential losers as Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Trump, ignoring the fact that in every case but Jackson’s, personal wealth and/or corporate backing was the only thing that made the candidacy anywhere near viable (and Jackson at least had a history of leading a movement, which the others lacked). For reasons known only to Sullivan and God, Sullivan characterizes this trend as “our increased openness to being led by anyone; indeed, our accelerating preference for outsiders,” without mentioning the role money plays.

Indeed, he actually argues that money plays no role:

But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet, blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist, defeating the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary and later his Republican opponent (both pillars of their parties’ Establishments and backed by moneyed elites). In 2012, the fund-raising power behind Mitt Romney — avatar of the one percent — failed to dislodge Obama from office. And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument. Trump, of course, is a largely self-funding billionaire — but like Willkie, he argues that his wealth uniquely enables him to resist the influence of the rich and their lobbyists. Those despairing over the influence of Big Money in American politics must also explain the swift, humiliating demise of Jeb Bush and the struggling Establishment campaign of Hillary Clinton. The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics.

True as far as it goes, which is not far: He ignores the toxic effect of money, particularly corporate money, on Congress and statehouses, where fact-based action on issues ranging from climate change to education are stymied by corporate cash. And he continues to blame “hyperdemocracy” for our current problems:

But it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

Oh, please, Andy. Ronald Reagan, whom you so idolize, was the epitome of a shameless demagogue. (Tell me what in the pluperfect hell else kicking off one’s presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., is supposed to be besides a dog whistle to white racists.) And George H.W. Bush with his Willie Horton ads. And George W. Bush with his shameless cautions against “terra” after blatantly ignoring warnings that might have saved us from it. And Mitt Romney with his “job creators” and “job takers” bullshit. Hell, the only GOP presidential contender of the past 36 years who wasn’t a demagogue was Bob Dole in ’96, and even he ultimately, and desperately, caved on the topic of tax cuts in a vain effort to win an election he already had lost.

These candidates and presidents did nothing more or less than what the GOP in general has done for the past 50-plus years: They trafficked in racism, sexism, other forms of bigotry, xenophobia, voting restrictions, anti-elitism, and class warfare, all of which helped create the conditions in which we now find ourselves. Democracy didn’t create Trump; to the contrary, the GOP’s own antidemocratic tendencies did.

Sullivan also blames part of our current problems on the Internet, which, Andy, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the Internet did not create or cause “feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.” They were always there, and one party, the GOP, has trafficked in them far more than the other. The narcissism that enables people to believe that their common sense trumps the informed opinion of disinterested researchers is almost exclusively a GOP product. Hell, Andy, it enables you to pose as historian and philosopher when you are neither. “Yes, occasional rational points still fly back and forth, but there are dramatically fewer elite arbiters to establish which of those points is actually true or valid or relevant,” Sullivan writes. “We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts.”

What horseshit. We haven’t “lost” authoritative sources; the GOP has abandoned them when they didn’t serve the party’s purposes. Supply-side economics was exposed as a hoax by David Stockman within a year of Reagan’s taking office and confirmed as such by hundreds of economists since, but it remains a staple of GOP platforms from Greensboro to Raleigh to Washington. The scientific community is roughly 99.9% convinced that human activity is causing global warming; it is the Republicans who take money from the carbon industry (which has roughly 27 trillion reasons still in the ground to lie about this subject) to pretend there’s any question about it.

Where  Sullivan fails most greatly, however, is to blame “hyperdemocracy” for Trump without analyzing that without which Trump never could have become so popular: the GOP electorate. It is bigoted, obtuse, fact-averse, and often sociopathic. And how did it get that way? Because the GOP has spent the past 50 years encouraging it to be so. Sullivan grants that Trump has played a role in this —

Trump assiduously cultivated this image and took to reality television as a natural. Each week, for 14 seasons of The Apprentice, he would look someone in the eye and tell them, “You’re fired!” The conversation most humane bosses fear to have with an employee was something Trump clearly relished, and the cruelty became entertainment. In retrospect, it is clear he was training — both himself and his viewers. If you want to understand why a figure so widely disliked nonetheless powers toward the election as if he were approaching a reality-TV-show finale, look no further. His television tactics, as applied to presidential debates, wiped out rivals used to a different game. And all our reality-TV training has conditioned us to hope he’ll win — or at least stay in the game till the final round. In such a shame-free media environment, the assholes often win. In the end, you support them because they’re assholes.

— without acknowledging that it wasn’t just Trump, but the whole damned GOP, that built this Frankenstein’s monster of a voting base. And he doesn’t get to whine like a little bitch now that the monster has decided that it will make the decisions.

Sullivan to the contrary, it is not the pro-democratic and progressive movement that has given rise to Trump. That movement has expanded the rights of minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, even convicted felons, and in no instance has it given rise to demagoguery. Bernie Sanders has correctly identified real problems — problems affecting many people in the GOP base, for that matter — and while his solutions strike the media as outside the mainstream, they are hardly demagoguery. Indeed, they work well in some of the most successful democracies on the planet.

Having misused Plato, Sullivan goes on to misuse Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer:

In Eric Hoffer’s classic 1951 tract, The True Believer, he sketches the dynamics of a genuine mass movement. He was thinking of the upheavals in Europe in the first half of the century, but the book remains sobering, especially now. Hoffer’s core insight was to locate the source of all truly mass movements in a collective sense of acute frustration. Not despair, or revolt, or resignation — but frustration simmering with rage. Mass movements, he notes (as did Tocqueville centuries before him), rarely arise when oppression or misery is at its worst (say, 2009); they tend to appear when the worst is behind us but the future seems not so much better (say, 2016). It is when a recovery finally gathers speed and some improvement is tangible but not yet widespread that the anger begins to rise. After the suffering of recession or unemployment, and despite hard work with stagnant or dwindling pay, the future stretches ahead with relief just out of reach. When those who helped create the last recession face no consequences but renewed fabulous wealth, the anger reaches a crescendo.

The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet. No one asked them in the 1990s if this was the future they wanted. And the impact has been more brutal than many economists predicted. No wonder suicide and mortality rates among the white working poor are spiking dramatically.

“It is usually those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration,” Hoffer argues. Fundamentalist religion long provided some emotional support for those left behind (for one thing, it invites practitioners to defy the elites as unholy), but its influence has waned as modernity has penetrated almost everything and the great culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s have ended in a rout. The result has been a more diverse mainstream culture — but also, simultaneously, a subculture that is even more alienated and despised, and ever more infuriated and bloody-minded.

This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working ­class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain — and has actually helped exacerbate.

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out.

Not a word about how Republican policies of the past 35 years have, with occasional Democratic assistance, created this misery. Not a word about retrograde tax policies. Not a word about releasing the hounds of unfettered corporatism. Not a word about so-called free-trade treaties with toothless or nonexistent job protections or retraining measures. Not a word about Big Government spying. Not a word about ongoing, deadly racism and sexism. No, what we get is a Bizarro World in which the white working class is somehow the only victim, and these victims are being mocked by progressives. Whatever else voting for Bernie Sanders might mean, it also is a recognition of the white working class’s problems and an effort to bring about a means of fixing those problems, a possibility that never crosses Sullivan’s mind.

Again and again, Sullivan casts Trump as not a real Republican, as part of The Other and somehow a uniquely dangerous proposition:

And so after demonizing most undocumented Mexican immigrants, he then vowed to round up and deport all 11 million of them by force. “They have to go” was the typically blunt phrase he used — and somehow people didn’t immediately recognize the monstrous historical echoes.

Well, gee, Andy, that couldn’t possibly have been because the party has been saying only slightly milder variations of this very thing for 50 years, could it? That couldn’t possibly have been because almost every other Republican candidate in the whole damn Klown Kar was saying the same damn thing, could it?

Sullivan even insists that threats of violence are unique to Trump —

And while a critical element of 20th-century fascism — its organized street violence — is missing, you can begin to see it in embryonic form. The phalanx of bodyguards around Trump grows daily; plainclothes bouncers in the crowds have emerged as pseudo-cops to contain the incipient unrest his candidacy will only continue to provoke; supporters have attacked hecklers with sometimes stunning ferocity. Every time Trump legitimizes potential violence by his supporters by saying it comes from a love of country, he sows the seeds for serious civil unrest.

— apparently having forgotten that t-shirts bearing the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” were widely available years before Trump became a candidate.

And having misread Plato and Hoffer, Sullivan turns to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here to suggest that “the elites” are to blame —

An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance.

— once again without pointing out that in almost every single instance, the problems of the “American elite” he’s talking about are overwhelmingly the fault of the GOP. The massive debt was caused primarily by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the debt is now falling as a percentage of the economy and so is not as pressing a problem as it was), the failure to prevent 9/11 lies squarely with George W. Bush and his cabal, the hands-off attitude toward Big Finance was the direct, predictable, and predicted result of GOP deregulation in the ’90s, and the “bitter division” is actually unprecedented GOP obstructionism that began the night President Obama was elected.

Sullivan concludes as he began and continued, with a deluded implicit belief that the GOP somehow is not the problem:

… those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.

And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

What universe is Sullivan living in? On what planet would the GOP actually stand up for the good of the nation and not simply fall in line behind Trump? Sullivan knows this. He’s not earnestly pleading with his party to do the right thing. He’s simply trying to save his own skin, hoping desperately that no one will notice that he has been one of the GOP’s most slavish apologists and defenders. Sorry, Andy, but come the revolution, you, too, are going up against the wall.

In short, Sullivan’s dishonesty is staggering, and the chutzpah that lets him believe he can fool people with this crap is breathtaking. But it is all of a piece with the Republican Party’s past 50 years of profoundly anti-democratic secrets and lies. The party built the electorate it wanted, and in a natural progression, that electorate has chosen the candidate it wanted. That candidate will win the nomination, and the party will fall in line behind it. And no matter what Sullivan, or David Brooks, or Chuck Todd, or any other Apostle of Both-Siderism has to say, America’s Democrats and independents had nothing to do with it. The fact that Sullivan can be well paid to suggest otherwise merely shows how willing — indeed, desperate — Americans are to mistake cunning for wisdom.

Monday, April 25, 2016 7:32 pm

No more copy editors; or, Sue me, please!

The Bay Area News Group has just declared open season on itself for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

It has announced that it’s killing its copy desk and getting rid of 11 FTEs thereupon.

Because they don’t directly produce content, copy editors increasingly have been seen as superfluous in digital media, which don’t seem to value clean copy as much as print historically has done. Copy editors have been as vulnerable to other layoffs as other journalists, and in recent years newspaper chains have trended toward regional hubs for copy editors rather than a copy desk for each publication, a move that saves money but kill institutional memory and the accompanying ability to catch dumb mistakes that the locals would recognize.

Now, the Bay Area News Group is going that one better:

We’re launching a series of changes to the assigning and copy editing process in an attempt to manage a planned loss of approximately 11 FTEs. We are choosing

this course, as many papers have across the country, rather than cutting more deeply into the ranks of content producers or neglecting our digital needs.

The bottom line is that we will be eliminating a layer of valuable editing across most of the copy desk — what is known in desk parlance as the rim. The result:

* Staff stories that go inside sections will not be copy-edited. The assigning editor will be the only read. (In sports, late stories that do not go through an assigning editor will continue to be read on the desk, once.) Stories for our East Bay weeklies will not be copy-edited./CONTINUES

* Staff stories for section covers will receive one read on the desk rather than the current two.

* Proofreading will be reduced.

This is going to place a new level of responsibility on reporters and, especially, assigning editors. Many of the ways in which the desk bails us out — often without us noticing — will disappear. That will mean:

* All assigning editors must run Tansa on stories before moving them to the desk, and all proper names will have to be cq’ed. Grammar mistakes that make it through an assigning editor are highly likely to appear in print.

* Reporters and editors will need to be more familiar with AP and BANG style.

* Budgetlines will need to include accurate deadlines and lengths. Desk folk who receive overly long stories will not have time to redo page designs; they will be instructed to cut from the end (on some occasions, early notice to the desk that a story is running long may avoid this fate). When deadlines are blown, the desk may need to grab a web version of the story and move on.

* Editors (or reporters) will need to write a print headline for each story that designers can tweak to fit; it will not be the same as the web headline. Copy editors cannot write headlines for inside stories because they will not be reading them. We will also ask you to write a longer summary headline to give additional guidance to the designer; we will be adding a new field to your story templates to make this adjustment easier.

* Photographers and photo editors will need to exercise a new level of care over photo captions, many of which will now be tweaked by designers to fit rather than written from scratch by a copy editor. They need to be tightly written, use correct grammar and agree factually with the story. We would like proper name spelling to be double-checked in captions as well; comparing to the story should be sufficient.

We will continue to provide a high level of review for our featured work. This is not because the other work is not important; we are making simultaneous efforts to boost the audience for everything we do. But we have to set priorities in an era where readers continue to demand much of us, and economic realities force us to make smart, tough choices.

We are going to start these new responsibilities for editors and reporters beginning Monday, April 25. The first week we’ll have additional staffing on the copy desk to help the adjustment, and there will be a bit of a backstop for you. Beginning May 2, though, the new regimen begins.

These sorts of changes are not easy. The quality of our work — of your work — is what attracts people to our newspapers and websites. We appreciate the efforts of the folks who remain on our productions desks, our reporters, photographers and editors to deliver the Bay Area’s best news report every day.

Now, I do agree with some of what’s in this memo. As both a former reporter and a former city-desk editor, I am 100% in favor of reporters’ being their own best editors and 100% in favor of desk editors’ keeping reporters on the reservation, journalism-ethics-wise. (And Lord knows I am in favor of reporters’ filing their stories on time and at budgeted length, particularly when computer systems give reporters the ability to fit stories down to the tenth of an inch.)

But I also know from experience that reporters are never their own best editors. Everyone (even I) needs an editor, someone who can play the part of the eventual reader and judge a piece on whether it accomplishes, in the right way, what it set out to do.

And I know that city-desk editors, who often assign the very stories they must then try to edit disinterestedly, sometimes grow too close to the story to be able to edit it as disinterestedly as it needs.

So I know that without copy editors, more bad stuff, from misspellings and bad grammar to factual errors that institutional memory would have caught, will make it into print or onto the Web.

I want to focus on just one: libel.

Long story short, one thing public figures have to prove to win a libel case against a media outlet is that the outlet published false, defamatory material either intentionally or with reckless disregard as to the material’s truth or falsity. This memo, as I asserted earlier on Twitter, strikes me as prima facie evidence of reckless disregard.

Now, one of my Twitter interlocutors said that that assertion is ridiculous, that in-house counsel, not the copy desk, should be the bastion against libel allegations.

I’ll let those of you who actually have spent any time in the news bidness chuckle over that for a second. Done? OK, good.

For the rest of you: Damned few media outlets of any kind have, or have ever had, in-house counsel to review news reports to ensure that they are not libelous. It’s simply a luxury most outlets could never afford. Some medium-sized to large outlets kept counsel on retainer to review reports on an as-needed basis, usually for complex investigative pieces, but even that, in this era, increasingly is going the way of the dodo.

And then, for those of you not in or of the news bidness, ponder this: In my experience — an experience that colleagues at other papers said they shared — it’s generally not the larger, heavily lawyered investigative pieces that actually bring suits or threats of suits. It’s almost always the everyday stuff. The routine political stuff. Cops briefs, even.

The stuff that lawyers never saw before publication, but copy editors did. Until now.

What would I have done? I’d have gone to the publisher and said that at some point, it makes less practical and journalistic sense to keep cutting than to shut down the operation entirely. And when you’re talking about completely killing the only independent set of eyes to see a story before it goes to the public, you’re probably at that point.

And that’s ridiculous because, while I don’t know anything about the finances of the Bay Area News Group in particular, I know that a lot of news operations are making cuts like these not because they’re losing money, but because they’re not making ENOUGH money. Today’s announcement by Gannett that it will finance its proposed $833 million purchase of Tribune Co. entirely with debt helps explain why, but it also illustrates just how badly the news-media bidness can be and often is run.

And then there’s the real bottom line: Do readers care?

For the average clickbait listicle, no, they probably don’t. But for journalism that actually attempts to inform the public as a public service, they do. I know this because, during my 25 years in the bidness, they told us so, often.

Now, it becomes easier to win a libel lawsuit. And the more wins there are, the more suits there will be, and so the less public confidence there will be in news outlets, and so the less money those outlets will make, so the more they’ll have to cut, in a vicious circle that has grim ramifications for self-government in a democratic republic.

 

 

Thursday, April 7, 2016 12:04 pm

Sure, Jesse Helms could be cordial. So could Reinhard Heydrich.

The Charlotte Observer is moving to a new building, and in the process of moving, political reporter Jim Morrill uncovered a number of letters between then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and the publisher and editors of the time (roughly 1978-93). The Observer’s spin on these letters is that they reveal a cordial, even humorous side of Helms.

And you know what? That’s probably true.

And you know what else? Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious Nazi SS officer considered second in bloodthirstiness only to Hitler himself, also had a cordial side. Hitler himself was a vegetarian and loved children. Big woop.

For all his public embrace of “Christian values,” Jesse Helms got his start by purveying white-lightning-quality racism in his editorials for Raleigh’s WRAL-TV. His bigotry was his brand, and he was proud of it. But worse than that, although he didn’t pioneer it, he perfected the Republican art of punching down against the least among us — the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ folks — not just for political advantage but for the pure, unadulterated meanness of it. For every instance of his ostensible cordiality, there were 20 instances in which he stomped Christ’s Second Great Commandment into the dust.

What’s worse is that his brand of punch-down politics has now become de rigeur among Republican politicians, not least because the GOP base has grown to expect it. From Trump to Cruz to Kasich to the leaders of the N.C. General Assembly who passed HB2 (which punches not only LGBTQ folk but also anyone who might have been discriminated against), Republicans now believe that they must attack the most vulnerable to be seen as tough and therefore trustworthy. That, not his cordiality or his professed Christianity, is his real legacy.

Helms has been dead for a while now, and a political generation has come of age to whom Helms is a story, not a person. And stories can change. But the person never did. Helms died as he had lived, an evil, hateful, degenerate son of a bitch. Remember that, because it’s important to understand how we got where we are today.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 6:15 pm

Unfortunately, racism probably is more durable than Whiggery

Here it is, Super Tuesday. And before the polls start to close, I wanted to say something that I hope to be wildly wrong on, but don’t expect to be.

A number of observers from a number of points along the political spectrum have suggested that nominating Donald Trump for president will be the end of the Republican Party. One in particular is Esquire’s political blogger, Charlie Pierce, who wrote today that the likelihood that Trump will emerge later tonight as the undisputed front-runner (if not nominee-apparent) — he’s likely to take seven of 11 states holding contested primaries today — will equate to the “implosion” of the GOP in much the same way the Whigs fell apart after the election of 1852.

I don’t follow this stuff as closely as Pierce, and I ain’t a political scientist. But I have been watching this stuff for almost 50 years now, and here’s what I think.

I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere, the fact that Pierce almost certainly is right about tonight’s results notwithstanding.

And the reason I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere is that Trump’s GOP constituency is racist, and I don’t think the racists in the party are going anywhere.

Wait, you say, not all Trump supporters are racist. And that’s probably true. Indeed, Trump’s supporters cross a wide variety of demographic lines: age, sex, rural/urban, education, and so forth.

But the one line they don’t cross is race. No, not all Trump supporters are racist, but the overwhelming majority of racists with a preference seem to prefer Trump. And that bloc has turned out to be larger than anyone, particularly pundits, thought.

And why would those people leave the GOP? After all, Trump didn’t just spring full-blown out of RNC chair Reince Priebus’s head. No, Trump is the natural outcome of a party that has been unashamedly racist in its whispers, sub-rosa appears and dog whistles, from Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in ’68 to the G.W. Bush campaigns rumormongering about the racial provenance of Sen. John McCain’s offspring during the 2000 Republican primary to the “voter ID” (read: vote suppression) campaigns post-2010.

Racism is where the Republican Party has dined for the past half-century. All Donald Trump has done is say that sh*t right out loud where God, pundits, and everybody else could hear it.

No, the GOP ain’t going anywhere because the racists aren’t going anywhere, and they’re the heart and soul of the party right now, as the (lack of) response to Trump’s non-rejection of Klansman David Duke’s endorsement shows. But the thing is? Most of the non-racists in the GOP aren’t going anywhere either. For one thing, they’ve got no place to go. For another, even if they did, as the old saying goes, in politics, Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line. Slightly more scientifically, Republicans, and Trump supporters in particular, tend toward the authoritarian. No other political institution gives them the top-down control they crave.

So there it is. As devoutly as the implosion of the current GOP is to be wished, it’s not happening tonight, it’s not happening this year, and whether Trump wins or loses in November, it’s not happening anytime soon. The reason, though too often unspoken, is obvious, and intractable. Like it or not, we’re stuck with this, and with the GOP as an institution, until a lot more bigoted Americans die.

 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 7:58 am

Earl and Skip vs. the News & Record

Updated 12/1/2015; see below.

According to Courthouse News Service, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro has filed a libel suit against Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the News & Record. Per that story, the museum accuses the paper of publishing false and damaging info about the museum’s finances.

Long story short: This suit will never see the inside of a courtroom.

Forget the question of whether the N&R knowingly or recklessly published something false and defamatory. Forget the question of whether the N&R published anything false at all. Here’s all you need to know:

For this suit to go forward, the museum’s books would have to be opened to the N&R’s attorneys — and probably a forensic accountant or two. And the museum’s founders, Earl Jones and Melvin “Skip” Alston, would have to be deposed — that is, answer questions under oath from N&R attorneys about the museum’s finances and their handling of those finances.

Three words: Nah. Guh. Happen.

Update, Dec. 1: Greensboro’s mayor, who sits on the museum’s board as an ex-officio member, says the suit will be withdrawn, and that’s not all. Thanks to Roch Smith Jr. for this follow-up:

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who sits on the ICRC&M board as an ex officio member, says the ICRC&M board did not vote on suing the News & Record at any of the board meetings she attended. She says she contacted the ICRC&M attorney Doug Harris to see if a vote was taken at any of the meetings she did not attend and Harris told her no vote had been taken to file the lawsuit.

Vaughan did say, however, that she was aware of dissatisfaction with the News & Record’s reporting at the ICRC&M. Vaughan said the concern was that the News & Record did not adequately explain the nature of the center’s debt in the Moffet article and that the misrepresentation of the size of the debt hampered ICRC&M’s fund raising efforts.

As Vaughan explained it, approximately $23 million of the center’s total debt is for tax credits which will be dismissed upon the completion of payments of a couple hundred thousand more dollars. Once the final payment is made in 2016, the balance of that debt will “evaporate,” Vaughan said. Vaughan explained that a recent grant by the City of Greensboro to the ICRC&M is set aside to cover those payments and that they are in an account that requires the signature of City Manager Jim Westmoreland for disbursements.

Vaughan says the ICRC&M had been discussing their concerns about the reporting of the debt with the N&R for “months” and attempting to get it to publish a correction or clarification. Vaughan says she did not know what prompted the suit to be filed without a vote by the board, but understands that after the suit is served on Tuesday, the ICRC&M intends to withdraw it without prejudice — meaning, they can file it again if they choose — and that they will return to negotiations with the News & Record.

As it was written (by me), so shall it apparently be: This suit is going No. Where.

And just as well. The museum’s whining notwithstanding, the News & Record explained the museum’s debt in a good bit of detail in an article that ran last January. It’s archived on the N&R website.

And if Skip and Earl are really worried about public trust and confidence in their institution, they might think hard about stunts like filing a lawsuit without the knowledge and approval of the governing board. I’m sorry, but, Jesus, as running a nonprofit goes, it really gets no stupider than that without embezzlement or sex crimes being involved. I sure as hell wouldn’t contribute a dime to a charitable nonprofit run that laxly.

And, finally, before we get sucked in by Skip and Earl’s bid for sympathy, let’s remember, as this July N&R article reminds us, what the museum’s own long-time auditor said in his 2014 audit report:

In their review [of auditor Oliver Bowie’s 2014 audit report], city auditors Len Lucas and Mickey Kerans noted several areas that point to the museum’s dire financial situation, which officials have sought to downplay in recent years.

According to Lucas and Kerans, museum officials:

• Drained in January its operating reserve, which is required to contain $1 million.

• Have zero working capital and zero contingency money.

• Owe Carolina Bank nearly $782,900 and the city as much as $1.25 million for the first installments of the forgivable loan — minus whatever money it raised toward the loan.

The city auditors also noted a warning about the museum’s future raised by Bowie, who has audited the museum since 1995. Bowie noted that the museum hasn’t paid $500,000 to one of the businesses it was required to set up as a condition of receiving millions in historic tax credits in 2010.

Bowie said “those conditions raise substantial doubt about the project’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Again, that’s not the News & Record saying that. That’s the museum’s independent outside auditor. I’ll let those of you who are CPAs weigh in on what “substantial doubt about the project’s ability to continue as a going concern” means with respect to the museum. But when I was covering the PTL criminal case, civil lawsuit and bankruptcy case in the late 1980s, CPAs explained that language to me as meaning that auditors didn’t know whether the organization would still be in business in 12 months or not.

I don’t want to let the N&R off the hook completely, however. As of this writing, the paper and its website have published nothing about the lawsuit. I get not wanting to comment on the suit — particularly at this early stage, that’s only prudent. But failing to cover it is bush-league and strongly suggests that Publisher/Executive Editor Jeff Gauger is out of his depth.

Fortunately for him, the available evidence suggests Earl and Skip are even more out of theirs.

Thursday, November 5, 2015 9:36 pm

RIP J. Howard Coble — by Sam Rayburn’s standards, the last honest congresscritter

“Son, if you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and then vote against ’em, you don’t deserve to be here.” — attributed to U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, c. 1950.

Howard Coble, who represented North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District for 30 years, died late Tuesday evening — Election Night here in Greensboro, as it happened — and a tsunami of respect and even love has flooded the Internet as a consequence.

The News & Record’s news story called Coble a Republican icon who also was “beloved by area Democrats.” The News & Record’s editorial page said that Coble, popular though he was, “wasn’t appreciated enough.” My Facebook feed was filled with tributes from local folks from both parties and no party at all.

Like almost anyone who has lived in the district any length of time, I have my own Howard Coble story to tell, one that goes beyond our interactions as politician and journalist. He was extremely helpful to me when I was job hunting after I took the News & Record buyout in 2009 even though he had no particular reason to be. He got in touch on my behalf with people whose names you see regularly in the paper and on TV. I don’t owe my current jobs to him, but it certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t working for me.

And, yes, even by the standards of Congress, where good constituent service is considered the bare performance minimum for a congresscritter to have a hope of re-election, Coble’s constituent service — or, more precisely, that of the staff he hired and oversaw — was legendary.

But there was a big and important contradiction at the heart of Coble’s politics that all this outpouring overlooked. My friend Lynn Holt-Campbell, who runs an insurance agency in High Point with her husband, wrote something on Facebook that sums it up: ” I met Howard a few times (and yes, he told me to call him “Howard”) … though we were just about polar opposites on a lot of political issues, he was a very, very nice man who deeply loved his state.”

In a nutshell, Coble cultivated a tone of bipartisanship — arguably a necessity for a Republican politician who came of age when Democrats were still in control and who won his second term by only 79 votes — but from 1989 on he voted a very conservative line in Congress; if you look at his record, you’ll see that he was pretty much straight Gingrichite/Tea Party without the idiotic rhetoric. The result was that while he professed to love the people of his district, he voted for many things that hurt most of them.

He supported trade policies that ultimately decimated the 6th District’s predominant industries of furniture and textiles. A former N.C. state revenue secretary, he professed an emphasis on a balanced budget but voted consistently for budget-busting GOP tax cuts that benefited the very wealthy to the detriment of an overwhelming majority of his constituents. He once told me on the record that Congress ought to use its constitutional power of interstate-commerce regulation to ban the use of tax-paid economic incentives to lure employers across state lines, but in all his time in the House he never lifted a finger to do anything about it. And American intellectual-property law, with its gifts to behemoth content creators, became, on his watch as the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing it, the place where creativity goes to die.

Moreover, a former federal prosecutor, he voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment even when he knew (or should have known) that not all the elements for a perjury charge were present, but he utterly ignored the far more thoroughly documented war crimes (including torture) and crimes against humanity committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. He cast himself as favoring small government, but there was no big-government overreach he didn’t back, from the PATRIOT Act to warrantless domestic wiretapping. He never took sometimes declined to take a public position on gay marriage — ostensibly because, as a lifelong bachelor, he felt himself unqualified to do so. In point of fact, during his tenure Congress never had to vote on the issue he voted for a number of anti-gay marriage measures, including the Defense of Marriage Act..

But you have heard little of that these past couple of days. The Howard Coble who voted to screw the middle class and working class, who pushed the interests of big business over small business, who signed on to some of the government’s worst post-9/11 excesses, who consistently pushed tax and economic policies detrimental to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the 6th District’s residents, and who kept his mouth shut while supporting some of the most wild-eyed initiatives of the Gingrich crew and the Tea Party, didn’t make an appearance. The most the News & Record could bestir itself to say was that Coble was “a reliable conservative” who “voted for tax cuts and championed restrictive intellectual property bills beloved by large corporations.” That was it.

The contrast between Coble and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is striking. They’re all talk, and they’re going nowhere. Coble talked rationally, even in nonpartisan fashion at times, but his votes did and are continuing to do enormous damage to his district and the people of North Carolina on behalf of a few wealthy backers, damage that will long outlive his 30-year tenure in Congress.

In short, I don’t know about drinking our whiskey and screwing our women, but he took our money and voted against us over and over and over again. And that, in the post-Citizens United era, is what being an honest politician has come to mean, and how low the bar has sunk.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 5:45 pm

Odds and Ends for Oct. 6

First things first: Here in Greensboro, the polls are open until 7:30 p.m. If you haven’t already voted, vote! It annoys the bastards.™

So did the Lions lose to the Seahawks last night because the officials knew the rule but made the wrong call? Or did they lose because the officials didn’t know the rule?

No one ever has paid me to be a campaign manager, but I cannot see any upside for Hillary Clinton to pulling out of New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders may lead her there now, but it’s months until the primary. The state awards delegates proportionately, so a loss could be almost as good as a win. The Clintons have a lot of history there; indeed, Hillary won there in 2008 after being left for dead. And is anyone seriously arguing that a campaign that took in $32 million in the third quarter can’t campaign there and on more promising turf? I think this is just a case of Politico doing what it does best, which is to let any old fool say any damnfool thing that comes to mind and treating it like a story.

So 87% of frequent flyers are annoyed by the TSA. The good news is, those 87% are at least 153% annoyed.

I don’t know why the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, got bombed by U.S. planes. All I know is that it did and that the organization is pulling out of the area, taking northern Afghanistan’s last trauma-care hospital with it. This needs investigating. If it was an accident, the U.S. government needs to be issuing abject apologies and paying reparations. If it was intentional, some people need to be charged with war crimes. Either way, some heads need to roll — and I mean commanders and civilian bureaucrats, not pilots.

An EU court has ruled that EU-based companies that store their data in U.S. servers are illegally exposing their customers’ data to snooping by the U.S. government. So not only is that snooping unconstitutional, it’s also bad for business. Maybe that will get the Republicans’ attention.

So once upon a time, South Carolina’s five Republican representatives and two Republican senators voted against federal disaster relief for the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy. Now, with all the flooding in South Carolina, they’re all, including presidential contender Lindsey Graham, seeking federal disaster relief for South Carolina. This is hypocrisy, but it’s more than that: It’s a bone-crushing level of stupid. Because when they were extending the middle finger to New Jersey and New York, did these intellectual ceiling tiles not think that tropical weather — or ice storms, for that matter — could make a huge mess of South Carolina?

Charlie Pierce has more:

Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of the destruction, certainly. (To paraphrase Will McEvoy, nobody’s thoughts and prayers are with the flood.) But my memories go back to 2013, when a survey warned us that the country is chockfull of aging, obsolete dams, many of them of the earthen variety, like the ones that gave way in South Carolina today. That same survey found South Carolina’s performance on dam safety as leaky and unsafe as the dams themselves. I mean, 4.3 fulltime employees to monitor and inspect 550 dams, 162 of which were classified as “high-hazard.”

Talking fence post Ben Carson thinks the Oregon community-college shooting was as bad as it was because not enough people attacked the attacker and assures us he would have behaved differently. By his logic, not enough cavalrymen shot at Injuns at Little Big Horn and we must not have shot back at Pearl Harbor. His candidacy poses an interesting question: How dumb can a presidential candidate be before Republican voters notice?

Florida Senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus once sacrificed a goat and drank its blood, which I not only am OK with, I also find it one helluva lot less bizarre than believing in supply-side economics.

A TV reporter asked a Dothan (Ala.) city commissioner a question and got hit twice in the face for his trouble. Commissioner Amos Newsome faces assault charges and is lucky not to have a high-def video camera stuck where the sun doesn’t shine.

 

 

 

Saturday, September 12, 2015 7:49 am

Giving the government a do-it-yourself proctological exam

Hi, kids. Ever want to live the glamorous life of an investigative reporter but also wanted to, you know, eat? Well, know, Logickull.com and I are placing a powerful investigative tool in your hands, absolutely free. It’s the Freedom of Information Act! This graphic will tell you most of what you need to know to place a Freedom of Information Act request, what to do if your request is denied, and generally how to go about using this wonderful and powerful tool.

A couple of caveats, based on my experience:

The FOIA is not a panacea for several reasons. First, it applies only to the federal executive branch, not to Congress or the federal courts, nor to any level of state or local government. (Here in North Carolina, the law that applies to state/local governments starts at N.C. General Statute 132.1 and goes forward from there; that’s a subject for another post.)

Second, some agencies handle FOIA requests a lot more quickly and sincerely than others, which leads me to caveat 2A: sometimes you can get what you need a lot more quickly and easily by checking the agency’s website, or even chatting up a friendly clerk or secretary, than by going through the FOIA hoops, if you happen to be physically close to the federal agency you need info from. (For local folks, some regional U.S. government agencies are around here, notably the V.A. in Winston-Salem and the Department of Labor in Greensboro.)

Third, there ARE exceptions to the act; it’s not a blank check.

Fourth, your own FOIA request becomes a public document that someone else can request a copy of, so if you don’t want anyone to know you’re looking into something, you’ll want to think twice about going the FOIA route.

And then there’s the fact that if you can’t get into the agency’s face live and in concert, filing a FOIA request can be like flying a paper airplane into the Grand Canyon. True story: In 1991, I filed a FOIA request with the Health Care Finance Administration seeking information regarding federal payments to a local medical practice, Southeastern Eye Center. I nursed that request, calling and writing every few months, from then until I got out of the newspaper bidness in 2009. Southeastern Eye Center is now in receivership. My FOIA request technically remains open, to the best of my knowledge.

But don’t let that scare you. I once got a useful response from the Federal Aviation Administration within 48 hours. (Faxes were involved.)

So, hey, if you want to know what a federal executive-branch agency has been doing, knock yourself out. Why should starving reporters have all the fun? Besides, the National Security Agency, at the least, probably already knows everything you’ve been doing, so turnabout is fair play, right?

foia-request-infographic

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 6:28 pm

Odds and ends for Aug. 26

When Hillary Clinton corralled journalists, journalists and pundits complained, and rightfully so. I trust they’ll do the same now that Donald Trump had reporter Jorge Ramos, whose audience is huge, physically removed from an event. Right?

Speaking of Trump, the N.C. GOP wants to ban him (and anyone else) from the state’s 2016 presidential primary unless they pledge to support whoever the party’s nominee turns out to be and promise not to run a third-party candidacy. This Republican wouldn’t vote for Trump at gunpoint but thinks that if you support him and he has filed, you deserve to get the chance to vote for him.

So, while it may have been incredibly stupid for Hillary Clinton to handle State Department info on a personal email account, it was against neither law nor policy at the time it happened. The same is true when her predecessor, Colin Powell, did the same thing, FWIW.

California schools are requiring kids to get vaccinated, so, naturally, parents are lining up to home-school their kids rather than vaccinate them. We need a vaccination against stupidity, is what we need.

Our legislature, which can’t be bothered to do its own damn job, has decided that it needs to kick the unemployed, even though North Carolina’s unemployed already get the nation’s lowest benefits. They should be reminded that this state is chock-full of pine trees and chickens, the raw material for tar and feathers.

Campaigns of and SuperPACs supporting four GOP governors running for president have received $2.5 million from “companies with state contracts or subsidies,” per the Wall Street Journal. But, go ahead, Justice Anthony Kennedy, tell me again how money in politics creates neither the reality nor the appearance of corruption.

So Raleigh anti-abortion activists are now harassing clinic escorts and trying to get them fired. Becauses that’s what Jesus would do.

And in a setback for veganism, the FDA rules that if you’re going to call something “mayonnaise,” it has to have eggs in it.

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