Van Jones should acknowledge that he was wrong about Clinton and Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:

If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.

In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:

The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.

An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.

Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.

Here is what Clinton said on David Plouffe’s podcast, in which she doesn’t name Gabbard but clearly points to her:

I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.

Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.

What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.

Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.

Cable pundits agree: Tuesday was a big night for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Will it matter?

Amy Klobuchar earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.

“There’s not just one idea out there. There are many,” she said on CNN. Klobuchar offered some pointed criticism of Warren as the night wore on, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Her way or no way is how it feels every single time,” and Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “Your idea is not the only idea.”

Following Tuesday’s marathon Democratic debate, I spent an hour — 20 minutes each — with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get a feel for the instant take on what had just transpired. What I heard may or may not shape the conversation about the campaign in the days ahead. But the consensus was that Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had a good night — and that, given Joe Biden’s continued inability to take charge of the race, one of them may emerge as the moderate challenger to Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading progressives.

“To the extent that they gain, it could be at Biden’s expense,” Democratic analyst David Axelrod said on CNN. Added his nonpartisan colleague Gloria Borger: “In some ways Buttigieg explains Biden better than Biden explains Biden.”

On MSNBC, the message was the same, with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa saying there was “a real impression tonight about Mayor Buttigieg trying to compete for that Biden vote.”

On Fox News, Bret Baier showed some clips of Biden’s “word salad” performance and said, “Joe Biden did not have a good night.” If Biden continues to fade, Baier added, Democrats will want to have the option of a moderate like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to go up against Warren or Sanders — who, Baier said (this was Fox, after all), are part of “the progressive far left.”

The big question is whether these predictions of a Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg breakout will become reality, or if they’re wishful thinking. Klobuchar may not even qualify for the next debate. The media thrive on conflict and a simple story line. In the most recent polls, Warren and Biden have established themselves as the front-runners, with Sanders not too far behind. A Biden-versus-Warren race satisfies the media’s desire for a clash between an establishment moderate trying to hang on against an insurgent progressive — but not if Biden can’t hold up his end.

Thus, Tuesday was the best opportunity for the second-tier candidates to emerge, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg making the most of it.

Buttigieg, oddly enough, had his best moment during the debate by going after Beto O’Rourke, who has been a non-factor in the campaign. O’Rourke is pushing a mandatory gun buyback plan that Buttigieg has called unworkable as well as a distraction from more modest measures that might actually get passed.

“Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” O’Rourke told Buttigieg during the debate — which brought a withering retort from Buttigieg.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said, a response that, among other things, was a not-so-subtle reminder of his military service.

During a post-debate appearance on CNN, Chris Cuomo tried to get Buttigieg to expand on his criticism of O’Rourke, but Buttigieg wasn’t going there. Instead, he stuck with his talking points that he is “the best positioned to beat Donald Trump,” and that Democrats win when they embrace generational change.

Klobuchar, on the other hand, was only too happy in her post-debate interviews to keep bashing Warren, for whom she has “a lot of respect.” (But of course!) In her interview with Chris Hayes, Klobuchar cast her own proposals to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act and rein in the pharmaceutical industry as ideas as worthy of discussion as Warren’s embrace of Medicare For All — and, ultimately, more practical. Of Warren’s oft-repeated contention that the moderates aren’t willing to fight, Klobuchar added, “I’ve really had it with that.”

Next it was on to Fox News, where Klobuchar repeated her criticisms in an interview with Shannon Bream. Klobuchar also made a pitch for right-leaning Fox News viewers who would presumably be out of reach for her more progressive adversary.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who agree with me,” she said, “and a lot of independents, and even some conservative Republicans.”

Thankfully, Klobuchar left out the right-wing conspiracy theorists who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup every night.

My own take? Warren was not perfect, but she was basically OK. The media are throwing a fit, not because she won’t answer their question about the tax increases that would be needed to pay for Medicare For All, but because she refuses to accept their framing. She’s answered the question: Medicare For All would result in lower overall costs for the middle class. She might be wrong, but you can’t call that an evasion.

Biden was so-so, showing some emotion over the false smears the Trump camp has directed at him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine and China. Biden’s yelling at Warren and waving his hand in her face was, uh, interesting.

And Sanders, two weeks after suffering a heart attack, turned in maybe his best debate performance — making his points with his usual gusto, but also showing a warm and funny side, especially when Cory Booker noted that Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana.

“I’m not on it tonight,” Sanders responded.

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Biden’s ‘demand’ that Giuliani be silenced is an affront to the First Amendment

Joe Biden could be the next president. And he has issued a “demand” (via his campaign) that the networks stop booking Rudy Giuliani, which they have a First Amendment right to do.

Yes, Giuliani is lying about the Bidens. But Biden, who may soon have the power to appoint FCC commissioners, could have “urged” or “requested” that the networks stop giving Giuliani a platform. “Demand” suggests consequences. Does Biden want to join Trump in eroding constitutional norms?

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How the press is helping to turn the Ukraine scandal into just another partisan brawl

Joe Biden in Iowa earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”

Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:

• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”

• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)

• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”

The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.

Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.

You can check for yourself: Here is what Vox (“bogus”), PolitiFact (“nothing”), The Washington Post (“no equivalency”), The New York Times (“no evidence”; by Ken Vogel, no less) and The Wall Street Journal (“Neither Mr. Biden nor his son have been accused of any wrongdoing”) have had to say about the allegations against the Bidens.

It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.

It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.

Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.

Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.

Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.

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Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

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Bernie Sanders proves you don’t have to like journalists in order to love journalism

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Phoenix. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Bernie Sanders is an unlikely savior of journalism.

The iconoclastic senator has long had a prickly relationship with the press in his home state. According to Paul Heintz, a staff writer with the alt-weekly Seven Days, Sanders hasn’t granted a full-fledged interview in more than four years to the paper, which touts itself as the state’s largest. And Seven Days is not alone. “I would say that it’s highly unusual for an elected official in Vermont to not regularly speak to Vermont reporters,” Heintz said. “I think it’s problematic.”

Then, last month, Sanders claimed without evidence that The Washington Post covered him critically because of his attacks on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post. “The remark sounded an awful lot like the kind of criticism leveled by someone else,” said NPR’s Domenico Montanaro. That someone else: President Trump.

But apparently you don’t have to love the media to appreciate its vital role in a democracy. Because last week Sanders, an independent socialist who is once again seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined a solid media-reform proposal in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.

“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he wrote. “One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.”

Sanders devoted much of his piece to rehashing the financial crisis that has brought news organizations to their knees, especially at the local level. But he also offered some specific ideas that fall into three categories:

• Opposing media mergers such as the proposed combination of the GateHouse Media and Gannett newspaper chains as well as the CBS-Viacom deal. Media companies would be required to detail how many journalism jobs would be lost in such mergers. Employees would have an opportunity to buy their media companies. Unions would be strengthened. And ownership caps would be re-imposed on broadcast outlets for the first time since 1996 in the hopes of restoring localism and diversity.

• Swinging the antitrust club at Google and Facebook, which, as Sanders observed, now vacuum up some 60 percent of all digital advertising revenues. It’s not clear how any actions Sanders might take against the two internet giants would benefit journalism. He doesn’t help his cause by citing a flawed study claiming that, in 2018, “Google made $4.7 billion off reporting that Google did not pay for.” (Well, no, not really.) But there’s little question that both companies have benefited from free content provided by newspapers and other media outlets. At the very least, Sanders seems likely to support a temporary antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate some sort of revenue-sharing deal.

• Taxing targeted advertising — that is, ads served up based on the data that has been collected about you — and using it to fund “nonprofit civic-minded media.” This is an idea that has been promoted by the media-reform organization Free Press “to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic-engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have long been excluded from traditional media coverage.” Government funding of journalism is bound to be controversial, even though it already takes place to a limited degree with public radio and television. But there are ways to insulate such funding from political interference — though skepticism is certainly warranted.

Sanders’ proposal drew instant mockery from the libertarian-conservative end of the political spectrum, with Jack Shafer of Politico writing that it “folds on itself and collapses.” Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe added: “When you’re Bernie Sanders and your only tool is socialism, every problem looks like a capitalist to be bashed.”

But parts of Sanders’ plan are likely to resonate with the public — especially his targeting of Google and Facebook, which are increasingly unpopular for violating our privacy and harming democracy. Indeed, Sanders’ rival Elizabeth Warren beat Sanders to the punch by many months in proposing to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon.

One way that corporate media owners succeed in defending their turf is by controlling the terms of the debate. Thus you will hear that Sanders proposes to impose new regulations on an industry that, for the sake of the First Amendment, ought to be as unregulated as possible. But as the media scholar Robert McChesney has observed, the alternatives are not regulation or deregulation; rather, they come down to what kind of regulation we want — in the public interest, or in the corporate interest?

This is especially true in the case of broadcast media, which must be regulated because there are only a limited number of frequencies available. Sanders, to his credit, is not proposing the return of anti-free-speech policies such as the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions. Rather, he seeks to ensure diversity of ownership while letting the content take care of itself.

Sanders may not like journalists very much, but he understands the importance of journalism. Far from being radical, his plan pulls together some strands that have been around for quite a while. Teddy Roosevelt would praise his stance against mergers and in favor of taking some sort of action against the monopolistic practices of Facebook and Google.

Whether Sanders becomes our next president or not, his proposals amount to a serious attempt to wrestle with the forces that have harmed journalism and have concentrated media power in the hands of a few. Voters and his fellow candidates should take notice.

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Only the best people

Madeleine Westerhout

The story of Madeleine Westerhout, the 28-year-old aide to President Trump who was fired for sharing nasty gossip about the Trump family after having a few drinks with reporters, is fascinating (the original Politico story is here; some background from The New York Times is here).

Westerhout reportedly despised Trump so much that she burst into tears the night he was elected. Yet she went to work for him, brought into the White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus despite an exceedingly thin résumé. She grasped for more power. And she showed no loyalty to the president whatsoever.

These are the kinds of people Trump surrounds himself with, because no one with integrity will have anything to do with him.

It would be interesting to learn how her off-the-record remarks became public. Daniel Lippman of Politico, who broke the story, wasn’t there, so he’s in the clear. Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, he of the media attack squad, has pointed the finger at Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was there. His editor issued a statement vouching for Rucker’s integrity without quite denying that Rucker was the source. Rucker has not written about the incident.

Most likely we’re not going to get to the bottom of this.

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Outrage fades quickly over Trump fanboy’s campaign to embarrass the media

Meet the press. 2019 White House photo.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.

Yes, there were stern condemnations from the usual suspects. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted a memo to the staff calling it “an unprecedented campaign,” saying of the operatives: “Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.” A CNN spokesman said that when government officials and their allies “threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”

Others, though, were less impressed with this latest so-called threat to the First Amendment. Will Sommer of The Daily Beast tweeted, “This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search.”

CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote that another Daily Beast reporter, Maxwell Tani, had actually revealed the existence of the campaign, and of Trump fanboy Arthur Schwartz’s involvement, many months ago. And Jack Shafer of Politico saw no problem with digging up social-media dirt on journalists, citing similar efforts by watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America on the left and, many years earlier, Accuracy in Media on the right.

“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists,” Shafer wrote, “it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”

Here’s the background according to the Times story, reported by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. Schwartz, an ally of Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, has reportedly gathered material on journalists at several news organizations perceived to be hostile to the president, including the Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The fruits of Schwartz’s labors were on display recently when a Times editor named Tom Wright-Piersanti was forced to apologize after Breitbart reported that he had posted anti-Semitic tweets many years earlier.

The Breitbart hit, in turn, was supposedly in retaliation for a Times story on the checkered past of Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who reportedly has a history of unethical workplace behavior as well as two drunken-driving arrests.

“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Schwartz tweeted after the Breitbart story on Wright-Piersanti was published. “Lots more where this came from.”

What’s fair is fair? Not quite. There are, in fact, some troubling aspects to all this. Unlike Shafer’s examples, Media Matters and Accuracy in Media, Schwartz’s shop has ties to the White House. It’s not entirely clear how close those ties are, but they’re close enough that we ought to be concerned. The First Amendment, after all, was designed to protect the press so it could monitor the powerful, not protect the powerful so they can monitor the press.

Moreover, we expect our leaders and the people who work for them to meet certain basic moral and ethical standards, or at least we used to. Journalists, on the other hand, are judged by their work. If what they report is true and fair, then it should be irrelevant whether they drink to excess, jaywalk, or posted embarrassing and offensive tweets years ago.

Tom Jones put it this way in The Poynter Report: “Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this [Schwartz’s] operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.”

As attacks on the media go, this is fairly small. It’s not as serious as calling news organizations “Enemies of the People,” or banning reporters from the White House, or putting the safety of journalists at risk by whipping up angry mobs at Trump rallies.

But it erodes the norms of democracy around the edges, contributing to Trump’s meta-narrative that the press is just another partisan player that his devoted followers need not take seriously.

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Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

As the historian Kevin Kruse put it:

Although the moderators could have done a better job (I’ll get to that in a bit), the format itself is the real problem. CNN deserves credit for holding one-hour, one-candidate town halls with many of the contenders earlier this year. But how many viewers can make that sort of time commitment? The debates are what truly matter, and they are broken.

One alternative would be to schedule six hours of prime time over three nights for 15-minute interviews. You could actually accommodate all 24 candidates, and it would be a vast improvement over 15-second responses. Another idea comes from my former Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates: bring in groups of two or three candidates for 15-minute rounds and have an open discussion. “The point is,” he said on Twitter, “there are much better ways to distribute the precious airtime.”

Even within the ridiculous constraints of the multi-candidate format, though, the moderators could have done better. In the first round, Chuck Todd took a lot of well-deserved heat with his demand for one-word answers to complicated policy questions (grunt once for “yes,” twice for “no”). This time, critics have targeted Jake Tapper for tossing undiluted Republican talking points at the Democrats and for all but encouraging the candidates to verbally assault each other. Tom Jones, who writes the newly renamed Poynter Report (and who, oddly enough, is a fan of Todd’s moderating style), described it this way:

“Tapper’s moderating strategy appeared to be nothing more than antagonizing the candidates into disagreeing with one another. Many of his questions were a version of, ‘Why is (such-and-such candidate) wrong?’

“That’s different than the approaches of fellow moderators Dana Bash and Don Lemon. Bash was the star of the night, asking candidates to state and defend their policy ideas — which is the point of a debate when voters are still trying to figure out who everyone is and who they might support. Lemon, meanwhile, started many of his questions with a very solid, ‘Tell us why you’re the best candidate to …’

“It’s not Tapper’s job to make the candidates look good or bad, but the leaders of the Democratic party could not have been happy that the tone of the debate was so nasty and that nastiness was often a direct result of Tapper’s questions.”

Or as the pollster Matt McDermott put it (via The Washington Post): “Imagine CNN asking in a Republican debate: ‘Democrats want to ensure health care for all Americans. You want to kill people. Care to respond?’”

So who won? I have no novel observations. Like just about everyone, I thought Elizabeth Warren was the week’s clear winner on both substance and style. They say you shouldn’t punch down, but her evisceration of some guy named John Delaney was one for the ages. Biden was OK, and much better than he was in June, even though he screwed a few things up and is already getting roasted for being disingenuous about his past and for not knowing the difference between a website and a text message. He was energetic, fought back, and launched a few attacks of his own. If Biden is going to drop in the polls, I’d say it won’t be quite yet.

Harris, who strikes many people (including me) as uniquely positioned to unite the progressive and moderate wings of the party, took a big step back from her breakthrough moment during the first round of debates. She blew it in several ways, including substance: she seemed utterly incapable of explaining her new health-care proposal coherently. That was a lost opportunity given the reservations people have over a pure single-payer Medicare for All plan on the one hand and the reluctance to simply nibble at the edges of Obamacare on the other.

Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, and especially Cory Booker all did well and probably deserve one more shot. But honestly, at this point it’s hard to imagine that the nominee will be anyone other than one of the frontrunners — Biden, Warren, Harris, and Bernie Sanders. We deserve to hear from the four of them directly. The others can be relegated to undercards and other events.

What do the media owe us in televised debates? Substance, focus, and seriousness of purpose. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that this is the most important election of our lifetime. But the stakes may be nothing less than a recommitment to democracy versus a continued slide into authoritarianism.

Grunt once if you agree, twice if you disagree.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Nineteen days ago, the journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll leveled a credible accusation of rape against President Trump. Carroll’s claim that Trump violently assaulted her during an encounter in the 1990s created a brief stir of outrage — then all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies and falsehoods mount, the abuse of children at the southern border continues, and his contempt for lawful subpoenas and even Supreme Court decisions grows. The press covers all of this, of course, but with an increasingly perfunctory, what-else-is-new tone of resignation.

Compare that with the second Democratic presidential debate, at which Sen. Kamala Harris reinvigorated her campaign by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on race and by taking a stand in favor of Medicare for all. Here we are nearly two weeks later, and we’re still discussing whether Harris was being disingenuous given her own nuanced position on the use of busing to desegregate public schools and her shifting views on private insurance. Is Harris slippery? Is she electable? Was she too tough on poor old Joe? (And — gasp! — several of the candidates attempted a little Spanish, proving, of course, that they are hopeless panderers.)

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

On Twitter, Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel took a shot at acknowledging legitimate questions about Harris’ shifting views while placing them within a larger Trumpian context. “The question about Harris’s debate win is if she can shake off the problem that sapped her momentum before: Twisting into a pretzel when pressed on a policy question. So far…,” Weigel tweeted. “And yes, this is another area where Trump gets to play by different rules.”

The overarching problem is the same one that defined the 2016 campaign. As Weigel noted, the media hold Trump to a different standard than the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are treated as serious political players who should be held accountable for their policy positions and for what they say. Trump is presumed to be a lying imbecile, and is therefore not covered as though his words matter.

There was at least some justification for that in the last campaign, when media organizations assumed they could exploit the Trump phenomenon for ratings and profits, safe in the knowledge that, you know, he would not actually be elected. Now there are no excuses. But the press, like the rest of us, appears to be suffering from Trump fatigue, covering the president’s latest outbursts but then dropping them almost immediately in order to chase the next shiny object.

What would better coverage look like?

First, even though Trump will be all but uncontested for the Republican nomination (sorry, Bill Weld), reporters need to understand how crucial it is that he be held accountable in exactly the same way the Democratic candidates are. That seems unlikely to happen. But at a minimum we should avoid a repeat performance of 2016, when the media feasted on emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, making themselves unwitting (and witting) accomplices of Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf.

Second, the media need to stop covering politics as a sporting event and focus on what really matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading candidate on the strength of her in-depth policy proposals on issues such as income inequality, student debt relief, and health care. But a candidate’s background, experience, character, and leadership skills are at least as important as policy. Those tend to be the subject of lengthy chin-strokers early in the campaign, supplanted by the horse race once things heat up. It shouldn’t be that way — such stories are essential, and they should be at the center of any serious news organization’s coverage right up until Election Day. On a related note: Chuck Todd of NBC News should be banned from future debates for demanding one-word answers to complex, important questions.

Third, the press should stop trying to “define the narrative.” The narrative, such as it is, is what emerges, and shouldn’t be used as a mnemonic device to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. Yes, there are serious questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament. But she had long been considered a real contender, and media overkill pretty much derailed her candidacy before it could begin. Warren was described as having missed her best chance by not challenging Clinton in 2016, but here she is. Harris opened strongly! stumbled! and now is back in it! These are normal ups and downs; the press errs by taking them too seriously.

There have been some positive signs. CNN’s one-hour town halls with the Democratic candidates have encouraged thoughtfulness and depth. Unfortunately, they demand too much from all but the most committed viewers. The 10-candidate “debates” on NBC were far too superficial. How about a series of 15-minute interviews, eight a night for three nights? That should be enough time to get into some substance.

As I wrap this up, Yahoo News is reporting that the Seth Rich conspiracy madness — the false tale that the Clintonistas ordered the 2016 murder of a young Democratic operative in order to cover up their own corrupt acts — originated with Russian intelligence. This bit of toxic fakery was not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but it was promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News and, later, by the Trump White House itself. In other words, it got wide distribution and polluted our discourse even though actual news organizations handled it responsibly.

Which brings me to my final observation. Even if political reporters can improve on their efforts to hold Trump to account, to focus more on substance and less on the horse race, and to let the larger narrative emerge rather than trying to define it for us, there are few signs that they are prepared to deal with the new media world of foreign actors, Facebook fakery, and disinformation in which we are now immersed.

That world, as much as anything, got Trump elected in 2016. If the media aren’t prepared to identify and expose such efforts in 2020, it could happen again.

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