Category Archives: Politics

Debate prep: How to call out a lie without calling it a lie

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

The big question going into tonight’s debate is whether moderator Lester Holt should call out blatant lies by the candidates—and especially by Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say the least.

I don’t think it’s realistic for Holt or the moderators who come after him to act as a real-time fact-checking machine. He’ll have enough to do with keeping Trump and Hillary Clinton on track and making sure they’re both getting more or less equal time. But if someone—again, most likely Trump—tells a whopper, then Holt shouldn’t let it go. It’s all in how he does it. I’ll adopt the wisdom of my fellow Beat the Press panelists Callie Crossley and Jon Keller, who have both said that the way to do it is through tough follow-up questioning.

For instance, Candy Crowley took a lot of heat four years ago for essentially calling Mitt Romney a liar when Romney claimed that it took President Obama many days before he was willing to refer to the attack on Benghazi as “terrorism.” Given the pressures of the moment, I have no real problem with what Crowley said. But here’s what she could have said: “Governor Romney, didn’t the president refer to the attack as an ‘act of terror’ the next day?” Yes, that’s a loaded question, but it’s not an assertion, and Romney would have had an opportunity to respond.

In other words, fact-checking can be done with persistent questioning rather than by calling out BS. Even when it’s BS.

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Early voting? No. Elections are about community.

Photo (cc) 1935 by kheelcenter

Photo (cc) 1935 by kheelcenter

Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe that some people in Minnesota are already voting—before the first presidential debate has even been held. I don’t like it. I also don’t like absentee voting unless the voter can prove a genuine hardship. Online voting? Uh, no.

Yes, I know that most people have made up their minds about the presidential race, but that’s not the point. There are other races on the ballot. More important, voting is a time when we come together as a community to exercise our democratic rights.

There are ways to make the Election Day better. I’d make it a weekend-long event and ensure that there are enough poll workers in place so that it’s a good experience for everyone. But changing the system so that voting is something you do alone is not the way to go.

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In 2002, Jill Stein ran for governor. I was there.


Jill Stein in Arizona earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

To the extent that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is known at all, it’s mainly for her ambiguous semi-embrace of the anti-vaccine movement, her Harambe tweet (and her subsequent criticism of how the media covered it), and her video confrontation with my WGBH News colleague Adam Reilly at the Democratic National Convention.

But long before Stein began her quadrennial, quixotic campaigns for president, she was a quixotic candidate for governor of Massachusetts. And I was there.

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The Times’s weirdly Putin-free first take on the NBC forum

Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.

Illustration (cc) by Michail Kirkov.

Here we go again. A week after the New York Times completely rewrote a story that initially portrayed Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico and subsequent hate-rally speech on immigration as a turn toward a softer, more statesmanlike candidate, the paper’s lead story omitted the biggest news coming out of Wednesday night’s NBC News “Commander-in-Chief” forum.

The story, like last week’s, was by Patrick Healy. And it contained not a single mention of Vladimir Putin, whom Trump praised fulsomely—even suggesting that he was a more impressive leader than President Obama. Here is the original article, posted on Wednesday night.

By this morning, Healy’s story had been updated to include a mention of Putin—in the fifth paragraph. Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s three-reporter effort led with this:

Donald Trump defended his admiration for Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a forum here Wednesday focused on national security issues, even suggesting that Putin is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.

That’s known as finding the lede and running with it. (Although I didn’t save the Post‘s first take on Wednesday night, I know it mentioned Putin prominently.) By the way, the Post also led the print edition with that story, under the headline “Trump Defends Praise for Putin.” The Times: “Candidates Flex Muscles During TV Forum.”

The forum itself was inexpertly moderated by Matt Lauer, who grilled Hillary Clinton with predictable questions about her damn emails while repeatedly letting Trump off the hook. Clinton, speaking first, pointed out that Trump has lied repeatedly about his initial support for the war in Iraq. Good thing—because when Trump lied again, Lauer sat there and said nothing.

As Dylan Byers writes at

Perhaps most notable were the questions Lauer did not ask of Trump. At an event geared toward national security and military veterans, the NBC co-host failed to ask a single question about Trump’s controversial remarks about Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Sen. John McCain’s prisoner-of-war status or his deferments from the Vietnam War, among other issues.

All of this comes, of course, as a host of media and political observers are beginning to take loud notice—see my commentary earlier this week for—that the political press is pummeling Clinton while holding Trump to a much lower standard.

By the way (to return to the beginning), Times public editor Liz Splayd explained her paper’s Mexican misadventure by saying that Healy got caught up with deadline problems—the tone of the day changed significantly once Trump begin his ugly speech in Phoenix. OK. But again, the Post set the right tone in its very first take. It’s fair to ask what is going on at the Times.

Update: To be fair, a sidebar in the Times published Wednesday night made mention of Putin. And I’m told by Harvard’s Christina Pazzanese, though I didn’t see it, that Times reporter Alexander Burns had an even earlier take than Healy’s that did mention Putin. But my point stands. Anyone checking the Times‘s website or apps late Wednesday night would have seen Healy’s story as the big takeout—and there was no mention of Putin.

Update II: The Burns story has been disappeared from the Times website, but Susan Ryan-Vollmar found this.

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Globe, CommonWealth spar over Brian Joyce’s permits

Brian Joyce

Brian Joyce

It looks like an old-fashioned media war has broken out between the Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine over improvements that outgoing state senator Brian Joyce made to his home in Milton—improvements that the Globe reported may have been made without the proper permits.

Globe reporter Andrea Estes wrote on August 15 that Joyce—a Democrat who’s under investigation by federal authorities on an unrelated matter—may not have had the proper permits when he added more than 2,500 square feet to his home, which is now on the market. She quoted William Bennett, a member of the town’s board of assessors, as saying:

I would be very concerned if any resident did not apply for the proper permits when doing renovations that would have an effect on the value of their property. But it’s even more disheartening if one of our elected officials ignored the town’s laws.

Soon there was pushback, with CommonWealth‘s Jack Sullivan reporting on August 22 that Joyce’s son Michael had posted images of the permits on Facebook. Sullivan, a former Globe and Boston Herald reporter, added that Milton’s chief assessor, Robert Bushway, had concluded that all of the permits were in order.

“I don’t think there’s as much discrepancy as first thought,” Bushway told Sullivan. “After talking to the building inspector, it sounds like they determined all the permits that were needed were pulled. Some of the permits pulled 13 years ago were a little more ambiguous than they are nowadays.”

Three days later, Estes was back with a report that Joyce had issued a statement defending himself and calling her original story “the worst form of irresponsible journalism.” Estes also noted that Joyce had consistently rejected her attempts to interview him. And Bushway was back, too, telling the Globe that Joyce had refused to let him inspect the interior of his home in order to determine the value.

Which brings us to today. Under a headline that flat-out declares “Joyce absolved of wrongdoing,” Sullivan begins:

Sen. Brian Joyce obtained all the required permits to renovate his home, according to a report by the Milton Town Administrator that rebuts questions raised in a newspaper article over whether the lawmaker clandestinely renovated his house without town officials’ knowledge.

“Based upon my review of these files and my consultation with the Building Commissioner, I conclude that the developer who sold the property and/or Senator and Mrs. Joyce obtained the necessary building permits for the work described in those records,” Annemarie Fagan, reading from her report, told the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night.

In the Globe, Travis Andersen and Estes report under the far more ambiguous headline “Milton officials debate whether renovations to Joyce’s home were permitted.” They quote Bennett, the town assessor cited in Estes’s original story, as saying that there is actually no way of knowing whether the work Joyce had done was within the scope of the permits unless an inspection is conducted—which Joyce still hasn’t agreed to. Bennett continues:

There’s no way for us to determine if the work was done under those permits or after those permits—unless we’re allowed in the house to get an understanding of when this work was done. The permits we’ve seen don’t talk about the renovations that are in question—the kitchen, the bathrooms, the finished basement, additional finished rooms in the attic and the office over the garage.

When presented with such divergent accounts, I like to look for undisputed facts. Here are three: 1. The permits were issued more than a dozen years ago, which certainly could contribute to confusion and misunderstanding over what was allowed and what wasn’t. 2. The town administrator has cleared Joyce of any wrongdoing. 3. A town assessor continues to say there’s no way of knowing whether Joyce is in compliance or not unless Joyce allows a home inspection.

To be continued.

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Five reasons why the media are giving Trump a pass

Donald Trump and the Clintons back in the day. Photo via NBC News.

Donald Trump and the Clintons back in the day. Photo via NBC News.

Over the past few weeks, the political press has settled into a pattern I was hoping we could avoid in 2016: the normalization of the presidential campaign. With increasing frequency, the media are ignoring or playing down negative news about Donald Trump while throwing a collective fit over Hillary Clinton’s appearances of possibilities of rumors of wrongdoing.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman—whose paper has been a prime offender—warned on Monday that the race is in danger of turning into Bush versus Gore all over again. He wrote: “True, there aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve.” Writing in the Atlantic, James Fallows provides a thorough overview of exactly how the media’s “normalizing approach” is playing out.

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No, we are not entitled to see Clinton’s personal emails

Some facts about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails (here’s the Washington Post account of Friday’s news.)

1. Hillary Clinton had the right to delete her personal email.

2. Congressional Republicans asked her not to do so. They didn’t subpoena her personal emails. This was nothing more than, “Will you please save your personal emails so we can pore through them?” “Uh, no.”

3. It’s possible that she deleted non-personal emails, and if that’s the case, we will likely never know. But that would have been just as true if she had handled her email the way she was supposed to.

4. We know that Colin Powell was using his personal email account for official business, and that he and Clinton communicated about it. He says he was careful not to route classified information through his personal account, but it seems unlikely in the extreme that he could have prevented anyone from sending classified information *to him*.

5. We have no idea what might be in her personal emails. As the late, great Jerry Williams used to say, “What do I have to hide? Everything.” We don’t really know how she lives her personal life, nor are we entitled to know.

More. From Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: “This report is pretty much an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton.”

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