• 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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    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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