• I Miss Journalism

    October 5, 2019 // 9 Comments »

    stripper with money

    I miss journalism. I used to enjoy the news. People said things, events happened, and the “news” told me about that. Some were better at shrinking away human bias than others, but by sticking to a solid handful of outlets you could get a decent sense of what was happening.

    Now, columnist Max Boot in the Washington Post has finally put into writing what we have all known for some time: that sort of journalism is dead. The job has shifted to aspirational writing, using selected facts alongside made-up stuff to cause something to happen.

    What Boot made black and white is he does not commit journalism anymore to create Jefferson’s informed public. He writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election, regime change, my bitches. Max: “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office… I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.” While reasoned editorials and Op-Eds supporting and opposing policies have always been a part of journalism, what Boot spent the last few years doing was creating and supporting others who created narratives designed to drive Trump himself from office. They manufactured reasons for him to resign, to drive actual impeachment, or at last resort, influence voters too dumb to know what’s good for them.

    We more or less knew this was true even before senior staff at the New York Times had to remind reporters they were “not part of the f*cking resistance,” or before CNN advised the House “go for the jugular vein” and impeach Trump, but it is helpful to see it in daylight. After all, democracy dies in the darkness.

    The uber-created narrative was Russiagate. None of the core substance was true. Trump wasn’t the Manchurian Candidate set in place by Putin in a long con, nor was there a quid pro quo for Russian election help. Yet the media literally accused the president of treason by melding together otherwise unrelated droplets of truth — Trump wanted a hotel in Moscow, some ads were run on Facebook — that could be spun into a narrative which would bring Trump down, if not send him to SuperMax. What was true was of little consequence; what mattered was whether the media could create a narrative the rubes might believe.

    The critical flaw in Russiagate (other than it did not actually happen)) was the media creating an end-point they could not control, Robert Mueller. Mueller, an old school, Deep State man to his core, was made into an Avenger, the Last Honest Man, the Savior of Democracy as the narrative first unfolded and then fell apart like cardboard box in the rain. After Michael Cohen’s Mueller’s dismal testimony, promoted to a crescendo for three full years across the media, there was nowhere to go.

    A much better example which follows the same Bootian construct but which will play out without end is the mash-up story Trump is manipulating both the inner workings of government in the specific and American foreign policy on a global scale for personal gain via… hotel fees.

    At first glance it seems like a non-starter. Trump’s hotels are as much a part of him as the extra pounds he carries. He campaigned as a CEO and announced early on he was not going to leave any of that behind and divest.

    But even as the first cold slap of Trump’s election victory filtered past nascent attempts at unseating him, claiming he lost the popular vote (in baseball and the Electoral College, you win with the most runs, not the most hits, kids), or that votes were miscounted (they were not) or that the sleepy EC would rise from Hamilton’s grave and smite Trump (it did not), a narrative was being shaped: Trump could not become president because of his business conflicts of interest. Some went as far as to claim swearing him in would itself be an unconstitutional act.

    An early proponent was Harvard professor Lawrence Tribe, who dug around in the Constitution’s closet and found the Emoluments Clause, a handful of lines intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts from foreign sovereigns, kings and princes to prevent influence buying. Pre-Trump, the last time the issue was in actual contention was with President Martin Van Buren (no relation) over gifts from the Imam of Muscat.

    The media ran with it. They imagined out of whole cloth any foreign government official getting a room at any Trump hotel was such an emolument. Then they imagined whatever tiny percentage of that room profit actually went to Trump himself represented a bribe. Then they imagined despite the vast complexity of U.S. relations, Trump would alter course against America’s own interests because some guy rented a room. It was Joker-like in its diabolicalness, the presidency itself merely a prank to hide an international crime spree!

    Then they made it happen. The now-defunct leftist site Think Progress ran what might be Story Zero. It was based on an anonymous source claiming before Trump even took office, under political pressure, the Kuwaiti Ambassador canceled a major event at one hotel to switch to Trump’s own DC hotel. It all turned out to be untrue. “Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?” the Kuwait ambassador asked when some other outlet got around to his side of the story. But no matter.

    Though the Emoluments Clause is quite specific, the media then decided every time anyone stayed at a Trump property it was corruption. Even when Trump visited one of his own homes it was corruption because the Secret Service paid Trump for the privilege!

    Now none of that should have mattered. The Secret Service has always paid for the facilities they use for their work because the government cannot commandeer private property or demand/accept free stuff (which of course, ironically, could be seen as a bribe), not from Marriott and not from the Trump Organization. Joe Biden still charges the Secret Service rent on a cottage he owns, so that they can protect him when he visits home in Delaware. Taxpayers shelled out for eight years of Secret Service protection so his spouse, Jill, could hold a paid teaching job at a Northern Virginia community college.

    Never mind. When a business executive stayed at a Trump property, it was corruption. For example T-Mobile booked nine rooms at a Trump hotel, ostensibly to influence a $26 billion merger’s federal approval. Those rooms were worth about $2700. Of course the president, who can shift the stock market for millions with a tweet, prefers to make his illegal money off jacked up hotel bills. Think small has always been a Trump trademark.

    Reuters headlined how foreigners were buying New York condos from third party owners (i.e., not Trump or his company), but it was in a Trump-managed building after all and maybe the monthly maintenance fees would qualify as mini-emoluments? Every apartment sold to a Russian-sounding surnamed individual was corruption fodder. Trump was accused of “hiding” foreign government income at his hotels when servers at the bar failed to ask cash customers if they were potentates or princes (the headline: “Trump Organization Says It’s ‘Not Practical’ to Comply With the Emoluments Clause.”)

    And of course that Air Force crew staying at a Trump place in Scotland. That the hotel forged its relationship with a nearby airport long before Trump became president, and that the Air Force had been using the same airport and hotel hundreds of times long before Trump became president, didn’t stop the New York Times. Another piece speculated the $166 a night the Air Force pays for rooms was always part of Trump’s financial plan for the floundering multi-million golf course.

    Along the way all sorts of other co-joined narratives were tried and dropped: Stormy and Avenatti, the SDNY as Savior, Sharpiegate, something about security clearances, Trump outing a CIA asset inside the Kremlin, imminent war with ChinaIranVenezuelaNorthKorea, a recession that never seems to catch on, the Battle of Greenland, shady loans from Deutsche Bank that never materialize, taxes! taxes! taxes! and more. Some appear and disappear before a rebuttal can even be written. Others die out for awhile with the embers blown to life as needed, such as the idea diplomacy is “earned” by bad guys; that falsehood has impeded progress with North Korea and now on ending the war in Afghanistan (but was OK with Obama and Iran.)

    Places like CNN simultaneously claim Trump is a warmonger and incapable of diplomacy while mocking his efforts to practice it. They claim he has weakened the State Department and then are incredulous when he tries to use it. Forgotten is how around this point in the Bush admin we had started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the abandonment of a great American city to Katrina. The Patriot Act stripped us of our privacy. Torture, kidnapping, and indefinite prison without trial became US government policies. With Obama we had around this point attacked Libya triggering a massive refugee crisis which killed so many and is still disrupting Europe, ignored the Arab Spring, laid the groundwork for civil war in Syria, drone murdered several American citizens, and spent trillions to dig out of the financial crisis Bush let happen.

    But to really see how weak the corruption narrative is, you have only to compare it to how the media chose to cover similar questions in the past.

    Outside of anti-war outlets, the Bush family’s long involvement in the oil industry in general and closeness to the Saudis in particular was never really tied to two generations of Bush presidents making war across the mideast. Vice President Dick Cheney’s job running Haliburton and accepting delayed compensation from them even while in office had nothing to do in the MSM with his encouraging no-bid contracts for his old company to run the backstage parts of Iraq War II. There were certainly no talks of impeachment.

    Imagine if the media treated every appearance by Obama as a book promotion? What if each speech was slandered across the channels as corruption, Obama just out there selling books? Should he have been impeached for commercializing the office of president? At the very least this issue should have been discussed by Max Boot on cable news shows.

    The Trump Organization pays to the Treasury all profits from foreign governments. In the 2018, $191,000. The year before the amount was $151,470. So Trump’s in-pocket money is zero.

    Meanwhile Obama’s profit was $15.6 million as an author during his time in office (he has made multiples more since leaving office, including a $65 million book advance.) In the two weeks before he was inaugurated as the 44th president, Obama reworked his book deals. He agreed not to publish another non-fiction book during his time in office to keep anticipation high, while signing a $500,000 advance for a young adult version of Dreams From My Father.

    Obama’s books were huge sellers in China, where publishing is largely government controlled, meaning Obama likely received laundered payments via his publisher of Chicom money (Emoluments Clause!) while in the Oval Office. Obama’s own State Department bought $79,000 worth of his books to distribute as gifts abroad.

    As with Trump, nothing Obama did was illegal. There are no laws per se against a president making money while in the White House. Yet no one bothered to raise the Emoluments/corruption question for Obama, and the State Department purchasing $79,000 worth of his books was forgotten fodder for FOX. No one ran stories Obama sought the presidency as a bully ATM machine. No one claimed his frequent messaging about his father was designed to move books. No one demanded hearings on his profits or inquiries into how taxpayer funds were used to buy up his books.

    Only Trump, and Max Boot has confessed why. The media has created a pitch-and-toss game with Democrats, running false, exaggerated or purposely shallowly-reported stories to generate calls for hearings, which in turn breath life into the corruption story for another round.

    “Undeterred by lackluster public support for impeachment,” the New York Times reports, “Democrats have sketched out a robust four month itinerary of hearings and court arguments that they hope will provide the evidence they need to credibly portray Mr. Trump as corrupt and abusing his power.”

    Like Russiagate, this is all an assemblage of droplets of truth which will not lead to criminal charges or impeachment. Unlike Russigate, however, there is no Robert Mueller buzz kill to come, only a vague narrative which can be refreshed as needed, with the only end in sight being Trump somehow driven from office before November 2020, or beaten in the election. Until then, Max Boot and his ilk still have journalism’s new job to do. Journalism is now all for resistance, for condemnation and arousal.

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    Posted in 2020, Democracy, Trump

    Corruption in Journalism

    September 30, 2019 // 18 Comments »


     

    Columnist Max Boot in the Washington Post put into writing what we have all known for some time: real journalism, Jefferson’s informed citizenry and all that, is dead. The job has shifted to aspirational writing, using manipulated droplets of facts and just plain made-up stuff to drive events.
     

    Boot (pictured) writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election. Max: “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office… I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.”

    Boot has spent the last years creating and circle-supporting others who create false narratives. They manufacture reasons for Trump to resign, to press Democrats to impeach, or at last resort, to influence voters they otherwise hold in contempt for not knowing what’s good enough for them. We kind of figured this out after senior staff at the New York Times had to remind reporters they were “not part of the f*cking resistance,” but it is helpful to see it in daylight. After all, democracy dies in the darkness.

     

    The uber-false narrative Max and others Frankensteined into existence was Russiagate. Trump wasn’t the Manchurian Candidate and there was no quid pro quo for Russian election help. Yet the media literally accused the president of treason by melding together otherwise unrelated truthlets — Trump wanted a hotel in Moscow, some ads were run on Facebook — that could be spun into a narrative to bring Trump down. Correlation was made into causation in a purposeful freshman Logic 101 fail. What was true was of little consequence; what mattered was whether the media could collectively create a story the rubes would believe, and then pile on.

    The critical flaw in Russiagate (other than it didn’t happen) was the media creating an end-point they could not control. Robert Mueller was magic-wanded into the Last Honest Man, the Savior of Democracy, as the narrative first unfolded and then fell apart like a cardboard box in the rain. After his dismal testimony there was nowhere for the story to go.
     
    This autumn’s empty box of a narrative is upgraded to play out without end: Trump is manipulating domestic and foreign policy for personal gain via… hotel fees.

    At first glance it seems like a non-starter. Trump’s hotels are as much a part of him as the extra pounds he carries. He campaigned as a CEO and announced early on he was not going to divest. But with the first cold slap of Trump’s election victory a narrative was being shaped: Trump could not become president because of his business conflicts of interest; it was danged unconstitutional.

    Early proponents of this dreck dug around in the Constitution’s closet and found the Emoluments Clause, a handful of lines intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts from foreign sovereigns, kings, and princes to prevent influence buying. Pre-Trump, the last time the issue was in actual contention was with President Martin Van Buren (no relation) over gifts from the Imam of Muscat.

    The media ran with it. They imagined out of whole cloth any foreign government official getting a room at any Trump hotel was a “gift.” Then they imagined whatever tiny percentage of that room profit which actually went to Trump himself represented a bribe. Then they imagined despite the vast complexity of U.S. relations, Trump would alter course because some guy rented a room. It was Joker-like in its diabolicalness, the presidency itself merely a prank to hide an international crime spree. Pow!

    It was also ridiculous on its face, but they made it happen. The now-defunct leftist site Think Progress ran what might be Story Zero before Trump even took office. An anonymous source claimed the Kuwaiti Ambassador canceled a major event at one hotel to switch to Trump’s own DC hotel under pressure. It all turned out to be untrue. “Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?” the Kuwait ambassador asked when someone got around to his side of the story. But no matter, the narrative was set.

    Then it grew. Though the Emoluments Clause is quite specific, the media decided every time anyone stayed at a Trump property it was corruption. Even when Trump visited one of his own homes it was corruption because the Secret Service paid Trump for the privilege. Of course the Secret Service has always paid for the facilities used in their work because the government cannot commandeer private property or accept free rooms (which, ironically, could be seen as a bribe), not from Marriott and not from the Trump Organization. Even Joe Biden still has to charge the Secret Service rent on a cottage he owns, so they can protect him when he’s home in Delaware.

    More? T-Mobile booked nine rooms at a Trump hotel, in media hive minds ostensibly to influence federal approval of a $26 billion merger. Those rooms were worth about $2700. Of course the president, who can influence the Dow with a tweet, prefers to make his illegal money off jacked up hotel bills. Think small has always been a Trump trademark.

    Reuters headlined how foreigners were buying condos from third party owners (i.e., not Trump or his company), but they were in a Trump-managed building and maybe the monthly maintenance fees would qualify as mini-emoluments? Trump was accused of “hiding” foreign government income at his hotels when servers at the bar failed to ask cash customers if they were potentates or princes (the headline: “Trump Organization Says It’s ‘Not Practical’ to Comply With the Emoluments Clause.”)

    And of course that Air Force crew staying at a Trump place in Scotland. No matter that the hotel forged its relationship with a nearby airport long before Trump became president, or that the Air Force had used the airport and hotel hundreds of times before Trump became president (going back to WWII), and or that a decision by the Pentagon to have flights stop more frequently there was made under the Obama administration, nope, none of that stopped the media from proclaiming corruption. One piece speculated the $166 a night the Air Force pays for rooms was always part of Trump’s cornerstone financial plan for the floundering multi-million golf course.
     
    But to see how much the corruption narrative really is a media creation, you have only to compare it to how the MSM covered what might have been a similar question in the past. Imagine if journalists had treated every appearance by Obama as a book promotion. What if each speech was slandered across the channels as corruption, Obama just out there pimping his books? Should he have been impeached for commercializing the office of president?

    Follow the money, as Maddow likes to say. The Trump Organization pays to the Treasury all profits from foreign governments. In the 2018, $191,000. The year before the amount was $151,470. So Trump’s in-pocket profit is zero.

    Meanwhile Obama’s profit as an author during his time in office was $15.6 million (he’s made multiples more since, including a $65 million book advance.) In the two weeks before he was inaugurated, Obama reworked his book deals to take advantage of his new status. He agreed not to publish another non-fiction book during his time in office to keep anticipation high, while signing a $500,000 advance for a young adult version of Dreams From My Father.

    Obama’s books were huge sellers in China, where publishing is largely government controlled, meaning Obama likely received Chicom money in the Oval Office. Obama’s own State Department bought $79,000 worth of his books to distribute as gifts.

    As with Trump, nothing Obama did was illegal. There are no laws per se against a president making money. Yet no one bothered to raise ethical questions about Obama. No one claimed he sought the presidency as a bully ATM machine. No one claimed his frequent messaging about his father was designed to move books. No one held TV hearings on his profits or into how taxpayer funds were used to buy his books. It’s not “everybody does it” or “whataboutism,” it is why does the media treat two very similar situations so very differently?
     
    Max Boot confessed why. The media has created a pitch-and-toss game with Democrats, running false, exaggerated or shallowly-reported stories to generate calls for hearings, which in turn breath life into the corruption stories they live off. Max Boot and his ilk are doing a new job. Journalism to them is for resistance, condemnation, arousal, and regime change. And that’s one way democracy does die.
      

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    What if Political Journalism Really Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    January 25, 2019 // 11 Comments »


     

    After a week in which Buzzfeed published the false claim Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, it’s time to ask: What happens if political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization?

    Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founders assigned it a specific role in helping citizens carry out informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization, the goal of which is to do away with Donald Trump, not via informed debate but by any means necessary.

    The justification is America is on the precipice of 1933 so running Trump out of office is a moral duty. Trump is a Nazi, red MAGA caps the new Klan hood. Under such dire circumstances, media can no longer risk both sides being heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or chance unbiased reporting might inadvertently make Trump look good. Some journalists believe they were partially responsible for Hillary’s defeat, and live in fear some scrap of truth might accidentally abet Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. The new standard is tabloid-level journalism, so every story can be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause. Objectivity is #Collusion.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer run Elvis-is-alive articles, announce miracle cancer cures, and traffic in outrageous celebrity gossip. Sources are anonymous, conclusions spoon-fed, headlines bombastically out of line with the text. It’s OK in its place because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believes the stories. We’re spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it is fun to be fooled anyway. The concern is with the tabloidization of real news.

    The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the Moscow Project. Tabloids use assumed narratives and prejudices – a cure must be out there to save Mom if only Big Pharma would get out of the way – and in this case the narrative chain is Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset and so it all has to be lied about and so Trump has to be in on it.

    Lack of actual evidence has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years. Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new: its mystery sources saw the evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe said he personally saw it too.

    Same as with the miracle cure, to any objective person Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury! Trump can’t lie his way out of that! He’ll be out of office as fast as the paperwork can be processed! Impeach the MF!

    Legacy prestigious media outlets such as WaPo and the New York Times picked up the story, having learned how to hide behind the thong of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they can headline The Earth is Flat! at no reputational risk to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they (re)print.

    Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for the media and his fellow pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front, ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.” One imagines with horror those words chiseled on a journalism building Clyburn funds at his alma mater.

    The only sort of problem is Buzzfeed’s story wasn’t true. It was shut down by a statement from the Special Counsel’s office in less than 24 hours, the first such rebuke ever issued, though to be fair, James Comey also stated some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source it otherwise deified as just a “dispute,” “push back,” a “controversy.”

    Buzzfeed’s specific reaction included a clumsy jujitsu of challenging Mueller to tell them exactly what he thought was inaccurate. They perhaps understood in the tabloid world truth has a viral-length expiration date, that truth is only what people are willing to believe anyway, including that magicians really can saw women in half on stage. Falsehoods are the work of bad sources, even though we’ll try again next week with basically the same story from new sources. All that matters is an infusion saying Trump is evil and that end justifies the journalistic means.

    Advocacy journalism, tabloid style, is not about pointing out real wrongs with an occasional correction issued. It is about teeing up tales to support a political goal. Let Buzzfeed open the door for WaPo to legitimize the story. Members of Congress then bypass the fuzzy source to cite the name-brand one (“according to sources” becomes “according to the Washington Post”) until Democrats want hearings into the Buzzfeed story Mueller’s office already made clear isn’t true.

    In the same week as Buzzfeed, a selective short clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American (whom the media falsely lionized for days as a Vietnam vet), and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to watch the whole recording of the interaction to realize that was not true.

    Or the mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video when no one was. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of false breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted, get fired or fire Mueller.

    Tabloid journalism for a political ends has assumed priority over reporting facts. People are being conditioned to overreact. Name calling is commentary. Prejudice and stereotyping are offensive when aimed left, allowed when projectiled by Pulitzer-winning columnists at Trump voters. Headlines can be less true than the text. Belief trumps truth. The ends justify the means when attacking a political opponent. Too much free speech plays into the hands of the authoritarians. The term “both sides journalism” is a now a negative one. Journalists have convinced themselves serving up the correct sort of political bias is equivalent to serving the nation.

    It’s sad some measure of the truth has to come from Whoopi Goldberg on The View, who wondered why the media rushed to judge the Covington teens. “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out,” co-host Joy Behar asserted.

    Political journalism adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids is a true threat to democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    The Buzzfeed story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a significant moment of reflection, when the media remember they play a critical role in our system. Yet there are few calls against the misuse of sources, the rushes to judgment, the purposeful dropping of objectivity, the loss of seeking out other perspectives, the problem of reporting wrongly too often, the slurring of editorial into reporting.

    Still no one asks why there aren’t mainstream “Sources: Trump is innocent” stories that later need to be walked back. No one demands as much emphasis on corrections as on the original false story. Instead, the standard response to being caught wrong seems to be either dig in as with Buzzfeed, or at most to delete a Tweet or two about the Covington mess, as if in the age of the Internet that makes something to have never happened.

    It is unlikely things will change, especially when this model of journalism is also good for a business where clicks equal dollars. The sad thing is craven economic self-interest is the least worst explanation for tabloidization. Democracy dies in the darkness? It’s in danger in plain sight.

     
     

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    What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    // Comments Off on What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?


     

    What if mainstream political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization? After a week in which Buzzfeed brought the false claim Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate but inflammatory reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, the media needs to do more than apologize and delete a few Tweets. It’s time for a dollop of introspection.

    Journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and the Founders assigned it a specific role, helping citizens (we have a task assigned as well) carry on an informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization. Political journalism has slipped into a kind of con job to wash away the dangers of free speech.

    The con is this: since by acclamation America is perched on the precipice of 1933 (you’re reading this somewhat tongue-in-cheek but too many people are dead serious about the historical warning) resisting Trump’s policies until he can be run out of office (emoluments lawsuit, 25th Amendment, indictment, impeachment, an election if it really has to come to that) is a moral duty. Trump and his MAGA people are Nazis, their red caps the equivalent of Klan hoods. This is for the first time in American history beyond the push-pull of politics. The survival of the Republic itself on the line, dammit don’t-you-know.

    It follows journalism in the specific and free speech more generally cannot afford to allow for both sides to be heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or allow objective reporting that might inadvertently make Trump look good. Journalists, some of whom literally believe they are responsible for Hillary’s defeat, live in fear they might abet the government-sanctioned mass lynchings of blacks and beatings of transpeople they expect to break out across America, Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. Objectivity is #Collusion. Advocacy is #Resistance. The new standard is tabloid journalism, where every story has to be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause of freedom.

    While the tension between objectivity and advocacy isn’t particularly new (read up on The Jungle and The Way the Other Half Lives) what’s new is the near-complete way the mainstream media has created an anti-Trump narrative of Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin while condemning any outlet not on board as the Fox in democracy’s henhouse. Demonizing a perspective has gotten rougher in the age of deplatforming and weaponized “fact checking.” A new step in the wrong direction is to claim talking heads have blood on their hands for supporting disagreeable but still legitimate political positions say on restricting immigration or withdrawing from Syria. It’s a bit much, but it falls within a snappable-back range for now.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer once upon a time ran Elvis-is-alive articles, or reported on aliens walking among us, or trafficked in outrageous celebrity gossip. It was OK, because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believed the stories were true. The con included us as willing participants, spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it was fun to be fooled anyway.

    The greater concern lies in how alongside all this social media has tabloidized “real” news. The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s use of anonymous sources to claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the so-called Moscow Project. Tagged on is the fact-free narrative chain of Trump wanting to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset. To any objective reader, same as an Elvis sighting, Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury before Congress. Trump could not lie his way out of this, and he would go down for basically the same crime Bill Clinton was impeached over. Trump would be out of office as fast as the paperwork could be processed.

    The Buzzfeed story appeared out of nowhere, went globally viral, and was shut down by the Special Counsel himself, all within a span of hours.

    So that’s why there are no viral stories that need to be walked back claiming “Trump is innocent.” Nope, the media wants to believe he is guilty of, well, something, and they know they are peddling that belief to a willing audience. A good con also has some truth in it, otherwise the con artist’s job is much harder. Cohen actually did lie to Congress. Next step is knowing most media and many Americans want to believe Trump was involved. Not a hard sell. But it has been the lack of actual evidence that has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years, you know, actual proof, something you can hold in your hand or listen to online, not simply the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t self-serving statements from convicted perjurers, anonymous officials, and felons we love to hate.

    Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new, and it appears given Mueller’s unambiguous press statement, wholly untrue: Buzzfeed’s sources have seen written evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe even said he personally saw the documents.

    Social media rockets the story around the globe. Media outlets as once prestigious as the WaPo and New York Times have learned how to hide behind the micro bikini bottom of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they are allowed to headline “The Earth is Flat” at no cost to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they print. Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for all media and pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.”

    It doesn’t hurt that this model of journalism seems to be also good for business in a market where clicks equal dollars, in the words of one NYT columnist “reinforc[ing] the prejudices of your readers.” The sad thing is craven economic self-interest in the service to social media mob-think is the least worst explanation for this phenomena of tabloidism.

    The free press the founders wrote into the Bill of Rights isn’t part of some long con, where the goal is to take the rubes for their ticket money, or give them a chuckle over Elvis. No, the serious media adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids, feeding us back what we want to hear, pretending this all is serious and real without the little wink which says “pssst, we’re in on it with you…” is a very bad thing for a democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    We are being taught there is no truth beyond ever-briefer viral spasms. Falsehoods are just bad sources, we’ll try again next week with basically the same story about Trump from hopefully better sources. Because all that matters is proclaiming some moral stance — Trump is evil, really evil, not just a bad president — and that ends justifies the journalistic means. Advocacy journalism in 2019 is not about pointing out real wrongs with the occasional professional missteps caused by the haste of social media. Nope, it is about teeing up “crimes,” with any small outlet opening the door for the bigger ones to legitimize the story. Members of Congress, citing the Times or the Post, then do things like demand investigations into the Buzzfeed story even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office made clear the original story wasn’t true.

    It’s not like the Buzzfeed saga is a one-off. In the same week, a carefully edited clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American, and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to first watch the whole recording to realize that was a completely false narrative. Or CBS’ lead journalist falsely Tweeting he was under an arrest warrant in Egypt. Or something as silly as a mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of inaccurate breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted or get fired. The narrative has assumed priority over reality. People are conditioned to overreact as their first impulse. Somebody is going to get hurt.

    Buzzfeed’s reaction was to “stand by its reporting” and challenge Mueller to proofread their work for them and be more specific in telling them where they screwed up, beyond the Special Counsel’s clear, blanket statement the Buzzfeed article was simply not accurate. That was the first such rebuke issued by Mueller in some two years. Though to be fair, James Comey also stated in front of Congress some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source as a “dispute.” Otherwise, the standard response to being wrong is to apologize and maybe delete a Tweet or two, the damage done, the zeitgeist stirred.

    The Cohen story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a pivot point, a significant moment of reflection for the media when they stop, take a deep breath, and remember why they really exist as a free press. Hint: they were written into existence by the Founders to play a critical role in critical thinking in our system of government. This tabloidization is already out of control, the media already largely written off as a force for good through the 2020 election cycle. One hopes after that some amount of resiliency will take hold, and the press will snap back.

    Now that way of dealing with political enemies, choosing stereotypes and falsity over accurate reporting, does indeed have some echoes back to 1933.

     
     

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    Posted in 2020, Democracy, Trump

    The Medium is the Message: “Created News” in the Age of Trump

    December 11, 2017 // 17 Comments »


    About a week ago most major media outlets announced, again, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was about to be replaced. He is still in office. Was the story a non-story? Time will tell, but no matter what happens to Tillerson, we are in the era of created news, stories based on no facts, written to dominate the news cycle, not inform.

    Take Billy Bush and that infamous Access Hollywood tape. The New York Times recently reported a source (“a person familiar with the conversation,” so at least second hand) claimed Trump privately questioned the authenticity of the pussy grabbing tape. Nearly all established media outlets quickly jumped on the report, giving it greater validity simply by repeating it across the web until it could not be ignored. Sheer volume sent the story trending on social media.

    Amplification also carried a neat twist: the source for the secondary tranche of articles became in most cases a credible “New York Times reports…,” not the second-hand somebody from the original report. But unless you bothered to chase the tale around the web links, you’d never know how little the whole thing was based on.

    The next cycle were stories claiming Trump didn’t deny (the modern equivalent of the “Are you still beating your wife?” question) the anonymous-sourced original story. No one questioned the logic of having to deny something that may never have happened in the first place. Those non-denial stories were followed by commentary from second-tier media who proceeded as if the initial story was true, seasoned with the anxiety and outrage their readers demand as salve to their own anxiety and outrage. The third wave of articles were more sober, such as Op-Eds back in the New York Times, full circle, proclaiming Trump’s non-denial of what may not have ever happened as evidence of his instability. Or something.

    The point is no longer to inform — remember, journalism — it is just to keep the ball in the air, in this case to score political body blows against an easy, unpopular target. And for those who are fans of the surreal, the one person who truly seemed to benefit from all this was former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush himself. Bush, fired in 2016 for essentially being too much of a bro’ with Trump back in 2005, made late night rounds auditioning for redemption by sanctimoniously confirming the authenticity of a 12 year old tape no one was seriously questioning.

    This is all damaging enough when the subject is a puff of air like the Access Hollywood tape. The tape is from 2005, and its importance to voters was adjudicated by the last election. The game turns darker when the same strategy is applied to people.

     

    Welcome to Rex Tillerson’s world. Last week’s stories of his impending firing/resignation (and in other weeks past and future, those for Sessions, Mueller, Mattis, Kelly, Kushner, Ivanka, et al.) were crafted whole by the media out of anonymous sources. They have circulated almost since his first day in office. They have alternated between announcing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as Tillerson’s replacement and proclaiming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. Each story was based on the usual anon-sources, themselves a mystery even in anonymity — were the no-names actually Chief of Staff John Kelly with a trial balloon, or a White House intern passing on a bit of cafeteria gossip? We don’t know and the reporters do not seem to care to differentiate. What did matter is that each story published was blown bigger as multiple media outlets re-gifted one another’s pieces, a house of cards with no real base to stand on that grew taller and taller as new outlets grew not much of nothing into breaking news.

    The stories themselves eventually reached a critical media self-generated mass such that the administration was forced to again formally deny something that may not have even happened. The media in turn took the denials from Tillerson, Trump, and the White House spokesperson, and simply dismissed them — of course they are lying! It was the White House against the word of an anonymous source! Anything short of a full declarative denial was relabeled “did not actually deny,” something in 2017-speak that counts as a sort-of “yes.”

    Of course Rex Tillerson will leave office at some point, and you can expect the media to claim his skin when he does, much like a weather forecaster announcing rain every day, taking credit for being correct on the wet days and saying on sunny ones “Just you wait, I’ll be proved right in the end!”
    The disturbing arrival of created news on the media table is mirrored by other unpleasant trends. While much of this has deeper roots, the mass nervous breakdown that afflicted America on November 8, 2016 seems as a good an official start date as any other. Tricks that used to be the stock and trade of rags like the National Enquirer and its ilk, things like clickbait headlines at odds with body of the story, are now part of CNN and the Washington Post’s vocabulary. Opinion and commentary blend together with “reporting.” Where once journalists took pains to separate their personal political beliefs from their reporting, follow modern journalists on Twitter to see their pride in being hyper-partisan in their unedited, personal comments. There are other new normals: it is perfectly acceptable to call out the president with schoolyard-taunts, or make a crack about the orange man-child, or toss out homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance. Writers build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

    Donald Trump’s victory was loathsome to the majority of journalists, whose cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election. Their reaction is this “new journalism.” Though it is unlikely to fade during Trump’s tenure, despite continuing issues with falling public trust in the media, the real question is what will happen after that. Will the hyper-partisan new journalism shift to Target Pence? Will it follow a Democrat into the White House? Is it possible for journalism to snap back?

     

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    Credibility Tips for Journalists

    December 13, 2016 // 32 Comments »




    The working journalists of America sh*t the bed with their election coverage this year.

    For the most part, the media as a whole fetishized the Clinton candidacy (first woman ever! most experienced candidate ever! dynasty!) and treated Trump as an oaf when they weren’t calling him Hitler and parading any person who wished to accuse him of something before the cameras. That pattern continues now, though the accusations have changed from sexual harassment to near-treason on behalf of Putin.

    Alongside this circus were scum stories on all facets of the campaign attributed to… no one. “Sources close to the campaign said,” or “Officials who could not be identified” and so forth. It almost gave the impression reporters were just making stuff up. Alongside that were many media outlets that simply reprinted others’ stories, so that a piece of journalistic garbage flew around the Internet without anyone asking any questions or verifying the contents.

    It was sad. The result was the media at large has little credibility left with the public. When people have a hard time figuring out whether or not you’re reporting fake news, you have a problem.

    So, as a public service, here are some credibility tips for journalists:

    — Don’t just write apocalyptic stories warning what Trump might do (impose tariffs, restrict abortion) without also telling us what would have to actually happen for the change to take place. Will he simply need to sign an Executive Order? Get Congress to pass a law? Take a case to the Supreme Court? Because screeching about something that might happen without letting us know how realistic that happening is is poor work.

    — Along with the above: go easy on the might happen stuff. Don’t whisk your readers from a phone call with Taiwan’s president to war with China by this weekend. Think twice before publishing any headline that includes “Trump Might…”

    — On a similar note, try to work in some of the following to your pieces: context, named sources, perspective, explanation, less undergrad simple conjecture. So, for example, in a story about the Million Woman March being denied a permit to protest on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, mention that (to date) no one has been issued any permits, it’s too early. Tell us it has been since at least the 1980s that a large scale protest permit has been issued for the Memorial. Explain that the decision to issue/refuse is made by the National Park Service, which is under the control of Obama, not Trump. Note that since the 1980 Reagan inauguration protest space at the ceremony has consistently been reduced. That makes a much better article than a headline screaming “Trump Denies Women’s Right to Protest.”

    — In fact, more fact and less bombast in general is a good thing. Separate fact from conjecture from opinion, old journalism school style.

    — Remember the words alleged and accused. Use them not only for criminals, but when an (alleged) victim makes a statement claiming a politician or celebrity assaulted them.

    — Alleged and accused are especially important words when reporting on hate crimes. Reports of hate crimes stir up a lot of explosive motions. Report responsibility. Victim shaming is bad; exercising healthy journalistic inquiry is essential. It is your job.

    — And those anonymous sources. There are important roles for anonymous sources, but not to report smears, gossip, innuendo, political speculation, or to play into political manipulation. If you don’t have on-record sources, and you’re not reporting on the next Edward Snowden, check to see if you have a story you can report responsibility.

    — Question the information, less the source, but stay awake that all sources have an agenda. If you don’t know what it is and how you are playing into it, stop and figure that out before you go to print.

    — Control your partisanship. Journalists, remember a few years ago when Fox became so grossly overtly one-sided, and how little you thought of them? That’s what a lot of people think of you now.



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    Scary Headline That Has Little To Do with the Article

    October 28, 2013 // 10 Comments »

    Provocative one-sentence paragraph that asks a question like “Did you know?” or “You’ll be shocked to learn!”

    Paragraphs that do not offer much information about the subject but end with tease that if you click NEXT they will.

    Dramatic quote from someone on one side of the issue. Facts used to support side left unchallenged even when stupidly inaccurate.

    Dramatic quote from someone on the other side of the issue. Facts used to support side left unchallenged even when stupidly inaccurate.

    Summary paragraph that says no one is right or wrong.

    Italicized section saying the writer has a new book or whatever out now. Follow him on Twitter!


    Journalism done for today.



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    Warrior Pundits and War Pornographers

    May 16, 2011 // Comments Off on Warrior Pundits and War Pornographers

    My thanks to the dozens of sites that picked up my article on embedding with the military (“Warrior Pundits and War Pornographers”). If you haven’t read it, please visit one of the sites below and have a look:

    TomDispatch

    Diplopundit

    Salon

    Huffington Post

    The Nation

    American Empire Project

    American Conservative Magazine

    Mother Jones

    Michael Moore

    Jezebel

    Le Monde

    Daily Kos

    Myfiredoglake

    Rethink Afghanistan

    Middle East Online

    Guernica

    …and many more I haven’t been able to catalog yet. My thanks to everyone!



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