Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 7:30 pm

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media: $25 million — for a mission or a mess of pottage?

I’m not going to lie: The naming gift of $25 million to my alma mater, the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, got my attention. Even for UNC, this is a big gift, something to celebrate, and so much more so for the j-school, with its invaluable mission of public service. Dean Susan King and the faculty, staff, students and alumni should be very proud. The school will be known henceforth as the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Before today I had never heard of the donor, Walter Hussman Jr., chairman of WEHCO Media Inc., which owns newspapers, cable television systems, and magazines in a number of states. I had, however, heard of the work of some of the WEHCO newspapers, notably the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To my knowledge and that of some friends in those markets, those papers have tried to maintain credible news coverage at a time when creditors and banksters have been forcing a lot of other papers to eat their seed corn and worse. So, maybe he really understands the value of aggressive accountability journalism and its indispensability in a constitutional republic and intends to help the j-school better teach students how to carry out that mission.

He says his top goal is “restoring the bond of trust between media and the public,” and he says he believes that the way to do that is to abide by the “core values” that undergird, and are printed daily in, his newspapers. They are:

Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.

Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.

To provide the most complete report, a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it. It must follow the story wherever it leads, regardless of any preconceived ideas on what might be most newsworthy.

The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism. But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.

When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news.

Sounds nice, right? Well, as always, the devil is in the details.

Devil the first: “Objectivity” is a myth; true objectivity is rarer than true love. The best a journalist can do is to be aware of his/her own biases and test them whenever possible.

Devil the second: “Impartiality” has remained, for decades too long, an imperfect goal because in so many cases “impartiality” has been interpreted as the need to provide a platform for nonsense. Pointing out that gravity is “only a theory,” while true, isn’t impartial: If you step off the ledge, you’re going to fall to your death no matter what you think of that theory. Pointing that out not only does not make one partial; it fulfills the journalist’s duty to the reader not only to produce accurate journalism but also to filter out dangerous bullshit. (This Twitter thread, which I just happened upon today, is a fine example of the latter.)

Accordingly, devil the third: Impartiality is NOT the greatest source of credibility. Truth-telling, without fear and particularly in the face of hostile opposition, is the greatest source of credibility. When your reporting accurately reflects people’s lived, experienced realities, that is when you are seen as credible. This is particularly crucial for journalists who report on the communities in which they live; if they get something wrong, they’re  likely to hear about it, quite possibly live and in concert.

Which brings us to devil the fourth: Hussman says that truth is “not always apparent or immediately known.” Two responses to that: 1) Yeah, sometimes it is. Frequently, it is. It only seems like it isn’t because this era is rife with grifters who will blithely say to journalists and the public alike, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Journalists must not ever allow themselves to be misled or intimidated by them. 2) A good journalist will always tell readers not only what he/she knows but also what he/she does not know but needs, or has tried unsuccessfully, to find out. He/she might even enlist the public’s help in getting it.

Devil the fifth: Hussman says, “Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.” Well, no; not all possible verifiable facts are relevant. But grifters have spent decades convincing the American public, and way too large a segment of American journalism, that they are; thus the rise of the tu quoque logical fallacy known as “whataboutism.”  Journalists do not owe their readers all the facts; rather, they owe their readers contextual accuracy and must ensure not only that their facts are accurate and complete but also that the context in which they place those facts accurately reflects the conditions in which those facts occur.

Devil the sixth: Hussman insists on keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, “both to those providing and consuming the news.” In general that is true, but it is not a universal truth. Indeed, it ignores the strong tradition in the past half-century or so of advocacy journalism. For just one example, no one ever will accuse the late Hunter S. Thompson of keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, but Nixon scholars still read Thompson 50 years after Nixon took office and will still be reading Thompson 100 years after Nixon died. Such journalism is hard to pull off well, particularly for new journalists, but as long as journalists are forthcoming with their readers about their sources, methods, and motivations, readers of good will will find their reports credible even if they don’t agree with the message. (And for readers who lack good will? Nothing a journalist can do will ever be enough to convince them. Give up on them.)

Which brings us to devil the last: Perhaps I am wrong, but I fear it is but a short step from Hussman’s “core values” to the kind of journalistic silence that is ethically insupportable. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the people — and not just working journalists, but all of us — are to use our powers of expression to hold the powerful to account for their actions. But for too many people in and outside of journalism, objectivity too often means silence, even when silence is assent. Any news outlet that remains silent in the face of attempts to deny human beings their human rights, to convert our country to fascism, to lead us down the road to genocide, to ignore the apocalyptic climate change that likely will destroy much of civilization, is intellectually exhausted, morally bankrupt, and unworthy of the freedoms and powers granted it by the Framers.

If Hussman has given a second’s thought to the media ecosystem in which we now live — one that blurs news and entertainment, one that skews heavily toward the perspectives of the wealthy, one in which politicians and media figures alike happily work to destroy the notion of objective reality in which Hussman places such value, one in which news-media officers are perfectly happy to mislead the public to rob that same public and damage our democratic underpinnings — his values do not reflect it. Sure, pointing a live TV camera at a Donald Trump and letting him rant for an hour is “impartial” and “objective,” but it’s awful journalism. Recall what CBS CEO Les Moonves said in 2016 of his network’s coverage of then-presidential candidate Trump, which ran long on live shots of Trump’s racist, fact-free ravings without any sort of challenge or attempt to contextualize: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

We live in an era in which our own intelligence services believe that the Oval Office is occupied by an agent of a hostile foreign power. We live in an era in which $27 trillion in proven carbon resources remain in the ground, with industry bribing the government to be able to monetize every last bit and lying to the public without consequences about the likely damages. We live in an era in which actual Holocaust survivors, as well as Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, and most Holocaust experts, believe that not only are we on the same road Nazi Germany traveled, we are farther down it than most people understand. Our journalism has a constitutional duty to be more than equal to those challenges.

Does Hussman intend to see to it that the journalists and academicians he employs and the students his money helps train will not only be truthful, fair and accurate, but also be morally and ethically upright — and that they will push their respective bosses, instructors, students, and institutions to be as well?

If so, then his $25 million gift will end up being worth far more than that. But as they say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

 

 

 

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019 7:29 pm

Mueller to U.S. House: Saddle the hell up

Robert Mueller all but begs Congress to impeach Donald Trump and implicitly tears a deserving news media a big new orifice in the process.

Outgoing special counsel Robert Mueller made several critical points today in his roughly eight-minute statement at the Department of Justice.

First (and I’m not necessarily going in chronological order here), he emphasized at both the beginning and the end of his statement that the evidence is crystal clear that Russian military intelligence sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election for the benefit of Donald Trump and that they are continuing to try to interfere with U.S. elections even today.

Second, he emphasized that the Mueller report speaks for itself, which was a polite way of saying that if the people whose jobs it was to tell us what was in the report had done their jobs and read the damned report, we wouldn’t be nearly so confused about the way forward and we wouldn’t have wasted the past two months. Instead, he implicitly pointed out, journalists covered what people (i.e., Attorney General William Barr) SAID about the report, rather than what the report itself said, to the detriment of the American public. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it, “Mueller’s statement is an indictment of a press that focused more on what people had to say about the report than what the report said, because the former was easier to cover. No one has learned anything.” (The first three rules of investigative reporting are “Follow the money,” “follow the money,” and “follow the money,” but Rule 4 is, “Always read the documents” and Rule 5 is “Always do the math.”)

Third, he said that he did not seek charges against Trump because Justice Department policy, while authorizing investigations of a sitting president “while memories are fresh and documents are available,” forbade charging a sitting president. (For what it’s worth, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley went on CBS immediately after the statement to say that, constitutionally speaking, Mueller was “dead wrong,” that Trump indeed could have been indicted.) Mueller clearly implied that had Trump been anyone but the sitting president, he would have been indicted.

Fourth, he fleshed out that point by observing that, contrary to what Donald Trump and Barr have said, the report is not an exoneration. Indeed, he said, “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”

Fifth, he emphasized that that obstruction definitely had hampered his campaign: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” The implication, though it is only that, might explain why he failed to find enough evidence to indict people on the conspiracy charge. Because while Vol. 1 of the report said Mueller’s team found insufficient evidence to indict Trump on a conspiracy charge, notwithstanding Trump’s lies, you can’t swing a dead cat in it without running across multiple instances of collusion, a concept that has real-world meanings but no legal significance.

Fifth, he re-emphasized that in his view and given Justice Department policy, it was not for Justice to accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing; rather, that responsibility fell to Congress. Combined with the documentation in Vol. 2 of the Mueller report of up to 10 instances of obstruction of justice on Trump’s part, he seemed to be practically begging the House to begin impeachment hearings.

He said a few other noteworthy things, such as that even if he were to appear before Congress to testify, he would not go beyond what’s already in the report. Legally and constitutionally, that’s a dubious claim, particularly if the House opens impeachment hearings. If the House subpoenas him and asks him questions and he refuses to answer, he can be held in contempt and spend up to a year in jail. Moreover, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce observed:

He has no excuse left. He is a private citizen now. And if he only repeats what’s in the report, on television, in front of the country, it will contribute mightily to the political momentum behind the demands that Congress do its damn job or shirk its duty entirely. He still needs to testify. He still needs to take questions. He’s only a citizen like the rest of us now, and he has a duty to do the right thing. We all do.

And Mueller said that our ongoing election-security weaknesses “deserve the attention of every American.” That assertion must be weighed against Republicans’ outright hostility, and particularly that of Mitch McConnell, to taking the slightest action to make elections more secure, such as, oh, I don’t know, even holding a vote on H.R. 1.

But his main points make clear what I and many others, from Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School to Rep. Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, already have been saying: It is past time for the House to begin formal impeachment hearings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her second-in-command, Steny Hoyer, publicly have been reluctant to acknowledge that the need exists. But House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, whose committee would be the one to hold such hearings, said today:

Although Department of Justice policy prevented the Special Counsel from bringing criminal charges against the President, the Special Counsel has clearly demonstrated that the President is lying about the Special Counsel’s findings, lying about the testimony of key witnesses in the Special Counsel’s report, and is lying in saying that the Special Counsel found no obstruction and no collusion. Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies, and other wrongdoing of President Trump — and we will do so. No one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law.

Democrats have talked tough before only to fold, and there’s no guarantee they won’t fold again. But I believe at this point that whether or not Democrats actually pull the trigger on impeachment hearings, they at least have heard and understood that that is what the outgoing special counsel is asking, if not begging, them to do. I won’t reiterate the many reasons why I think it’s important to do so, except to say this: Thanks in large part to our mealy-mouthed news media, Trump has been able to spend the past two months lying with impunity about the findings of the Mueller investigation. Anyone who saw and heard Mueller speak today now knows that Trump has been gaslighting the American public — and that televised impeachment hearings aren’t just a constitutional necessity but also a necessary news and public relations corrective to Trump’s gaslighting. I hope and trust that Nadler and other House committee chairs, currently on Memorial Day recess, will make this happen soon.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 7:36 pm

NPR: Your so-called liberal media at work

When NPR lets a war criminal like John Yoo defend the Trump administration’s defiance of subpoenas and contempt of Congress, it is neither liberal nor news media.

Today was long and full of aggravations, from morning to evening. And to end it this afternoon, like a rancid cherry atop a shit sundae, we got a 5 p.m. report from NPR on the White House’s claim of executive privilege in withholding the full Mueller report, with underlying evidence, from the U.S. House, which has subpoenaed it.

Now, let’s be very clear here. The U.S. House, as a co-equal branch of government, has an almost absolute right to subpoena any document or person in either of the other two branches for the purpose of conducting oversight. There are a few limited exceptions, but no one has offered any that such constitutional experts as Laurence Tribe of Harvard take seriously.

But NPR calls today’s vote by the House Judiciary Committee to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt “a major escalation of a battle between President Donald Trump and the House Democrats investigating his administration.” That framing almost makes it look as if the House is at fault. At the least, that’s misspelling “a perfectly justified and long overdue attempt by the House to bring this lawless administration to heel” so badly you can’t even hardly recognize it.

Yeah, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler is quoted as saying, “If allowed to go unchecked, this obstruction means the end of congressional oversight.” But the segment treats this conflict as a normal and unremarkable contest between White House and Congress in which both sides are more or less equally at fault and nothing particularly significant is at stake. In fact, the framers of the Constitution viewed legislative oversight, including impeachment when appropriate, as essential to preventing a runaway executive. Having lately fought a war to rid themselves of one runaway executive, they wanted to make damn good and sure there would never be another.

And that’s the just the intro. Reporter Kelsey Snell’s report is in the worst tradition of mainstream reporting, offering a very careful one-side-says-this, the-other-side-says that take that manages to be almost 100% journalism-free, particularly the failure to note that some of the limitations Justice attempted to place on access to the unredacted report had no basis in law whatever.

“It’s partially political, partially symbolic, but it’s also pretty high-stakes,” Snell said, not even bothering to mention that one and only one side in this dispute is, you know, breaking the law.

That was bad enough. But made me actually pull my car over to the side of Walker Avenue, stop dead, and shriek like a banshee at the radio was that NPR’s next segment devoted a huge 7.5 minutes to the legal stylings of alleged law professor John Yoo and his resurrection of the corpse of the “unitary executive.”

Who is John Yoo and what is the “unitary executive,” you ask? Yoo, now at Berkeley, was deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush. He wrote the so-called “torture memos” justifying torture as an instrument of national policy under Bush. For that alone, he should have been hanged at The Hague, particularly inasmuch as he wrote in 2002, by which time the U.S. already was engaged in torture, meaning he wrote it to try to provide justification in hindsight for a crime against both U.S. and international law.

To put it plainly, Yoo’s support for torture was so unhinged that even some of his most powerful co-workers in the Bush administration thought it was nuts. Secretary of State Colin Powell flatly insisted that Yoo’s position violated the Geneva Conventions, while Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora called Yoo’s position “catastrophically poor legal reasoning.”

As for the “unitary executive theory,” well, to hear Yoo tell it in today’s segment, it is a theory of executive power, running from Lincoln down through FDR and so on until today, that claims that unlike enumerating individual powers, which is what most conservatives profess to claim Article II of the Constitution does for the executive branch, that article actually creates a “pool,” in Yoo’s word, of unspecified executive powers.

In fact, “unitary executive theory” is bullshit. Yoo decided that his boss, Bush, during the so-called Global War on (some) Terror, ought to be able to do anything he wanted, including interpreting treaties like the Geneva Conventions as he pleased, with Congress’s only control being the power of the purse. So he cobbled together this sorry excuse for legal theory and cherry-picked from history to try to make it look as if this legal Frankenstein’s monster had a long and honorable legal tradition.

Those of you keeping score at home also will note that this assertion flies in the face of everything that conservatives have traditionally said about executive power and the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution, but Yoo and the Republicans have never let that hypocrisy stop them except when a Democrat occupied the Oval Office.

Anyway, NPR, whose mission is supposed to be journalism, actually devoted pretty much 11 full minutes of prime afternoon drive time to Trumpian propaganda at the expense of educating and informing its audience, and coming at the end of a day such as today, it was just more than this listener could take.

And as Trump and the Republicans try to dismantle our democracy, this is one of the biggest problems we face: Not only are Trump and the Republicans and Fox News and Breitbart trying to gaslight the American public, a ton of mainstream journalists are doing the same. Yes, they’re trying — I believe we have long since passed the point at which we can as ascribe performances like NPR’s this afternoon just to incompetence. (Also, and not for nothing, competence is an ethical issue.)

So this is just one of the many reasons why we need immediate, televised impeachment hearings: to counteract the fire hose of unmitigated bullshit emanating not only from the criminals in this case but also from their co-conspirators in the so-called liberal media. (I have heard some people say that’s actually what the House is doing right now, they’re just not calling them “impeachment” hearings. To which I respond: You HAVE to call them impeachment hearings to get the news media to broadcast them live and the American public to pay the appropriate amount of attention.) Accordingly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to lead or get the hell out of the way.

Thursday, April 11, 2019 7:03 pm

Julian Assange: Let him face the music

Julian Assange might or might not be a journalist, at least some of the time. But what he’s charged with, no journalist should do.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks infamy lost his political asylum, was arrested by London’s Metropolitan Police, and is being held for extradition to the U.S. A lot of journalists were worried that Assange might be charged with publishing classified material, something the most principled journalists very occasionally find necessary to hold governments to account. But at least so far, all he’s charged with is something no ethical journalist would or should consider: conspiring to hack into a classified Department of Defense computer.

This case reminds me of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s expose of Chiquita in 1998. The 18-page package accused the company of everything from pollution and having mistreated foreign workers to turning a blind eye to cocaine smuggling on its ships. The package said it relied on, among other things, more than 2,000 voicemail messages provided to the Enquirer by an authorized Chiquita executive.

Problem was, there was no such executive. The package’s lead reporter, Michael Gallagher pleaded guilty to two felony counts of unlawfully tapping into Chiquita’s voicemail. The paper retracted and apologized for the series, fired Gallagher, and negotiated a $14 million civil settlement with Chiquita. The paper’s editor, Lawrence Beaupre, was removed by Gannett, the paper’s parent company.

Never mind that the reporting almost certainly was accurate and that the vast majority of the package didn’t even rely on the voicemails. Gallagher tainted the whole thing with his actions, as well as tainting co-writer Cameron McWhirter (who was not involved in the voicemail hacking) and the entire paper. He did something no reporter should ever do. It’s not only illegal, it’s also unethical.

That’s basically what Assange is being charged with here. Material he disseminated might well be accurate — and damaging to Democrats — but that doesn’t matter. It’s fruit of a poisoned tree. The charge might or might not be proved in court, but it has nothing to do with any journalism Assange might have committed.

Journalists, and those who believe in good journalism, are right to be concerned about the possibility that the government might criminally punish journalists who publish material the government doesn’t want published, or those who leak it to them. Former intelligence analyst Reality Winner is serving a five-year prison term right now for the “crime” of exposing to the nation the fact that Russians were interfering in the 2016 elections; she never should have been charged in the first place because what she did was a public service. Assange’s alleged crime, on the other hand, had nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with hacking. Let the case play out in court. Journalists, meanwhile, should consider themselves fortunate that Trump’s Justice Department, unbelievably, appears so far to have walked a tightrope with great care.

 

Saturday, March 9, 2019 4:41 pm

At long last, David Brooks starts to get it

I almost never have anything good to say about the New York Times’s David Brooks, nor should I. His whole career is built on a foundational dishonesty: He believes and says that liberals and conservatives in America are equally to blame for all our problems and that only wise moderates (such as himself, of course) can lead the country forward constructively. And because he’s a rich white guy who writes for The New York Times, people figure, well, he must know what he’s talking about. Because they wouldn’t give that job to a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, would they?

In point of fact they did, and were it not for the relentless pursuit of the blogger Driftglass, many fewer people would know about it.

Frankly, wedded as he appears to his own grift, I’d long since given up hope that Brooks was capable of learning anything, even something so simple and obvious that a lot of his intellectual and moral betters intuited it in middle school. And yet he has: In a column posted March 7, he acknowledges that, five years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s groundbreaking, Polk Award-winning essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” the meaning of the words in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address appears finally to have permeated his mental block. Lincoln said:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Much to my surprise, and very much to his credit, Brooks grapples with these words long and hard enough to arrive at some very solid conclusions:

There are a few thoughts packed into that sentence. First, there is a natural moral order to the universe. There is a way things are supposed to be — more important than economic wealth or even a person’s life.

Second, moral actions are connected to each other. If somebody tears at the moral order by drawing blood through the lash of slavery, then that wrong will have to be paid for by the blood of the sword. History has meaning. It’s not just random events.

Third, sin is anything that assaults the moral order. Slavery doesn’t merely cause pain and suffering to the slave. It is a corruption that infects the whole society. It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.

Fourth, sin travels down society through the centuries. Lincoln was saying that sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.

He goes on to acknowledge that while people of many backgrounds have suffered during the history of the English colonies and then the United States, the suffering of African slaves, Native Americans and their descendants has been uniquely awful, with uniquely awful consequences:

Slavery and the continuing pattern of discrimination aren’t only an attempt to steal labor; they are an attempt to cover over a person’s soul, a whole people’s soul.

That injury shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.

He endorses Coates’s understanding of what we need and why we need it. As Coates wrote:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

Brooks concludes:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

Do not presume that I think for one minute that this column lets Brooks off the hook.

We are “a nation coming apart at the seams” precisely because of the kinds of policies and politicians Brooks has promoted, supported, and served as an apologist for — often with staggering levels of contextual and/or intellectual dishonesty — for more than two decades. Brooks acknowledges and repents for none of that here, almost certainly because he has yet to begin the hard work of critical self-examination. (I would suggest he started by reading Driftglass, but that’s just me.) And his column offers no evidence whatever to prove that he ever will.

But, like the blind men and the elephant in the old story, he has, by touch more than sight, begun to grasp some of the contours of a problem, and a moral necessity, that he has up until now never rightly understood. As I said earlier, a lot of people not necessarily any smarter than he began to intuit those things at a much earlier age. But, frankly, that he has begun to do so now is more than that of which I ever had thought him capable, so I owe him credit where due.

Do I think this will change anything in the near term? I do not. The people in position to begin any sort of serious discussion of reparations in the policy sphere oppose reparation and consider The New York Times and its writers enemies of the people.

But Brooks’s unaccountable popularity as a “moderate” means that maybe more Americans will reconsider the idea of reparations who otherwise might not have done so. It’s a small candle amidst a lot of cursed darkness right now, but I’ll take it.

Friday, January 18, 2019 8:02 pm

Impeachment: OK, now it’s go time

Buzzfeed reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has documentary evidence that Donald Trump ordered his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. If that’s true, Trump must be impeached immediately.

Donald Trump committed his first impeachable offense on his first day in office and has continued it daily since: profiting personally from his D.C. hotel, to which his supporters here and abroad flock, in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. He did it right out in the open, where everyone could see it, no investigation required.

And there are varying degrees of proof in the public record that he has committed other arguably impeachable offenses, too, including but not limited to suborning perjury, money laundering, sedition (if not treason), and so on.

Since May 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, as well as such possibly related issues as money laundering.

Trump was able to do what he did because for the first two years of his term, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. They would neither hold Trump accountable nor allow Democrats to do so.

That changed on Nov. 6, when Democrats scored a victory not seen since the immediate aftermath of Watergate. Incoming Democratic House committee chairs vowed that Trump would undergo oversight.

As I say, Trump has been guilty of at least one impeachable offense since Day 1. And I believe he should be impeached, on that charge and others. But up until this morning, I had been (grudgingly) content to await the results of the Mueller investigation and/or any reports from the House investigating committees before Congress started discussing that.

And there’s a reason for that: Impeachment, a remedy included in the Constitution by the Framers, is an inherently political act. Other than treason and bribery, the Constitution doesn’t say what an impeachable offense is, with the practical result that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives thinks it is. Accordingly, I thought that for any impeachment effort to have much public support, it should be based on the findings of Mueller and/or the House. After all, when Republicans outran public support for their investigation of Bill Clinton in 1998, they paid heavily for it in that year’s midterms.

That changed this morning, when I read the Buzzfeed report that Mueller has documentary evidence that Trump ordered his attorney Michael Cohen to lie under oath to Congress about when negotiations on the proposed Trump Tower Moscow ended. Indeed, Cohen wasn’t even a source for the story. Mueller obtained the documentary evidence first and then went to Cohen for confirmation, which Cohen provided.

Directing another person to commit perjury — “suborning perjury” — is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine. Not only that, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Robert Barr, whose confirmation hearings were held this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, testified in response to questions from both Republican and Democratic senators that for the president to suborn perjury would definitely constitute a crime. (I’m not entirely sure Barr knows what he’s getting into here, and I’m very sure he’s not up to the task and might even be compromised, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Suborning perjury was the first thing mentioned in Richard Nixon’s articles of impeachment. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that if in fact the Buzzfeed report is true, the House needs to be drafting articles of impeachment immediately.

Is the Buzzfeed article true? To be fair, we don’t know. It was sourced to two unnamed federal agents. The reporters said they had seen some of Mueller’s documentary evidence, but they could  not obtain and publish copies. At this writing, no other news outlet has independently confirmed the report that I know of.

On the other hand, Buzzfeed, although a new-media upstart, is a credible and professional news outlet — so credible and professional that it was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist in international reporting for what the Pulitzer board called its “stunning probe across two continents that proved that operatives with apparent ties to Vladimir Putin have engaged in a targeted killing campaign against his perceived enemies on British and American soil.” And Jason Leopold, the lead reporter on the piece, is well-regarded as a “ninja” in the business for the ways in which he has used the federal Freedom of Information Act to expose government wrongdoing. (Yes, Buzzfeed catches crap for publishing listicles and other eye candy — but that’s how it pays for investigative reporting. For the record, in 25 years in newspaper I didn’t work for a single paper that didn’t pay for the investigative work with sports, comics, and horoscope, and I don’t recall anyone complaining.) So while we don’t know whether the article is accurate, I think its accuracy is far more likely than not. And if it is accurate, that gun is as smoking and hot to the touch as they come.

Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has said that his committee will be investigating the allegation. Ideally, Mueller will share at least enough of his documentation with Schiff to provide a basis for a referral to the Judiciary Committee for impeachment. And once that happens, Judiciary needs to roll out articles of impeachment and the House needs to pull the trigger.

We are in the midst of the longest government shutdown on record, and it is 100% the responsibility of Donald Trump and the Republicans. The House has passed measures to end it. The Republican-controlled Senate even passed a spending bill 100-0 that Trump rejected after conservative propagandists Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh criticized it. Since then, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell has not allowed another Senate vote. Trump and McConnell are holding 800,000 federal employees and an untold number of private contractors hostage over Trump’s plan to build a wall on the country’s southern border — a wall that, at this writing, almost 60% of Americans say they oppose. If the shutdown continues much longer, it may well push the country into a recession.

This presidency is on fire. This country is on fire. Given what we learned today, we cannot wait any longer. The House needs to go ahead and impeach Trump for suborning perjury; the Mueller investigation and House committee investigations should continue their investigations, but we can’t afford to wait for them anymore. Impeach Trump. Now.

UPDATE: Welp, Mueller’s office is denying the Buzzfeed story, The Washington Post is reporting. So stay tuned, kids.

 

 

 

Friday, January 4, 2019 1:03 pm

Election 2020: I do not like the whole idea of likability

Ignore anything and everything you read about a presidential candidate’s “likability,” particularly if that candidate is a Democratic woman. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular.

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts became the first Democrat to announce that she was forming a 2020 presidential-campaign exploratory committee. And just like that, the political press served notice that it was going to be just as sexist and idiotic as it had been in 2016.

Politico, whose reporting frequently is essential but whose analysis and opinion seems to be at least 50% pro-Republican horseshit, popped up noon Monday with “Warren Battles the Ghost of Hillary,” which suggested that Warren might be just as “unlikable” as Hillary Clinton had been in 2016 and therefore doomed as a candidate.

The anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative was written before the Massachusetts senator even announced she was exploring a presidential run.

She’s too divisive and too liberal, Washington Democrats have complained privately. Her DNA rollout was a disaster — and quite possibly a White House deal-breaker. She’s already falling in the polls, and — perhaps most stinging — shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton.

In the year of the woman, it adds up to one unwelcome mat for the most prominent woman likely to be part of the 2020 field. But it also presents an unmistakable challenge: How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Man, there is so much horseshit here that you probably would need dynamite to unpack it.

  • First of all, how is it that there is any “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at all just hours after her announcement? Answer: People have been lying in wait for her for a while. And who would do that? People who are anti-Elizabeth Warren. Duh. There is no organic “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at this point, only propaganda.
  • And how is it that there is an “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” that is similar to Hillary Clinton’s? After all, Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for 35 brutal years, whereas five years ago most Americans had no idea who Elizabeth Warren was. Answer? Sexism: The implicit message of this comparison is that no female candidate, or at least no Democratic female candidate, can be trusted.
  • Too divisive? How? How does one quantify “divisive”? Sophisticated polling can sort of, kind of get at that — more on that in a bit — but as of Monday, not very much had been done on Warren, and certainly nowhere near as much as has been done on Clinton.
  • Too liberal? First, there’s always the tiresome and mostly unanswerable question of how one defines “liberal.” And if you can’t define that, how does one quantify how much liberalism is enough vs. too much? And “too much” on what scale? An ideological scale? As opposed to other candidates? Of course, Warren being the first, there were no other candidates when this piece was written.
  • And who are these “Washington Democrats” who call her too divisive and liberal? I may have spent my career with daily newspapers and their admittedly stodgy websites rather than online creations of the Kewl Kids, but we didn’t let political opponents snipe at each other anonymously, for good reason: It isn’t ethical, and even more importantly, it adds nothing to the reader’s understanding. Half-competent journalists should make political opponents call one another out by name, with all agendas out where the public can see them. That enhances reader understanding, which is, or ought to be, the point of it all.
  • Warren’s “DNA rollout” was a forthright response to a libelous criticism from a sitting president of the United States. To call it a “disaster” is pure editorializing: I am in no way an expert on this, but to the extent that Native Americans themselves have criticized her for having had her DNA tested, they appear to be privileging custom over science, arguing that without her name on a tribal roll, a DNA test means nothing. (If I’m missing something on this point, I’m happy to be corrected.) In any event, given Donald Trump’s apparently being an agent of a hostile foreign power, his tax fraud, his serial violations of the Emoluments Clause, his history of serial sexual assault, to be suggesting that a DNA test fatally damages a candidate for president is to display both practical ignorance and moral stillbirth. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that her timing, during the Blue Wave, suggests she put self ahead of party, but 1) absent additional information that is hardly the only explanation, and 2) If you’re going to make putting self ahead of party a criterion (and you should), there are far greater offenders. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker come immediately to mind.
  • “Shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton”? And what are they, pray tell? An electoral college founded in not just slavery but also in cosseting the whiny, bitchy, gimme attitudes of the slave states? A grossly bigoted electorate? Enemies in the Kremlin? Republican vote-suppression efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina? Third-party candidates secretly supported by the Russians? Because those are the “attributes” that sank Clinton. By 65 million to 62 million, American voters favored her.

And that’s just three paragraphs. Holy shit. The piece goes on for many paragraphs more, laden with sexism and editorializing and almost unburdened by fact, all predicated on the notions that likability is real, that it matters, that it can be quantified, and that Elizabeth Warren has less of it than other Democrats and perhaps even less than Trump.

And that’s just one candidate. Multiply this bullshit across the dozen-plus likely 2020 Democratic presidents, candidates, many of them women, and you would be forgiven the urge to burn down every single U.S. news outlet.

Well, here are some facts.

“Likability” is incredibly subjective. It cannot be quantified or measured except in the most relative of terms. It is subject to pollution from bias, from lack of information, from lack of context. The closest we can quantifiably get to it is the favorability/unfavorability ratings of polls. The same recent Quinnipiac University poll that scored Warren’s favorability/unfavorability ratings at 33%/37% scored Donald Trump’s at 39%/52%, and yet somehow Warren’s “unlikability” gets all the attention.

And if you Google likability with respect to politicians, you’ll find that the subject comes up WAY more often in articles about women than in articles about men. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not a good one.

And here’s another fact, even more to the point:

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular. And yet our news media are convinced that Elizabeth Warren 1) is unlikable and 2) cannot be elected president because of it. That ought to adjust your attitude regarding any “analysis” you read about Democratic candidates for the rest of the 2019-2020 election cycle for offices at any level.

So what to do about it? I covered politics for 25 years, some years better than others, so here are my modest suggestions for consumers of news in general and people wondering which Democratic presidential candidate to support in particular:

  • For now, DO NOTHING. The actual voting doesn’t begin for another 13 months. As of this writing, Warren has formed an exploratory committee and Washington Gov. Jay Insbee has said he intends to. No one else is even close to being a formal candidate. If you were utterly undecided on a candidate a week or a month ago, there is no reason for you to even think about picking a candidate until 1) everyone who is going to run has formally announced and filed their paperwork, and 2) at least some of the Democratic presidential debates, which start in June, have come and gone. You can wait at least six months without sacrificing a thing, and unless you have some kind of personal attachment/connection to a candidate, you probably want to see how the candidates perform in several debates before picking one to support.
  • At least until the number of remaining Democratic presidential candidates is reduced to two, avoid the temptation to criticize a candidate or candidates you do not support. Instead, talk up the candidate you favor. Send him/her money. Find a way to volunteer for his/her campaign, even if it’s only making phone calls.
  • Whether you are talking up your candidate or talking down an opponent, do so with both factual and contextual accuracy. That’s harder than it sounds. You might mean quite well, but there are many, many sources of misinformation on the Web with respect to every declared candidate and plenty of potential ones. The Russians messed with what you saw on social media in 2016 and are likely to do so again in 2020. And conservative “news” outlets frequently take bullshit rumors that originate on conservative message boards and give them a patina of legitimacy, so be particularly careful not to amplify that bullshit. Check and double-check the information you choose to use. Factcheck.org and Politifact.com are excellent sources for vetting information, as is Snopes.com.

(And what do I mean by “contextual accuracy”? Remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. Where numbers are concerned, remember that one number is meaningless without at least one other number as a scale. Where facts about a political candidate are concerned, ask questions like, “What other candidate(s) is this fact true about, and to what extent?” Be wary of claims like “first,” “greatest,” “best” or “worse”: As one of my old editors used to say, there’s always a faster gun. Even mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post that are generally reliable with regard to factual accuracy frequently commit mistakes and omissions with regard to contextual accuracy. One big example: The Times’s 2016 focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails — yes, she made mistakes, but she did not commit a crime — while ignoring, for another two years, a long string of evidence that Donald Trump was a crook. And when a news outlet purports to examine any candidate’s “likability,” examine their methods for quantifying it and see to what extent they attempt to assess all candidates or likely candidates in the same manner.)

So, to sum up, I don’t like “likability,” and you shouldn’t either. At this point in the race, and pretty much from now until November 2020, news outlets should be focusing primarily on candidates’ policy proposals — what they are, how they will work, what they will cost, how we will pay for it, and what their outcomes are likely to be. And if the news outlets on which you rely try to dabble in it, hammer them hard. It’s just a pity Facebook doesn’t offer a “don’t like” button.

P.S.: One more thing about likability. George W. Bush won in 2000 because a lot of reporters thought he was “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.” Screw that. On both literal and metaphoric levels, I am realistic enough to know that I will never have a beer with even a former president of the United States, let alone a sitting one. So I will vote for a competent, empathetic jackass over a charming sociopath for any office, any day. You can ask the people of Iraq and Puerto Rico and Flint what we get when we elect sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Studying is … hazing? Nah, bro (and sis)

One of the nation’s top public universities says a sorority that requires its members to study at least 25 hours a week is hazing. That university needs to go back to school.
 
Before I started college, back when the Wright Brothers were pups, my parents explained that I should literally look at college academics as a full-time job, one requiring 40 to 50 hours per week: If I was going to be in class, say, 15 hours a week, then I needed to be putting in at least another 25 to 35 hours reading, studying, writing papers, doing labs, etc. THEN I could think about eating and sleeping, and THEN I could think about fun. (As it happened, I ended up adding 40 hours of radio work per week to that whole schedule, with significant impingement on both sleep and fun, but I also graduated with student-loan debt that was merely manageable, so that worked out OK in the end.)
So, I’ll be honest: I’m having a difficult time seeing how a University of Virginia sorority could be suspended by the university for hazing simply for requiring its members — not just pledges — to study 25 hours per week. Yet that’s what happened; the university’s chapter of the Latina sorority Sigma Lambda Upsilon (also known as Senoritas Latinas Unidas) was suspended for just that. A pledge filed a complaint, and after an investigation (or an “investigation”), the university suspended the chapter in March. The sorority filed suit in U.S. District Court in September, alleging its First and 14th Amendment rights had been violated.
In principle, at least, I think the suspension was nuts. That said, I can see how any time/place/manner requirements might be burdensome, depending on what they were. The article didn’t discuss those requirements, so I had a lot of questions. For example:
  • Did the sorority require its members all to do their 25 hours of studying at the same time each week (e.g., 7-midnight Sunday-Thursday nights) rather than allowing each member to slot her 25 hours into her schedule wherever it fit best around classes, labs, and jobs?
  • Were the members required to do their studying at the sorority house or some other defined location, rather than in locations of their choice — their rooms, or the library or lab?
  • How, and how invasively, did the sorority track the study hours of its members?
  • Was the 25-hour requirement waived or adjusted proportionately for members who were part-time students?

Still, just how wild would any time/place/manner requirements have to be to constitute hazing? Hazing has a legal definition, after all. Here’s how Virginia law defines it:

“It shall be unlawful to haze, or otherwise mistreat so as to cause bodily injury, any student at any school, college, or university. …” (emphasis added)

I found the original Charlottesville Daily Progress article about the sorority’s lawsuit, and it says that UVa further defines hazing as:

“any action taken or situation created on Grounds [university property — Lex] that is intended to or does produce mental or physical harassment, humiliation, fatigue, degradation, ridicule, shock or injury.”

Again, absent some very weird time/place/manner requirements, I’m having a hard time seeing how a study requirement could cause the kind of problems described in that definition. Moreover, the sorority correctly argues that many other campus organizations have similar requirements. For student-athletes, the Daily Progress notes, NCAA rules limit team-related activities to 20 hours a week, but that doesn’t include things such as study halls, tutoring and travel.

The sorority argues that it is being discriminated against because its members are Latina. The articles don’t suggest that there is any evidence that that is the case, but the facts as reported certainly seem to suggest that 1) the chapter is being treated differently from other student organizations — for whatever reason — and 2) there’s no legal or administrative basis for the suspension. Hell, I think students could only benefit if more student organizations, particularly Greek social organizations, imposed similar requirements.

One last note about this case: The lawsuit was filed in September, but we’re only now hearing about it. That fact likely speaks to the dramatic cuts in news reporting ranks over the past several years. In most metro areas and in many smaller markets, court reporters used to check civil-court dockets at least weekly for suits involving, at the least, prominent plaintiffs and/or defendants — the city or county or local colleges or hospitals or large employers, say. Clearly, the Daily Progress is no longer able to make those kinds of checks, and God knows it’s not alone in that.

 

 

Monday, November 12, 2018 7:59 am

The cracked front door that didn’t bark; or, Why you should never take what a Republican says at face value

You’ve probably head a lot of talk in the past week about how antifa protesters terrorized Tucker Carlson’s wife and kids in their home, even cracking open their oak front door.

Yes, there were protesters*, and one of them sprayed an anarchy symbol on Carlson’s driveway. But the children were not at home at the time, and the cracked front door? Never happened. The cops who were there didn’t see it. Two Washington Post reporters who visited the house didn’t see it either.

(That’s not to say that a lot of mainstream media, such as USA Today, didn’t run stories repeating Carlson’s claim without independent verification. Of course they did, because anytime a Republican shrieks, “Antifa!” the MSM soil their drawers. Meanwhile, actual 18 USC 241 felony vote suppression is going on right out in the open in Georgia and Florida without the news media calling it what it is, but that’s a subject for another post.)

This anecdote illustrates the peril inherent in taking anything a Republican says at face value, particularly a Republican who literally gets paid to lie on television. You — whether you’re a journalist or a civilian — need to stop doing that. You need to critically question any such claim made by any Republican politician or pundit. And you need to punish news outlets who repeat such claims unquestioningly.

Friday, July 27, 2018 5:55 pm

God bless The Root, but: No, it has NOT proved the Russians altered 2016 vote totals

(Originally posted July 26, 2018, on Facebook; I’m reupping this here on the blog (with a few minor clarifications) to give it a little more reach.)

I’ve seen this article shared a great deal on social media today. Writer Michael Harriot claims to have found proof that Russia actually altered vote totals in the 2016 election to tilt the election to Trump. It proves a lot of things, but not that.

First, I’m not a computer scientist and don’t play one on social media. But I edited the 2004 book “Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century,” by Bev Harris and my good friend David Allen. (In a previous life, David did network security for banks. This is relevant because voting-machine maker Diebold also did bank networks.)

During that project I learned about the many vulnerabilities of electronic voting machines, and this Root article rehashes some of those. It also does a good job of documenting that the Russians had means, motive, opportunity and desire to alter the 2016 election results.

But despite the headline, this article does not provide any evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the Russians actually altered vote totals. It does not provide any evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the Russians deleted voter registration data so as to prevent a single person from voting.

To be clear, I think both those things probably happened. But this article doesn’t prove it, and neither has anyone else that I know of. And I’ve been looking for evidence of this since I started working on “Black Box Voting” more than 15 years ago.

And at this point, the question is irrelevant; the Constitution is silent on the question of undoing a stolen presidential election.

What is HIGHLY relevant, and quite urgent, is that we realize that it could happen (again) in 2018 and 2020 and take steps to prevent it. Off the top of my head, that means, among other things, paper ballots, publicly counted, and mandatory, rigorous election auditing up and down the ballot. These are things we still (barely) have time to make happen before November, and that’s where we ought to focus.

UPDATE, July 27: Having seen this Root article promoted on social media by such respected authorities as Sarah Kendzior, I’ve tried to contact her and a couple of others to make clear that, for lack of a better term, the headline writes a check the reporting can’t cash. I’ve gotten no response from anyone I contacted.

UPDATE, July 28: The Root has pulled the article pending review. Good.

Sunday, October 1, 2017 11:49 am

Journalists, here’s a story idea at no charge

Last night, five people were killed here in Greensboro when a stolen car being pursued at high speed by a sheriff’s deputy ran a red light and crashed into another car crossing the intersection of Battleground Avenue and New Garden Road.

Around midnight, a Guilford County sheriff’s deputy spotted a suspicious vehicle that turned out to be stolen from Greensboro, according to a news release from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.

The deputy turned on his blue lights and the suspect vehicle sped south on Battleground Avenue. The deputy was about ¼-mile behind when the vehicle ran a red light at the intersection of New Garden Road and Battleground.

The stole car struck a car crossing Battleground that had the right of way.

Five people in the two vehicles were killed  two females in the vehicle crossing Battleground and two males and one female in the suspect’s vehicle.

As far as I know, the deputy was following departmental procedure, although I’ve been out of the game now for most of a decade and don’t know what policy changes might have taken place since I left the News & Record.

At the same time, anyone with a lick of compassion has to ask: Granted, this case is kind of a black swan as law enforcement goes, but was this chase really worth five human lives, at least two of whom, and possibly up to four of whom, were wholly innocent?

This brings up an idea I had in my reporting days that I never got to execute: What if news outlets did comprehensive cost-benefit- analyses of high-speed chases by law enforcement in their area and used those findings to advocate for changes, if any be needed, to local law-enforcement policy on high-speed changes?

As I see it, such an analysis would look something like this: Journalists partner with experts in cost-benefit analysis to total up the cost of such chases, assigning a dollar value to everything from damaged vehicles, fences, mailboxes, etc., to human lives. And also assign a dollar value to the benefits of such chases: the dollar value to society of getting a murderer — or, in this case, a suspected car thief — off the street. And then calculate how those costs and benefits add up.

Is catching an auto-theft suspect worth one life, let alone five? If so, current policy stands. If not, then ideally, policy would be amended accordingly.

News outlets are uniquely situated to carry out this research, but I invite any journalist, pro or citizen, to take this idea and run with it. If we’re paying too high a price to apprehend fleeing suspects, we need to know that. And if we’re not, we need to know and accept that, too.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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