• Let’s Play Journalism, and Make Fake News

    February 14, 2017 // 98 Comments »



    This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!

    The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.

    There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.

    Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.

    It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.

    From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)

    Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.

    The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.



    So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.

    Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.

    The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.

    “They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”

    In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”

    Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.


    See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.



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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Can’t Judge Fake News in the Dark

    February 10, 2017 // 76 Comments »



    This isn’t about Trump. It’s about judging the media, whoever and whatever they report on. It is about reading critically when so much out there is just simply inaccurate. Not maybe inaccurate, pure dead solid perfect stupid. So don’t call me a nazi.

    Step One is to note if the story you’re reading/seeing is all or mostly unsourced, or anonymously sourced. Red flag.

    Step Two is to see if the story is bombastic, dramatic, something that really makes you angry. Something that adds to or dovetails with something you already believe is true. If it sounds like gossip, that’s probably all it is. Red flag.

    Step Three is to check if the story is a negative one about a person or subject from a media outlet that celebrates its partisan position. Red flag.

    Congratulations! You’ve got a sample target, and are ready to apply a basic test.

    Ask who would know the information, why would they tell anyone, and apply a light sniff test: does it make any sense at all?


    Here’s one to practice on, courtesy of the New York Times. There are no sources at all for the most part, and the story is bombastic, suggesting the people in the White House are dumber than third graders. The Times has had trouble with objectivity concerning the administration. Much of the story sounds like mean gossip.

    We’ll zoom in on a couple of opening lines, keeping in mind this was presented on the front page as news:

    President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

    Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.

    So the venerable New York Times reports Trump’s aides sit in the dark because they do not know how to operate light switches.

    Seriously? Light switches are rarely complex. Those aides have been on the job for about two weeks and have not figured out how to turn on the lights? And by the way, the White House is full of non-political, permanent staff, including servants, janitors, the Secret Service, secretaries. Hell, you can dial zero on the house phone and ask for maintenance. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true, and it would have had to have been reported by one of the aides themselves, because no one else was there, or could see what was happening in the dark.

    Next up: the line about visitors wandering the halls looking for an exit.

    Access to the White House is as controlled as anywhere in the United States. One does not simply walk around trying doors. Visitors are escorted, the Secret Service is stationed everywhere, and there are cameras and motion detectors. Being alone inside the White House is a privilege allotted to very, very, very few people ever. Visitors are badged and checked in and out. The building itself is not a suburban movie theatre, with lots of doors opening out into the parking lot. Visitors go in and out via a limited number of portals. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true.

    Later in the same story the Times reports:

    When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

    While the image of old man Trump wandering around the place in his robe and slippers, perhaps hair amuss, is amusing, the statement is ridiculous as news.

    If the White House is hyper-controlled space, the Residence, the second floor where the president actually lives, is doubly so. Access is strictly limited to those personally invited by the president, staff who have worked there decades, and a handful of Secret Service stationed outside key doors. The idea is to offer a respite, a personal space for the family.

    The White House staff and Secret Service have a long tradition of not leaking intimate details of the First Family. They would throw away a decades-long career if they did. Neither group has leaked salacious gossip over the years about presidential affairs, husband and wife fights, drunkenness and the like in real time. It is incredulous that the Times would have any idea what Trump does inside his own living room.

    Another caution would be reports that purport to know what a senior policy maker is “thinking,” the very ideas and feelings in his head. While anything is of course possible, how likely is it that someone in public life would voice those things to people junior enough to leak them (oh but you want to believe it, don’t you?) Here’s the Times again:

    Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests.

    The first line is of course easily destroyable, as the president can invite anyone into the White House, and most anyone would be happy to rush in. And don’t his son-in-law and daughter Ivanka live just down the street in DC? In addition, should Trump want to talk with “fans and supporters,” there is that telephone thingie. Obama famously had a guarded private number for a handful of friends, and Bill Clinton, keeping with his times, used a personal FAX machine whose number was changed regularly and distributed to very few long-time associates.

    And by the way, how could the Times, or anyone really, know Trump is “increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job”? What does pinched even mean? Did someone deep inside Trump’s inner circle overhear him say “Dammit, I am feeling pinched as hell” and rush to whisper that in a reporter’s ear? Can someone be “increasingly” pinched after only some two weeks on the job?


    The piece goes on and on, claiming Trump obsessed over the drapes in the Oval Office, watches TV during lunch (!), somehow indicated to somebody that the Oval Office “is a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person,” and startlingly, “ordered that four hardback chairs be placed in a semicircle around his desk” which seems to be important for some reason never really explained.




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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Evaluating “Sources” in Fake News Like You’re in the CIA

    January 10, 2017 // 67 Comments »



    Want to know how to evaluate the memo alleging Trump is run by the Russians, and that they have video of him and his golden showers? I can tell you. Read.



    The use of anonymous sources was once a major line for a journalist to cross.

    By not naming a source, the journalist insists you trust them. Did they talk to an intern or a policymaker? Every source has an agenda; if we don’t know the source we have no idea of the agenda. Was the journalist trying to act carefully, but was fooled themselves? Remember the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the way the press facilitated that via articles based on unnamed sources we now know were Bush administration officials with fake tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

    Anonymous sources have their place. With Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post tried to use his information as a tool to work backwards to verifiable truths, or to allow them to reach people who would go on the record. Part of Edward Snowden’s credibility came from his named status.


    2016: New Rules

    The 2016 election appears to have changed the rules. Writers seem to be able to publish potentially game-changing stories based only on unnamed sources, with little or no collaborating evidence other than “it might be true.” And how can one refute an anonymous source presenting unique information, say something pulled from a highly classified document the public may never see? Adding to the question of credibility, the stories often track the writer’s political stance.


    Many readers feel they have only two options: take the writer’s word for it, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, then left like online roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.

    Thinking Like a Spy

    So how do readers try to reasonably exercise some healthy skepticism and critical thought? One way is to apply tests intelligence officers follow to help them evaluate their own sources.

    — Is the source in a position to know what they say they know? Someone in Human Resources who says a guy in the Analysis section is underpaid and vulnerable to recruitment, yep. Someone in Human Resources who says they have the embassy’s economic predictions for Country X for next year, hmmm. One of the ways Snowden’s critics sought to discredit him was to claim he could not have had access to the information he released (and so it must be fake.) When this idea is worked backwards — you are out looking for a source on some subject — it is known as spotting.

    — The “position to know” idea scales up sharply when a source says they are privy to conversations well-above their pay grade; how would they know the contents of a call the president made? Anyone who claims to know the why behind some action, what was in the heads of the decision makers, is subject to special skepticism. Overall, the further away from probability — plausibility — a story stretches, the more obligation on the intelligence officer to address those questions.

    — All sources have agendas. Human nature being what it is, sources who just want to do the right thing need to be looked at more closely. The source is risking something by talking, maybe even jail; why? Is what they will get out of the leak worth the risk they are assuming? And if you don’t know your source’s agenda — what they want — then you’re like the guy at the poker table who can’t tell who the rube is.

    — An intelligence officer needs to constantly ask themselves if they are being used, offered fake information for some purpose. How can they tell? What can the source offer that is verifiable? If they say they work directly for the ambassador, can they pass on a few internal phone numbers you can call anonymously?

    — Presumably if you are looking into a topic, and your source claims to have information, do they otherwise seem to know at least as much as you know? And if you’re being leaked to on a topic you know little about, why are they coming to you anyway? Is what you are being told consistent with other information on the subject? Is the information something that follows from known things, something known as expectability? Has the source reported reliably in the past, or have they been referred to you by someone who has?

    — Does what is being handed to you fit the “is the juice worth the squeeze,” risk versus gain, test? For example, a source claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket?

    “It Might Be True”

    While anything can have an explanation, “it might be true” or “you can’t prove it’s not true” are enablers of fake news. Instead, readers should apply some of the tests an intelligence officer might: who would know the information? How could someone know? How big a risk would that source be taking and why would take it? What agenda might the source and/or writer have? How plausible is what you’re reading, is the juice worth the squeeze?

    In the end, an intelligence officer rarely knows what is 100% true, so they assign a rating to information, such as high confidence, or medium confidence, and act on the information (or not) in line with that.

    A reader can never know with certainty the truth about an anonymously-sourced story. Anything is possible, but only some things are probable, and that’s usually the way you bet when you’re making up your mind whether to believe something in the media or not.

    BONUS: Here’s one to practice on. The image below is already circulating online. Apply the tests above and judge its credibility yourself. (FYI: the info below is truly, absolutely fake, created for this kind of purpose.)

    Click to enlarge





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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

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