Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.
The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.
“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”
Last week Zack Beauchamp of Vox explained on the public radio program “On the Media” why liberals want to believe in outlandish conspiracies about President Trump. “One expert I spoke to on political misinformation said that conspiracy theories were a weapon of the weak,” he said. “They were a way to understand and make sense out of the world when it doesn’t seem to make sense to you or seems hostile to you.”
Beauchamp was referring specifically to the ridiculous drivel promoted by Louise Mensch, a former British parliamentarian whose disinformation campaign has taken in a few Trump critics who should have known better. (A sample: Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan were all about to be arrested because of their ties to Russia).
But I think Beauchamp’s insight is also useful in thinking about a couple of other theories making the rounds among liberals who are trying to explain why a boorish lout like Trump won: his campaign’s use of big data, funded by the shadowy Mercer family, and the proliferation of dubious pro-Trump websites and bot-controlled Twitter accounts.
If you are a stereotypical Massachusetts liberal (I plead guilty, your honor), the story of President Trump’s first few months in office is one of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, all playing out beneath the penumbra of the burgeoning Russia scandal.
But that’s not how it looks to Breitbart News, the right-wing nationalist website that has served as Trump’s most outspoken — and outrageous — media cheerleader. In a new e-book titled “The First 100 Days of Trump,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak describes the president in glowing terms.
President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey appears to be highly suspicious for all the reasons others have already stated. In a democracy, you just can’t get rid of the person who is investigating your administration for possible wrongdoing.
Yet I have to point out that there is nothing in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s report that is wrong. Comey was a terrible FBI director in many respects, and he mishandled the public aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in every way imaginable.
As late as Tuesday, several hours before the firing, we learned that he had grossly overstated (under oath) the extent to which former Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded emails to her estranged husband, former congressman Anthony Weiner. It was the Abedin-Weiner connection that formed the pretext for Comey’s announcement just before Election Day that he had reopened his investigation, a move that likely cost Clinton the presidency.
Of course, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had no problem with Comey’s sabotage of Clinton’s campaign at the time, and their claims that they are deeply, deeply troubled by it now are absurd. The outrage with which the Comey firing has been greeted is entirely justified.
But if President Obama had fired Comey the day after the election, or Trump shortly after his inauguration, it’s not likely that many people would have objected.
I’m teaching a course in May and June called The Media in the Age of Trump, and I’m trying to flesh out my reading list. I’ll be asking my students to subscribe to The Washington Post (because it’s free for anyone with an .edu email address), and I have a number of worthwhile readings already chosen. Although I probably won’t assign all of these, I am listing them below.
What else would you recommend? In a perfect world, I would have two or three in-depth, evidence-based pieces arguing that President Trump is getting a raw deal from the press.
- “David Fahrenthold tells the behind-the-scenes story of his year covering Trump,” David Fahrenthold, Washington Post, Dec. 29, 2016
- “Winter Is Coming: Prospects for the American Press Under Trump,” parts one and two, by Jay Rosen, PressThink, Dec. 28 and 30, 2016
- “What So Many People Don’t Get about the U.S. Working Class,” by Joan C. Williams, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 10, 2016
- “Chill, America. Not every Trump outrage is outrageous,” by Tom Nichols, Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2017
- “How to Build an Autocracy,” David Frum, The Atlantic, March 2017
- “We Cannot Tolerate Legal and Personal Attacks on Journalists For Doing Their Jobs,” by Michael Oreskes, NPR.org, Jan. 17, 2017
- “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” by Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, July 25, 2016
- “How the Haters and Losers Lost,” by McKay Coppins, BuzzFeed, July 17, 2016
- “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” by David Roberts, Vox, April 16, 2017
- “Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda,” by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman, Columbia Journalism Review, March 3, 2017
- “How Bannon’s multimedia machine drove a movement and paid him millions,” by
- “Is Trump Trolling the White House Press Corps?,” by Andrew Marantz, The New Yorker, March 20, 2017
- “CNN Had a Problem. Trump Solved It,” by Jonathan Mahler, New York Times Magazine, April 4, 2017
- “The 1.6 Billion Dollar Hoax,” by Ken Bensinger, Jason Leopold and Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed, March 15, 2017
- “Reporters, Don’t Let Baby Donald Make You Cry,” by Jack Shafer, Politico, Feb. 27, 2017
- “Bannon molded Breitbart into a far-right sledgehammer. How will it be wielded in the Trump era?,” by
- “Has the White House press office’s silence become a weapon in its war on the media?,” by Paul Farhi, Washington Post, Feb. 20, 2017
- “What the post-Trump debate over journalism gets wrong,” by Tom Rosenstiel, Brookings Institution, Dec. 20, 2016
- “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters,” by Thomas E. Patterson, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Dec. 7, 2016
Please offer your suggestions at the Facebook version of this post. Or send an email to me at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.
There’s a school of thought that the harsh criticism of White House spokesman Sean Spicer over his bizarre statement about Hitler never gassing his own people has been overblown. According to this line of thinking, expressed by (among others) Michael Scherer of Time magazine, Spicer deserves the benefit of the doubt because he obviously experienced a brain cramp and had no malevolent intent.
I agree that Spicer’s offensive statements were of the brain-cramp variety and not an actual expression of anti-Semitism. But I disagree that he should get a pass. He is the press secretary for the president of the United States, not an aide to a state rep. A person in that job needs to be quick on his feet and to be able to avoid stumbling into such offensive language, no matter how inadvertent. I couldn’t do it. By all indications, neither can Spicer. Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple puts it this way:
The halting, hard-to-follow speech patterns reflect an unflattering truth about the top spokesperson at the White House: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A press secretary needs to have command of a vast topical landscape. Spicer has mastered bluster, and not much else.
Consider, too, that when he realized what he had done, he managed to dig himself in deeper, referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers,” and then attempting to clarify his remarks with this reference to Hitler: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
“His own people.” Hitler, of course, did not believe that German Jews were “his own people,” and as a result 6 million Jews were exterminated. To see Spicer carelessly adopt the same idea in defense of his own misstatement is pretty shocking.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a sharp analysis of Spicer’s meltdown. He agrees with the point that Spicer was trying to make: that Hitler, even while he was semi-secretly gassing Jews in concentration camps (his own people, you might say), refrained from using chemical weapons on the battlefield, probably because to do so would have risked overwhelming retaliation. “Spicer is simply too big a boob not to know this and too inept to clean up his mess without digging deeper,” Marshall says.
It’s time for Spicer to go.