Chuck Todd wrestles with disinformation

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It has not been a good week in the war on disinformation — which is to say that it’s been a week pretty much like all the ones before it.

The first exhibit in our cavalcade of con-artistry comes from New Year’s Day, when a right-wing troll chopped up and re-edited video of Joe Biden to make it look like he was endorsing white nationalism. In fact, the full context of the months-old clip showed he was actually expressing regret for his role in the Clarence Thomas hearings.

Then, on Friday, Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike. And that’s when things really started to get out of hand. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., was the victim of a Twitter impersonator who claimed she (that is, the fake Omar) was “ASHAMED … to be called an American” following the assassination. The faux congresswoman added: “THE TIME FOR VIOLENCE IS NOW!”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who, like Omar, is Muslim, was attacked by a right-wing talk-radio host who called her a “domestic terrorist” on the basis of a made-up Tlaib quote from a parody account: “Americans have spent decades raping and pillaging my people. What goes around comes around.”

The coup de grotesque came on Monday, when Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., tweeted out a fake photo of former President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accompanied by the caption “The world is better off without these guys in power.” When Gosar was confronted over his lie, he offered this imbecilic retort: “no one said this wasn’t photoshopped.”

All of these toxic fakes were quickly debunked, and none made it past the edges of mainstream discourse. But this stuff pollutes our politics anyway. By amplifying the falsehood-filled worldview of President Donald Trump and his supporters (and yes, the overwhelmingly majority of disinformation comes from the right), these lies reinforce the hyperpolarization that is undermining our civic culture.

Can journalism be the antidote to this mess? It hasn’t so far, and that’s not likely to change. On Dec. 29, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd devoted the full hour to disinformation and how to fight back.

It wasn’t a bad program; I thought Todd and his guests hit a lot of important points. But over the past few years Todd has become a symbol of mainstream-media impotence in the face of outright lying.

The special program was welcome, but it remains to be seen if anything will change.

Yes, Todd, to his credit, called out White House aide Kellyanne Conway in real time when she spewed her “alternative facts” nonsense during the first few days of the Trump administration. Todd reminded us of that several times during the disinformation special. But all too often, “Meet the Press” has wallowed in business as usual, treating Democrats and Republicans as if it were 1976 and the leading presidential candidates were a couple of decent fellows named Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, in a blistering blog post, excoriated Todd and his fellow mainstream pundits for fundamentally misunderstanding — make that choosing to misunderstand — the real meaning of Conway’s words. “They agreed to pretend that Conway’s threatening phrase, ‘alternative facts’ was just hyperbole, the kind of inflammatory moment that makes for viral clips and partisan bickering.

“More silly than it was ominous,” Rosen wrote. “In reality she had made a grave announcement. The nature of the Trump government would be propagandistic. And as Garry Kasparov observes for us, ‘The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.’”

Todd’s marquee guests Dec. 29 were New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. They said all the right things, speaking up for traditional journalistic values such as truth, fairness, independence and empathy.

Baron did not repeat his oft-quoted phrase “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” But that was the gist of both editors’ messages.

At a time of crisis over the very meaning of truth, they said, journalism’s proper role is to maintain its standards and traditions. It’s frustrating, and it may be insufficient to the moment.

But would it really be better to retaliate against the Trumpists in kind?

Occasional lapses aside, no one can question how tough and enterprising the Post and the Times have been in exposing wrongdoing by Trump, his family and his administration.

There were other good moments as well, including a report on how the right and the Russians inject lies into the mainstream and a smart panel discussion on how the media should respond to disinformation.

One of the participants, Susan Glasser of The New Yorker, explained precisely why Trump and his supporters lie. It’s not to create an alternative narrative. Rather, it’s to destroy the very idea of a narrative.

“Their design, their goal, is to get people to say, ‘I don’t care’ — not even necessarily to say, ‘I believe this lie,’” Glasser said. “Their goal is not necessarily to persuade the unpersuadable, that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election. Their goal is to get people to say, ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.’”

Strangely, the guests barely scratched the surface of the role played by Facebook and other social media — although tech journalist Kara Swisher did her best, pointing out that algorithms and targeted advertising have led to an ugly nexus of profits, discord and falsehoods.

“They can whisper a thousand different lies in a million different ears,” she said.

Following the program, Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, pronounced himself dissatisfied, tweeting, “I don’t think @MeetThePress even came close to grappling with what it means for a POTUS to not only lie but gaslight the public, leading his party towards distrusting the press, intelligence agencies, or scientists, or the risks created should a major war or pandemic break out.”

To me, though, the real issue isn’t whether Todd’s special was good enough. In fact, it was a respectable overview of the disinformation crisis and what journalism can and can’t do about it.

Rather, it’s about whether it will make a difference, starting with “Meet the Press” itself. And, on that front, the early returns are disheartening.

This past Sunday, for instance, Todd’s guest was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who, like the rest of the administration, has not offered a clear and convincing rationale for Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani and risk war with Iran.

According to Marjorie Arons-Barron, the former editorial director of Boston’s WCVB-TV (Channel 5), the hapless Todd allowed Pompeo to “run roughshod” over him. “Sadly, Todd’s brief Christmas insight appears to have gone the way of New Year’s diet resolutions or Tom Brady’s hopes for another Super Bowl,” Arons-Barron wrote in a blog post.

“We already know the dangers of social media. We should also be aware that broadcast and cable news media coverage of 2020 politics could be even more pernicious. I do miss Tim Russert.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Russert was the gold standard (he was better than what we have today, though he, too, was a sycophant to the powerful), Arons-Barron put her finger on the problem.

Too many in the media class, like Todd, rightly see disinformation as a story to be covered but then fail to connect it to their daily work.

Truth is being undermined right now, in front of us. We need to cover the phenomenon, yes, but we also need to call out manifestations of it when we see it. We have to stop pretending that Trump and his supporters deserve the same presumption of good faith as the politicians of the past — or, frankly, as Democrats, who, for all their faults, are for the most part following the rules as we’ve practiced them for decades.

We are living through a dark period. At some point, we’ll all be called to account. Did we stand up to the malign forces that have taken over much of our government and have excited the forces of hatred and extremism? Or did we let them roll over us in the name of civility, fairness and access?

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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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Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the class of the Democratic field

I’m in Toronto at a conference, so I missed the first hour of Wednesday’s debate and the first half-hour of Thursday’s. This is impressionistic, and what seems obvious this morning may look wrong in a day or two. But I thought Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren established themselves as the class of the Democratic field, while Joe Biden seriously wounded himself in his “states’ rights” exchange over desegregation with Harris.

I’ve thought for a while that a Harris-Warren or Warren-Harris ticket might be the Democrats’ best bet, but I’ve been frustrated with Harris’ fuzzy I’ll-have-to-look-into-that responses. On Thursday, she was prepared, offering compelling personal stories about herself and others in response to questions that could have prompted wonky responses.

As for the rest, Cory Booker and Julián Castro elevated their candidacies. Pete Buttigieg was poised and articulate, as he always is. And there at least a dozen candidates I hope we never see again.

The format, needless to say, was absurd. A series of much smaller debates, 20-minute one-on-ones — anything but two-hour shoutfests among 10 candidates with Chuck Todd constantly interrupting because they weren’t complying with his idiotic demands for one-word answers.

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Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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